It was a great 2016 for the American Athletic Conference (AAC), as Temple, Navy, USF and Houston all had fantastic seasons. Granted, this success didn't carry over to bowl games with three of those four teams losing.
But that success did result in those four teams losing their head coaches to Power 5 programs, with two others making changes at the top as well. So what does 2017 hold for the AAC?
Note: Over/under odds courtesy of the South Point sports book
(Over 5.5 -110...Under 5.5 -110)
The Bearcats made a change at head coach, hiring Luke Fickell away from Ohio State to replace Tommy Tuberville, who seemingly lost the team towards the end of the season. Coming back on offense is quarterback Hayden Moore and running back Mike Boone, who dealt with a foot injury last season. There are some intriguing options at wide receiver as well. The problems may come on the defensive side of the ball where only five starters return. Cortez Broughton and Marquise Copeland form a solid base for the defensive line. After an FCS opener, the Bearcats have three straight on the road including trips to Michigan and Navy. They follow that up with three straight at home. I think the under is worth a look here although it's not a strong play.
(Over 3.5 +120...Under 3.5 -140)
One of the worst offenses in the league will get supercharged under new coordinator Rhett Lashlee, who was at Auburn last season. He's got a really good running back to build around in Arkeel Newsome. Quarterback play continues to be an issue with Bryant Shirreffs, David Pindell and Donovan Williams contending there. Williams got hurt in the spring so his availability is in question. The spring wasn't kind to the defense either as linebacker E.J. Levenberry tore his ACL and will miss the season. Still, five of the front six return for the Huskies’ new 3-3-5 alignment. Special teams are a giant question mark as well. UConn gets a friendly stretch of home games in October. This is a tough slate and I really wish I could find four wins for the value, but I can't.
(Over 3.5 EVEN...Under 3.5 -120)
Scottie Montgomery's first year did not go well, as the Pirates went just 3-9. The defense needs to improve after finishing dead last among FBS teams in sacks and turnovers forced. Only four starters return with the secondary figuring to be the strength of an otherwise suspect group. The offense got a late boost in graduate transfer Thomas Sirk, who started 12 games for Duke in 2015 before missing all of last season because of a torn Achilles. Whoever wins the starting job will have quality targets to throw to in wide receivers Quay Johnson, Jimmy Williams and Davon Grayson. The offensive line returns three starters as well. Five of ECU’s first seven games are at home. The problem is that the opponents include reigning FCS national champion James Madison, Virginia Tech and BYU. The Pirates only have five true road games, so they’ll have plenty of opportunities at home. It’s a small lean to the under although some early wins could lead to some late confidence.
(Over 6.5 -105...Under 6.5 -115)
Matt Rhule is gone and Geoff Collins takes over after being a longtime assistant coach in the SEC. The’ Owls offense figures to be strong depending upon who wins the quarterback job. There are a couple of candidates who each bring something different to the table. Whoever wins will have Ryquell Armstead and Jager Gardner at running back. Wide receiver is in good shape as well with Ventell Bryant, Keith Kirkwood and Adonis Jennings. The defense was one of the best last year but just four starters return. The secondary should remain strong with Sean Chandler, Delvon Randall and Mike Jones. Temple opens with a trip to South Bend to play Notre Dame and also has Army, UMass and FCS member Villanova on its non-conference slate. I think the Owls can get over this total, although there are several tipping point games.
(Over 7.5 -105...Under 7.5 -115)
It was a big leap for the Knights in head coach Scott Frost’s first season, going from 1-11 to 6-7 with an appearance in the Cure Bowl. This season, Frost has nine starters back on offense. Quarterback McKenzie Milton should be better with a year under his belt. He has wide receivers Tre'Quan Smith and Cam Stewart and running back Jawon Hamilton surrounding him. The defense returns just four starters, but only one of them isn’t a lineman. Linebacker Shaquem Griffin (92 tackles, 11.5 sacks in 2016) is the reigning defensive player of the year in the conference. Who lines up alongside him and in the secondary still needs to be sorted out. Four of their first five are at home with stiff tests against Memphis and Georgia Tech being two of them. I think the under is worth a look here as the schedule is tough. I wouldn't be surprised if they went over though so it's not my strongest play.
(Over 10 -110...Under 10 -110)
The Bulls replaced Willie Taggart with former Texas head coach Charlie Strong, who inherits a ready-made roster that should win the AAC title. Quinton Flowers is the best quarterback in the conference and could emerge as a dark horse Heisman Trophy contender. He has plenty of options to throw to, including wide receivers Tyre McCants and Marquez Valdes-Scantling, but running back Marlon Mack is now in the NFL so it will be up to D’Ernest Johnson to complement Flowers on the ground. The defense has nine starters back, including middle linebacker Auggie Sanchez. This unit has plenty of room for improvement after allowing nearly 500 yards per game last season. USF will face San Jose State, FCS member Stony Brook, Illinois and UMass in non-conference play and its toughest road game appears to be at UCF. The Bulls could end up running the table, so the over might be the best play in the conference.
(Over 8 -110...Under 8 -110)
Winning breeds change in college football and Tom Herman picked up and left Houston for big brother Texas. In his place is Major Applewhite, who is very familiar with the team. He inherits quarterback Kyle Allen, a transfer from Texas A&M. The Cougars also hope to get more production out of running back Duke Catalon. Linell Bonner and Steven Dunbar are senior wide receivers while the offensive line is pretty much intact. Ed Oliver is one of the best defensive players in the country after registering 23 tackles for a loss and five sacks as a freshman. The secondary lost some talent, but also has three returning starters. Houston opens with two in a row on the road, including a trip to Arizona, and also hosts Texas Tech in its non-conference slate. The Cougars could surprise one or both of those Power 5 teams. I think the over is a good play here even with the coaching transition.
(Over 8.5 EVEN...Under 8.5 -120)
Mike Norvell had a good first season and could build off that in 2017. The defense has returning starters on all levels but it's the presence of linebacker Jackson Dillon that is just as important. He played in just eight games last season due to injury and now will team up with Curtis Akins and Genard Avery to anchor the middle of the defense. The secondary will be a concern, but the hope is the front four gets enough pressure to help out the back end. It's the Tigers’ offense that will be real fun. Senior quarterback Riley Ferguson tossed 32 touchdown passes and just 10 interceptions in 2016. He has top target Anthony Miller back as well as a stable of running backs led by Doroland Dorceus. Memphis gets UCLA at home in week three. I think the over is worth a look as nine wins is a very good possibility.
(Over 7 +105...Under 7 -125)
Navy enters the 2017 campaign with a three-game losing streak, including one to archrival Army. Zach Abey took over at quarterback after starter Will Worth got injured in the AAC title game, and he proceeded to lose his first two starts (Army and Lousiana Tech in the Armed Forces Bowl). Chris High is the leading returning rusher after gaining 546 yards and scoring seven times last season. The right side of the offensive line is back, but there are holes elsewhere. On defense, six starters return led by linebackers Micah Thomas and D.J. Palmore. The schedule features non-conference games against FAU, Air Force, Notre Dame and of course, Army. It could be a rare rebuilding year for the Midshipmen. I think the under is worth a look here, but I'm not confident enough in it to play at -125.
(Over 5 -110...Under 5 -110)
Chad Morris may finally get to see his offense explode. Ben Hicks needs to cut down on the interceptions after throwing 15 in 2016. Courtland Sutton is one of the best wide receivers that many don't talk about. Sutton will be joined by James Proche and Trey Quinn, who started his career at LSU. The defense was the problem last year. Defensive end Justin Lawler is back after recording 15 tackles for a loss and six sacks in 2016.The linebacking corps and secondary feature plenty of experience. Four of the Mustangs’ first five games are at home. I think six wins and a bowl is very possible so take the over here.
(Over 5 EVEN...Under 5 -120)
Willie Fritz's run-heavy offense experienced plenty of growing pains in his first season, but there’s optimism for better results this fall. Junior college transfer Jonathan Banks has the skill set Fritz likes in his quarterbacks and running back Dontrell Hilliard returns after gaining nearly 800 yards on the ground last season. The offensive line features five guys with starting experience, including junior center Junior Diaz. The defense will be strong despite the losses of all-conference performers Nico Marley and Tanzel Smart. The secondary will be one of the best in the division with cornerback Parry Nickerson as the anchor. The Green Wave will face Navy and Oklahoma in back-to-back weeks early. The under is a good play here.
(Over 7.5 +115...Under 7.5 -135)
Offense wasn't an issue in 2016 and may not be again this season. Seven starters are back, including 1,400-yard rusher D’Angelo Brewer and four of five up front. The big question is at quarterback with Chad President, Will Hefley and Luke Skipper all competing for the job. The defense showed improvement last season, but now must replace some key players. Each level has at least one returning starter, but several younger players will need to step up. Redford Jones is back at kicker after making all of his PATs and missing just one field goal from within 40 yards last year. The Golden Hurricane have it tough on the road this season with Oklahoma State, Toledo and USF on the itinerary. The public is right once again as the under seems to be the play here.
— Written by Matt Josephs, who is a part of the Athlon Sports Contributor Network. Josephs prefers non-Power 5 college football and may be the only one wagering on the Sun Belt. Follow him on Twitter @MidMajorMatt.