by Michael Leese
LOUISVILLE Entering his fourth year as head coach, what Charlie Strong has done is taken a mediocre program and made them National Championship contenders. Strong has led the Cardinals to three straight bowl games, including last season’s stunning Sugar Bowl upset of Florida. A big reason for recent success is Heisman Trophy candidate Teddy Bridgewater, who returns for his junior season after throwing for 3,718 yards and 27 scores. Bridgewater will have a lot of help — the Cardinals have one of the best receiving corps in the country, headed by DeVante Parker and Damian Copeland, plus 2011’s leading receiver, Michaelee Harris who missed last season with a serious knee injury is back. At tight end, Florida transfer Gerald Christian has a chance to be a very special player! Leading rusher Jeremy Wright has departed, but his spot will be filled by Dominique Brown, Senorise Perry and recent transfer Michael Dyer who had two 1,000 yard seasons at Auburn! This offense has the potential to be one of the best in the country, and I predict they will blow past last years strong 31.2 PPG. The Cardinals defense has 10 returning starters! From last year, the Cardinals will need to improve on 22 sacks and tighten up their run defense. Opponents ran for an average of 4.3 yards per carry last season, and the Cardinals allowed 23.6 PPG last year. The schedule is very favorable, with the toughest road games at South Florida and a huge Thursday night date at Cincinnati.
- KEY GAME…..DECEMBER 5 AT CINCINNATI
- THREE PLAYERS TO WATCH…..RB Michael Dyer, TE Gerald Christian, WR Matt Milton
- MY PREDICTION 12-0
CENTRAL FLORIDA The Knights enter the AAC and immediately become one of the conference favorites. Seven starters return to an offense that put up 35.4 PPG enroute to a 10-4 season that included a bowl victory over Ball State. Quarterback Blake Bortles tossed for 3,059 yards and 25 touchdowns last year, and he will be back along with his top four receivers. Miami transfer Storm Johnson steps in to replace Latavious Murray and his 1,137 yards. Two offensive linemen must be replaced, but I expect similar numbers this year. Defense will be the key to a successful season in Orlando. That could be tough With only five returning starters. Head coach George O’leary has said that several underclassmen will have to step up to fill the holes on defense. Four of the top six tacklers have departed and the Knights could have as many as three freshmen filling starting roles. The conference schedule is ideal, as they miss Louisville, and get Houston, Rutgers and USF all at home.
- KEY GAME…..NOVEMBER 29 HOSTING SOUTH FLORIDA
- THREE PLAYERS TO WATCH…..RB Storm Johnson, OL Jordan Prestwood, DB Jeremy Davis
- My PREDICTION 9-3 OVERALL, 7-1 IN CONFERENCE
CINCINNATI Tommy Tuberville arrives from Texas Tech to replace Butch Jones who took the job at Tennessee. Tuberville brings a strong resume as he has led several big name programs, including a 13-0 season at Auburn in 2004. He will welcome back seven starters on offense, and has two quarterbacks with starting experience. Brandon Key, figures to be the starter at QB, but Munchie Legaux could also see a lot of playing time. Kay is the better passer, while Legaux is the better runner.The Bearcats feature one of the best offensive lines in the country, as all five starters return upfront. Graduation stripped both the running backs and top receivers. George Winn took his game to the NFL and it will be tough to replace his 1,370 yards and 13 touchdowns. The Bearcats also lost three of the top four receivers from last years group. On defense, the Bearcats gave up only 18.5 PPG last season. With several departures on the defense and a tougher schedule this season, those numbers may be hard to repeat. The defense will be spearheaded by middle linebacker Greg Blair who turned down the NFL to return for his senior season. He led the team with 138 tackles and 3 sacks. Finding replacements for both departing defensive ends will be a top priority. The Bearcats could start the season 9-0 but close out the season with three huge games — road trips to Rutgers and Houston, followed by Louisville at home.
- KEY GAME…..NOVEMBER 16 AT RUTGERS
- THREE PLAYERS TO WATCH…..RB Rodriguez Moore, WR Alex Chisum, LB Jeff Luc
- MY PREDICTION 9-3 OVERALL, 5-3 IN CONFERENCE
HOUSTON The Cougars join the American with high hopes. Originally 10 starters were slated to come back to a potent offense that averaged 32.4 PPG. However running back Charles Sims decided to take his 1,000 potential to West Virginia, leaving Kenneth Farrow and Ryan Jackson with a huge void to fill. Four offensive linemen return, along with QB David Piland and his top five targets from last year! The junior QB will look to improve on his 2,924 yards and 16 touchdown tosses from last year. I actually expect better numbers from year two of Tony Levine’s offense. Last season, the Cougars surrendered 36 PPG. Only five starters return, with the defensive line suffering the biggest blow with three starters departed. Phillip Steward must also be replaced as the linebacker led the team with 128 tackles and 11 sacks! The good news is that both linebacker Derrick Mathews and Safety Trevon Stewart return. Stewart was second in tackles from his safety position, but that’s not a good sign if you’re a defensive coordinator. The Cougars get Trevon Randle, a big-time transfer from LSU who will to step in at linebacker! If the Cougars can beat Rice and BYU in home non-conference games, they could win as many as nine games..
- KEY GAME……NOVEMBER 23, HOSTING CINCINNATI
- THREE PLAYERS TO WATCH…..LB Trevon Randle, RB Ryan Jackson, DL Tommie Mack
- MY PREDICTION 7-5 OVERALL, 5-3 IN CONFERENCE
MEMPHIS This year, the Memphis Tigers move from Conference USA to the American Athletic Conference. I think the Tigers will be one of the most improved teams in the country this season. Head coach Justin Fuente is in his second year here and led the Tigers to an impressive finish last season. The Tigers will be led by Jacob Karam at quarterback who had a very nice season last year, quietly passing for 1,895 yards and adding 424 on the ground. He had a very impressive 14/3 touchdown to interception ratio while completing 64% of his passes. If he continues to develop I would expect to the Tigers to improve on the 24.4 PPG from last season. Top running backs Brandon Hayes and Jai Steib also return, after combining for more than 1,000 yards last year. The receiving core is also in good hands as seven of the top eight are back. Two offensive linemen will be needed but Fuente called this unit much improved during the spring. On defense, Memphis gets back eight starters from last year, including 2nd team CUSA defensive lineman Martin Ifedi, who led the team with eight sacks. He will lead a defensive line that returns intact, and I expect improvement over last years 30.3 PPG allowed. If they can take care of business against Duke and Arkansas State at home, I predict a 6-6 season and a bowl birth for the first time since 2008.
- KEY GAME…..SEPTEMBER 7 HOSTING DUKE
- THREE PLAYERS TO WATCH…..WR Joe Craig, DB Bakari Hollier, OT Taylor Fallin
- MY PREDICTION 6-6 OVERALL, 2-6 IN CONFERENCE
SMU The Mustangs enter the season coming off a huge Hawaii Bowl victory over Fresno State. Head coach June Jones has done a nice job here leading SMU to four straight bowl games. This year could be a different story as the Mustangs must replace three star players who have taken their game to the NFL, including star running back Zach Line who led the team with 1,325 yards, and caught 33 passes out of the backfield. Receiver Darius Johnson also takes his dynamic play to the NFL, after hauling in 64 catches, despite missing games with a knee injury. Complicating matters are the departure of three starting offensive linemen. Garrett Gilbert does return at quarterback, throwing for 2,932 yards and 15 touchdowns last season, but also tossed 15 picks! Jones is known for his offensive genius, but I see NO way he can come close to the 30.5 PPG from last season. The defense also has to find replacements, as only five starters return from last season. Two of the top three tacklers are departed, as well as DL Margus Hunt who led the team with eight sacks and was a huge disruptive force in the running game. The strength of the defense will be the secondary, where everyone returns from last year. The Mustangs do avoid Louisville in league play, but still must travel to Memphis, Houston, USF and Cincinnati. The non-conference is brutal with games against Texas A&M and TCU on the road!
- KEY GAME…..OCTOBER 5, HOSTING RUTGERS
- THREE PLAYERS TO WATCH…..RB Traylon Shead, WR Darius Joesph, DE Zelt Minor
- MY PREDICTION 5-7 OVERALL, 3-5 CONFERENCE
RUTGERS The Scarlet Knights were 9-1 last season and threatening to crash the BCS party, before losing their final two regular season games to Louisville and Pittsburgh. Gary Nova returns for his third season under center, after throwing for 2,695 yards and 22 touchdowns. He will have to improve on those numbers as the running game takes a big hit after Jawan Jamison, who led the team with 1,154 yards rushing and also contributed in the passing game, went to the NFL! The receiving corps also loses a lot as three of the top four receivers departed. The offensive line should be a strength with four starters returning. Last year, the Scarlet Knights had a top-10 defense, allowing only 14.2 PPG. The defense suffers heavy losses across the board with six of the top eight tacklers gone, including standout Khaseem Greene. He led the team with 136 tackles, six sacks and two picks and will now play on Sundays. Three starters must be replaced in a secondary that was spectacular last season. The schedule is tough with non-conference games at Fresno State and home versus Arkansas. In their final year in the American, the Scarlet Knights also must travel to Louisville and UCF. It looks like a rebuilding year to me at Rutgers.
- KEY GAME…..OCTOBER 26 HOSTING HOUSTON
- THREE PLAYERS TO WATCH…..RB Savon Huggins, WR Quiron Pratt, DL Darius Hamilton
- MY PREDICTION 5-7 OVERALL, 3-5 IN CONFERENCE
CONNECTICUT The Huskies haven’t been to a bowl since 2010, but many in Storrs believe this is the year. Paul Pasqualoni enters his third season with eight starters returning on offense. An offense that managed only 17.8 PPG is led by QB Chandler Whitmer who threw for 2,664 yards and nine scores, but had more success throwing to the opposition as he tossed 16 interceptions. That number will have to come way down for the Husky offense to improve. Lyle McCombs also returns in the backfield leading He ran for a team leading 913 yards and should have a 1,000 yard season, running behind an offensive line that returns four starters. The receiving core should also get a lift as incoming transfer Shakim Phillips from Boston College is expected to have a big impact. If Whitmer improves his play, the offense will surely improve over last year!
Like most teams in the AAC, the Huskies lost significant talent on defense. Five starters return from a defense that was solid allowing only 19.8 per game. Sio Moore and Trevado Williams both depart after the duo combined for 20 sacks last season, more than many teams had. A big-time transfer from Florida, Graham Stewart, looks to fill one of those spots. The Huskies get two big non-conference games at home with Maryland and Michigan coming to Storrs. I think the Huskies are a year away from being bowl eligible.
- KEY GAME…..NOVEMBER 8 HOSTING LOUISVILLE
- THREE PLAYERS TO WATCH…..WR Shakim Phillips, LB Graham Stewart, DE Jesse Joseph
- MY PREDICTION 5-7 OVERALL, 3-5 CONFERENCE
SOUTH FLORIDA Willie Taggert takes over here after turning around Western Kentucky. He inherits six offensive starters, but must find replacements at quarterback, and running back. I expect the offense to struggle out of the gate, until the quarterback position gets settled. While the offense tries to get in gear, the defense will be counted on to shoulder the load. Seven starters return, including what could be one of the best defensive lines in the country! They get back three starters upfront and welcome in Aaron Lynch a super transfer from Notre Dame, considered to be a future NFL star. I look for much better defensive play overall as this could be the best defense in the conference. The Bulls get seven home games, but I think they are a year away from making noise in the conference.
- KEY GAME…..OCTOBER 5, HOSING CINCINNATI
- THREE PLAYERS TO WATCH…..DL Aaron Lynch, RB Marcus Shaw, DT Todd Chandler
- MY PREDICTION 4-8 OVERALL, 2-6 CONFERENCE
TEMPLE Matt Rhule, an assistant coach for the New York Giants last year, takes over an Owl program that is on its third head coach in the last four years. He welcomes back 14 starters, including eight on offense. Four out of five linemen return upfront providing a solid nucleus. He opened the quarterback competition in the spring and it looks as Connor Reilly will start over incumbent Chris Coyer, with Kenneth Harper as the feature back. The Owls hope to develop the passing game as last season they threw only 219 passes.
On defense, six starters return to a defense that allowed 31.2 PPG. Linebackers Tyler Matakevich and Nate Davis return giving the Owls one of the best linebacking corps in the conference. The defensive line and secondary were both hit hard by graduation — If the Owls can find solid replacements they have a chance to improve on last years numbers. I think it will be a long season in Philly, as Rhule implements his new schemes on both sides of the ball. They do have three winnable early non-conference games against Fordham, Idaho and Army.
- KEY GAME…..11/23 HOME VERSUS UCONN
- THREE PLAYERS TO WATCH…..DL Shahbaz Ahmed, RB Kenneth Harper, DL Hershey Walton
- MY PREDICTION 3-9 OVERALL, 0-9 IN CONFERENCE