American Athletic Conference Preview by Kyle Montgomery

Big Questions 

  • Will Memphis top last year’s 10-win season?
  • Which team steps up to win the East?
  • How does Navy do in their first year in the American?
  • Can a player from this conference step into the Heisman conversation?
  • Will Houston’s momentum from last year’s bowl win continue?

Big Games

  • 9/12 – Temple at Cincinnati
  • 9/19 – East Carolina at Navy
  • 9/24 – Cincinnati at Memphis
  • 10/17 – UCF at Temple
  • 11/7 – Cincinnati at Houston
  • 11/7 – Navy at Memphis
  • 11/14 – Memphis at Houston
  • 11/21 – Memphis at Temple
  • 11/20 – Cincinnati at UCF
  • 11/27 – Navy at Houston

Big-Impact Newcomers

  • WR: Chance Allen – Houston (Transfers from Oregon)
  • QB: Blake Kemp – ECU (Transfers from JUCO, named started after Benkert injury)
  • WR: AJ Legree – South Florida (Transfers from Kentucky)
  • WR: Tristan Payton – UCF (True frosh, Four-star recruit)
  • QB: Bryant Sherrifs – UCONN (Transfers from NC State, dual-threat QB)
  • RB: TJ Simmons – Temple (True frosh, Four-start recruit)
  • LB: Eric Wilson – Cincinnati (Transfers from Northwestern, 30 tackles in 2013)

Team-by-Team Preview

East Division

Cincinnati – The Bearcats went 9-4 in 2014 and went to their fourth straight bowl game, the third under head coach Tommy Tuberville. After a 2-3 start to the season, the Bearcats ripped off seven straight wins to end the season to finish 9-3, before losing in the Military Bowl to Virginia Tech, 33-17.  This Bearcats return 13 starters from that team, and get star QB Gunner Kiel back.   Kiel, a Junior, threw for 3,254 yards and 31 TDs in his first year after transferring from Notre Dame.  With his top four wide receivers back, don’t be surprised if those numbers increase in 2015. The run game will be lead by Sophomore Mike Boone, who ran for 650 yards (212 against USF) and nine scores in only nine games last season. Also, look for the trio of Shaq Washington, Mekale McKay and Chris Moore (140 receptions, 2,159 yards and 20 TDs combined last season) to all put up good, if not better stats than they did last year. The Bearcats see a tough road schedule in 2015 (Memphis, BYU, Houston, USF and ECU), but if they muster a couple wins out of that stretch, the Bearcats will be bowling once again in 2015, and could be a candidate to appear in a New Year’s Six Bowl.

East Carolina – The Pirates finished 8-5, defeated Virginia Tech and North Carolina, and made it to their third consecutive bowl last year.  But the season ended as one of the more disappointing after the Pirates started the season 6-1, but dropped three of their next five to lose any hope at making a New Year’s Six bowl. This season, the Pirates lose star QB Shane Carden, but the worse news is they lost his presumed successor, Kurt Benkert, tore his ACL last week in practice and will miss all of the 2015 season. The Pirates will now turn to JUCO transfer Blake Kemp to lead the ECU offense in 2015. The good news for Kemp is that he is surrounded by a good talent, including RB Chris Hairston, who finally takes over the starting job after seeing some action the past two years. Kemp also will have a great go-to target in Junior wide out Isaiah Jones, who put up great numbers in 2014 (81 receptions, 830 yards and 5 TDs), despite being the third WR on the depth chart. This season, the Pirates get a not-so-friendly non-conference schedule (@ Florida, Virginia Tech, @ BYU), and as long as they can muster up a handful of wins in conference playa and Kemp plays relatively well throughout the year, expect them to go to bowling for the fourth straight year.

South Florida – The Bulls went 4-8 in 2014 and doubled their win total from 2013, and they return 11 starters from last year’s team in 2015.  One of the main problems facing the Bulls in 2014 was QB play, as they went back and forth between Mike White and Steven Bench all year, but they have found their guy in 2015, as they have named Sophomore Quinton Flowers the starter. Flowers saw minimal action in 2014, but showed explosiveness on the ground and a good enough arm that should make him a solid dual-threat QB in 2015. The Bulls back field will be lead by Sophomore Marlon Mack, who put up an incredible Freshman campaign, running for 1,041 yards an nine TD’s to earn 1st-team all AAC honors, as a freshman! Mack should put up even better numbers this year now that he has a year of experience under his belt and a new offense that fits him perfectly. The Bulls get two tough non-conference road tests in weeks two and three (Florida State and Maryland), and they also draw some of the toughest teams in the American due to being in the East division. Don’t look for this USF team to go sneaking into a bowl in 2015, but 2016 could be a whole different story.

Temple – The Owls went 6-6 in 2014 and had somewhat of a disappointing season after expectation were higher than normal for the Owls. They started the season 4-1, before losing six out of their next eight games and not receiving a bowl invite. This season however, the Owls return 19 starters from last year’s team and expectations are high for the Owls. Dual-threat QB PJ Walker didn’t have the season many expected him to have in 2014 (2,317 yards; 13 TDs to 15 INT’s; 324 rushing yards), but expect the Junior to put up better numbers in 2015 as all five members of the Owl’s offensive line return. Though the offense still may struggle at times, the Owls defense was unreal in 2014 allowing 17.5 PPG (6th in the nation), and they return TEN starters from that stellar defense, so expect them to pick up any slack left by the offense. The Owls open the season at home against Penn State in what could be a potential upset for the Owls, and they also host Notre Dame in week nine in what could be another potential upset. Expect the Owls to have an excellent season in 2015, and don’t be surprised if they end up as not only the East division champions, but the outright American champion.

UCONN – The Huskies posted a 2-10 record in 2014 under first year head coach Bob Diaco, and impressively one of those wins was against a tough UCF team, however the Huskies record was a little misleading, as they lost four games by ten points or less last season. This year, they return 14 starters from that team and will need to focus on getting solid QB play, something that has been lacking for the Huskies the last four seasons. That solid play may come from Sophomore dual-threat QB Bryant Sherrifs, who transfers over from NC State. Sheriffs saw minimal playing time at NC State in 2013, but proved to be good enough in the spring for Bob Diaco to name him the starter. The run game will need to step up for the Huskies this season as their leading rusher (Ron Johnson), only put up 429 yards on 114 carries last season. The receiving corp will need to see improvement this season in order for Sherrif’s to succeed in 2015, as the only proven receiver that returns this year is Junior Noel Thomas (305 yards and 4 TDs last season). This season, the Huskies open up against Villanova and Army, and starting the year 2-0 is likely for the Huskies, but this team might be a year away from making it back to a bowl game.

UCF – The Knights had another great season under head coach George O’Leary in 2014 going 9-4 with a loss by seven points to NC State in the St. Petersburg bowl. Though it was not as good as the 12-1 season they enjoyed in 2013, it was nothing for the Knights to hang their heads upon. This season, they return just nine starters from that squad, but get their underrated QB Justin Holman back and bruising RB William Stanback also returns. Holman, a Junior, had a tall task of replacing QB Blake Bortles, but he enjoyed a nice Sophomore campaign throwing for 2,952 yards and 23 TDs to go along with three scores on the ground. Stanback, also a Junior, enjoyed a nice year despite being injury-ridden, and in only seven starts he ran for 697 yards and 10 scores and if healthy in 2015, Stanback could be a top RB not only the American conference, but the nation. The only bad news for the Knights in 2015 is they lose their top four wide outs and will have an entirely new receiving corp this year, but that shouldn’t be a problem as one of those new wide outs is Freshman Tristan Payton, a four-star recruit. This season, the Knights get two tough non-conference road games at Stanford and South Carolina, but you should fully expect another great season from George O’Leary and company, and yet another bowl game.

West Division

Houston – The Cougars finished 2014 on a high note going 8-5 with a thrilling 29-point fourth quarter comeback victory against Pittsburgh in the Armed Forces bowl. This season, the Cougars will have a new face at the head of the team as Tom Herman makes his head coaching debut in 2015. The Cougars only return eleven starters from that team, but get a lot of their key players back, including QB Greg Ward who excelled in eight starts last season. Ward, a Junior, started four games at receiver before switching back to QB for the final nine games of the season, where he posted a 6-3 record with 2,001 yards and 12 scores (along with 529 yards and five more scores on the ground). The Cougars back field will be one of the best in the conference as they are led by two great half backs in Kenneth Farrow (1,081 yards and 14 scores in 2014) and backup Ryan Jackson (610 yards and 5 TDs in 2014). Although they lose their top two receivers this year, expect speedster Demarcus Ayers, Sophomore Steve Dunbar and Oregon transfer Chance Allen to all step up this season. The Cougars get one relatively non-conference game this year when they travel to Louisville in week two, but outside of that, the schedule lines up favorable for Houston to contend in the West division and go bowling for a third straight year.

Memphis – The Tigers were amazing in 2014 posting a 10-3 record along with a thrilling Miami Beach bowl victory in double OT against BYU. Memphis was one of the surprise teams last season as they increased their win total by seven from 2013 to 2014, and they return eleven starters from that team this season. Leading the charge for the Tigers will be Junior QB Paxton Lynch, who had an incredible sophomore campaign where he threw for 3,021 yards and 22 TD’s, to go with 321 yards and 13 scores on the ground. Junior Sam Craft will make the full transition from slot receiver to starting RB this year, and if his lone start against Cincinnati last season (38 carries, 170 yards) holds any indication of what kind of runner Craft can be, expect him to be a top back in the American conference. The only knack on Memphis in 2015 will be they only return three starters from a defense that ranked sixth in the nation where they allowed 19.5 PPG, but don’t expect a huge drop off from this defense as they still feature a nasty defensive line and a decent secondary. The Tigers face only one truly difficult challenge in 2015 as they host Ole Miss in week seven, but it wouldn’t surprise me if the Tigers pulled off the upset. I fully expect this team to post double-digit wins again in 2015, and also win not only the West Division Championship, but the American Championship while gaining a potential New Year’s Six Bowl game birth and a potential Heisman candidate in Lynch.

Navy – The Midshipmen went 8-5 as an Independent last season while posting a second straight bowl victory in a 17-16 win over San Diego State. This season, the Midshipmen will transition to the American conference and in their first year, they fully expect to contend for a championship. They return just ten starters from last season, but return QB Keenan Reynolds who enters his fourth year as the starter. Reynolds runs the ball better than any QB in the nation (64 total rushing TD’s on the ground in three years), and he can throw the ball when the team needs him to air it out. Reynolds leads the triple option attack that will feature FB Chris Swain (693 yards and 4 TD’s in 2014) and a handful on new starters, but in a system that seemingly works for this team every year, that shouldn’t be a problem. Expect the Midshipmen’s defense that allowed 27.3 PPG last season to be much more improved in 2015 as they as they return six starters from that team. The Midshipmen will have a full slate of conference games in 2015, but they will still play their usual rivals in Air Force, Notre Dame and Army throughout the season. I expect the Midshipmen to enjoy a very nice first season in the American in 2015 and make it to their fourth straight bowl game.

SMU – The Mustangs were a very disappointing 1-11 in 2014 and saw their head coach June Jones resign after just the second game of the season. This year, the Mustangs will see first year head coach Chad Morris take over the reigns as the head coach of the program, and they return 16 starters from last year’s squad. A bright spot is Junior QB Matt Davis, who was impressive in just five starts last season. Davis, who transferred from Texas A&M, showed flashes that he could be a phenomenal dual-threat QB as he two games where he ran for over 180 yards (181 yards vs. Tulsa and 191 vs. UCONN, while leading the team in rushing on the season in just ten appearances (613 yards on the year). Davis will lead a team that doesn’t have any standout position players, but he has plenty of guys who will help him become one of the better QB’s in the AAC. SMU’s defense will need a vast turnaround from last year’s abysmal performances where they were the second worst in the nation allowing 41.3 PPG. It may be a long year for the Mustangs as they will have to develop under a new head coach, but expect this team to compete in games throughout the year under the star power Davis brings to the table.

Tulane – The Green Wave went 3-9 in 2014 in what was considered a disappointing year as they had just made a bowl game just the year before. This year, the Green Wave return 16 starters from last year’s team and will look for steadier play from QB Tanner Lee, who had a rocky Freshman campaign. In 10 starts, Lee threw 14 INT’s to just 12 TD’s, but he showed flashes of a good player in games against Tulsa and Houston. The Green Wave will feature a running back by-commitee attack this season as they return their three top rushers from last season in Sherman Badie, Lazedrick Thompson and Dontrell Hilliard (1,673 yards and 10 TD’s combined last season), and also get Josh Rounds back after he redshirted last season. The Green Wave will also get back sevens starters from their defense that allowed 28.4 PPG last season (81st in the nation) and should see improved numbers both in rush defense and pass defense in 2015. The Green Wave get two tough games to start the season when they host Duke in week one and travel to Georgia Tech in week two, and you should expect this team to decent, but not bowl-bound in 2015.

Tulsa – The Golden Hurricane had another down year in 2014 when they went 2-10 which led to the firing of head coach Bill Blankenship. This season, Tulsa will be lead by first year head coach Philip Montgomery and he takes over a team that returns 16 starters from a year ago (ten on offense, six on defense). Among the starters returning for the Golden Hurricane are Senior QB Dane Evans, who had an up and down 2014 where he showed flashes of a star QB in games against Tulane and SMU, but also had seven games where he threw two or more picks. Evans will have the fortune of having two of the top receivers in the American to throw the ball to in 2015 as Keevan Lucas (1,219 yards and 11 scores; 1st Team AAC) and Keyarris Garrett (698 yards and 5 TD’s; 3rd team AAC) both return after stellar 2014 seasons. The Golden Hurricane will have an underrated played in Zack Langer to lead the run game in 2015, as he returns after a good 2014 season (801 yards and 4 TD’s in six starts). The defense will also need to step up majorly for the Golden Hurricane in 2015 as they were awful allowing 39.3 PPG (122nd in the nation). This season, Tulsa will look to find its identity under new head coach Philip Montgomery and this team could surprise and win a handful of games, but going bowling in 2015 will be a tough task for the Golden Hurricane.

Predicted Standings

West

  • Memphis; 11-1 (8-0)
  • Houston; 9-3 (6-2)
  • Navy; 8-4 (6-2)
  • Tulsa; 4-8 (3-5)
  • Tulane; 3-9 (1-7)
  • SMU; 2-10 (0-8)

East
  • Cincinnati; 9-3 (6-2)
  • Temple; 8-4 (6-2)
  • UCF; 8-4 (6-2)
  • East Carolina; 6-6 (4-4)
  • UCONN; 3-9 (1-7)
  • South Florida; 3-9 (1-7)

American Athletic Championship Game – Cincinnati vs. Memphis

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