2017 Preseason: American Athletic Conference (AAC)

We continue our preview of the 2017 season using a conference-by-conference format.

Today, we are looking at the American Athletic Conference (AAC).

This group has a great deal of transition and unsettledness even after Spring practices.  I suspect these teams will adjust more than others in our final ranking of all 130 teams next month.

And, I do have a question about the AAC.  If Scott Frost went from Oregon to Florida, and Willie Taggart went from Florida to Oregon—you know where I’m going with this— then why didn’t Willie just stay in Florida and Frost in Oregon?  Would’ve saved a helluva lot of fuss and mileage.

 

1

S Florida

34 rank points
9 wins
Very impressive and an “over” team all year on Savvy.  Willie Taggart is gone replaced by Charlie Strong who helped Texas but not enough to save himself. GREAT qb in Quinton Flowers. If Strong gets Flowers smelling good, USF might have a Heismann candidate. RB by committee won’t help. OL and receivers are adequate. Defense gave up over 30ppg. Nine defensive starters return and Strong is a defensive-minded coach so he has opportunity for betterance.  (I know it’s not a word but it sounds cool.)  My concern with Strong is his style with players who had become accustomed to Taggart and how Strong will fair in recruiting compared to the Willie dervish that just never stops. if Strong doesn’t get all gnarly about discipline and stuff, this is a 9-win team. Personally, I think it’s eight.

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2

Tulsa

34 rank points
9 wins
I know this isn’t a playoff contender, but for several systems to rank the Golden Hurrcanes in the 70’s and below is a lil on the crazy side. They won 10 games, clobbered CMich 55-10 in the Miami Beach Bowl, and… I mean … come on … their new QB is the President … former 4-star Baylor commit Chad President (a curious first name to go with the last). D’Angelo Brewer is now the top RB and the Tulsa native should finish well over 1000 yards. The OL is exceptionally strong and while the top two receivers are gone, the third and fourth aren’t and they should double their contributions and combine for 150 catches and over 2000 yards. Tulsa’s defense was good-’nuf last year and should be better’n-that now especially with almost its entire secondary returning. Two great DE’s return but new LBs need to be found. This was a 10-win team last year. Savvy sees 9-3 right now, but if Mr. President proves himself, it will likely be reset to 10-2 in August.

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2 (tie)

Memphis

34 rank points
9 wins
So, coach Mike Norvell took over at Memphis last year and did quite well (8-5) which naturally raised the question, “Okay, but can he sustain things after former coach Justin Fuentes’ players are gone?” Some coaches aren’t able to.  Think Mark Helfrich. But, Norvell will because he’s not an FCS coach peeking into the FBS for the first time. He had four years OC’ing at Arizona State, long enough to prove his recruiting ability for an offense that averaged over 38ppg. Before he turned 34, he was named deputy HC (?) and given a $900,000 salary. Plus, in Feb, he signed 4-star DT Obinna Eze away from just about every SEC school. How?  Trust, or as Eze, a Nigerian national, put it, “I don’t give a crap about names and conferences and big places. I give a crap about relationships and where I feel comfortable and who I can trust.”  He’s 290 pounds of no-nonsense aggression.  Anyone care to argue with him? Offensively, the Tigers measure points in logarithms. Starting QB Riley Ferguson returns after 3700 passing yards, 63% completions, and 32/10 td/int ratio.  And, he has spectacular All-American prospect WR Anthony Miller back. Three RBs each had over 400 yards last season and only one starter is gone from the OL. With Eze jamming the middle, the DL and LBs look strong.  But six DBs are gone  and 2017 is loaded with pass-fancy teams like Tulsa, Houston, SMU, and UCLA.  Savvy sees 9-3. Yes, the defense may not be the best, but when your offense puts up a mile of yardage every year, there might just be some in Memphis who would tell you,  “We just … We just don’t give a crap.”

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4

Houston

33 rank points
8 wins
Remember when Texas A&M had that exodus of five-star QBs? Houston got one of them, Kyle Allen who, while an Aggie, passed for more than 3500 yards, 32 tds, and 13 ints. After serving the NCAA’s controversial one-year penalty for transferring (apparently that is behavior unbecoming a 5-star), Allen is ready to lead the Cougars. Unfortunately, his eligibility coincides with the departure of the man who recruited him, coach Tom Herman. Allen will be an instant hit even if the OL isn’t. Question: if your name is Donald and you don’t like it, would you really choose to be called “Duke”? That’s what RB Donald Catalon did and now he suffers from Donald “Duke” syndrome. Shhhh! This guy is big n’ tough. Catalon is another transfer and adds to the notion that former coach Herman saw recruiting much like dating: Don’t give up just ‘cuz she goes off with another fella. Keep at it ‘cuz LOIs are nothing more than engagements.  There are four reasons UH will not rush the football well. 1) The Cougars were 99th last year. 2) QB Greg Ward was the leading rusher and he is gone. 3) Kyle Allen is a pocket passer, not a runner.  4) the OL is unproven and prob won’t hit “average”. The Spring game spotlighted some competition for Catalon as Colorado transfer RB Patrick Carr had 122 yards on 15 carries, however that might also be the first signs of a declining defense. There are excellent receivers and Catalon caught 44 balls out of the backfield, although not all at the same time. Major Applewhite is the new HC but he was OC last year so that side of the ball should get another 500ypg.  Despite its tempo, UH had the 13th best defense in college football. Except for a new DC, the ‘dawg side of the ball remains essentially unchanged. The 3-4 will remain and it has 290 pound, DT Ed Oliver returning. I don’t see a top-20 defense because the LBs and back-end guys are generally new. The Cougs started 5-0 and top-10 but faded to 3-3 at the end. New HC. New QB. New OC. New DC.  Given the schedule, Savvy sees 8-4.

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5

UCF

33 rank points
7 wins
When a coach runs out of gas, bad things happen and that is the story here. In 2014, the Knights were 9-4 under coach George O’Leary, once hired at Notre Dame but released before ever coaching a game because of “resume’ padding”—or—inflating his accomplishments. At UCF, George was not only hired as football coach, but also as athletic director and the team did well. In 2015, his passion for it all evaporated. He resigned as AD and two weeks later and with five weeks still remaining in the season, he resigned as head coach and the team finished 0-12. The point is this: The players have always been there. Last season, the Knights were led by former Oregon assistant Scott Frost and guess what … the Knights became a bowl team once again. Frost won’t be here long. It’s my guess that in the next two years, he will become Nebraska’s HC. Another bowl season is expected since UCF’s fast-paced offense returns all but two starters, although the offensive line needs to get better. Most of the defense needs to be replaced but, as stated above, there is talent at the Orlando school and it’s led by Jamiyus Pittman who had 92 tackles and 11.5 sacks last season. UCF’s defense might not again finish in the top one-third among FBS teams, but it will be good enough to get this team back to another bowl. Savvy sees UCF as a 7-5 team, leaning toward 8-4.

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6

Temple

33 rank points
7 wins
Poor Temple. A new head coach (Geoff Collins), a new quarterback, and a road game against Notre Dame to start the season. Coach Collins has spent the last seven years as a DC and has no FBS HC experience. He will be the fourth coach in the past eight years for the Owls. Last Oct. 6th, you probably would not have thought you were looking at a 10-4 team. The Owls stood 3-3 after unexpected losses to Army and Memphis.  Then, we learned two things:  1) Army and Memphis were pretty good.  2) Temple would win seven of its next eight to cap another fabulous season.  Today, with so many new faces and a tougher schedule, the Owls won’t make it to 10 again. Consider:  they have three quarterbacks returning but the total passing experience of the group amounts to 33 yards—TOTAL!  Combined. For all three. Even my old Texas Instruments calculator is laughing. That’s 11 yards each for an entire season. Or stated another way, less than one yard per game.  However, there are reasons for the Owls to hoot. RB Ryquell Armstead will get 1100 yards and maybe still at a 6ypc pace.  The offensive line is formidable and receivers Keith Kirkwood and Ventell Bryant combined for 96 receptions, 1530 yards, and eight touchdowns. Of course, that won’t mean much if the QBs can’t pass the ball for more than one yard per game. Most of the defense has graduated after finishing the year at #3 among all FBS defenses. There is talent, but — like the coach and the QBs— there isn’t a lot of experience.  Savvy sees this is a 7-5 team give or take the UCF game because data for that team is not yet considered “solid”.

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7

Navy

32 rank points
7 wins
At the midway point of last season, Navy was 5-1, had posted an upset over Houston, and played a schedule considered better than average. Polls and gurus jumped on-board with high praise for the blue boys, yet Savvy-metrics kept our system from coming close to ranking the Midshipmen (aren’t there men on the bows or the sterns?).  Savvy’s approach proved itself when Navy ended it’s season with three straight losses. Defense was the issue as the wave riders gave up 6.34ypp and sank when massive holes hit the secondary and could not be plugged. Coach Ken Niumatalolo is always in the rumor mill for coaching changes and he nearly left for BYU in 2015, but he’s been at Navy for 18 years and loves the culture. With his return, Navy has little change in its offensive unit. QB Zach Abey is back along with two outstanding RBs. What about the receivers? This is Annapolis, not Lubbock.  The middymen only passed 11 times per game. The OL is probably going to be better than last year. Savvy sees the Navy sinking to 7-5 because of a stronger schedule, a defense that hasn’t improved, and opponents who like to launch long-range projectiles at porous secondaries.

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8

Connecticut

 30 rank points 6 wins
There is no kind way to say this, but UC was awful last year. The Husky offense fell far short of its namesake and barely mustered a toucdown a game. But the good news is that good guy Randy Edsall is back to grace fans with his magic and add some bite to the “dogs’” bark. Finding a new qb is critical since UC only completed 8 touchdown passes in 2016 while completing 11 passes to opponents. Qb Bryant Shirreffs returns but it’s obvious that elite jc transfer Dave Pindell will become the choice for Edsall. Whereas Shirreff was 7/6 td/int last season, Pindell was 31/7 and has a canon of an arm. With Uconn switching to the spread, Pindell’s speed and athleticism will thrive. Arkeel Newsome returns at rb and the new scheme will put him over 1000 yards in 2017. This is the same running back who, in high school, rushed for 10,000 yards and averaged 11ypc. Receivers are thin and the offensive line is weak but has added Florida recruit OG Robert Holmes (6’6”, 335) to its roster. Defense was exactly in the middle of FBS last year and will be better in 2017 with strong linebackers, a star in the secondary and Edsall a master of defensive fronts. Savvy metrics last year were solid and I personally like changes in the program. Analysts won’t agree, but Savvy puts UConn at 6-6. 

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9

Cincinnati

30 rank points
7 wins

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Tommy Tubberville saw the writing on the wall last December and resigned as HC of the Bearcats— immediately when his $2.4-million buyout expired and it was rumored he would be fired. Luke Fickell, former Ohio State HC (one year) and former Assistant Coach of the Year, was hired. His first task will be to bring focus to a program that was one of the worst in turnovers and penalteis in 2016. A month after Fickell’s hiring, Ohio State qb Torrance Gibson announced he would join UC but will have to sit out a year under transfer rules. That will mean three years off of the field since he redshirted 2015 and was suspended by Ohio St. for 2016. Nonetheless, his recruitment is a coup for UC and worthy of mention for its future. Hayden Moore will be the qb this season but has only 1750 passing yards to his credit. Too bad because there are excellent receivers led by Kahlil Lewis and Devin Gray who cmbined for 106 catches last year. RB Mike Boone is expected to take most of the running chores but he  won’t likely break 4ypc because the OL has only two returning starters and so far, has not looked good.  Defense was solid in 2016 and should improve this year. If you don’t agree, then feel free to take it up with 300 lb. DT Cortez Broughton. Maybe me ‘n him aren’t besties, but we agree on this one.  Under Fickell, the Bearcats will finally focus and stop the mistakes that kill drives and give other teams first-and-tens.  Savvy seems certain that this is a 7-5 team with a future that is even better.

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10

SMU

30 rank points
7 wins
Personally, this was one of five teams that I watched closely last year and I became convinced that this is truly a program on the rise. This is the school with the proud legend of Doak Walker and Eric Dickerson, and the ignominy of 1987’s disastrous Death Penalty for paying players. And now, with coach Chad Morris, the Mustangs are on their way back. They went 2-10 in his first year and rose to 5-7 last season in a very difficult schedule. SMU will have an offense that averages 450+ ypg and probably triggered by returning QB Ben Hicks or transfer D.J. Gillins, a former four-star commit to Wisconsin. As of Spring ball, Hicks had the edge according to Morris. Braeden West (1036 yards) leads a strong stable of rushers and the receiving corps is one of the best in football with Courtland Sutton a 76-catch all-American talent and Trey Quinn coming over from LSU. The OL needs help and it is hoped that three incoming three-star OLs will make a difference. SMU gave up over 450ypg (103rd) at a rate of 6ypp. For SMU to reach the next level, the defense must get much better. Unfortunately, this is not the year that will happen. Even so, do not underestimate SMU. Last year, Savvy pointed to the possibility of SMU upsetting mighty Houston and on Oct. 22nd that is exactly what the Mustangs did—by 22 points! Chad Morris is the key to it all and another up-tick season is in store. Savvy says a strong 7-5.

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11

Tulane

28 rank points
3 wins
When coach Willie Fritz came to Tulane last year, it was with the notion that he wouldn’t cling to a rush-only option offense that only produced 742 passing yards FOR THE SEASON at Georgia Southern the year before. Although his run-pass ratio modified somewhat, Tulane still finished third-to-the-last in passing yardage and ran the ball 250% more than it passed. However, that was a matter of necessity since  Tulane was dead-last in the FBS for passing efficiency and completed only 42% of it’s passes. Enter transfer QB Jonathan Banks, a former Kansas State commit who specializes in the read option; the very scheme that Fritz favors. A decent OL and talented receivers are back, but don’t expect much of a shift in the run/pass ratio this season.  On defense, Tulane must replace some of its front seven but DBs remain strong enough to suggest that this may be the best defense in the AAC. Tulane was 4-8 and lost two games by four and by just one possession to national power Navy. Analysts say Tulane is a year away from a bowl game but it seems to me it is two years away.  Yes, the 2017 recruiting class brought in seven three-stars but that isn’t enough to become even the third best team in its own state. Be patient Green Wavers. It’s comin’, just not this year. Savvy cites a 1-4 start and a 3-9 overall finish. 

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12

E Carolina

27 rank points
3 wins
When the Pirate admins fired coach Ruffin McNeil, there was no small amount of fan mutiny.  Boosters felt McNeil had been given a bum steer which is an odd “take” since pirate planks are generally straight. At the same time, the Pirates were in the top-5 for under-performing teams on Savvy and finished 3-9. Along the way, ECU created some reasons for hope.  The Pirates were within two possessions in each of seven AAC games and posted an upset of NC State on Sept 10. But then, ECU only won one of its final 10 games. Scotty Montgomery was hired to right the ship and he immediately went to work to get help.  He was rewarded with QB Thomas Sirk’s transfer from Duke and DL Gaelin Elmore coming over from Minnesota. RB Tyshon Dye is back but must stay healthy because there’s not much behind him. Three good receivers return. Defense yielded 37ppg and must replace seven starters. Recruiting didn’t amount to much although two-star Marcus Holton Jr. seems undervalued and a probable starter at one corner. Peril awaits the Pirates in the season opener because FCS national champion James Madison comes to Greenville and Jimmy M. isn’t accustomed to losing. Savvy seems to cringe at predicting three wins but that’s where it’s at… for now.

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