2018 preview: American Athletic Conference

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1.   UCF

With coach Scott Frost off to Nebraska, the future of the Knights will be interesting to watch.  Frost took this program from 0-12 in 2015 to 13-0 in 2017, a feat that ranks high on the all time list of turn-arounds.
Josh Heupel is the new head coach here and comes to the job with no prior HC experience although he has had extensive coordinator experience at major programs.
It will be vitally important to keep quarterback Milton McKenzie healthy because he is the key to succcess.  Last season, he passed for more than 4000 yards and finished with 67% accuracy.  Can I say that again?  Sixty-freaking-seven!  Add 37 tds, only nine interceptions, and another 593 yards on the ground and you have the makings of an American Athletic Conference first teamer.  Along the way, he gave UCF the second-best pass efficiency rating in the nation.
There is some concern that if McKenzie goes down, there isn’t much behind him because of the transfer of Noah Vedral to Nebraska.  It’s unclear why the Knights refused to give Vedral a full release since he only had 29 passing attempts in his career.  Despite UCF’s lack of cooperation and even though he would be facing walk-on status with the Cornhuskers, Vedral left anyway.
Late in the offseason, only Darriel Mack remained on the qb roster.  However, Mack wasn’t recruited as a quarterback but rather as an athlete.  He can do it, but probably not enough to get you into the top-25.
There will be some scheme changes here.  Coach Heupel is a disciple of the Air Raid.  That comes with some joy because the air raid is easy-going and doesn’t focus on detailed plans or route-running, but rather, it reacts to defenders.  As a result of the impromptu nature of the Air Raid, coaches such as Heupel are often thought of as not teaching the full realm of the game nor the specifics that are pertinent to the NFL.  As his former quarterback at Missouri said, “I want to be able to talk NFL stuff with NFL people and I wasn’t going to be able to do that.”
The offensive line seemed in flux most of last season with changing lineups nearly every week.  The advantage now is that last year’s youth is this year’s experience.  A starting five was identified early with right tackle Wyatt Miller being especially impressive.  Center Jason Rae returns and although he is only 5’10”, coaches say he squats 725 pounds.
Outstanding running backs return with Adrian Killins Jr. leading the way while former walk-on Greg McCrae has been spectacular. However, if Heupel wholly trades Scott Frost’s Oregon playbook for the Air Raid, the rush game will fall from a top-third in the nation to the bottom third.
Receiver Tre’Quan Smith opted early for the NFL leaving junior Dredrick Snelson (46/695) as the top target supported by talented sophomores.
The defensive secondary and linebackers should be strong.  Three starters are gone from the defensive line so there won’t be much ascension from this defense being ranked 93rd for total yardage.
With uncertainty for the change in staff and schemes, Savvy sees the Knights with nine wins which is probably enough to win the AAC.

2.   USF

USF fans, let’s get one thing straight right from the start.  There are no more Flowers in South Florida.
I know, that’s tough news but Quentin graduated and he took all of your passing records with him.  He may also have taken a good share of your wins because there are no quarterbacks on your roster who can do what he did.

      (update: Blake Barnett has transferred from Arizona State and is eligible now.)

It’s not that all is lost.  You will probably have Brett Kean running things and he’s a sorta likable guy.  I know it was only limited action, but he completed 64% of his passes and, I mean, he’s got that really cool, movie star-like smile that y’all south Floridians find charming.  Okay so he can’t run worth beans (-2 ypc), but your newish offensive coordinator isn’t all down for those running types anyway.
What you really need right now is to figure out where you will find rushing yardage after Flowers, Darius Tice, and D’Ernest Johnson hogged 89% of your rushing attack with 567 carries (out of 634) for 2817 yards (out of 3169).  Those three scored 29 of your 30 tds on the ground.
Trevon Sands is listed on some depth chart reports as heir to the starting position but, although he will get plenty of carries, I don’t believe he will be the staring HB.  Sands lost favor with the coaches sometime in October and was given the ball only four times in the last seven games.
Instead, it is likely that now-eligible former Alabama recruit Jordan Cronkite (5’11”, 180) will get the majority of carries.  JC was a four-star recruit out of Westminster Christian School in Miami, but he was only 270th ranked nationally and 34th ranked in Florida.   He does have the most carries among returners with 75.
You should be ecstatic about your receiving group because it is not only deep and talented but it can stretch the field with the best of them.  Tyre McCants and Darnell Salomon had 68 catches for nearly 1200 yards while serving as secondary targets to an NFL prospect.  McCants averaged 19 ypc and scored a touchdown on every fifth catch.
“Hogs: Move Or Be Moved” is the motto for USF offensive linemen.  Most of this group returns and so far, it appears to perform well.  A certain amount of last year’s OL performance must be attributed to Flowers who could not only maneuver away from sacks but stretched plays into long gains.  Even so, USF averaged 264 yards on the ground (8th in the nation) and Flowers was only getting 90 of those so that tells us the line was run-blocking quite well.
Expect your Bulls to keep charging on defense.  Blitz.  Bring pressure.  Play with swarming speed.  It worked well enough last season to finish 11th in the nation for sacks and second for interceptions.  It also did well against the run yielding just 127 ypg.
A lot of defensive starters are gone but there were so many two-deeps that played important roles that it became hard to tell which ones were the starters.  Some examples:  The top three tacklers graduated after totaling 125 solo tackles.  The next three who return had 111.  The top three coverage graduates totaled 10 interceptions.  The next three who return had seven.
As good as that might seem, fans need to be somewhat concerned about another miscreant that is lurking in the shadows for next year.  Eight projected starters, including all five in the secondary, will graduate.
A game at Houston late in the season is probably going to tell us whether or not you win the AAC.
How much the loss of Quentin Flowers means to the success of this program almost cannot be calculated.  With that uncertainty, Savvy is set at 8-4.

3.   Houston

If there is any player in the nation worth watching this season it is defensive tackle Ed Oliver of the Houston Cougars.  As a sophomore last season, Oliver was a consensus all-American and has already declared for the 2019 NFL draft.  There is little argument that Oliver is the top college football player and the fact that he is the “lead” for this feature says a lot about his importance to the Cougars.  Last season, the 290 pound junior posted 73 tackles, 16.5 tfl’s, and 5.5 sacks.  And, the fact he is the “lead” for this preview should show how much his absence will affect the Cougars.
Oliver may help the defense, but coach Major Applewhite is still trying to figure out how to stimulate his offense which has dropped from 40 ppg to 35 and then to 28 in the past three seasons.  To get help, he turned to Kendal Briles (formerly assistant at Baylor and FAU) to stir a stagnated pool. Briles faces quite a task because the offensive roster is thin and comes up short on experience.
D’Eriq King returns to quarterback and while he was only permitted to pass 14 times per game, his statistics were really good.  He completed 65% of his passes for 1260 yards, and he did it with one of the best interception ratios in America–1.4%.  If Applewhite is looking for more offense, maybe he needs to begin with the King of his offense.  Applewhite was a major college qb himself so it seems likely he has bigger plans for King.  But if that is true, then it raises the question of why he wouldn’t have done it a year ago.
Running backs seemed fine, at least until recently.  Leading ball-carrier Duke Catalon left the program just as spring drills were beginning.  That leaves junior Mulbeh Car to double his carries while Applewhite looks for depth.
Graduations in the offensive line cost the Cougars two starters but spring scrimmages might have found replacements.
Five of the top pass catchers are gone.  So, guess who the top one is coming back?  Quarterback D’Eriq King.  I suppose that means when he sets up to pass, his best bet is to pass to himself.
The Cougars were 88th in total defense and not expected to rise in 2018.
Applewhite’s first, full, recruiting class ranked third in the AAC (60th nationally) so it seems apparent that the legendary name he made for himself as a player at Texas still carries a great deal of weight.  It helps that Texas is a recruiting hotbed.
Savvy is set at 8-4 for the Cougars with a pretty good chance to knock off one or both of the Florida favorites in their times of transition.  If that happens, UH will come away with the AAC title.

4.   Memphis

Among nearly every interesting story line about Memphis a year ago, none was more discussed than quarterback Riley Ferguson.  Simply said, Riley Ferguson was to Memphis football what Elvis was to Nashville.  Riley was the beam that bridged one of America’s most-watched coaching changes.  And, Riley was the voice of assurance for Memphidites (yeah…I know) that everything would be okay.
Forty-two-hundred passing yards and 38 touchdowns later, Memphis had won 10 games and new head coach Mike Norvell from Arizona State looked like quite a winner.
But now, Riley Ferguson is GIP.
Graduated in peace.
While no one will actually replace Riley, David Moore was his back-up although he seldom actually played.  It probably didn’t help Moore when his coach announced he would prefer to seek a graduate transfer to run this year’s team.
Coincidently, Memphis announced the signing of grad-transfer quarterback Brady White from—guess where—Arizona State?  But, let’s be clear:  Brady White is neither the savior of the 2018 Tigers, nor the starter.  In his three years of quarterback competitions, he has never finished higher than third and his problems with injuries are more legendary than his four-star high school career.
Neither Moore nor White emerged as the starter after spring drills but if we were betting odds, we would lay down Moore money.  Moore has shown he can carry the ball (6 ypc) while White isn’t mobile and shouldn’t try since his history has been rather fragile.
Brady Davis also lurks in the qb battle after coming off both a redshirt and an injury.
Expect the Tigers to turn more to the ground game since they are likely to have two 1000-yard carriers instead of just one.  Running back Darrell Henderson ran for 1154 yards with an average of nine yards-per-carry.  And for a change of pace, the Tigers turn to Patrick Taylor Jr. because he had 866 yards at an eight yards-per-carry average.  Plus, the two of them combined for 43 receptions and another 374 yards.  Through it all, the magnificent duo scored 25 touchdowns.
Those numbers will only go up because four offensive line starters are back and there is nearly an embarrassment of experienced back-ups.
Memphis lost its all-time pass catcher in Anthony Miller (96, 1462) and a leading second option in Phil Mayhue (35, 521).  Native son Tony Pollard has the athleticism and speed to be the top receiver and with the other returners, there are 167 receptions.
The biggest problem for this team is on the other side of the ball.  Memphis finished 116th in total defense and, while it returns 11 of its top 14 tacklers, none of its top 11 tacklers was a defensive lineman.  UM is not likely to have any better luck stopping the run than it did a year ago.
With a suspect quarterback and weak rush defense, Memphis won’t win two close ones against AAC front-runners like it did a year ago.   The schedule is polite enough to think eight or nine wins is possible but the AAC title is probably out of reach.

5.   Navy

It’s no secret that Navy loves to run the football…89% of the time.  For nearly a mile. Second in the nation behind #$@&# Army. To run its quick-hit flexbone trickery, the Midshipmen must have a quarterback. Zach Abey was the starter a year ago and he rang up over 1400 yards rushing. But, he won’t be the starter this year after head coach Ken Niumatololo announced in May that he was switching Abey to wide receiver.
Why?  The story is interesting so I’m glad I asked.
In September of 2016, Malcom Perry was a midshipman and sitting in the stands while watching Navy play.  As the game became a quarterback crisis for Navy, Perry was recruited out of the stands and finished the game on the field.
He started in a creased white uniform.  He finished in a muddy blue one. Although it wasn’t enough to become the Academy starter, it was enough to show his potential.
With Abey as the starter, Navy moved on the ground very well.  The problem was his passing— 43% completions and an incredulous 9.7% interception rate.
Despite the move to WR, Abey will still see time behind center.  As coach Ken said, “Zach is clearly one of our best players and this is a good way to get him out there.  Zach is still going to play quarterback, but he is just too valuable to sit on the bench for most of the game.”  But, if Navy only passes 11% of the time, then doesn’t that mean Zach-the-former-quarterback who is now Zach-the-receiver will spend 89% of his time as Zach-the-blocker?
It’s a risk to switch to Perry because the new qb only attempted two passes last year.  Add that to his total the year before and his career amounts to—well—two passing attempts.  Perry’s advantages seem to be that he runs the ball better (8.6 ypc to 4.8 ypc) and is less likely than a bolt of lightning to pass any worse.
The Navy offense requires lots of different rushers and that may be a problem because the Naval men graduated six of them.  Anthony Gargiulo will get plenty of reps but qb Perry will get the most yardage.  Keoni-Kordell Makekau also appears to be a starter.  Reggie Hays is shown on some depth charts at the flex wing.
The receiving unit is extraordinarily thin and presents a severe problem. Navy had three wide receivers listed last season and all three graduated.  The Academy also had four high school recruits but all four reversed their pledges at the last minute.  Abey will need to prove himself because the next-best receiver is Taylor Jackson who sat out last year and has one career reception.
Defense was decent last season but nine outstanding tacklers are gone and the linebacking unit was decimated by the graduations of Micah Thomas (81 tackles) and D.J. Palmore (75 tackles, 12.5 for losses).
With 13 starters gone, a risky change at quarterback, linebacking and interior offensive line vacancies, and the conversion of several players to new positions, it’s hard to find enough data to build a case for optimism.
Kenny N. is quite the celebrity when it comes to being courted by other teams looking for coaches.  Still, there is reason to wonder if the Niumatololo ship might be taking on some water.  Navy won 11 games in 2015, then nine in 2016, and just seven last year. If that progression remains true, Navy will win only five this season.
Navy lost six of its last seven regular season  games and has UCF and Notre Dame on the road.  By the narrowest of margins and based mostly on the long view of Coach N’s history of success, Savvy has stretched the Academy to another 6-6 regular season.

6.   Tulane

Coach Will Fritz did what he said he would do when he took this job.  He built a top-20 rushing attack behind his tricky triple option. The Green Wave didn’t abandon the pass (although top receivers abandoned the Green Wave once they learned Fritz was hired).
Quarterback Jonathan Banks actually passed 17 times per game and completed 57%, so if the Wave needs some air, Jonathan is capable.  Banks also ran for 592 yards which means he is now the top returning rusher for 2018.
Nearly all of the offensive line is back so look for Tulane to dominate time of possession and finish in the top-20 for run blocking.  There is a concern that this group has technical issues in pass blocking, so there is plenty to work on.
Darius Bradwell seems ready to step into the feature-back role.  Despite only touching the ball about five times a game, the 225 pounder averaged 6.2 ypc.  His number of touches will triple and he is likely to gain over 1200 yards and probably a dozen touchdowns.
The two top receivers are back in Terren Ecalade and Darnell Mooney and both have deep-ball potential.  They combined for 73 receptions and 1300 yards and were big reasons why Tulane became one of the top pass-efficiency teams in America.
The Green Wave defense is probably going to suffer a bit.  in 2018. It had a tough time stopping the run and now it must replace a 96-tackle lineman, four other leaders in tackles for loss, and two defensive backs which includes Parry Nickerson who was one of the nation’s best with six interceptions.  Donnie Lewis returns to the secondary and there is great hope that Tre Jackson’s progress from his freshman year will continue.
Based on the tremendous respect for Will Fritz as a coach, Savvy has a strong lean to seven wins but stops just short at six vs the current schedule.

7.   Temple

The Owls were better than they seemed last year. After starting 3-5, new coach Geoff Collins settled on quarterback Frank Nutile to replace Logan Marchi who had struggled in nearly all phases of passing.
Nutile led Temple to four wins in the final five games which included a bowl win against resurgent Florida International.  In all, Nutile completed 61% of his passes, but like Marchi, had a significant problem with interceptions (3.5%).  That problem must be fixed or the Owls won’t be bowling again this year.
The job will be more difficult since the majority of the offensive line starters are gone and two new receivers must be found.  Isaiah Wright was the leader in number of receptions and should get over 800 yards while Ventell Bryant figures to be another starter.  Watch also for freshman Jadan Blue who got three touchdowns out of six receptions in the spring game.
Plenty of running backs return led by seniors David Hood (4.9 ypc) and Ryquell Armstead (3.9 ypc).   Hood is also a threat out of the backfield after catching 25 passes.
Three defensive line stars have graduated and that is perhaps the biggest issue Temple faces in trying to repeat as a bowl team.  Those three contributed 130 tackles, 37 tackles for loss, and 16.5 sacks.  Temple needs to come up with two defensive ends that can bring pressure like last year’s duo.  The front of Temple’s defense finished 11th in the nation for getting sacks.
Linebacking will be particularly strong since all of the starters return.  And, that group has plenty of two-deep help.
Temple’s best attribute last year was in pass defense. Stellar safety Sean Chandler is gone but all-AAC Delvon Randall is back.  The back end talent will be similar but attrition in the front end will cause a slight decline in the perceived effectiveness of this unit.
With significant losses in both lines and one of America’s worst records for critical penalties, the Owls can figure on another year with six wins.

8.   SMU

Sonny Dykes takes over and the Mustangs will put up some crazy numbers with his Air Raid offense.
So, while receivers are rubbing their hands and running backs checking the want ads, quarterback Ben Hicks figures he might just pass for a mile this year.  Hicks was stolen from Baylor’s back yard a couple of years ago and the Waco native has gotten better with time.  Last season, he had 33 touchdown.  His 59% completion and 2.5% interception rate are serviceable although not all that endearing.
Since coach Dykes is an avid Air Raid guy, I feel the need to tell him that he has a running back; a very good running back; a running back who deserves the ball.  Xavier Jones averaged nearly six yards per carry and gained 1075 yards for nine touchdowns last year.  He’s strong, durable, agile, and a tool for success if Dykes will give him the ball.
One previewer concluded that the backs will rush the ball more than before because all of the leading receivers have graduated.  Of course, that isn’t true (and neither is another previewer’s statistics that, if inspected closely, would make Xavier Jones 48 years old).   Dykes has a habit of creating receivers and that explains why he spent so much time with that group during spring ball.
Yes, the ‘Stangs lost two, 1000 yard receivers who caught an astounding 182 passes last year.  But,  James Proche returns with 40 receptions, 816 yards, and six touchdowns.  He also had over 20 yards per catch.  Myron Gailliard played in all 13 games and averaged 19 yards per catch.  And keep an eye on Brandon Benson, another Baylor backyard recruit, and Tyler Page who were impressive in spring scrimmages.
Expect the offensive line to be considered as a top-40 unit but not the same way as before.  With more passing, rush blocking stats will seem better but protection blocking won’t.  The end is the same.  Just the means is different.  There have been some losses in the OL but Dykes has brought in some jucos to help.
If you ask SMU fans to define the word “defense”, they will ask, “Can you spell it for me and use it in a sentence?”  Perhaps new DC Kevin Kane will change that as he brings an all-out attack with lots of blitzes. The problem, as we’ve seen with other teams like SMU that ranked below 100 in total defense, is that overzealous blitzing by under-talented defenses leads to a great many plays over 40 yards.
SMU continues to be woefully thin at linebacker which makes more blitzing seem an odd choice. The ‘Stangs have all-AAC linebacker Kyran Mitchell (73 tackes; 15.5 for loss) back and have added newcomer juco LB Trevor Denbow.  Additional help was anticipated from a pretty good recruiting class but many more than expected bailed upon learning of the change in head coaches.
The SMU secondary was awful.  It might be a little better now that cornerback Jordan Wyatt has returned and high-potential Rodney Clemons has another year of experience. That duo notched 18 pass break-ups in 2017. But, they need help because this team gave up 4.75 touchdowns per game and over 51 points (average) in its final three contests.
SMU has not finished out of the bottom 25% of AAC defenses since 2013 and it is now led by Kane who has only one year as an FBS defensive coordinator.  In the pre-Dykes era, SMU gave up 6.59 ypp last season.  While at Cal, Dykes’ teams gave up 6.52.  Can you see where this is going?
If I could tweak an axiom just a little: What the offense giveth, the defense shall assuredly taketh awayeth.
For you wonderful and patient SMU fans who have waited so long to have your program back, it feels like a horseshoe to my forehead to have to tell you that there were reasons Dykes was released by Cal.  Run-ins with admins.  Five wins.  No bowl game.  Declining attendance.  Poor recruiting.
Yes, that means more of a down-future for you and probably only five wins, but be at peace.  The Dykes days ahead won’t be pretty but the Dykes days are probably transitory.

9.   Cincinnati

Bearcat fans, please be patient. I don’t like seeing you here any more than you do, but your days are coming and they will be worth the wait.  You are the next big deal in college football, at least at the mid major level,
For everyone else, if you haven’t been following the Bearcats, coach Luke Fickell has been steadily building the foundation for a team that will not only win, but will last.  Fickell was once the head coach for Ohio State so he knows that championship teams are built with strong trenches and, unlike the pretty teams that play dancy-ball and put it mostly in the air, Fickell’s boys are going to be the masters of mud.  It’s not easy to do, but the science is pretty simple.  Strong ground attack by us; stuff the ground attack by them.
I know we didn’t see much of that science last year, but it’s on the way as evidenced by the Bearcats’ recruiting class which not only abounded with mudsters but finished as the best in the AAC.
Only two offensive line starters return and there is little depth or experience.  Most of the two-deeps are underclassmen.  To prevent injuries to this important group Fickell changed the annual spring game to more of a workout.  He has also required a more fervent conditioning progrom.
Plenty of skill players return led by quarterback Haden Moore who passed for 2562 yards and 20 touchdowns. He also held a better-than-average 2.1% interception rate but was not a long-ball passing threat.  Moore rushed for 312 yards and four touchdowns.  That will come in handy with an offensive line just getting to know itself.
Running back Gerrid Doaks averaged nearly six ypc as a freshman which raises the question:  If Doaks averaged six ypc and led the team in rushing yards, why was he not given the ball even 10 times per game?
Kahlil Lewis is an all-AAC candidate at receiver after coming down with 61 receptions and seven touchdowns.  He’ll have Thomas Geddis to take pressure off but, so far, there doesn’t seem to be much behind those two.
Most of the defense returns and there is a returning star at each level.  Linebacker Perry Young, lineman Kevin Mouhon, and defensive back Malik Clements combined for 224 tackles, 16 tackles for loss, and 5.5 sacks.  Where the defense fell short was with a secondary that picked only five passes.  The defense will be better but not by a lot.
This is not the year that will show UC’s emergence.  But, the pieces are being gathered and 2019 is probably going to be Bearcat season.  For now, Savvy seems solidly set at another four-win season.

10.  Tulsa

Savvy expected more from the Golden Hurricanes last season; much more.   I mean, it’s pretty hard for any team with a top-15 running game and a commensurable schedule to go from winning 10 games one year to losing 10 the next.
But, Tulsa isn’t just “any” team.
Most of the others have some allegiance to the Pascal Principle…you know…the one about water seeking its own level and how teams generally don’t change levels very much from year to year.  Well, not Tulsa.  Tulsans are anti-Pascalian.  In 2015, the Hurricanes won six games.  Pascalians went for it.  They believed that 2016 would be similar.  Instead, Tulsa won 10.  Those faithful to Pascalianism nodded and figured 2017 would come in somewhere around 10.  Wrong again.  Tulsa sank to just two
Clearly, predicting this group is like roasting marshmallows laced with incendiaries.
Coach Phillip Montgomery had never been a head coach prior to the 2015 season. He had built his resume’ as the genius behind Baylor’s offensive fireworks.  He had been a finalist for the 2014 Broyles Award given to the top assistant coach in FBS.  However, he has just one winning season in Tulsa although last year could have been at least 6-6 if he had not chosen an aggressive defensive scheme beyond the capabilities of his defensive roster and had he found a way to win his four, one-possession losses.
His best recruiting class has only been eighth-best in the AAC and 2018 was a dismal 10th.  Poor recruiting and lots of hot seat explains Montgomery’s strategy of loading this year’s roster with a ton of juco transfers.
Tulsa had one of the nation’s premier rushing attacks and, despite the graduation of D’Angelo Brewer who trampled opponents for 1517 yards, there is reason to think it will be very strong again.  Brewer’s replacement, sophomore Shamari Brooks, is the main reason after he posted more yards-per-carry and a much higher tds-per-carry  than Brewer.
But, while running the football was the “ying” of top-15, passing was the “yang” of bottom-20.
A year ago, Montgomery thought he had found his quarterback in Chad President (interesting combination of names, don’t ya think?). But, while Mr. President could run (429 yards), he couldn’t really pass (53% completions) and freshman Luke Skipper was called in for relief.  Skipper could pass—sorta—but he couldn’t run and he suffered a myriad of sacks.  His completion ratio was better but his interception rate was worse (3 tds vs 4 interceptions).
This season won’t change much because President is still not recovered from a late-season injury and Skipper hasn’t shown much change.  Montgomery said he will take a good, long look at redshirt freshman Seth Boomer, but if Boomer needs a good, long look, then he is probably not the answer.  With only one FBS offer (Tulsa) coming out of high school, apparently others thought the same.
The Golden Hurricanes have some really good receiving talent.  Justin Hobbs and Keenen Johnson gathered in 99 catches for over 1300 yards.  Tulsa could use some diversification at this position since no other receiver caught even two passes per game on the average.
The offensive line was fabulous last year and will be a bit better now since most of the starters return and there are plenty of others who played a lot in 2017.  Yes, Tulsa was 73rd for sacks allowed but a great deal of the problem belongs to Skipper who had “recognition” difficulties and simply doesn’t have the speed or elusiveness to dodge pressure.
There are seven new juco transfers to bolster a defense that gave up 155 points in just its first three games and finished second-from-the-last in FBS rankings. Injuries abounded on the defensive side, especially in the secondary.  It would be enough to say this defense will be better because it’s already down so far, but the Tulsa defense will be better because the front-end is big, injuries on the backend have actually become a blessing of greater depth, and those numerous jucos are going to pay off.
In all, Tulsa suffered 16 debilitating knee injuries last year and seven of those were torn ACLs.  So, coach Montgomery hired a new strength staff to make his team tougher.
Despite significant unknowns in the leadership of this program and its quarterback, Savvy is rising above last year’s level to project five wins.  While that sounds better than two, it’s important to keep in mind that anything is possible when you’re talking about Pascalian atheists.
Now, who brought the marshmallows?

11.  Connecticut

Coach Randy Edsall is one of the good guys. Everyone hopes he does well but his restart at UConn has not been trending upward very fast.
UConn might have a true x-factor in senior David Pindell, a quarterback with a somewhat enchanted means of making things happen.  The crafty 6’0”, 200 pounder came to UConn in July 2017 and was named the starter on August 13th.  Since he hardly knew his teammates, let alone the offense, he struggled and was replaced before the first game ended. But Pindell is a “gamer”, and a tricky one at that, and he fought his way back to become the starter.
In what seems a bit of superfluity, coach Edsell says the Pindell is “more comfortable” this year.
Comfortable, but still unorthodox.
Pindell will tell you some things that sound contradictory to most everyone except himself.  For example:  He’ll tell you he prefers to pass than to run yet his passing technique is noticeably flawed because his fingers never come near to the laces.  He’ll tell you he prefers to be under center rather than in Shotgun or Pistol even though he would rather throw on the run than in drop back.  He’ll also acknowledge that his interception ratio is too high and might not change but he is the one who makes the big plays when they are needed.
He is also the unchallenged starter because so much of the UConn success rides on him.
The offensive line has undergone some minor shuffling but is ahead of where it was a year ago and is not likely to surrender 35 sacks again.
Like Pindell, running back Kevin Mensah also joined the team late.  Mensah arrived on campus in June, immediately suffered an ankle injury, but fought back for the starting job.  He took his first college carry for a 30-yard touchdown.
When it comes to passing, UConn likes to spread the ball around.  Last season, nine players had 14 or more receptions. Only three of those receivers have graduated.  Expect senior WR Hergy Mayala to gather in 50 passes with 10 of those being in the end zone.
Only a few starters return to the defense.  While most might consider that bad news, others figure it couldn’t get any worse than finishing 126th ranked in total defense and dead last in stopping the pass.
Edsall’s recruiting classes have finished 10th and 11th in the AAC.  He has no recruit higher than a three star and a glaring problem is that, in the past two years, only nine of those three stars have come to Connecticut.   Coach Edsall can coach.  What he needs is assistants who can recruit.
The schedule is conducive to three wins.

 12.  East Carolina

Remember the days when pirate ships were captained by bad-breathed snarly-men who had been around the horn a time or two?  Well lately, only the bad breath lingers.  Yes, there is the prospect that things will be better, but not by much.
Take the defense.
It was dead last in the FBS for yards and points allowed and despite a pretty strong recruiting class in 2017, it still appears weak at all three levels.  Only four starters were lost to graduation but half of those were in the secondary.  For a team that yielded over 295 yards just through the air, that is a troubling situation.  Head coach Scotty Montgomery has brought in David Blackwell from FCS Jacksonville State to fix his defense.  Although he comes from an FCS program, he will at least have the benefit of  spectacular new defensive back Myles Berry.
Three quarterbacks are vying to take over the helm but the total number of college passes between them is one.  The good news is that that one pass was complete—for a touchdown.  I suppose that means we should be blaring the news that ECU’s next starting qb has a career pass rating of 598%.
Darius Pinnix ran the ball 74 times as a freshman and figures to be the top running back this season.  His 3.09 ypc isn’t likely to scare anyone but when he gets tired from banging his head on unblocked opponents, he’ll have help from rs-fr Trace Christian who has looked very good in the preseason.
Three of the Pirates’ top four receivers walked the graduation plank but the top receiver, Trevon Brown, decided to return even though he had no idea who the qb might be.  Last year, Brown caught 60 passes for over 1000 yards and scored a touchdown with each ninth reception.  More than half of his yardage came in the last four games which is at least one indicator that the Pirate offense was beginning to figure things out.  There isn’t much behind Brown so the receiving unit is perilously thin–not a good situation for an offense that wants to emphasize passing.
The offensive line suffered through injuries and so many changes that it’s nearly impossible to tell if the term “returning starter” applies to any of them, or all of them.  Half of those who started more than others have departed.  Those who return give ECU one of the biggest OLs in the East.
The problem is that offensive lines need cohesion and communication and that’s hard to get when you haven’t seen the guy next to you for three weeks.  Despite those problems, the OL actually did seem to come together a little as the season progressed.
Coach Montgomery is in his third year and there has been little progress either on the field or with recruits.  It isn’t likely that this team will have as many injuries as last season and that should stabilize things.   Even so, Savvy only sees two wins against a schedule that looks like nine consecutive losses.
This was once a proud program that targeted power-5 teams like sparrows on a branch but, as we said at the time, the firing of Ruffin McNeill was a mistake. He had taken the team through two winning seasons before ending his tenure 5-7.  Had ECU stuck with McNeill, the Pirate ship wouldn’t have sunk to the bottom of the AAC.