STEPPING UP — My Take: Predicting the AAC’s top teamsPublished 1:36pm Monday, August 25, 2014
The East Carolina football team is gearing up for its inaugural season in the American Athletic Conference and the Pirates enter with one of the most dynamic quarterback-receiver combinations in all of college football.
Out is the old BCS system. In, a new selection committee, consisting of some of the most respected figures in and outside the game (like Archie Manning and Condoleezza Rice), as well as the College Football Playoff, a four-team bracket that will change the landscape of college football for years to come. This season marks the test run of a blueprint destined for expansion.
Of course, the Pirates fall outside the realm of the “Power Five” conferences, but The American is undoubtedly an upgrade over the old Conference USA.
AMERICAN ATHLETIC CONFERENCE
1) Cincinnati Bearcats 10-2 (8-0)
Outside of ECU’s Shane Carden, Notre Dame transfer Gunner Kiel is quarterback to watch in The American this season. A redshirt sophomore with above-average mobility and a powerful arm, Kiel is a definite upgrade at the position and should mesh nicely with running back Hosey Williams. On the other side of the ball, Tommy Tuberville’s team ranked ninth in the country in total defense. The Bearcats’ front seven proved to be one of the best last season, but Art Kaufman is out as defensive coordinator and Hank Hughes is in. Despite a few key losses, Cincinnati has enough talent to finish at the top of the table, but should miss out on the College Football Playoff.
2) East Carolina Pirates 9-3 (7-1)
The Pirates have relied on their air raid offense to compensate for a defense that has slowly improved each year over the course of Ruffin McNeill’s tenure. Zeek Bigger, Montese Overton and Detric Allen enter 2014 as the leaders of the defense, which lost seven starters. Offensively, standout quarterback Shane Carden has spent this offseason improving his accuracy and looks more comfortable in the pocket. Carden has plenty of talent to throw to, including Justin Hardy, who is primed for another productive season, and Isaiah Jones. Breon Allen should be a fitting replacement for Vintavious Cooper at running back.
3) Central Florida Knights 9-3 (7-1)
George O’Leary has the daunting task of replacing one of the best quarterbacks in the country in Blake Bortles. Returning most of its receivers from a year ago, the Knights offensive framework should make the transition rather easy for Pete Dinovo, who won the starting job this offseason over Justin Holman. On defense, the Knights ranked fourth in total production last season and return eight starters, including cornerback Jacoby Glenn and linebacker Terrance Plummer. If Dinovo pans out at quarterback, this is a team that could easily find itself at the top of the table by season’s end.
4) Houston Cougars 9-3 (6-2)
In his third year as head coach, Tony Levine has quickly turned around a Cougars team that was in the midst of a slide. Quarterback John O’Korn, who was thrown into the fire last season as a freshman, now has one year of experience under his belt. Most of his targets at receiver also return, including Deontary Greenberry, who notched 1202-yards receiving and 11 touchdowns last season. Defensively, Houston will rely on its bruising corps of linebackers to pressure opposing quarterbacks.
5) Temple Owls 5-7 (4-4)
Despite a disappointing season last year, freshman quarterback P.J. Walker had one of the most productive freshman campaigns in the conference, throwing for 2084 yards and 20 touchdowns. Now a sophomore, Walker leads a confident offense looking to rebound in 2014. Defensively, a weak secondary will be forced to match up against some productive passing attacks, but the Owls are set at linebacker.
6) Southern Methodist Mustangs 6-6 (4-4)
The Mustangs have a grueling out-of-conference schedule, including games against Baylor, Texas A&M and TCU, which could drain them of confidence early on. Last season, SMU had to outscore opponents to compensate for a lackluster defense. However, with linebackers like Stephon Sanders and a middle-of-the-table D-line, this team should be able to pick up some wins this season.
7) Connecticut Huskies 5-7 (3-5)
Losing nine games in a row can be catastrophic to a high-profile athletic department like Connecticut, but the Huskies had one of the toughest schedules in the conference last season and managed to pull off wins in their last three games. Casey Cochrane, who started the final four games of the 2013 slate, threw for 1293 yards and 11 touchdowns. He returns along with running back Lyle McCombs, who had flashes of brilliance last season. First-year head coach Bob Diaco is hoping to instill a new attitude at UConn.
8) Memphis Tigers 5-7 (3-5)
Memphis is one of those teams yearning for a bowl game. While they are destined to inch a little closer this year, it’s hardly likely they will end up playing postseason football with such a difficult schedule. As a freshman, quarterback Paxton Lynch threw more picks then touchdowns, but has a high enough ceiling to where he should improve. On defense, the Tigers have a couple leaders that should step up, like linebacker Charles Harris, but keeping up with the passing game should prove difficult.
9) Tulane Green Wave 2-10 (1-7)
After a seven-win season in the C-USA, including a triple overtime victory over the Pirates, the Green Wave enters uncharted waters in The American. Kicker Cairo Santos, acclaimed as the best in college football, is gone, a huge hit for a team that relied heavily on its special teams in 2013. Quarterback is still a huge question for Tulane, but freshman running back Sherman Badie could provide the spark this team needs to improve down the line.
10) South Florida Bulls 2-10 (1-7)
It’s going to be a long season for Bulls fans. A large, experienced offensive line should help keep quarterback Mike White in the pocket longer, but outside of Andre Davis, the options at receiver are limited. There are tons of holes in the defensive line, which returns just one starter, and the loss of corner Kenneth Durden due to a suspension (and transfer) this offseason limits the secondary as well.
11) Tulsa Golden Hurricane 2-10 (0-8)
The Golden Hurricane is young, unproven and beginning what looks like a rebuilding process in its new conference. Sophomore quarterback Dane Evans took over halfway through last season, throwing for just four touchdowns and 10 interceptions. The defense was one of the worst in the C-USA last season and will face tougher competition in The American this year.