By Marc Lawrence –Feels Like The First Time –You know you’ve arrived when your newly formed football conference announces that the first American Athletic Conference Football Championship will be played on championship week the first weekend in December this year.
The 2015 season will be The American’s first in its new 12-team, two-division format, in which each team will play eight conference games. Each team will face the other five teams in its own division as well as three teams from the other division.
The divisional champions will be the teams from each division with the highest winning percentage in all conference games – both divisional and non-divisional. In the event of a two-team tie within a division, the head-to-head result between the tied teams will determine the divisional champion.
The site of the American Athletic Conference Football Championship will be the home venue of the divisional champion with the best record in conference games. If the two divisional champions have the same conference record, then the regular-season head-to-head winner between the divisional champions would host the championship.
It’s safe to day that the league that was once known as the Big East Conference from 1979 through 2013 has taken on its own identity.
After landing five AAC teams the Top 16 teams nationally in rush defense in 2013, UCF (6), Louisville (10) and East Carolina (11) managed to secured spots in the To 16 last season.
In addition, Temple (4) UCF (9), Memphis (11) and Houston (15) ranked in the Top 16 in overall scoring defense in 2014.
After spending 135 years as an independent, Navy joins the American Athletic Conference this season.
The move leaves Notre Dame standing as the only FBS program that has remained conference-free throughout its football history. The Irish earn the distinction due to Army’s seven-year fling with Conference USA, an affair that lasted from 1998-2004.
The good news is Navy’s three long-standing rivalries – namely Air Force, Army and Notre Dame – stay in tact despite the move into the AAC.
As a result of the move Navy will tackle only one Power-Five school in 2015 (Notre Dame). They had averaged 3.7 regular season games versus teams who are current Power-Five members. The Middies are 16-28 SU versus current Power-Five squads since 2005.
Note: Team write-ups are excerpts from the 2015 PLAYBOOK College and Pro Football Preview Guide magazine. Numbers following team name represent the amount of returning starters on offense and defense, along with the number of returning linemen, with an asterisk (*) designating a returning quarterback.
TEAM THEME: I’M COMING HOME
How badly injured was this team last season? For openers, they started nine different OL in 2014. Three backs they heavily counted on, including 2013’s leading rusher, played a combined total of nine games. But through it all, they managed to win nine games for the fourth consecutive year, the last three under Tommy Tuberville. So why is it the Bearcats are bursting at the seams in 2015? For openers, a loaded backfield, along with the return of QB Gunner Kiel
and each of his top seven receivers, figures to ignite an offense that won its last seven games of the season. Should they patch a defense that literally imploded, these Cats could be lethal.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Bearcats return to $86 million-renovated Nippert Stadium, recently voted College Football’s Best Stadium, in 2015.
CONNECTICUT Off – 6/2 Def – 8/3
TEAM THEME: GREEN EGGS
It was a rough first year for Bob Diaco last season. Mighty rough. Ten losses, including the only two times his team was favored (Army and SMU!), were hard to swallow. As was losing half those games by 17 or more points. Signing only 16 recruits last year – and being forced to play nine of them as true freshmen – took its toll. Yet the hire of Diaco, a Frank Broyles Award winner as the nation’s top assistant coach (2012 with Notre Dame), was a good one. Thirty-five year veteran Frank Verducci, with stops at Iowa, the Buffalo Bills and the Montreal Alouettes, comes aboard as the new OC and should work well with all the pimply faces.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Huskies owned the nation’s worst red-zone defense (.583) last season.
EAST CAROLINA Off – 6/4 Def – 5/1
TEAM THEME: RUFF AND READY
Like in 2012 when we predicted Ruffin McNeil’s 10-win breakout season on these pages, we see signs of the same in 2015. It all starts with a squad that returns a whopping 61 lettermen from a team that won six of its first seven games before hitting a second-half wall. It also doesn’t hurt that the Pirates have posted a 74-39 (.655) all-time mark against current members of the American Conference, with only USF holding a winning record against them. Granted, ECU will have big shoes to fill with the loss of school record-setter QB Shane Carden, but our infatuation with highly experienced teams who improved on both sides of the ball last year wins out.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: McNeill is 30-8 SU and 21-13-1 ATS vs. losing teams, and 6-17 SU and ATS vs. winning teams.
TEAM THEME: HERMAN’S HERMITS
A new era in Houston Football kicks off in 2015 when former Ohio State OC Tom Herman and nine new assistants take command of the Cougar program. Herman went to work immediately when he inked 21 recruits. “The selling point now is that I’ve been to the mountaintop and I’ve seen how the ultimate prize is won. There’s no reason we can’t be the non-Power-Five team that everybody talks about every year,” said Herman. QB Greg Ward Jr., who started the final eight games in 2014, and the top three rushers from last season are back. Meanwhile, 50 upper classmen dot the roster in 2015. Something tells us they’re into something good.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: From 2006-13, the Cougars owned the top spot in college football as the nation’s offensive yards leader (53,780… 1,458 more than Oregon).
MEMPHIS Off – *9/4 Def – 3/2
TEAM THEME: EN FUEGO
Inheriting a 2-win squad in 2012, promising young coach Justin Fuente molded this starving program into a 10-win conference champion squad last season, making Memphis the fourth-most improved team in 2014. That’s impressive considering underclassmen made 433 starts last season, most in the AAC. QB Paxton Lynch returns along with nearly a full array of receivers but last year’s improved defense is gutted, losing its top five tacklers and three starters from the secondary. Fortunately, the Tigers will face the nation’s seventh-softest schedule in 2015, with foes a collective 65-85. The big question is how will the red-hot Tigers react on the heels of a 10-win season after five consecutive losing efforts?
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: Memphis is 8-1 SU and 9-0 ATS under Fuente versus a foe off a double-digit loss.
NAVY Off – *5/2 Def – 6/2
TEAM THEME: HISTORY IN THE MAKING
It’s an exciting year for Navy as they find themselves entering an affiliated conference for the first time in school history. And speaking of history, HC Ken Niumatalolo has re-written the history books at the Naval Academy. He’s the program’s all-time winningest coach – one of 12 active coaches that own that distinction at their respective schools. Going back further, since 2003 Navy owns more wins over teams from ‘Power Five’ conferences (21) than anyone in the nation. And speaking of making history, QB Keenan Reynolds (21-11) needs 14 rushing TDs to eclipse the all-time mark of 77 set by Montee Ball (Wisconsin). Don’t bet against him.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: Navy has won 13 games in a row against Army, the longest streak in series history, outscoring the Black Knights, 417-142.
SMU Off – *9/5 Def – 7/2
TEAM THEME: JUNE BUGGED
After losing 45-0 to Baylor and 43-6 to a downtrodden North Texas squad in the first two weeks last year, June Jones had seen enough, bolting just nine days into the 2014 season. Enter highly lauded Chad Morris, a former Texas high school head coach and most recent OC at Clemson. “I don’t want to sound ugly when I say this, but these kids have been told all year long they’re 1-11, they’re no good,” said Morris. “Remember, the windshield is a lot bigger than your rear view mirror. It’s more important where you’re going than where you came from,” he insists. The Pony Express may not be in town but at least new wipers came with this oil change.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Mustangs’ projected offensive line for 2015 has made a total of 99 career starts.
TEMPLE Off – *8/4 Def – 11/4
TEAM THEME: SPOTTED OWL
The Owls came this close to going bowlng in Matt Rhule’s third year at the helm last season. It was, afterall, a year for the ages for Temple. It started with a win over an SEC opponent (Vanderbilit) for the first time in 75 years. They later picked up a win over a ranked opponent (East Carolina) for the first time in 16 years. And they did it with the youngest team in the nation with only eight seniors on the roster. To top it off, all 11 starters are back from a stop-unit that ranked in the top 25 in the country in most defensive categories in the NCAA. Beware of the Owl… this team is loaded.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Owls were the worst team in the nation in 3rd down conversion percentage (.235) last season.
TULANE Off – *9/4 Def – 7/2
TEAM THEME: BOUNCE HOUSE
In horse racing parlance, the Green Wave ‘bounced’ last year. After going 2-10 in Curtis Johnson’s first year with Tulane in 2012, his squad engineered one of the biggest turnarounds in college football in 2013, going 7-6 overall, recording the most wins since 2002. But it was back to reality in 2014 when a 3-9 effort fell far short of expectations – despite fielding a team that finished second in the nation in red-zone defense (.635). This year’s squad features a whopping 54 sophomores and juniors, with only 13 freshmen and 13 seniors dotting the roster… meaning CJ finally has most of his players in the house.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Green Wave feature four offensive linemen that have made a combined 57 career starts.
TULSA Off – *10/4 Def – 6/3
TEAM THEME: HURRICANE WARNING
After wallowing in losing waters each of the last two years, the Golden Hurricane sent fifth-year HC Bill Blankenship packing, opting instead for Baylor OC Phil Montgomery to pump new life tutored air-attacking QBs such as Bryce Petty, Robert Griffin III, Kevin Kolb and Case Keenum – so we know what’s coming. He inherits a young but experienced roster filled with 29 players who started at least one game iin 2014, including JR QB Dave Evans who tossed for 3,102 yards in 2014 and top WR Keevan Lucas (101 receptions and 1,219 yards last year). Fasten your seat belts.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: Tulsa tied for 5th with Northern Illinois playing the most underclassmen (73) last season.
UCF Off – *6/4 Def – 4/1
TEAM THEME: GOOD KNIGHTS
After shocking Baylor as 17-point dogs in the Fiesta Bowl and finishing 12-1 to conclude the 2013 season, taking a step backwards was inevitable last year. And so it was when UCF lost QB Blake Bortles and 1,100-yard rusher Storm Johnson, among others, from what was their best offense ever. The result was a loss of 7 points and 78 yards per game. It’s now 2015 and a bounce-back is in order. Consider: under George O’Leary, the Knights have gone 8-5, 10-4, 8-5 and 10-4 straight-up, and 32-20-1 ATS combined, the following season after regressing the previous campaign. While short on returning starters, expect a defense that improved 64 YPG in 2014 to shoulder the load in 2015.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Knights are 34-16 ‘In The Stats’ the last four seasons.
USF Off – *6/2 Def – 7/1
TEAM THEME: TAGGING UP
Head coach Willie Taggart was once again hard at work when he inked the best recruiting class in the American Athletic Association for the second straight year, as he has landed a total of twenty 3-star players to go with a pair of 4-star recruits in his three years with the Bulls. In addition, former Arizona and Hawaii head coach Dick Tomey has joined the school overseeing the football program, while former Purdue head coach Danny Hope was hired on as a co-offensive coordinator. Meanwhile, every running back returns, including 1,000-yard workhorse Marlon Mack. And the top five tacklers return on defense. Suddenly things are looking up at USF these days.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: Taggart is 22-5-1 ATS in away games in his career.