Five Predictions For The American Athletic Conference In 2016
The 2016 College Football season is right around the corner and that means prediction time. Below are five predictions for American Athletic Conference for the 2016 season. Some predictions will be right, some predictions will be wrong, and some will be spectacularly awful (or correct) by the end of the season.
There are no changes to the American Athletic Conference as the twelve teams remain the same. The East division is composed of Central Florida, Cincinnati, Connecticut, East Carolina, South Florida, and Temple. The West division is made up of Houston, Memphis, Navy, SMU, Tulane, and Tulsa.
Here are five predictions for the American Athletic Conference in 2016:
1. SMU will win at least four games in 2016 – The Mustangs were hit hard in 2014 when they tumbled to 1-11 while losing June Jones early in the season as he left the program. Chad Morris came in for 2015 and he worked wonders with an offense that put up only 11.1 points and 269 yards per game in 2014. Last year, the offense went up to 27.8 points and 383 yards per contest. There are nine starters back from that side of the ball and there is no reason that the offense cannot continue the upward trend.
The defense needs a lot of work as they gave up 45.7 points and 502 yards per game last year. They have seven starters back, but the second year of schemes should improve those numbers. SMU will face the duo of North Texas and Liberty in the first three weeks. They also have toss-up games (but still winnable) against Tulane, Tulsa, and East Carolina with all three of those on the road. Any type of improvement on defense in 2016 should result in more than two wins for the Mustangs.
2. South Florida will win the East Division – This will not be an easy task for USF, but they can certainly do it. They have seven starters back on both offense and defense that saw solid gains from 2014 to 2015. The offense went from 17.2 points and 305 yards per game to 33.6 and 442 in 2015. The defense went from 27 points and 403 yards per game in 2014 to 22.9 and 380 yards in 2015. Both sides of the ball will be tested early in the season as the Bulls face Northern Illinois at home, Syracuse on the road, and Florida State at home in weeks two through four.
In conference, they also have a tough schedule as they will play Cincinnati, Temple, and Memphis all on the road. The return of their dual quarterback Quinton Flowers (2,296 yards passing and 991 yards rushing), running back Marlon Mack (1,381 yards and 8 touchdowns), the top receiver Rodney Adams (45 catches for 822 yards and 9 touchdowns), and five of their top 6 tacklers from 2015 will help navigate the team through their tough schedule.
3. Houston will win the West Division and Conference title – This is not going out on much of a limb. The Cougars exploded last year under the first year of Tom Herman’s offensive schemes to the tune of 40.4 points and 484 yards per game. The defense was just as impressive giving up 20.7 points and 384 yards per game. In 2016, the offense returns six starters including Greg Ward at quarterback, which is good news because he led the team in rushing with 1,108 yards and 21 touchdowns.
The defense will have five starters back and the biggest concern has to be the back five in this nickel scheme. There is only one starter returning from the secondary that allowed 275 yards passing per game and 55.6% completions. Luckily, the front six allowed just 109 yards per game and four starters are back.
Houston will have to contend with games on the road against Cincinnati, Navy, and Memphis a year after being the duo of Cincinnati and Memphis by a total of four points at home. It will not be easy to repeat, but this Houston team looks very capable of having another excellent season.
4. Connecticut will have winning season – The Huskies have quite a bit going for them in 2016. They will be in year three of Bob Diaco’s tenure, have ten starters returning on offense, six starters back on defense, and a very manageable schedule. The defense improved dramatically from 2014 to 2015. They allowed 29.8 points and 379 yards in 2014 and then 19.5 points and 355 yards in 2015. The six starters returning this year are joined by the talented Florida State transfer EJ Levenberry at linebacker.
The offense made a tiny improvement from 15.5 points and 276 yards per game in 2014 to 17.2 points and 310 yards in 2015. The team managed to improve to the record from 2-10 to 6-7 (including a bowl loss to Marshall). The offense will have to continue to improve in 2016, but having 10 starters back and the third year of recruits leaves no room for excuses.
The schedule is ripe for the Huskies to have their first winning season since 2010. They open with Maine, but also face ACC opponents Virginia, Syracuse, and Boston College through the season all of whom finished 4-8 or worse. In conference, they have games against Central Florida, East Carolina, and Tulane that are winnable. They face Navy, Houston, Cincinnati, South Florida, and Temple, but the defense should be solid enough to keep them in most games and an upset or two is definitely plausible (see their 20-17 win over Houston last year).
5. The Three “T” teams (Tulsa, Tulane, and Temple) will win at least 20 games combined – The idea that each team has to win at least 7 games (including bowls) seems pretty straight forward, but Tulsa and Tulane both play in the very strong West division. Tulsa will be in their second year under Philip Montgomery with seven starters back on offense and defense. Tulane went 3-9 in 2015, but now have a new head coach in Willie Fritz and he is changing offensive schemes (check out his Sam Houston State teams from 2010 through 2013). The defense for Tulane will be solid with eight starters back, but the offensive change is worrisome in regards to the win column.
Temple is the best of these three teams and went 10-4 last year, but had 19 starters back. There will be six starters back on both offense and defense including quarterback PJ Walker an running back Jahad Thomas. The defense will be very solid again under Matt Rhule and they have an easy schedule to open the season outside of Penn State on the road (they did win against the Nittany Lions at home in 2015) with Army, Stony Brook, and Charlotte all at home. 9 wins are probably needed by Temple to be correct. They have the defense to do it. This one will be close especially if Tulsa (or Temple) under-performs.
The Prediction Schedule
With the AAC predictions above, there are now predictions for five conferences in the books. Below are the predictions completed and which conference is next.
Let’s take a closer look at the AAC’s East Division.
1. Temple Owls
It has been a wild ride for the Temple football program. They have gone from the Big East in 2004 to Independent status in 2005 to the MAC from 2007 through 2011. They then went back to the Big East for the 2012 season before the name change to The American beginning in 2013. Matt Rhule is in his third season and led Temple to a 2-10 record in 2013 before improving them to 6-6 last year.
2015 will easily be Rhule’s most experienced team. He has nine starters back on offense and the biggest loss was top wide receiver Jalen Fitzpatrick. Fitzpatrick had 53 catches for 730 yards and 6 touchdowns in 2014. Quarterback PJ Walker returns after putting up 2,317 yards with 13 touchdowns and 15 interceptions last year. Walker was more inconsistent last year than in 2013 and he will need to develop some receivers to have a better season. Running back Jahad Thomas ran for 384 yards as the top rusher in 2014, which will need to be improved upon drastically. He could be replaced by freshman TJ Simmons or sophomore Zaire Williams. With all five starters back on the offensive line, there should be no reason the offense cannot produce the highest output under Rhule.
In 2014, the defense made the biggest strides under Rhule. They gave up 17.5 points and 347 yards per game last year after giving up 29.8 points and 474 yards in 2013. 2015 could be even better with 10 starters back. There is not much to say about the defense other than their only loss was at strong safety, but the replacement, Will Hayes, started seven games in 2014 at three different positions. Linebacker TylerMatakevich was easily the team’s leading tackler after recording 117 stops, 1.5 sacks, 9 tackles for loss, 3 pass breakups, and an interception. The defense will be excellent again in 2015.
Temple opens the season with a home game against Penn State (Rhule’s alma mater) before back-to-back road games against Cincinnati and Massachusetts. They face Charlotte on the road after a bye week and also have Notre Dame coming to town on Halloween to complete their non-conference schedule. They have to play Memphis from the West, but get them at home and also get SMU (road) and Tulane (home) from the West Division. As for the East opponents, they will face Cincinnati and East Carolina on the road while facing Central Florida at home. It is weird to say this, but Temple looks like the team to beat in the East with their defense.
2. Central Florida Knights
George O’Leary has been magnificent at Central Florida including leading the Knights to the 2013 Fiesta Bowl victory over Baylor. 2014 was a step back for UCF, but 2015 could go either way.
The offense returns five starters, but the big losses were at wide receiver where the top four from 2014 are gone. The biggest loss is Breshad Perriman after his 50 catches for 1,044 yards and 9 touchdowns. UCF does return quarterback Justin Holman and he threw for 2,952 yards with 23 touchdowns and 14 interceptions. Also returning are running backs William Stanback (697 yards and 10 touchdowns) and Dontravious Wilson (347 yards and 3 touchdowns). Three linemen also return and the offense could do well this year if a few receivers are developed.
The defense has only four starters back in 2015 after giving up 19.2 points and 299 yards per game last year. The strength this year will be on the defensive line with three starters returning after giving up only 104 yards rushing and 3.2 yards per carry in 2014. Thomas Niles will be one of the ends after recording 49 tackles, 7.5 sacks, and 5.5 tackles for loss last year. They will need to be solid because the back seven return only one starter in linebacker Chequan Burkett. He recorded 40 tackles, 1.5 sacks, and 3.5 tackles for loss last year. The secondary losses 148 career starts as well as all four starters, which is going to hurt the Knights. It will be tough to produce the same overall numbers in 2015 as they did in 2014.
Central Florida opens with Florida International (home), Stanford (road), Furman (home), and South Carolina (road) to start the season before beginning AAC play. From the West, they will play Tulane and Tulsa on the road while getting Houston at home. In division play, they will have Temple and Cincinnati at home and play East Carolina at home. O’Leary has stout defenses even when there are not a lot of starters returning (i.e. 2011 with 4 starters returning UCF allowed 18.3 points and 303 yards per game). That makes UCF dangerous to contend for the division title.
3. Cincinnati Bearcats
Tommy Tuberville left Texas Tech after the 2012 season to come to Cincinnati. 2015 will be his third year and he has led the Bearcats to a record of 9-4 in each of this first two seasons. 2015 is also a season of change for The American Conference, as they are now divided into two divisions. How will Tuberville do in the inaugural season of the East?
On offense, there are eight starter back this year led by quarterback Gunner Kiel. Kiel threw for 3,254 yards, 31 touchdowns, and 13 interceptions despite some injury issues and he will have seven of his top eight receivers back from 2014. The top threats are Shaq Washington, who had 66 catches for 761 yards and 4 touchdowns and MeKale McKay, who had 44 catches for 725 yards and 8 touchdowns. MikeBoone returns at running after running for 650 yards with 9 touchdowns as a freshman despite being the #2 guy. The offense will be explosive again in 2015.
The defensive side of the ball sees only five starters return with the bulk of the losses coming in the front seven. Only Silverberry Mouhon returns on the line after recording 45 tackles, 4 sacks, and 1 tackle for loss. It is a similar story with the linebackers as only Leviticus Payne is back and he recorded 57 tackles, 2 sacks, 3.5 tackles for loss, 7 pass breakups, and 1 interception last year. The secondary is undoubtedly the strength going into the season with three starters back led by Zach Edwards. Edwards was second on the team in tackles with 121 and also recorded 3.5 tackles for loss, 6 pass breakups, and 2 interceptions. The defense have up 27.2 points and 439 yards per game in 2014 and it looks like that might happen again this year.
It will be an interesting start to the season for Cincinnati with two conference games in the first four weeks. They open with Alabama A&M and Temple at home before a road trip to Miami (OH). They have a quick turnaround of five days to face Memphis on the road and then get Miami (FL) at home on October 1. They have another road trip to BYU two weeks later after a bye. They also have to face Houston on the road out of the West. It will be another winning season for Tuberville, but the games against Central Florida (home), Temple, and East Carolina (road) as well as if the offense can outscore the opponents will decide where they finish.
4. East Carolina Pirates
A simple look at the 8-5 record for East Carolina in 2014 would suggest it was a slightly above average season for them. However, it was much bigger than the record indicates with wins over then #17 Virginia Tech on the road 28-21 and at home to North Carolina 70-41 in back-to-back weeks. Ruffin McNeill enters his sixth year in charge of his alma mater after compiling a 37-27 record. Let’s see what is in store for the Pirates.
The offense brings back six starters, but the losses are big at quarterback, running back, and wide receiver. Shane Carden threw for over 4,700 yards in 2014 and his main targets were Justin Hardy (121 catches for 1,494 yards and 10 touchdowns) and Cam Worthy (55 catches for 1,106 yards and 4 touchdowns). Kurt Benkert will take over at QB, but he has only throw 10 passes in his collegiate career. While the losses of the top two receivers will hurt, Isaiah Jones put up some good numbers in 2014 with 81 catches for 830 yards and 5 touchdowns. Running back is probably the easiest of the skill positions to replace for ECU with Chris Hairston running for 528 yards and 2 touchdowns on only 79 carries last year. The offensive line does return four starters, which should provide good running lanes and ample time to the QB. However, the offense will not be as potent this season as it was in 2014.
The defense will have five starters back from a unit that allowed 25.8 points and 367 yards per game last year. That was done with only three returning starters for the 2014 season. Defensive line returns only one starter from last year, but Terrell Stanley is back after starting 12 games in 2013 and then missing all of 2014. Linebacker has two starters returning led by Zeek Bigger. Bigger had an astounding 140 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss, 4 pass breakups, and 2 interceptions. The secondary will have two starters back including 2014 1st Team ACC cornerback Josh Hawkins. Hawkins had 44 tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss, 11 pass breakups, and 5 interceptions. The defense should produce similar numbers as they did in 2014.
East Carolina has FCS Towson to start the season before a road trip to Florida and another road trip to Navy to start conference play. They face Virginia Tech at home before back-to-back road games again with SMU and BYU on the schedule. The other team from the West, in addition to Navy and SMU, is Tulsa on October 17 at home. ECU faces fellow East contenders Temple and Cincinnati at home while getting Central Florida on the road. The final two weekends consist of UCF and Cincinnati. East Carolina will need to get their offense going right away if they are to challenge for the East, but look very good to reach another bowl game in 2014.
5. South Florida Bulls
2015 will be year three of Willie Taggart’s reign at South Florida. He has gone a combined 6-18 in his first two seasons, but the offense and defense have both improved in those two seasons.
In 2015, the offense has only four starters back and that will make it a bit harder to continue improving the offense. 2014’s starting quarterback Mike White is gone after transferring from the program and that leaves a battle between sophomore Quinton Flowers and former Penn State player Steven Bench. White threw for only 1,639 yards with 8 touchdowns and 7 interceptions last year so the new QB should be able to top those stats. Marlon Mack will be the workhorse running back after running for 1,041 yards and 9 touchdowns as a true freshman. Mack also was named to the 1st Team AAC last year. The top wide receiver is gone, but Rodney Adams is back after catching 23 passes for 323 yards and 2 touchdowns. Despite the low amount of returning starters the offense should produce more than the 17.2 points and 305 yards per game it did in 2014.
The defense is in a better situation with seven starters back including all of the top five tackles from a year ago. There is only one returning defensive lineman in Eric Lee, but both linebackers return in this 4-2-5 system. One of those linebackers, Nigel Harris, was second on the team with 77 tackles, 2 sacks, and 8.5 tackles for loss. Three of the back five starters return from a unit that gave up 220 yards passing in 2014. Jamie Byrd was the top tackler in 2014 with 95 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss, 3 pass breakups, and 2 interceptions and he will be expected to help out in large volume again. The defense gave up 27 points and 403 yards per game last year and should improve on that this year.
South Florida opens with Florida A&M at home before back-to-back road trips to ACC teams Florida State and Maryland. They end their non-conference schedule against a third ACC team in Syracuse on October 10. From the West, USF will face contenders in Memphis (home) and Navy (road) as well as SMU (home). The game at Connecticut on October 17 is likely to decide who finishes last in The American’s East division. USF is probably a year away from contending for a bowl game appearance.
6. Connecticut Huskies
Bob Diaco took over at Connecticut in 2014 after Paul Pasqualoni was let go just after the start of the 2013 season. He went 2-10 in 2014 with only 12 returning starters on his team and UConn has not been to a bowl game since 2010 when they faced Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl (they lost 48-20).
Six starters are back for Diaco from an offense that scored 15.5 points and gained 276 yards per game last year. Quarterback Chandler Whitmer has departed while Tim Boyle threw for 335 yards with 1 touchdown and 3 interceptions last season. Boyle will most likely play second fiddle again this year as North Carolina State transfer Bryant Shirreffs is likely to win the starting job. The running game only averaged 107 yards per game in 2014 and that should improve with four of the top five backs returning. Wide receiver sees the top two guys depart while Noel Thomas (26 catches for 305 yards and 4 touchdowns) is one of the top targets. The offense should be better in 2015.
The defense gave up 29.8 points and 379 yards per game in 2014 with six starters back. In 2015, there will be eight returning starters with two on the defensive line and the top four tacklers are back as well on the line. Linebacker looks like an excellent unit for UConn with former Florida transfer Graham Stewart (94 tackles, 2 sacks, 8.5 tackles for loss), Marquise Vann (105 tackles, 0.5 sacks, 6.5 tackles for loss), and Florida State transfer EJ Levenberry all expected to start. Byron Jones is gone from the secondary, but three starters return to help make this a solid unit. The defense looks like it will improve in 2015 as well.
UConn opens the 2015 season with home games against Villanova and Army. The travel to face Missouri before a home game against Navy and another road game against BYU. From the West, they will have the aforementioned Navy, but also Tulane (road) and Houston (home). As stated before, the game against South Florida on October 17 will most likely decide the AAC East’s bottom team. Diaco does have this team headed in the right direction.
The American Athletic Conference’s East division looks incredibly competitive. Any one of four – Temple, Cincinnati, Central Florida, or East Carolina – can win the division. South Florida and Connecticut will be battling to stay out of the cellar. Below is a recap of the predicted order of finish.
2. Central Florida
4. East Carolina
5. South Florida
Check back on Friday, July 24 for The American’s West Division preview as well as the predicted winner of the conference championship game.
Deontay Greenberry had a game-high 10 catches (Scott Halleran / Getty Images)
When most people look at the score between the Houston Cougars and the Temple Owls, they will assume it was an easy 31-10 for the Cougars. However, that was not the case, as the Owls committed four turnovers including a crucial at the doorstep of Houston’s end zone that would have tied the game at 17.
Temple’s P.J. Walker had a night to forget, as he accounted for all four of the turnovers with three interceptions and a lost fumble.
The game started with a three and out for Temple. Houston took their first possession down to the Temple two yard line, but settled for a 34 yard field goal from Kyle Bullard to take a 3-0 lead.
Walker’s long night started on Temple’s second possession with his first pass of the drive. On first and ten, he was picked off by Trevon Stewart who returned it 29 yards for a touchdown and a 10-0 Houston lead.
Houston had an opportunity to extend the lead to 13-0, but Bullard’s 32 yard field goal was no good. Walker completed a 72 yard screen pass to JahadThomas on the first play after the missed field goal to give the Owls first and goal at the 8. However, they had to settle for a 22 yard field goal from AustinJones and were down 10-3 after the first quarter.
The first drive of the second quarter for Houston resulted in them extending their lead to two touchdowns. Kenneth Farrow ran in from 4 yards out to take a 17-3 lead.
Two drives later, Walker threw his second pick of the game. This time it was William Jackson who intercepted the pass, but Houston would not take advantage of the turnover and punted it back to Temple. Walker settled down considerably on the next drive and accounted for 72 of the 76 yards. His 39 yard touchdown pass to Keith Kirkwood made it 17-10 with 34 seconds remaining in the half.
Temple’s first series of the third quarter looked incredibly promising. Walker hit Thomas on another screen pass and Thomas made a nice cut back to get to the open side of the field for a 74 yard reception to the 2 yard line. On the next play, Walker kept the ball and tried to get into the end zone but the ball was knocked out by Steven Taylor, who also recovered the ball. Instead of tying the game at 17, Houston led 17-10 and Temple would not recover.
Temple’s next drive ended in disaster as the punt was mishandled and gave the Cougars the ball at the Houston 46 yard line. Greg Ward Jr. went 3 of 4 on the drive for 53 yards including the 7 yard touchdown pass to Deontay Greenberry to make it 24-10 Houston.
Walker threw his third interception of the game on the next drive when Howard Wilson picked him off at Temple’s 26 yard line. After a loss of 4 yards, Ryan Jackson atoned by running in from 30 yards out to make it 31-10 near the end of the third quarter.
Temple had a chance to close the deficit early in the fourth quarter. On fourth and one from the Houston two yard line, Thomas got the handoff but was swarmed immediately by Houston defenders and never had a chance to convert the fourth down, let alone score a touchdown.
Walker’s dismal concluded with him going 12 of 29 for 259 yards, 1 touchdown, and 3 interceptions. He was the joint leading rusher with 49 yards on 8 attempts, but he lost the crucial fumble when he was near the goal line in the third quarter. Jahad Thomas had 7 rushes for 49 yards.
Thomas also led the Owls, and the game, with 150 yards receiving on 3 catches. 148 of those yards came on two different screen passes.
Greg Ward Jr. had an efficient and effective night by going 29 of 33 for 272 yards with 2 touchdowns. He ran 13 times for 44 yards while Ryan Jackson tallied 75 yards on 18 carries and Kenneth Farrow added 52 yards and a touchdown on 18 carries. Jackson also had 3 catches for 59 yards.
Markeith Ambles caught 6 passes for 96 yards and Deontay Greenberry had 10 catches for 67 yards and a touchdown.
Temple (4-2, 2-1) suffered their first lost in the American and their next game is not easy. They travel to Central Florida next Saturday. Houston (4-3, 2-1) has a bye next week before returning to action on November 1 with a road trip to South Florida.