By Ryan Mayer
College football season is almost here. As you prepare to root for your favorite team on Saturday, we’ll bring you previews of each conference, separating the teams into a couple categories: contenders, sleepers, and the rest. Can your team truly challenge for conference supremacy? Are they being underrated? Stay tuned.To give you an idea of what each tier means, teams that are marked contenders are considered legitimate division and conference title contenders. Sleepers are teams that if everything breaks their way could pull a few upsets and steal a spot in the conference title game. The rest is teams that likely won’t contend for the division or conference title but are more likely to be fighting for a bowl spot.
Now, we look to the American Athletic Conference East division, where the South Florida looks to continue the momentum they generated at the end of last season.
Preseason Media Poll
1) USF Bulls
2) Temple Owls
3) Cincinnati Bearcats
4) UConn Huskies
5) East Carolina Pirates
6) UCF Knights
The Bulls started off last season 4-4 and looked to be on their way to fighting for a bowl berth before catching fire and winning their last four regular season games to finish 8-4 and earn a bid to the Miami Beach bowl. The fell to Western Kentucky 45-35 in that game, but it was a successful turnaround for Taggart after he won just nine games in the previous three seasons combined. Now, his team looks primed to make a run to the conference championship game.
The offense is led by junior QB Quinton Flowers who enters his second season as the starters after compiling 3,287 combined yards and 34 combined touchdowns last season. Flowers looks to be one of the best QB’s in the conference and he’ll have plenty of weapons to work with. With him in the backfield is junior running back Marlon Mack who ran for 1,381 yards and eight touchdowns averaging 6.6 yards per carry. Flowers will have his top target Rodney Adams back as well after the two connected 45 times for 822 yards and nine touchdowns last year. The biggest question is along the offensive line where just two starters are back from last year’s group. However, having a mobile QB like Flowers helps when there’s inexperience up front. USF averaged 34 points per game last year, I’d expect an increase there.
On defense, the biggest question comes along the defensive line where three starters are gone from last year’s unit. Nose tackle Deadrin Senat is the lone returnee though the group does get back defensive tackle Derrick Calloway. Sophomore LB Auggie Sanchez is back after leading the team in tackles with 117 last season. In the secondary, the corner combo of Deatrick Nichols and Ronnie Higgins returns as does safety Devin Abraham, making for a group that should be very stingy in the passing game.
Their out of conference schedule is tough with games against Northern Illinois and Florida State, though both games do come at home in Tampa. As for in conference, they draw both Navy and Memphis out of the West and do have to travel to both Cincy and Temple their two biggest competitors in this side of the conference. All that said, the trio of Flowers, Mack and Adams makes me think they’re the team to beat.
Toughest Games: vs. Northern Illinois (9/10), vs. Florida State (9/24), @ Cincinnati (10/1), @ Temple (10/21), vs. Navy (10/28), @ Memphis (11/12)
Tommy Tuberville’s group was expected to win the conference last season and fell short of that in a disappointing 7-6 season that they finished by getting blown out in the Hawai’i Bowl by San Diego State 42-7. This season, he doesn’t have as many returnees on offense and there are questions about who will start at QB after Gunner Kiel had an up and down season last year.
Kiel was struggled through injuries and his replacement Hayden Moore flashed at times when starting in Kiel’s stead. However, both struggled with interceptions as they each had 11. They’ll be battling for the starting job over the next few weeks. The big problem for whichever guy wins the starting job is the fact that they lost their top six wide receivers from last season and both starting tackles on the offensive line. Developing rapport with the new receivers will be key, but also could be tough with the two splitting first team reps in camp. On the bright side, two of the top three running backs from last year are back in Mike Boone and Tion Green. They combined for 1,478 yards and 17 TDs last season so that will certainly help alleviate the pressure on the QB and receivers.
On defense, the Bearcats were disappointing last season allowing 31.2 points per game despite having six starters back. This season, they have eight guys back and should improve in limiting opponent’s scoring. The defensive line returns three out of four starters and both starting linebackers are back in Eric Wilson and Bryce Jenkinson. The secondary group does lose corner Adrian Witty and safety Andre Jones, but the replacements in JJ Pinckney and Tyrell Gilbert did get some starting experience last year, so they should be able to fill in capably.
The schedule plays out pretty favorably with three of their biggest games at home as Houston, USF and Memphis have to travel to Nippert Stadium. BYU in the out of conference slate also looms large on November 5th immediately following the Bearcats having to travel to Philly and take on Temple. Winning those home games would set them up well for a berth in the conference title game.
Toughest Games: vs. Houston (9/15), vs. USF (10/1), @ Temple (10/29), vs. BYU (11/5), vs. Memphis (11/18), @ Tulsa (11/25)
Matt Rhule had the Owls off to their best start in program history at 7-0 heading into a match-up with Notre Dame on national television at the Linc. The Owls kept it close, falling on a late touchdown by Will Fuller and from there on out it was a struggle for the rest of the season. They finished 10-2, winning the East before losing to Houston in the conference title game and then falling to Toledo in the Boca Raton bowl. Still, it was a successful season for the Owls, but there are some big losses to replace in order to live up to last year’s run.
On offense, the biggest question comes along the offensive line where the Owls lose three starters including two 1st team All AAC performers in center Kyle Friend and right tackle Eric Lofton. The unit does return left tackle Dion Dawkins who was also 1st team All AAC and center Brendan McGowan who got starting experience in Friend’s absence due to injury last year. The running game was the bread and butter of the Owls offense last year averaging 150 yards per game, so finding a cohesive unit will be key. The Owls do return the entire running back depth chart including breakout star Jahad Thomas who posted a 1,000 yard season with 17 touchdowns last year. He pairs with QB PJ Walker, now entering his third year as the starter, for a potent run-pass combo. Walker threw for a shade under 3,000 yards last year and I would expect him to be further unleashed in his senior year. Walker loses his top target, Robbie Anderson but sophomore Ventell Bryant broke out over the second half of the season and they do have Pitt transfer Adonis Jennings in his second year with the team.
The defense was the star of this team last season right from jump street as the Owls sacked Christian Hackenberg 10 times in a 27-10 demolition of rival Penn State. They allowed just 20 points and 337 yards per game last year, but many of the stars have moved on. Gone are defensive linemen Matt Ioannidis, Nate D Smith and Hershey Walton, star middle linebacker Tyler Matakevich and corner Tavon Young along with safeties Alex Wells and Will Hayes.
However, there’s still enough talent to think the Owls D can be good again. Defensive ends Praise Martin-Oguike and Haason Reddick saw plenty of the field last year as DC Phil Snow likes to rotate his linemen and they racked up nine sacks and 12.5 TFL last year. Senior Jarred Alwan, Avery Williams and Stephaun Marshall form a solid linebacker group and corner Sean Chandler is back after being the third leading tackler last year.
The schedule is a little easier as Notre Dame jumps off of it and the Owls get their two biggest competitors in the East (USF and Cincinnati) at home. They do have to travel to Memphis and Penn State, but overall it sets up for another possible run to the conference title game.
Toughest Games: @ Penn State (9/17), @ Memphis (10/6), vs. USF (10/21), vs. Cincinnati (10/29)
Bob Diaco saw a four win improvement for his team last season from his first year at the helm as the Huskies went from 2-10 to 6-7. They made their first bowl game since playing in the 2010 Fiesta Bowl and now heading into Diaco’s third year, Diaco may have his most experienced team, particularly on the offensive side of the ball.
Virtually the entire offense is back, with the offensive line being the only unit that loses a starter from last year’s team. Quarterback Bryant Shirreffs is back in his second year as the starter after completing 60 percent of his passes for 2,078 yards nine touchdowns and eight interceptions last season while also adding 503 yards and three scores on the ground. He’ll have junior backfield mate Arkeel Newsome, the team’s leading rusher, back as well as all four of his leading receivers. The Huskies offense was anemic last season averaging just 17 points and 310 yards per game and they should be able to score at least a touchdown more per game this season with all of the experience they have back.
On defense, there are more holes to fill as they lost some star players particularly along the defensive line. DT Julian Campenni and DE Kenton Adeyemi are both gone, but the Huskies have 3rd team AAC tackle Folorunso Fatukasi back as well as getting end Cole Ormsby back from injury. Combine that with a linebacker unit that returns 2nd leading tackler Junior Joseph and adds in Florida State transfer EJ Levenberry and you’ve got the recipe for a very good front seven once again. The secondary’s biggest loss was top tackler Andrew Adams (103 tackles) but, they have everyone else back including safety Jamar Summers who had eight interceptions last year. After allowing only 19.5 points per game last season, I’d expect this unit to be able to replicate those numbers this year.
The Huskies schedule is where the question comes for me in terms of contending in the conference. They have to travel to Navy, Houston, and USF. They do get the benefit of playing Temple and Cincinnati at home and the out of conference schedule features a Boston College team that should be better than last year. I expect the Huskies to be in a bowl once again, and if they can pull a few road upsets, they could be this year’s surprise team in the American.
Toughest Games: @ Navy (9/10), @ Houston (9/29), vs. Cincinnati (10/8), @ USF (10/15), vs. Temple (11/4), @ Boston College (11/19)
East Carolina Pirates
The Pirates had a disappointing 5-7 year that was marred by injuries last year. This came after having three consecutive winning seasons from 2012-2014. The school made the surprise decision to move on from head coach Ruffin McNeill, bringing in Scottie Montgomery from Duke to take over. Montgomery will have a rebuilding project ahead of him as the team lost many key guys from last year.
The first problem to address is the QB spot as Kurt Benkert transferred, Blake Kemp is gone and James Summers who started a couple games last season is now back at wide receiver. That leaves the roster with nobody who attempted a pass last season. They do have former Minnesota transfer Phillip Nelson who looks to have the inside track on the job, but also have sophomores Jason Connella and Ray Smith in addition to red-shirt freshman John Jacobs. Whoever wins that battle will be behind an offensive line that loses three starters, but does bring back the right side intact in guard JT Boyd and tackle Brandon Smith. The team also loses top runner Chris Hairston and the next leading running back, Anthony Scott, had just 46 carries for 207 yards last season. Top wide receiver Isaiah Jones is back after catching 98 passes for 1,099 yards and five touchdowns last season. This unit averaged 27 points per game last year and due to the lack of experience and change of coaching staff, I expect them to take a step back.
On defense, the biggest loss is that of star inside linebacker and leading tackler for the last two seasons Zeek Bigger. Replacing his production won’t be easy especially considering that Montrese Overton the #3 tackler last year also moves on. They do bring back Jordan Williams (81 tackles), which will help, but still a lot of production to replace. The defensive line loses both ends from last year in Terrell Stanley and Johnathon White so there are questions in that unit as well as the secondary which loses two starters including both corners in Josh Hawkins and Rocco Scarfone. New defensive coordinator Kenwick Thompson (Vanderbilt) has some work to do with this unit.
Toughest Games: @ Virginia Tech (9/24), @ USF (10/8), vs. Navy (10/13), @ Cincinnati (10/22), @ Tulsa (11/5), @ Temple (11/26)
To say the Knights had a rough season last year would be an understatement. They went winless, and legendary head coach George O’Leary stepped down in the middle of the season. In comes Scott Frost, formerly the offensive coordinator at Oregon, which means in comes the fast paced offense and some big changes to team style and philosophy.
There’s plenty of talent to work with as everybody but one starter along the offensive line is back this season. Quarterback Justin Holman was poor last season throwing double the amount of interceptions (14) as touchdowns (7). He was banged up throughout much of last year and will hopefully have better help this year. The running game was particularly poor last year averaging just 81 yards per game, but with most of the offensive line back and all the running backs back in addition to the switch to the up-tempo Oregon style offense, they should see a massive improvement in the run game and in the point total (just 14 points per game last year).
The defense has plenty of talent for new coordinator Eric Chinander to work with as well. The biggest question that he’ll have to answer comes along the defensive line where Thomas Niles, Luke Adams, Lance McDowell and Demetris Anderson all moved on. The secondary and linebacker group returns mostly intact so finding impact players along the line is the biggest project for Chinander and his assistants to work on in camp.
The Knights should get a couple of victories this year though they do have a tough schedule drawing Tulsa, USF, and Houston out of the West and adding Michigan and Maryland to the out of conference schedule.
Toughest Games: @ Michigan (9/10), vs. Maryland (9/17), vs. Temple (10/15), @ Houston (10/29), vs. Cincinnati (11/12), vs. Tulsa (11/19), @ USF (11/26)
Division Winner- USF
The Bulls have a trio of playmakers on offense that I’m not sure any of the other teams in this side of the conference can match. While they have to travel to both Cincinnati and Temple, I think they’ll be able to at least split those games if not win both and Cincinnati has an arguably more difficult schedule with Houston, Memphis and Tulsa all out of the West. Temple could play a major factor, but I think the big losses on defense signal a step back (not a major one, but still) for that unit and I’m not sure the offense can make up for that step back. Overall, I think the Bulls have the most talent in this division and they seem to be trending upwards. I think they continue that trend this year under Willie Taggart.
That would lead to a USF vs. Houston conference title game and I think the Cougars win that one taking their second straight AAC title behind the play of Greg Ward and a defense that will once again be stingy.
Ryan Mayer is an Associate Producer for CBS Local Sports. Ryan lives in NY but comes from Philly and life as a Philly sports fan has made him cynical. Anywhere sports are being discussed, that’s where you’ll find him.