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.
Today, we look to the American Athletic Conference West division, where the Houston Cougars look like a serious New Year’s Six bowl contender once again in year two under Tom Herman.
Preseason Media Poll
1) Houston Cougars
2) Navy Midshipmen
3) Memphis Tigers
4) Tulsa Golden Hurricane
5) SMU Mustangs
6) Tulane Green Wave
Tom Herman’s first year as a head coach couldn’t have gone any better. The team went 13-1 including beating heavily favored Florida State in the Peach Bowl. Heading into his second year, there are much higher expectations for Herman’s team. The Cougars have some good returning talent including quarterback Greg Ward Jr., who enters his senior season.
Ward put up a combined 3,936 yards and 38 touchdowns while throwing just six interceptions and completing 67 percent of his passes. Entering year two in offensive coordinator Major Applewhite’s scheme, expect similar numbers. He benefits from the return of four out of his top five receivers from last year. The Cougs have three starting offensive linemen back from last year so Ward should be well protected. The biggest question mark comes in the running game where all three of the top running backs are gone. Granted, Ward did lead the team in rushing, but Houston will need someone else to shoulder some of the running load in order for the offense to continue to click the way it did last year. They do get the benefit of adding sophomore Duke Catalon who transferred from Texas.
On defense, Houston was pretty impressive last year despite being in the first year of running a 3-4 scheme. They allowed just 384 yards and 21 points per game, including holding opponents to 109 rushing yards per contest, which was 8th best in FBS. They’ll have to find replacements for some key losses this year, particularly in the secondary where they lose both safeties in Trevon Stewart and Adrian McDonald in addition to corner William Jackson. The front seven is solid with defensive tackle BJ Singleton, linebackers Steven Taylor and Tyus Bowser all returning and the addition of five-star d-line recruit, Ed Oliver. The secondary is certainly a question mark, but they should be able to offset some of the losses with a pair of corners in Jeremy Winchester and Howard Wilson who started a couple of games last season.
The schedule is more difficult than last year as they open with Oklahoma (at NRG Stadium), add Louisville to the out of conference as well and draw Cincinnati out of the East while having to travel to Navy and Memphis. However, this team is talented enough to once again win the conference and appear in a New Year’s Six game.
Toughest Games: vs. Oklahoma (9/3 NRG Stadium), @ Cincinnati (9/15), @ Navy (10/8), vs. Louisville (11/17), @ Memphis (11/25)
Navy was very successful in their first year in the American winning 11 games (7-1 AAC), including a win in the Military Bowl over Pittsburgh. This year, the losses are heavy with most of the offense gone while the defense returns multiple key starters. Ken Niumatalolo has some work to do in order to keep his team in contention.
The biggest question for the Midshipmen comes at the QB spot where they lose a four-year starter in Keenan Reynolds who was drafted by the Baltimore Ravens. Senior Tago Smith was the backup last year and will likely be the starter this season. In very limited action last year, he ran for 126 yards on 27 carries with one touchdown. The triple option system that the team runs does allow for easier transitions between starters but the team also needs to replace five of its top six rushers and the entire offensive line. Service academies do usually experience higher turnover from year to year than other schools considering that the starters are usually upperclassmen, so the Midshipmen should be able to have a good offense, just maybe not as proficient as last year’s group that averaged 34 points per game.
On defense, Navy is much better set up. They return the entirety of the linebacker group with seniors Josiah Powell and Daniel Gonzales and juniors Micah Thomas and DJ Palmore. Those four guys combined to put up 203 tackles, 5.5 sacks, and 12 tackles for loss last season. That experience should help offset the loss of their top two defensive linemen in Will Anthony and Bernard Sarra and defensive backs Lorentez Barbour and Quincy Adams. The defense allowed just 22 points per game last season and I would expect the numbers to at least remain the same if not lower.
Their schedule is favorable as their top competition for the division title have to come to Annapolis in Houston and Memphis. They do have to travel to South Florida and Notre Dame makes the trip to Maryland, but they should be right in the thick of things once again in the West.
Toughest Games: vs. Houston (10/8), vs. Memphis (10/22), @ USF (10/28), vs. Notre Dame (11/5)
The Tigers got off to a great start last year, going 8-0 before losing three of their final four regular season games. Their 9-3 record got them into the Birmingham bowl where they lost to Auburn 31-10. That 9-4 record was enough to get head coach Justin Fuente the job at Virginia Tech. With Fuente gone, Mike Norvell comes in from Arizona State where he was the offensive coordinator for the last four seasons.
Norvell’s biggest task heading into the season is finding a replacement for QB Paxton Lynch after he was drafted in the first round this April. Last year’s backup Clayton Holgorsen is also gone so the team will be starting from scratch. Junior Riley Ferguson, a junior college transfer, headlines a group of candidates that also includes senior Jason Stewart and red-shirt freshman Brady Davis. Whoever wins the QB job will have an experienced offensive line in front of him with four returning starters back. That should help ease the load on the quarterback in addition to the return of top rusher Doroland Dorceus, who had 661 yards on 155 carries with eight touchdowns last season as a sophomore. The QB will also benefit from the return of two of the top three receivers from last year’s team in juniors Anthony Miller and Phil Mayhue. Having to replace a three-year starting QB is never easy and I would expect the offensive numbers to drop in accordance with that.
With the offense likely taking a step back, the defense will have to step up to keep the Tigers in the race for the AAC West. This group should be up to the task with three starters back on the defensive line, three experienced linebackers and the addition of Alabama transfer Jonathan Cook at safety. Last year’s unit allowed 27 points and 407 yards per game last season and I would expect those numbers to improve.
The schedule is more difficult this season, which is what will likely prevent them from truly being in contention for the West title as they draw Temple, USF, and Cincinnati from the East while having to travel to Navy. They do get Houston at home, but also add a road game against Ole Miss to the non-conference. If things break right, they could be a contender, but more likely they’ll be in the middle of the pack in the division.
Toughest Games: @ Ole Miss (10/1), vs. Temple (10/6), @ Navy (10/22), vs. USF (11/12), @ Cincinnati (11/18), vs. Houston (11/25)
Tulsa Golden Hurricane
Tulsa improved by four wins last season by going from 2-10 in 2013 to 6-7 last year in head coach Phillip Montgomery’s first season at the helm. This year, they’ve got a more experienced group, are in the second year of the offensive and defensive systems and have a returning QB in Dane Evans. They could be a dark horse in the American.
Evans threw for 4,332 yards 25 touchdowns and just eight interceptions while completing nearly 63 percent of his passes last year and is heading into his senior season and his third full year as the starter, I expect him to put up similar numbers if not surpass those. He has an experienced offensive line in front of him with three starters back and the leading rusher in junior D’Angelo Brewer is back after gaining 837 yards on 162 carries and adding six touchdowns last season. They do lose power back Zack Langer who had the lion’s share of the goal line touches last year and racked up 18 touchdowns. However, with Brewer and third leading rusher Ramadi Warren back, they should be able to match his production. Evans does lose his top target in Keyarris Garrett, who had 96 receptions for 1,588 yards and eight touchdowns last year. They do return Josh Atkinson, who also surpassed 1,000 yards last year and they get Keevan Lucas back from injury. A third-year starting QB combined with multiple other key returnees means Tulsa will likely match their 37 points per game from last season if not improve on that number.
Defense was the problem for the Hurricane last season as they allowed opponents to score 40 points per game on 537 yards, in particular getting gashed in the running game and allowing 240 yards per contest. With multiple returning starters including all three linebackers and two starters in the secondary, those numbers should improve. The biggest question comes on the defensive line where three starters are gone, but they do have multiple guys who have starting experience. Co-defensive coordinators Bill Young and Brian Norwood should be able to coax better numbers out of this group.
Tulsa avoids Temple and USF out of the East but does have to travel to Houston, Memphis and Navy, the three teams that are expected to finish ahead of them in the West. Despite that, I expect Tulsa to improve their win total once again.
Toughest Games: @ Ohio State (9/10), @ Houston (10/15), @ Memphis (10/29), @ Navy (11/12), vs. Cincinnati (11/25)
The Mustangs’ first year under Chad Morris saw a one-win improvement on their 2014 total from one to two victories. The team’s biggest struggle came on defense where they allowed 45.7 points per game and had one of the worst run defenses in the country, allowing 261 yards per game and an astonishing 5.8 yards per carry. This season, the Mustangs are more experienced, but the schedule is ridiculously hard. While they should get more than two wins, it won’t be by much.
The offense is heavily laden with returning experience including quarterback Matt Davis who put up a combined 3,024 yards (2,263 pass 761 rush) and 26 touchdowns with just seven interceptions. In addition to Davis, the top two running backs return in Xavier Jones and Braeden West are back as are the top eight wide receivers including top target Courtland Sutton (49 receptions 862 yards 9 TD). The offensive line is experienced as well with three starters back so overall, this offense should be capable of putting up more than the 28 points per game that they did last season.
On defense, the second year in the 4-2-5 defense that defensive coordinator Van Malone installed should produce better results. However, with Baylor and TCU still on the out of conference schedule, the numbers could still be high. The defensive line brings back two starters in defensive end, Justin Lawler and tackle Mason Gentry. They combine with linebackers Jackson Mitchell and Anthony Rhone (67 tackles 4 TFL) to form a solid front while the secondary returns corner Jordan Wyatt and safety Darrion Millines while also getting corner Horace Richardson back from injury. With a more experienced group, the defense should be better, but as mentioned above, the schedule is tough so it’s hard to see the Mustangs’ record improving too much.
Toughest Games: @ Baylor (9/10), vs. TCU (9/23), @ Temple (10/1), @ Tulsa (10/7), vs. Houston (10/22), vs. Memphis (11/5), vs. USF (11/19), vs. Navy (11/26)
Tulane Green Wave
Tulane has had back-to-back 3-9 seasons, just one winning season in the last five years (7-6, 2013) and only three winning seasons since 2000. That led to the program bringing in Willie Fritz in hopes that the former Georgia Southern head coach can turn things around. Fritz has a tall task ahead of him as this roster isn’t exactly built to run his spread-option offense. It looks like a rebuilding year in the Big Easy.
Fritz and offensive coordinator Doug Ruse’s first task with the offense is to find a quarterback. Last year’s starter, Tanner Lee, transferred to Nebraska, which means the top returning passer is senior Devin Powell who attempted just 36 passes last season. Fritz does bring along one of his recruits from Georgia Southern in freshman Darius Bradwell who should compete for the job. They’ll also have to rebuild the offensive line as three starters from last year’s group are gone. However, there are some bright spots as last year’s top two rushers in juniors Dontrell Hilliard and Sherman Badle (956 yards 8 TD) are back. Their numbers should see a significant increase in the new system. The receivers group loses the top guy (Teddy Veal) but pretty much everyone else is back. Overall, it’s a transition year for the offense, so the scoring numbers may be down, but expect the rushing totals to be higher.
On defense, things look much better for defensive coordinator Jack Curtis. He has the top three linebackers back from last year and four starters back in the secondary. The defensive line does lose two key pieces in defensive end Royce LaFrance and nose tackle Corey Redwine, but they return first-team, All-AAC tackle Tanzel Smart and defensive end Ade Aruna. While it will take some time for them to transition to how their new coordinator expects them to play, the defense should be better than last season and therefore cut down on the 36 points per game that they allowed.
Toughest Games: vs. Navy (9/17), @ UCF (10/7), vs. Memphis (10/14), @ Tulsa (10/22), @ Houston (11/12), vs. Temple (11/19)
Division Winner- Houston
Houston has one thing that it’s fellow top teams in this side of the division don’t: an experienced quarterback. Greg Ward is a legitimate Heisman candidate and with an experienced offensive line and receivers group, the Cougars should put up some big numbers. They once again look like the team to beat in the conference and I would expect them to have New Year’s Day bowl plans once again this season.
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.