2017 American Athletic Conference Football Preview: East Division

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, bowl teams, and rebuilding. The tiers are fairly self-explanatory. Contenders means these teams will push for the division/conference title. Bowl bidders are expected to be in the conversation for a bowl bid. Rebuilding teams are in the process of attempting to get into contention. At the end, we’ll give you our thoughts on the team’s wins based on Bovada’s Win Totals for the season.

Temple has won the division the past two years thanks to a dominant defense. This year, both of the top teams change coaches, but USF looks poised for a potentially great season and a New Year’s Six bowl bid.

Contenders

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Quinton Flowers #9 of the South Florida Bulls. Credit: Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

South Florida Bulls

The Bulls have surged into the national spotlight thanks to a 17-3 record in their last 20 regular season games. The back-to-back 8-5 and 11-2 records got head coach Willie Taggart the Oregon job, and you might think that means a step back this year with a new coach. Yeah, about that. The new coach is Charlie Strong who, the last time he was at a smaller school (Louisville) his recorded a 37-15 mark. The Texas years were rough, but I’d expect to see this team keep things rolling with Strong in charge.

The offense returns dual-threat senior QB Quinton Flowers, who is one of the most dangerous in the nation. He threw for 2,800+ yards and rushed for 1500+ with a combined 42 TDs last season. He loses his backfield mate in Marlon Mack, along with his top receiver in Rodney Adams but, they have three starters returning on the offensive line and some talented replacements ready to fill Adams and Mack’s shoes. Senior D’Ernet Johnson had 543 yards rushing last year on 111 carries and senior WR Marquez Valdes-Scantling averaged 18.9 yards per reception last season. Coordinator Sterlin Gilbert is used to running an up-tempo style, but it will be hard for them to top last year’s numbers (43.8 PPG 512 YPG) even with Flowers back.

The defense was actually the problem area for this team last year and the main thing that kept them from going to the conference title game as they gave up 46 points in a loss to Temple. That said, the performance should be much better this year with the return of guys like 2nd team AAC LB Auggie Sanchez, 2nd team AAC CB Deatrick Nichols and seven defensive linemen who have started at least one game. The Bulls under a defensive minded head coach in Strong, should improve on the 31.6 PPG and 482.2 YPG given up last year. More importantly, they get every big AAC game at home as Temple, Cincy, Houston and Tulsa all have to come to Tampa. They’ll be in the running for a New Year’s Six bowl bid. Over 10 wins.

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Ryquell Armstead #25 of the Temple Owls. Credit: Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

Temple Owls

Temple has enjoyed unprecedented success for the program in the past two years with back-to-back 10-win seasons and bowl appearances. That success catapulted Matt Rhule to the Baylor job and in comes Florida DC Geoff Collins to South Philly. He’ll have a bit of a task ahead of him in the first year trying to replace a four-year starting QB and much of the defense.

Phillip Walker moves on and the guys that were behind him got a grand total of six attempts (Logan Marchi all 6) last season. There will be a battle between sophomore Marchi, junior Frank Nutile and redshirt freshman Anthony Russo for the job. Whoever wins also has to cope with the loss of top running back Jahad Thomas. But, Temple has done a nice job recruiting that position and guys like Ryquell Armstead (Jr.), Jager Gardner (Jr.), and Tyliek Raynor (rFr) should be ready to step in. The top three receiving threats return along with three starters on the offensive line, so the new QB should be helped in their development by that supporting cast. That said, I don’t know if they can top 32.4 PPG and 413.8 YPG from last year.

Defense was the calling card of the Matt Rhule, Steve Addazio and Al Golden eras. Last year, the Owls continued their success on that side of the ball allowing opponents just 18.4 PPG and 282.6 YPG. This year, that looks like a tall task, though I said the same prior to last season. They lose four defensive linemen that were part of the rotation that helped them record 40 sacks last season, three starting linebackers, and starting CB Nate Hairston. Recruiting was good under Rhule, so there are likely some unknown talents ready to shine, but again, hard to top last year’s numbers. They do benefit from getting Houston and Navy at home, but have to hit the road to play USF, Cincy and Tulsa. Ten wins this year seems unlikely, but seven is certainly possible. Over 6.5 wins.

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Mckenzie Milton #10 of the Central Florida Knights. Credit: Joel Auerbach/Getty Images

UCF Knights

Scott Frost quickly pulled UCF out of the depths last year with a 6-7 record following the team going winless in 2015. His uptempo offense produced a two touchdown improvement in points per game average going from 13.9 in 2015 to 28.8 last season. This year, the offense returns mostly intact, with some bigger questions on the defensive side.

Freshman McKenzie Milton split time with Justin Holman through the first five games before taking over the job full time in the Temple game. He finished the year strong (57.7% 1,983 yards 10 TD 7 INT) and should continue to develop as he gets more comfortable in his second year in Frost’s system. He’ll have two of his top three receiving targets back along with top rusher Jawon Hamilton. The running game struggled somewhat last year averaging just 141.2 YPG (3.5 per carry) and should be better behind an offensive line that brings back four starters. I’d expect another jump in production as the Knights get a better grasp of Frost’s system this year.

On defense, the Knights were pretty stingy last season, cutting 13 points off their per game average going from 37.7 allowed in 2015 to 24.6. This season, the defensive line will be solid with the return of two 2nd team AAC selections in Jamiyus Pittman and Tony Guerad. That unit is the biggest strength as they have all three starters back, but the rest of the defense will largely be breaking in new guys with three linebackers and all four secondary members departing. The lone returnee in those groups is AAC Defensive Player of the Year Shaquem Griffin (92 tackles 11.5 sacks 8.5 TFL) and that’s a pretty good guy to have back. If you don’t know Griffin’s story by now, he had his left hand amputated as a kid, but still has been dominant. The schedule is tough with road games against Cincy, Navy, and Temple and home dates with Memphis and USF. Out of conference games against Georgia Tech and Maryland makes it necessary for them to pull multiple upsets to beat this number and I have them coming in just below with six or seven wins. Under 7.5 wins.

Bowl Teams

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Hayden Moore #8 of the Cincinnati Bearcats. Credit: Joe Robbins/Getty Images

Cincinnati Bearcats

The Bearcats have been disappointing in each of the last two seasons with 7-6 and 4-8 records, which led to the firing of Tommy Tuberville. In comes former Ohio State defensive coordinator Luke Fickell to take the reigns. Fickell inherits a team that returns 11 starters including a veteran QB and should at least make a bowl appearance this year.

Junior QB Hayden Moore is back and he’ll hope to have better health this year as he missed a couple of games due to an ankle injury last season. He benefits from having his top two wide receivers back in senior Devin Gray and Kahlil Lewis, which should help improve his numbers. The questions come in the running game, which was dismal last year (116 YPG 3.6 YPC) and they only have two starting offensive linemen returning. No. 2 rusher Mike Boone (105 carries 388 yards 2 TD) is back, but he wasn’t particularly effective last year. There’s enough talent to say they should improve on the 19.3 PPG averaged last year, but improving the running game will be key to that goal.

On defense, the Bearcats lose all three starting linebackers, DT Alex Pace, and safety Zach Edwards. 3rd team defensive end Kevin Mouhon moves back a level to linebacker, so the defensive line is down to two starters back, but the LB corps gets a boost. They were an above average group last year in terms of PPG allowed (26.9 55th FBS) and they should improve further under the tutelage of Fickell. The schedule could set them up for contention with both UCF and Temple at home and road games against Navy and USF. If they win the UCF and Temple games they should be in the hunt in the division. I think Fickel gets them to a bowl game, and that means we’re going over. Over 5.5 wins.

Rebuilding

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Arkeel Newsome #22 of the Connecticut Huskies. Credit: Rich Schultz /Getty Images

UConn Huskies

The Huskies suffered through a bad 3-9 campaign last year despite being one of the most experienced teams in the conference entering last year. I thought they had a chance to be pretty solid and at least a bowl team, instead the opposite happened. Bob Diaco was let go and the architect of the Huskies’ best FBS years comes back in Randy Edsall. He has 14 starters back this year, but the schedule makes it look like a rebuilding year.

The Huskies offense was the worst in the country by points per game last season averaging just 14.8 per contest. They had just 320 YPG as well, and Rhett Lashlee was brought in as offensive coordinator to try and fix the problem. Lashlee will have both QBs back from last year in Bryant Shirreffs and Donovan Williams, both of whom are dual-threats that should fit well in his system. Top rusher Arkeel Newsome (147 carries 715 yards 5 TD) is back as well along with an offensive line returning three starters. The biggest loss is leading receiver Noel Thomas (100 receptions 1,179 yards 3 TD), and the next nearest receiver had just 296 yards. That’s a big question to answer, but there’s nowhere to go but up from last season’s performance.

Defensively, the biggest losses are safety Obi Melifonwu, CB Jhavon Williams, and MLB Matt Walsh. Other than that most of last year’s group is back, which means DC Billy Crocker has plenty to work with. The numbers should improve (28.1 PPG 410.9 YPG) but the schedule could make that improvement more incremental than a leap. Road games against Virginia, Temple, UCF, Cincy and home games against USF, Memphis, and Tulsa makes it look unlikely that they’ll beat the win total. Under 3.5 wins.

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Travon Simmons #3 of the East Carolina Pirates. Credit: Grant Halverson/Getty Images

East Carolina Pirates

The Pirates first year under Scottie Montgomery was a rough one with a 3-9 record and allowing opponents to score 36.1 PPG while giving up 452.8 YPG. The defense is a question mark again this year with six starters back and, like the Huskies, the schedule may make for a long season.

The biggest addition to the offense is Duke transfer Thomas Sirk who could potentially take over the starting QB job from Gardner Minshew if he’s fully healthy after tearing his Achilles. The top running back, former QB James Summers departs, and in his absence, Montgomery brought in Clemson graduate transfer Tyshon Dye, who should help returning backs Anthony Scott and Devin Anderson improve on a running game that averaged just 3.9 yards per carry last year (132.4 YPG). They’ll run behind a line with three starters back so those numbers should improve. The question comes at wide receiver where they’ll have to find a replacement for the production of Isaiah Jones (158 receptions 1,746 yards 8 TD). While the passing numbers may drop a bit with the loss of Jones, an improved running game should help them maintain production (27 PPG 467.1 YPG).

The defense produced just eight sacks (fewest FBS) last season and allowed their opponents to rush for 228.5 YPG. The good news is the defensive line returns intact. The bad news is they lose all three starting linebackers and multiple guys in the secondary. The loss of four of their top six tacklers from last year is concerning, which is why I have questions about the group. Out of conference games against West Virginia, Va. Tech and BYU along with drawing both Houston and Memphis in the crossover games makes the schedule unfavorable. Under 3.5 wins.

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