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2015 Preview: Picking the American Athletic Conference

Cincinnati quarterback Gunner Kiel throws a 22-yard touchdown pass to Shaq Washington in the fourth quarter of an NCAA college football game against Toledo, on Friday, Sept. 12, 2014, in Cincinnati. Kiel tied a school record with six touchdown passes as Cincinnati won 58-34. (AP Photo/Al Behrman)Cincinnati quarterback Gunner Kiel throws a 22-yard touchdown pass to Shaq Washington in the fourth quarter of an NCAA college football game against Toledo, on Friday, Sept. 12, 2014, in Cincinnati. Kiel tied a school record with six touchdown passes as Cincinnati won 58-34. (AP Photo/Al Behrman)

College football may still be a little under two months away, but that does not mean it is too early to start doing some projecting. Today I am starting to reveal my offseason win projections, and what more appropriate way to get it started than by sorting through the American Athletic Conference. After all, it is the most patriotic conference in college sports and it is July 4 (sorry Conference USA, you’re coming soon).

EAST DIVISION

1. Cincinnati (9-3, 7-1 AAC)

Everybody seems to be pretty high on Cincinnati in the American Athletic Conference this season, and for good reason. The Bearcats look to be the most complete team int he conference, and having Gunner Kiel at quarterback is a nice little piece of the puzzle. Cincinnati dopes have some tough road tests in cross-divisional match-ups at Memphis and Houston, but a split of those two games is a reasonable expectation. I have Cincinnati losing a non-conference game at home against the Miami Hurricanes for now, but I may swing that prediction the other way depending on what I see in the first three weeks of the season. I have Cincinnati going 7-1 in conference play, easily grabbing the East Division and advancing to the American Athletic Conference championship game at the end of the season.

2. UCF (8-4, 6-2 AAC)

UCF finished in that three-way tie for the American title last season, but this fall they will fall just shy of the division crown. Two tough road tests in non-conference play (at Stanford, at South Carolina) may lead to a sluggish start, but it will be the back-to-back games at home against Houston and on the road at Cincinnati that will make or break the season for the Knights. Right now I have them losing both for their only conference losses.

3. East Carolina (6-6, 5-3 AAC)

East Carolina got off to a hot start in 2014, but it looks like it will be a rough beginning for the Pirates this fall. After a home game against Towson (a solid FCS program that recently beat UConn), East Carolina could be staring at three straight losses (at Florida, at Navy and home vs. Virginia Tech). Once they get back in conference play though, things could get better. Until the final two games that is (at UCF, vs. Cincinnati). Key losses on offense will hurt, but East Carolina can find a way to stay afloat for a while in the division hunt before fading back.

4. Temple (6-6, 4-4 AAC)

As a Philadelphia-area native, I find myself pulling for Temple often. And I do think there is some good potential in Matt Rhule’s program this season. The defense should be one of the best in the conference, but the schedule could be tough. In addition to playing in the same division as Cincinnati (on the road) and UCF, Temple also draws Memphis in conference play and hosts Penn State and Notre Dame. We’ll get a decent sense of how good this Temple team could be in week one when they host Penn State, and I believe give Christian Hackenberg and the Nittany Lions a solid test defensively. As usual with the Owls, can they score?

5. UConn (3-9, 1-7 AAC)

Get ready for a long season in Storrs. Bob Diaco has his work cut out for him, but he can get the season off on a good foot in the first couple of games. Opening at home against Villanova and Army presents games capable of being won, and the Huskies may even be the favorites in each. But I onyl have them winning one conference game (USF), so it could be a long fall for the Huskies. But it could be worse…

6. USF (1-11, 0-8 AAC)

Willie Taggert is likely to finds himself on the hot seat if these predictions come anywhere close to reality. After opening the season with a victory over Florida A&M, I don’t have USF winning another game the rest of the season. Odds are the Bulls will manage to pick up one somewhere along the line, but I could not tell you where that will be since I have them losing at UConn. If you can find a win on that schedule other than Florida A&M, feel free to enlighten me.

WEST DIVISION

1. Houston (11-1, 8-0 AAC)

Tom HermanWhen I started going through the schedule, I actually thought Cincinnati was going to be my team to beat in the American Athletic Conference, and the one possibly in the Group of Five New Years Six mix. It turns out Houston is going to be my team to beat this season. Aside from an early match-up with Louisville, I have Houston running the table. Houston gets the toughest games at home (Cincinnati, Memphis, Navy) and should be capable of winning its toughest road game in conference play (at UCF). If new head coach Tom Herman gets the passing game working to his liking, something I believe happens quickly, it will be Houston flirting with its first appearance in a New Years Six bowl game since 1979 as a member of the old Southwest Conference. But more on that in a moment.

2. Memphis (9-3, 6-2)

The defending conference champions will give it a run under another season under Justin Fuente, but Houston will be too much to catch up to. Memphis gets Cincinnati at home but travels to Houston. A split is possible, but I have them losing each for their two conference losses. i also have Memphis losing at home to Ole Miss, but I am tempted to put the Rebels on upset alert if things start well for Memphis this season.

3. Navy (9-3, 6-2)

The newest conference member should be fun to watch this season, as long as Keenan Reynolds is on the field. They should also be tough for most of the conference to beat. I only have the Midshipmen losing twice in conference play (at Memphis, at Houston). I also have Navy locking down the Commander-In-Chief’s Trophy with a sweep of Air Force and Army. They could also be undefeated before traveling to South Bend to face Notre Dame.

4. Tulane (4-8, 3-5 AAC)

It looks like it could be a tough first half of the season for Tulane, but I have them down for a stronger finish to the season. Ultimately though, it will not be enough to get to the postseason with just four wins on the schedule. The final game of the year against Tulsa is a bit of a toss-up and they get the game at home,. but I marked it down as a loss for right now.

5. Tulsa (5-7, 2-6 AAC)

A new head coach gives Tulsa fans some optimism for improvement, and they will see some of that develop along the way. But Tulsa is going to need a little more time before thinking about making a run for the West Division. Look for Tulsa to start picking things up offensively, and even get off on the right foot with a couple of wins before challenging Oklahoma in Norman.

6. SMU (3-9, 1-7 AAC)

Like Tulsa, a new head coach offers a chance to improve and for some optimism. Chad Morris will bring that and begin to put together things on offense as the season plays out. But it is a tough schedule for SMU with non-conference games against Baylor and TCU in the first three weeks (Mustangs could give up 120 points in just those two games). While the season may only see three wins come their way, I’ll look for other signs of improvement for a program with nowhere to go but up.

AMERICAN ATHLETIC CONFERENCE CHAMPIONSHIP GAME

Cincinnati over Houston

Yes, despite a fantastic season predicted for Houston, I’m still going with Cincinnati to find a way out fo the American Athletic Conference with the championship belt at the end of the season. This one comes down to depth, and Cincinnati may have just enough more than Houston right now to win a game on the road (this match-up with these predictions would place the game in Houston). And with Cincinnati winning, the question is whether a 10-win American champ has enough in the tank to edge whichever team comes out of the Mountain Werst Conference or MAC to grab the New Years Six bowl reservation from the College Football Playoff selection committee. Cincinnati may need that win against the Miami Hurricanes (and a road win at BYU) to tip the scale in their favor.

AAC Offensive Player of the Year: Keenan Reynolds, Navy QB

The record-breaker from Navy is ready for his last hurrah, and it should be a good one. Reynolds will carry the football plenty under Navy’s offensive style, and he is capable of brekaing some big plays often enough to really frustrate defensive coordinators.

AAC Defensive Player of the Year: Tyler Matakevich, Temple LB (pictured)

Tyler MatakevichAs I mentioned earlier, Temple’s defense could be the best in the American. Matakevich is one of the reasons why. Expect to hear his name plenty of times this fall when watching the American, and national spotlight games at home against¬†Penn State and Notre Dame could really boost his overall profile. In the same state as Penn State and Pittsburgh, Matakevich may be the best linebacker in the state.

Coach of the Year: Tom Herman, Houston

If you go 11-1 and lead your team to the conference championship in your first year as a head coach, then you pretty much are a lock for this award. Herman is coming from a championship program at Ohio State, and he will not be afraid to set the bar high for his new program from the start. Given what he has to work with, a turnaround at Houston should happen quickly.

Now that you are done reading some of my predictions for the American Athletic Conference, I encourage you to check out the preseason predictions from The Student Section and Athlon Sports to see what they think about the conference this season.

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About the Author

Kevin McGuire
Contributor to College Football Talk on NBCSports.com. Also a contributor to Athlon Sports and The Comeback. Member of Football Writers Association of America and National Football Foundation. Follow on Twitter @KevinOnCFB.
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