Houston will continue to live the American (Athletic Conference) dream in 2016
I predicted a big year for the Houston Cougars last season, but ultimately picked against them in the conference championship game. I’m not making that mistake again this season, as Houston is easily my pick in the AAC this fall. In fact, I’m going the extra mile with Houston this season and I’m predicting some serious debates and conversations about where Houston belongs in a much larger conversation at the end of the season.
1. Cincinnati (8-4, 6-2)
Last season: 7-6, 4-4 AAC, lost Hawaii Bowl vs. San Diego State (42-7)
To me, Cincinnati was one of the most disappointing teams of 2015. My 2015 preseason pick to win the AAC stumbled out of the gate. They lost at home to Temple and two games later took a loss at MMemphis We know how Temple and Memphis turned out, but it was still surprising to see the Bearcats dig such an early hole in conference play. Bouncing back in 2016 is not going to be easy with so many holes to fill on offense, but Gunner Kiel has one last chance to prove what he can do. He’ll do so with a new offensive coordinator though, so we’ll see how this all plays out. If Cincinnati can take more control of the turnover margin, which crushed them last season, it should not take too much to see Cincinnati climb back to the top of the division.
2. Temple (8-4, 5-3 AAC)
Last season: 10-4, 7-2 AAC, lost Boca Raton Bowl vs. Toledo (32-17)
Get ready to hear Temple head coach Matt Rhule’s name as the coaching carousel fires up again next season. Coming off the most successful season in program history a year ago, Rhule and his Owls are out to prove it was not a fluke. With P.J. Walker continuing to grow at quarterback and Jahad Thomas back to run with the ball, Temple’s offense will continue to be good enough to make some plays, but must take things to the next level in order to truly be a title contender in the AAC. The defense should still be stingy, but the loss of Tyler Matakevich is a pretty significant loss. The secondary should be vulnerable as well, but this defense will still be good enough to keep Temple in some games. The schedule is not too difficult either, although they make a trip to Penn State (a revenge game for the Nittany Lions in a much different environment for the Owls), and they make back-to-back trips to Memphis and UCF. There are some hurdles, but no Houston and no Navy makes for a favorable conference schedule for the Owls. Cincinnati must play Houston and USF draws Navy and Memphis. A few bounces could go Temple’s way if they take care of their own business. Beating both Cincinnati and USF will be required.
3. USF (7-5, 4-4 AAC)
Last season: 8-5, 6-2 AAC, lost Miami Beach Bowl vs. Western Kentucky (45-35)
No team, outside of Houston, had as hot a finish to the 2015 regular season than Willie Taggart’s USF Bulls. After a sluggish start to the season, USF hit their stride down the stretch with seven wins in the final eight games to make a late push for the division crown. The damage was already done but they kept the pressure on Temple and could be a factor in the East again this season. It begins with Quinton Flowers at quarterback, who used his arm and his legs to get the job done. Look for that again this season, with UCLA transfer Asiantii Woulard ready to step in if needed. Having school record-setting receiver Rodney Adams is nice too. Aside from a few holes up front, the USF defense is pretty much ready to go with returning starters across the field, including cornerback Deatrick Nichols (4 INT in 2015). USF could arguably have the best all-around defense in the conference. Is it good enough to give Florida State a fight in Week 4? Maybe for a half. But in conference play, don’t count out the Bulls.
4. UConn (7-5, 4-4 AAC)
Last season: 6-7, 4-4 AAC, lost st. Petersburg Bowl vs. Marshall (16-10)
UConn gets the rare Group of Five schedule that includes two home games against power conference opponents, and they are both games the Huskies should probably win (Virginia and Syracuse). The Huskies also get key division games at home against Cincinnati and Temple (and I’m picking them to win all four of these games!), but I suspect the struggles on the road will catch up to UConn and their hopes of winning a division crown will fade. But a postseason berth is well within reach for Bob Diaco’s program continues to grow into a respectable AAC contender. UConn’s defense will lead the way, and the offense needs to improve in the passing game, but the Huskies will be no pushover in the AAC this season. Just ask Houston.
5. UCF (5-7, 3-5 AAC)
Last season: 0-12, 0-8 AAC
I’m willing to give the Knights a mulligan for last season. Nobody could have honestly predicted winless season, and it was one that saw a coaching change in the middle of the year. In comes first-year head coach Scott Frost, and the turnaround should not take very long. The rebound starts this year by making a push for postseason eligibility. UCF’s defense is a tire fire that needs a fresh start. They’ll get that with a new 3-4 system and at least some starting experience at each section of the field. On offense, UCF has Justin Holman to run the offense at quarterback, four returning starters on offensive line and Tre’Quan Smith coming off a season with 724 receiving yards. UCF has two games against Big Ten opponents early, but there is a chance to build some momentum before hitting the road in back-to-back weeks against UConn and Houston. I have a tough end to the season in the forecast but the signs of progress should be evident this season. It’s not like things can get much worse than 0-12.
6. East Carolina (4-8, 2-6 AAC)
Last season: 5-7, 3-5 AAC
Getting back to basics appears to be the mission under first-year head coach Scottie Montgomery, who was previously an assistant at Duke. That’s not a bad way to go at all, especially considering the turnover seen on offense this season for the Pirates. The Pirates will have some of the top wide receivers in the conference with Isaiah Jones and Davon Grayson, but the question will be how well can Phillip Nelson get the ball to them. I don’t even think Nelson should be allowed to be playing at the FBS, or any, level given his path to East Carolina, but that’s another story that’s been done already. Either way, he has a chance to play and he needs to capitalize on it. There is potential with the offense, and the defense is average.
1. Houston (12-0, 8-0 AAC)
Last season: 13-1, 8-1, AAC champion, won Peach Bowl vs. Florida State (38-24)
This may be the easiest pick I will make during my conference predictions. As far as the AAC is concerned, this is Houston’s to lose. Tom Herman has the best quarterback in the conference with Greg Ward. He has the best offensive line and defensive line in the conference.Houston also has arguably the best wide receiver unit and linebackers. Put that all together and you have one loaded team. They’re also confident after smacking around Florida State in the Peach Bowl and getting a crack at Oklahoma in the season opener. I’m going out on a limb and calling Houston to upset the Sooners in what will prove to be one of the biggest games of the season. More on that later. Houston going undefeated would not be all that shocking.
2. Navy (7-5, 5-3 AAC)
Last season: 11-2, 7-1 AAC, won Military Bowl vs. Pittsburgh (44-28)
I look for Navy to take a decent step or two back this season as the Mids move on without Keenan Reynolds, who was one of the best players to play for Navy in decades. The loss of Reynolds is a tough one to overcome, but Ken Niumatalolo still has that signature style that can grind out some wins. wins will not come as easily this season though with a road trip to Air Force followed a week later by a home date with Houston. Another road trip to USF is followed by a game against Notre Dame in Jacksonville. Navy will still be good enough to get a second place finish in this division, which will not be quite as deep as it was a year ago.
3. Tulsa (6-6, 4-4 AAC)
Last season: 6-7, 3-5 AAC, lost Independence Bowl vs. Virginia Tech (55-52)
Watch out for Dane Evans. This could be a big season for the Tulsa quarterback, if the offensive line can provide some protection. Evans went off for over 4,000 passing yards and 25 touchdowns a year ago, so we already know how dangerous he can be in Philip Montgomery’s offense. I marked Tulsa down for some losses that could easily go the other way (Fresno State, Memphis and Navy) but all three come on the road. Tulsa has a tough road slate this season, which also includes trips to Houston and Ohio State. This is why I think this season lacks much consistency in the win column and is more of a win-lose-win-lose type of season.
4. SMU (6-6, 4-4 AAC)
Last season: 2-10, 1-7 AAC
I think we see some good improvement from the Mustangs in 2016, and it could even lead to a bowl trip if SMU finishes the second half of the season as well as I am predicting. It’s going to be a rough start with Baylor and TCU on the non-conference schedule and road games at Temple and Tulsa before hitting a bye week. SMU could very well have just two wins at that point, but the back portion of the schedule is manageable and could see a couple of upsets to close out the season and clinch bowl eligibility. Chad Morris has something to work with offensively like receiver Courtland Sutton, but the defense is one of the worst in the conference and will have to show some improvement along the way in order for all of this to happen. I think they can win a couple shootouts if needed though.
5. Memphis (5-7, 3-5 AAC)
Last season: 9-4, 5-3 AAC, lost Birmingham Bowl vs. Auburn (31-10)
I am not entirely certain what to make of Memphis in 2016 after losing its star quarterback to the NFL (Paxton Lynch) and head coach to Virginia Tech (Justin Fuente). Taking the reigns is a first-year head coach in Mike Norvell, and he’ll do so without a quarterback who has taken a single snap in a FBS college game. The defense should be in decent shape though, and that should help but the schedule could be pretty difficult
6. Tulane (1-11, 0-8 AAC)
Last season: 3-9, 1-7 AAC
Oh boy, buckle in for a bumpy season Tulane. Let me first say I love the hiring of Willie Fritz as head coach and very much look forward to the future of the program under his leadership. That said, he has very little to work with this season. The good news is there are some players to watch on defense. Defensive lineman Tanzel Smart and linebacker Nico Marley are some of the best in the conference. And running back Dontrel Hilliard should be the focus on offense.
AAC Championship Game
Houston over Cincinnati
For the second straight season, I’m picking Houston and Cincinnati to meet in the AAC Championship Game. Last year I predicted Cincinnati would take the conference crown, but I’m all in on Houston this season. The stakes for this one could be considerably high. In addition to likely landing the automatic spot in the New Years Six as the highest-ranked Group of Five conference champion, Houston could very well be putting the finishing touches on an undefeated season. That makes for a much different conversation when it comes to the postseason plans. Could a 13-0 Houston crash the College Football Playoff? If I had to make a bet, I’d suggest they still end up on the outside looking in unless they get some help from elsewhere around the country. BUT…
AAC Game of the Year
Houston vs. Oklahoma
This is extremely important. A win for Houston gives the Cougars a pretty good bargaining chip for the College Football Playoff to seriously consider. The Cougars could have a head-to-head matchup with an Oklahoma team that could be this season’s Big 12 champion. If a final playoff spot came down to Houston and Oklahoma and we already have a head-to-head decision to consider, it becomes much more difficult to pass over the Cougars. Is it a dream scenario Yeah, probably. It is still one worth respecting.
Offensive Player of the Year
QB Greg Ward, Houston
If it were not for Keenan Reynolds at Navy in 2015, Houston’s quarterback would have been a slam-dunk for Offensive Player of the Year last season. One of the cover athletes for Sports Illustrated’s college football preview this season, Ward is coming off a season in which he completed 67.2 percent of his passes for 2,828 yards and 17 touchdowns and rushed for a team-high 1,108 yards and 21 touchdowns. I’d like to see more out of the passing from Ward this season, but knowing he can do damage both ways is enough to give defensive coordinators nightmares.
Defensive Player of the Year
LB Steven Taylor, Houston
I’ll stick with Houston for this pick as well. Taylor was second in the conference in tackles for a loss last season with 18.5. The only player with more was his teammate, Elandon Roberts. Taylor will lead Houston’s defense this season, and will be key to keeping things going on a unit that has some players to step in to starting roles. Last year’s AAC Defensive Player of the Year was also a linebacker (Temple’s Tyler Matakevich).
Coach of the Year
Tom Herman, Houston
There may be a getter story somewhere in the conference that sees a team make a nice turnaround, but if Houston runs the table as I’m predicting then it would be impossible to go any other way with this award. It has to go to Herman, who shared the honor last season with Navy’s Ken Niumatalolo. There will be no sharing of the award this season if Houston gets through every game with a win. The only question left to answer will be which Power Five school is going to woo him away?