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Old 06-10-2019, 01:46 AM
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foot 2019 AAC Preview

June 9, 2019
By Marc Lawrence

2019 AMERICAN ATHLETIC CONFERENCE PREVIEW

Coaches Call

Entering its sixth year of existence, the American Athletic Conference remains the top Group of 5 League heading into the 2019 football season.

While the loop has struggled in bowl games, going 12-22 SU and ATS (2-9 SUATS versus .690 or greater foes), it continues to be a breeding ground for up-and-coming head coaches, including the likes of Cincinnati’s Luke Fickell, Memphis’ Mike Norvell, Tulane’s Willie Fritz, Tulsa’s Phillip Montgomery and UCF’s Josh Heupel.

Meanwhile, the 24 wins by Navy’s Ken Niumatalolo over Power Five or BCS Conference foes is still the most of all Group of Five schools.

Three head coaches make their AAC debut in 2018, including Houston’s Dana Holgorsen, Temple’s Rod Carey, and ECU’s Mike Houston – who makes his debut as a head coach at the FBS level.

Expect one or two of the aforementioned coaches to move on to a Power Five team in the near future, much like last year when Geoff Collins moved from Temple to Georgia Tech.

Talking Points

• Danger ahead: since the AAC formation in 2014 the conference has struggled mightily in non-conference games following a SUATS loss, going just 13-37-1 ATS. And if they are visitors in these games they fall off the face of the earth, going 2-17 and 3-16 SUATS. Gulp.

• Since the formation of the conference in 2014, the best role for AAC teams has been on the road when coming off a win and facing a foe coming off a loss. It’s where teams in the conference stand 51-34 SU and 54-30-1 ATS overall, including 39-19-1 ATS if they scored 35 or more points in their last game.

• Average attendance at American Athletic Conference home stadiums was 28,669, clearly No. 1 for Group of Five conferences. The problem, though, is it represents a decline of -2,709 fans per game dating back to the 2016 season, the largest fall-off of all FBS conferences.

The numbers following each team name represent the amount of returning starters on offense and defense, along with the number of returning linemen, with an asterisk (*) designating a returning quarterback. The RPR represents each team’s overall, offensive and defensive rankings in overall returning production experience.

AAC EAST

CINCINNATI (Offense - *8/3, Defense - 7/1, RPR: 36/42/44)

TEAM THEME: NITPICKY

After ascending from 4 wins to a surprising 11 victories last season, Cincinnati head coach Luke Fickell will feel like he has his hands tied this season. That’s because teams who improve at such a dramatic rate as the Bearcats did last year often regress the following campaign. If there is an improvement, it generally does not show in the win-loss column. Yes, UC brings back a ton of experience on both sides of the ball but as a result, they will likely be an overpriced commodity in 2019. That being said, the Bearcats welcome back the best punter in the FBS, James Smith, who averaged 44.3 net yards per punt. We’re not being persnickety... just realistic.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: Fickell is 1-8-1 ATS as a single-digit favorite as a head coach with Ohio State and Cincinnati.

PLAY AGAINST: vs. UCLA (8/29) - *KEY as a favorite.

CONNECTICUT (Offense - 6/4, Defense - 10/4, RPR: 60/125/2)

TEAM THEME: TEAM XANAX

When you are described as the most depressing team in the FBS, as the Huskies were by SB Nation’s Bill Connelly, you can rest assured that alumni are most likely suffering from pangs of anxiety. This once proud football program simply hasn’t been the same since Randy Edsall left, and then returned, as they enter the 2019 season riding a 7-year losing skein. Worse, UConn actually allowed 605 points last season. A lot can be attributed to the fact that, next to Minnesota, freshmen accounted for more starts than any team in the nation last season. A 2-21 record against FBS foes in Edsall’s recent return – including 17 straight losses – continues to paint a gloomy picture.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Huskies have been out-yarded in 25 of their last 26 FBS games.

PASS

EAST CAROLINA (Offense - *7/4, Defense - 7/3, RPR: 83/60/91)

TEAM THEME: HOUSE AFIRE

New coach Mike Houston, who guided James Madison to successive FCS Championship Game appearances and one national title, owns an 80-25 record with a combined six conference championships in eight seasons as a head coach. During his time with JMU, the Dukes sported a 15-3 ledger against Top 25 teams. He’ll like knowing that ECU force-fed underclassmen, who made 20 starts last season, as they welcome back over 70% of their lettermen in 2019. Bill Connelly put it best when he said, “When you fire a good coach (Ruffin McNeill) in the hopes of getting a great one, you end up burning your house to the ground.” In Houston, the Pirates appear to have a good one.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Pirates are 2-24 SU and 1-25 ATS versus conference foes with a winning record since 2010.

PLAY ON: at SMU (11/9)

TEMPLE (Offense - *7/4, Defense - 7/2, RPR: 67/65/75)

TEAM THEME: DRAGONSTONE

When you are the third head coach inside of a calendar year at a rising football program, you’re likely to take on a redheaded stepchild complex. However, being the 6th head coach at Temple over the past 10 seasons, Rod Carey can take comfort in knowing that he owned a 38-10 (.792) career mark in conference games at Northern Illinois. How good is that? Consider: that is better than both Nick Saban (.774) and Jimbo Fisher (.747). Carey inherits a squad that improved its numbers across the board on both sides of the ball last season. Expect Carey to pull a Jon Snow and conquer all critics as he finds a comfortable spot upon his new throne.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: Owls head coach Rod Carey is 22-10 SU and 22-9-1 ATS as a visitor in his CFB head-coaching career.

PLAY ON: vs. UCF (10/26)

UCF (Offense - *8/3, Defense - 5/1, RPR: 90/96/66)

TEAM THEME: A LONG TIME BETWEEN DRINKS OF WATER

When star QB McKenzie Milton suffered a gruesome knee injury last season, it looked like doomsday for the Knights. Nonetheless, FR QB Darriel Mack Jr. filled in admirably over the course of the final three games of the season (named MVP of the AAC championship game when he tossed for 6 TDs). Yet Mack finds himself in a battle with Notre Dame transfer Brandon Wimbush. With it, head coach Josh Heupel guides a UCF squad that takes a 25-1 skein into 2019 – the best two-year record in the FBS. The loss (to LSU in the Sugar Bowl) was the Knights’ first defeat in 745 days when it last fell to Arkansas State in the 2016 Cure Bowl.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: UCF has scored 30 or more points in each of its last 26 games the past two seasons.

PLAY AGAINST: at Temple (10/26)

USF (Offense - *9/4, Defense - 5/3, RPR: 38/11/93)

TEAM THEME: 6-EGG OMELET

USF opened 2018 with 7 straight wins. Then reality settled in quickly, as the Bulls dropped their final 6 games to conclude the season. With it, head coach Charlie Strong overhauled his coaching staff when he replaced five assistants in the offseason, and hired OC/QB coach Kerwin Bell, whose mantra is “play fast, score faster”. Remember, only six teams in the country had more starts by freshmen (20.4%) than the Bulls last season (51.9) – and that generally pays off in spades the following year. With their leading QB and top three RBs in the fold, they’ll be eager to wipe the egg off their face for last year’s frustrating finish.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: USF is the first team in AP Poll history to lose 6 straight games after starting the season 7-0.

PLAY AGAINST: at East Carolina (10/26) - *KEY

AAC WEST

HOUSTON (Offense - *8/3, Defense - 4/1, RPR: 82/13/126)

TEAM THEME: HOLGO HEADS HOME

New head coach Dana Holgorsen arrives from West Virginia in what might appear to be a step-down in programs. A closer inspection shows that Holgorsen has deep connections to the city where he was an offensive coordinator when he teamed with QB Case Keenum 10 years ago for two-record-setting seasons. He’s back home where his closest friends reside. His five-year, $20 million contract is the richest of all Group of Five coaches, including an added $1 million bonus should the Cougs enter the Big 12 during his tenure. With it, Holgorsen is the first sitting head coach to leave a Power Five program for the Group of Five since the College Football Playoff began in 2014.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: Dana Holgorsen is 0-12 ATS with rest when his team owns a sub .750 win percentage.

PLAY AGAINST: at Oklahoma (9/1)

MEMPHIS (Offense - *6/2, Defense - 8/3, RPR: 7/23/12)

TEAM THEME: TIGERIFFIC

Head coach Mike Norvell can’t wait to hear the first whistle of the 2019 football season. And neither would you if your team was as loaded as his. Memphis underclassmen started 41.6% of the team’s starts last season, meaning its Returning Production Ranking is 7th best in the nation this year. The combination of a soft schedule (only four FBS foes with winning records last season) affords them the chance to be favored in every game in 2019. Remember, this team has averaged 9 wins per season the last five years (9.6 wins and 42 PPG under Norvell) and returning QB Brady White was a blue-chip recruit at Arizona State. Can you say New Year’s 6?

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: Memphis is 21-0 SU in its last 21 home games against .666 or fewer opponents.

PLAY ON: vs. Navy (9/26)

NAVY (Offense - 4/2, Defense - 4 /1, RPR: 126/108/122)

TEAM THEME: OPERATION CATCH UP

If it seems like the Middies are a bit light on experience this season, it’s because they are. Gone is a senior class that started over 60% off all games last season (3rd most in the land) as no less than 18 of them made starts. However, after seeing a 6-year bowl skein snapped with a 3-win season last year, Navy is a classic “mission team” in 2019 and we’re not about to step in front of that. Not when, since 1980, military “mission teams” coming off a losing season that was preceded by three consecutive winning campaigns are 43-28-2. The question is will that be enough to “catch up “ with suddenly surging Army? Hooyah.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: Navy is 72-5 under Niumatalolo when entering the fourth quarter with the lead.

PLAY ON: vs. Army (12/14) - *KEY as a dog

SMU (Offense - 7/3, Defense - 9/4, RPR: 27/52/20)

TEAM THEME: WHAT’S UP WITH THAT?

The big news on campus this season is the transfer of QB Shane Buechele from Texas to SMU. It's an ideal situation for the Mustangs. Buechele is an atypical graduate transfer who is not only immediately eligible but also has two years of eligibility remaining. He passed for over 4,000 combined yards in his freshman and sophomore campaigns while compiling a higher percentage of completions and fewer interceptions than outgoing QB Ben Hicks during those seasons. Buechele will also benefit from six star-studded receivers in 2019. After a strange year in which the defense actually improved 47 YPG and the offense regressed 112 YPG, expect this Air Raid offense to reach new heights in 2019.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: Dykes is 8-1 SU and 7-1-1 ATS at home versus sub .500 opponents.

PLAY AGAINST: at Navy (11/23)

TULANE (Offense - *5/2, Defense - 8/4, RPR: 99/106/71)

TEAM THEME: PUTTING ON THE FRITZ

So how important was Tulane’s 7-win effort last year? The Wave experienced its first winning record in conference play last year since 2013, and only it’s second dating back to 1998. It’s important to note that prior to HC Willie Fritz’ arrival, Tulane had enjoyed just one winning season in 13 years. “We’ve gotten better every year we’ve been here,” boasted Fritz. One look at the Green Wave rushing stats under Fritz tells you all you need to know. To help balance the attack, former Oklahoma State WR Jalen McCleskey (snared 50 passes in 2017) arrives and figures to be a big boost to the offense. Look for Fritz’s footprint to be ever present this season.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: Head coach Willie Fritz is 20-3 SU and 15-5 ATS versus .333 or fewer opponents.

PLAY ON: at SMU (11/30)

TULSA (Offense - *6/2, Defense - 8/2, RPR: 17/41/19)

TEAM THEME: THREE-CARD MONTY

With just 5 wins the past two seasons, Phil Montgomery finds himself sitting on a pretty hot seat in Tulsa. If there is one commodity a coach in his situation could ask for, it’s a well-stocked defense that improved 121 yards per game last season. And it doesn’t hurt knowing Montgomery stands 16-11 SU and 17-7-1 ATS in games in which his teams allow 34 or fewer points. Still, even though Tulsa is bolstered by the return of a deeply experienced squad that has been ravaged by injuries the last two seasons, resulting in 8 one-possession losses, pulling themselves back up won’t be easy. But the feeling here is Field Marshall Montgomery saves his hide with an all-in effort.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: Tulsa is 31-8 SU and 30-9 ATS in conference games in which it scores 30 or more points.

PLAY AGAINST: as a favorite at SMU (10/5)
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