The 2016 American Athletic Conference football preview, featuring the key games, players, pro prospects and coaches on the hot seat. The league is deep and surging, but parity could be replaced by a one-team title chase, as Houston hunts for back-to-back crowns.
Here we go again.
In the world of college football realignment, there are the poachers and the poached. Unfortunately for the American and its former identity, the Big East, the conference has a long history of being plundered by the likes of the ACC, the Big Ten and the Big 12.
Well, American commissioner Mike Aresco is looking over his shoulder again as the Big 12 grapples with possible expansion.
If the Big 12 elects to add new members, there’s a good chance it’ll target the American. And who could blame potential candidates like Cincinnati, UCF, Houston, South Florida, Memphis or UConn for leaping at the riches and the prestige of joining the Power Five?
The timing for another possible American contraction couldn’t be worse, because the noise is drowning out what was an otherwise breakthrough year for the league in 2015. Eight teams appeared in bowl games. Memphis and Temple made national headlines by beating Ole Miss and almost shocking Notre Dame, respectively.
Navy brought its stature and stability to a conference for the first time in its storied history. And Houston emerged as the face of the American by capping a 13-1 season with a league crown, a No. 8 ranking and a Chick-fil-A Bowl win over Florida State.
Well, everyone will be chasing the Cougars again in 2016.
Houston will be carrying the American banner this fall, thanks to the returns of QB Greg Ward Jr. and second-year head coach Tom Herman. It would be a shocker if this surging program, which opens with a monster matchup versus Oklahoma, doesn’t sweep through the West Division now that Navy and Memphis must replace elite quarterbacks.
It’s in the East Division where the American figures to be most intriguing this fall.
The East shapes up as a jump ball that might not be decided until the final weekend of the regular season. UCF is the outlier as it rebuilds under Scott Frost. Everyone else has a shot to be in the hunt, from defending champ Temple and its doppelganger, UConn, to the talented teams from Cincinnati and South Florida. Whether the program that survives this scrum can defeat the West champ will be decided in the Dec. 3 title game.
The American has a lot to be excited about—and to be concerned about—entering 2016. If the league remains untouched, it’s in great shape by the Group of Five measuring stick, especially with Houston developing into a frontman with national reach.
If, however, the Big 12 pilfers the American it’ll serve as another stark reminder of the challenges of life as an off-Broadway conference.
American Team That Will Surprise
Connecticut – The intercollegiate planets are lined up so that the Huskies have a shot to be this year’s Temple in the American.
Surly D. Experienced backfield. Up-and-coming staff. Check, check, check. Bob Diaco’s third UConn team looks an awful lot like Matt Rhule’s third Temple squad, which won 10 games a year ago. The Huskies have that same kind of upstart potential, since they can shut down anyone on the schedule, save for maybe Houston, and the offense ought to be improved now that QB Bryant Shirreffs is no longer the newcomer. If the attack is even modestly better, look out, because UConn is bucking to take the East Division by storm after improving by four wins in 2015.
American Team That Will Disappoint
South Florida – Kudos to Willie Taggart, who piloted a rebound in 2015, lifting sagging approval rating in the process. But those expecting an American—or even an East Division crown—in 2016 might be a little disappointed.
The Bulls have a tailwind and outstanding backfields, both on offense and defense. However, they also have holes on each line, which can’t be glossed over, and a thorny schedule that’s liable to keep results flat. The non-conference slate is tough after the Towson opener, including a trip to Syracuse and visits from Northern Illinois and Florida State. And Cincinnati, Temple and Memphis will be played outside of Tampa. Taggart has USF moving in the right direction, but the team will travel sideways in 2016.
American Game of the Year
Houston at Cincinnati, Sept. 17 – Everyone in the league is chasing the Cougars, the reigning American—and Chick-fil-A Bowl—champs. Plus, Houston is heavily favored to be right back in a New Year’s Six bowl game this winter. Cincy might have the best shot of beating the Cougs in conference play, hosting after dropping this game by only three points at TDECU Stadium last November. Gunner Kiel, who threw for 523 yards and four scores against Houston in 2015, gets a shot to outduel Greg Ward Jr. and reshape the blueprint for winning an American title.
Five Big-Time American Players Who Deserve a Bigger Spotlight
These five American standouts are well-known playmakers within league circles. However, each is talented and productive enough to warrant more of a national following in 2016.
1. RB Jahad Thomas, Sr. Temple
2. LB Steve Taylor, Sr. Houston
3. DE Justin Lawler, Jr. SMU
4. WR Keevan Lucas, Jr. Tulsa
5. WR Jamir Tillman, Sr. Navy
Top 5 American Coaches on the Hot Seat
Let’s be honest. No one is technically on the hot seat in the American, where four of the 12 coaches are newcomers, and Houston’s Tom Herman, Navy’s Ken Niumatalolo and Temple’s Matt Rhule are virtual untouchables. Still, the following five coaches will face increased scrutiny a year from now if their teams disappoint in 2016.
1. Tommy Tuberville, Cincinnati
2. Willie Taggart, South Florida
3. Bob Diaco, Connecticut
4. Chad Morris, SMU
5. Scottie Montgomery, East Carolina
5 Non-Conference Games the American Better Take Very, Very Seriously
The American earns its bones when it gets to play giant killer, so Oklahoma vs. Houston, Memphis at Ole Miss and Notre Dame vs. Navy, among many other steps up in weight class, will define the league in 2016. But as conference members eye opportunities to make national waves, they better pay close attention to less ballyhooed opponents in the opening month.
1. Northern Illinois at South Florida, Sept. 10
2. Bowling Green at Memphis, Sept. 24
3. Army at Temple, Sept. 3
4. San Jose State at Tulsa, Sept. 3
5. UCF at Florida International, Sept. 24
5 Best American Pro Prospects
1. QB Gunner Kiel, Cincinnati
2. CB Deatrick Nichols, South Florida (Jr.)
3. CB Jamar Summer, Connecticut (Jr.)
4. CB Sean Chandler, Temple (Jr.)
5. DT Tanzel Smart, Tulane
5 Biggest American Shoes to Fill
1. Navy QB Tago Smith for Keenan Reynolds
2. Temple LB Avery Williams for Tyler Matakevich
3. Memphis QB Riley Ferguson for Paxton Lynch
4. Houston CB Howard Wilson or Jeremy Winchester for William Jackson III
5. Cincinnati OT Korey Cunningham for Parker Ehinger