2015-08-29

FBS - Preview 2015 - The American Athletic Conference and the Independents

The American Athletic Conference is now established and the teams did have some nice results.

Interesting is, that the former Big East teams did not play very well, while the newcomers from CUSA in 2013 did flourish, at least some of them.
The best former Big East team last season was Cincinnati winning a share of the conference title.
The 2nd best? Temple at 6th of 11 teams.
UConn and South Florida were even worse.
So, the former CUSA teams did well and some of them are even in the gossip regarding the BIG12 expansion.
The American Athletic would probably be the primary target for recruiting 2 additional teams, since the buyout wouldn't be too much and the profits for the 2 selected teams would be huge.
The main question would be, which team?
Don't judge the selection process on football only and also don't let yourself get carried away by some short term sport success.
The BIG12 would look for a stable situation and schools willing to do the next step, with bigger facilities and bigger budget.
Some names are thrown into the discussion, most of the time UCF.
Florida would be a good addition, since West Virginia is already on the east coast and Florida is also a great player-recruiting-state.
We will see.
Dependent on this season's playoff selections, the next step could happen fast.

Teams added 2015:
Navy (from Independent)

So this season there are 12 Teams:

Eastern Division
University of Central Florida Knights
University of Cincinnati Bearcats
University of Connecticut Huskies
East Carolina University Pirates
University of South Florida Bulls
Temple University Owls

Western Division
University of Houston Cougars
University of Memphis Tigers
United States Naval Academy Midshipmen
Southern Methodist University Mustangs
Tulane University Green Wave
University of Tulsa Golden Hurricane

Now let's get a bit into the details:

Eastern Division

UCF Knights
Central Florida does have George O'Leary in his 12th season.
He is riding on a wave of success.
Beside several conference and division titles he won with the team in the CUSA (2 conference titles, 2 division titles in 8 seasons) he did win already 2 conference titles in the American.
2013 they won and went to the Fiesta Bowl and won a shootout against Baylor, last season they won a share of the conference and lost in the Bowl against NC State.
This season, all eyes will be on them and Cincinnati for the division and probably also for the conference.
It will be tough for other teams to crack into the top ranks.
The Knights will start the season with 4 non conference games, FIU, Stanford, Furman (FCS) and South Carolina.
Stanford and South Carolina should be too much, but this season you never know.
I expect a 2-2 record after those games.
Since this is the first season with 2 divisions, the schedule is all new and UCF got lucky by avoiding Memphis and Navy from the west.
Instead they got Tulane at home and Tulsa on the road. Manageable, but the road game might be tougher than expected. Add Houston as the only real test here.
Of all other games, I think the road trip to Cincinnati will be deciding.
The winner will probably take the division and play for the championship.
I pick UCF here.

Cincinnati Bearcats
In 2 seasons with Tommy Tuberville the Bearcats were 9-4 each, but 2013 they were 3rd in the conference, last season they won a share of the conference title.
Now in his 3rd season, it will be interesting to see, if the team will take the next step or will take a (probably short) dive.
All signs are pointing towards the first one.
For me, the duel against UCF will more or less decide the fate here.
Cincinnati did split their non conference game a bit over the season, having Alabama A&M (FCS) at season start, Miami (OH) in Mid-September, which is a rivalry game, Miami (FL) at the start of October and 2 weeks later they travel to Provo to play BYU.
The FCS team and the rivalry game should be won, but Miami from Florida, even at home, will be a challenge and BYU on the road will also be a test.
I expect the Bearcats to come out of this with 3-1 or 2-2 more likely.
Inside the conference they got Memphis, Houston and Tulsa, which is a bit tougher than the UCF west schedule, so bit of a disadvantage here.
And inside the division, they play UCF at home, which is good, but East Carolina and South Florida both on the road, which could be a small bumper.
Overall, they have a slightly disadvantage against UCF from the scheduling point of view, that's why I pick them 2nd.
But they will for sure contend and they have all the chances to get into the championship game.

Connecticut (UConn) Huskies
The times of Huskies great football seasons seems to be over.
The school had little success in the past few seasons, but did hire Bob Diaco in 2014 from Notre Dame, where he was the DC in 2012 and 2013.
He did win 2 games with the team last season and will now try to improve the numbers in a challenging division.
It's hard to predict a big turnaround but let's face the games:
They will start with a 3 non conference games series, adding 1 more after at the 5th gameday.
Villanova (FCS) should be a win. Playing Army will be a test, even at home, but the Knights are beatable.
Forget about the Missouri game, this will be a massacre.
At last, after they got probably slaughtered by Navy in their first conference game, they travel to Utah and do play BYU.
I expect UConn to win 2 games max, they might even get an uprising Army team, which will let them even slide to 1-3.
Inside the conference there is the mentioned Navy game from the west, and also as western teams Tulane and Houston.
Except the Tulane game, I expect them to lose here.
And inside the division, they will have to play hard at home against South Florida and East Carolina.
On the road they might be able to challenge Temple.
UCF and Cincinnati I see as 2 losses.
So?
They will probably will win more games than the 2 last season, but don't expect a giant turnaround.
4 to 5 wins are possible, I think, which will land them a lower half spot.

East Carolina Pirates
The Pirates are now in their 2nd season in the AAC and last season they had a 8-5 debut with a tied 4th place and a bowl loss.
Ruffin McNeill came in as HC when the team was still a CUSA team and in his 6th season he might be able to get the team back on a 2 digit win record.
But that will be tough.
The start against Towson (FCS) will be a nice warm-up, but Florida on the road, Virginia Tech at home and BYU in Utah will be much to ask for.
They might end up with 3 losses here.
Navy, SMU and Tulsa from the west will help to improve the record, but Navy on the road will probably add another loss.
The toughest games in the east will come at the last 2 gamedays, with Cincinnati and UCF, so at that point it will be clear, where the team does stand.
My pick is, they will take a step back this season and will not get into the 2 digit win record.
But you never know, since some games do look close on paper and only my guts do tend to mark them as losses.
Overall I expect the team to be a mid-field team.

South Florida Bulls
Willie Taggart was hired after Skip Holtz did brought down the program to the bottom.
How he did that, I still don't understand, since he was quite successful at East Carolina and he also seems to be at Louisiana Tech.
So, maybe the situation at South Florida needs a special coach, fitting the situation?
Taggart is now in his 3rd season and he had so far a 2-10 season and a 4-8.
Thanks the definition of not so good, in my book.
Is there hope?
Maybe.
It looks like the Bulls did score a soft schedule.
They start with Florida A&M (FCS), Florida State (well, that won't be easy), Maryland (Mid-level Big10 team) and Syracuse (rebuilding ACC team).
Between those they play Memphis from the west at home.
Those 5 games will determine the state of the team.
A former Bulls team would have eventually stumbled over FSU, but the rest should have feared the Bulls.
If Taggart wants to keep his job, he should at least win against the FCS team and against Syracuse at home.
Memphis from the west will be tough, but I think a loss here could happen.
The 2 other west teams are SMU and Navy.
Navy on the road will also not be easy and probably a loss.
They get the 2 toughest teams from the east at season finale, and they play East Carolina on the road.
Did I say soft?
For an improving team, willing to overcome the other contenders, this schedule is quite easy.
But for a bottom teams, as the Bulls were last season, this could be the coffin nail for Taggart.
I think the team could get into Bowl worthy figures, but that will be a tough job.
My pick is they will fall short a Bowl bid.

Temple Owls
Temple did improve fast since Matt Rhule became the new headcoach.
The last 2 season went from 2-10 to 6-6 with no bowl spot.
Now come the 3rd season and all eyes are looking for the direction of the team.
Up or down?
For every up, somewhere else a team must go down in general.
The team got the non conference games mixed into the schedule all over the season.
They start with Penn State, play UMass mid-September and Charlotte after a bye week beginning of October.
Add Notre Dame at home end of October.
UMass and Charlotte are must-wins for an AAC-team.
But Penn State and Notre Dame will use Temple to test some stuff for the big games.
So maybe 2-2 here.
Memphis, Tulane and SMU from the west are almost as soft as it can get.
I doubt they will beat Memphis but the other 2 are beatable.
Unfortunately they play East Carolina and South Florida on the road, which won't be easy, and UConn at home.
I doubt they will be able to challenge UCF and Cincinnati, but the scheduling for that would be nice.
The Bearcats might be still a bit out of synch on the second gameday and UCF at home is the best boost you can get in that game.
When I look over the whole schedule, my answer for the question at the start is 'down', but that's just a gut feeling.
Some previews do see them on the way to the top, which can happen.
I expect many of the games to be close, but losses.
If they are able to reverse this, a great season is coming.

Eastern Division

Houston Cougars
New headcoach here and Tom Herman was the OC of national champion Ohio State last season (well, since 2012).
So, he brings in some kind of winning atmosphere.
Can he bring the Cougars back to glory?
Maybe.
This season?
Nope.
Well .... maybe.
Fact is, the Cougars were not bad last season. 8-5 overall, including a bowl win can't be called bad.
Still it did cost the former coach Tony Levine the job (before the bowl), since a 7-5 season and a 5-3 conference record in 2014 was not enough for the administration.
The team did lose some games, a team of that strength should not lose.
All those games I mark as "should be won" or "is a must" are treated the same way by many, many other people, including ADs.
If you lose 1 of those games ... OK; can happen. Lose 2 and you might get in trouble. Lose 3 and depended on your status at the school you are for sure in trouble.
Houston did lose against UTSA and Tulane last season, both at home, which did probably seal the deal for Levine. His standing wasn't good enough, it seems.
So, now comes the OC of the Buckeyes.
Hopes are, he can turn the good roster into a great football team, fast.
Biggest contender in the west beside them would be newcomer Navy and surprising team of 2014 Memphis.
If you look over the schedule, the non conference games are fine.
Tennessee Tech (FCS), Louisville, Texas State and Vanderbilt are a nice mixture, where a Cougars team might be able to get 2 or 3 wins.
I think Louisville will be too much, but even Vanderbilt can be beaten, since they are one of the weakest, if not THE weakest SEC teams.
From the east the team did get UCF on the road, Cincinnati and UConn at home.
That's tough, even if UConn will be a must win, but getting the two contenders from the east will be hard.
I'm sure they will drop at least 1 of those games.
Inside the division they got lucky and will play Memphis and Navy at home.
I'm not sold on the complete sweep here, but overall they might be able to win a share of the division title.
Question will be, if they are eligible to get into the championship game.
Tough to answer, but I think Navy might get that spot more likely, based on their schedule.
So I pick the Cougars 2nd here.

Memphis Tigers
Memphis was everything which can be great about college football (but fans of their opponents last season will see that different), they were a great surprise.
Justin Fuente came in in their last season in the CUSA and had a 4-8 record.
The team did join the AAC and they got a 3-9 record in 2013.
Then, last season, they did finish with a conference title share, a Bowl win and a stunning 10-3 record.
Fuente got a raise, the schools wants to improve the facilities and is even in the gossip about the BIG12 expansion.
I think the Tigers fans are happy for now.
This season, they will have to face a probably improving Houston team and a strong newcomer in Navy inside the new founded divisions.
They have an easy non conference schedule, with Missouri State (FCS), Kansas (which is the weakest BIG12 team), Bowling Green and Ole Miss (OK, that will hurt).
3 wins are possible here.
The teams from the east are led by Cincinnati, but then come only South Florida and Temple, but both are on the road.
Tricky.
Inside the division, they have Navy at home and Houston on the road, so I expect them to drop at least 1 of those games.
In total, the team might be able to get near the last seasons results.
I doubt it. I think they will drop a game more than last season and will fall to 3rd in the division.

Navy Midshipmen
The new kids on the block of the American Athletic.
They were independent from 1978 to last season and did now join the conference and are one of the better teams in college football.
They are not tier 1 level, regular national championship contender material, but Ken Niumatalolo did many things right in the past and in his 9th season with the team, he had so far a 57â€"35 record and 7 bowl games (3 wins).
The team did not break the final top 25 ranking in his reign, but that's fine, since the academies do have to play under different circumstances and the program was in much worse state in the 90s.
Because of the Midshipmen the conference got split in 2 divisions and the west got the instant contender dealt to.
Instant contender?
Yes, get used to the idea, that Navy has all the tools to win the division.
Their non conference games are all over the season spread, starting with Colgate (FCS), adding Air Force beginning of October, playing the Notre Dame Rivalry game a week later and finishing the season with the traditional Army game AFTER a potential championship game.
This game is by the way a big object of discussion for the playoff committee, since all other teams do finish their season a week earlier.
Last season the playoff participants were named right after that weekend.
But in theory, the outcome of the Navy-Army-game could result in different standings, bowls and so on.
So there are discussions how to handle that.
Until now, the solution is, to evaluate the outcome of the Navy-Army-game and if it's relevant, the announcements of the committee will be held back until the game is played.
Nice, but honestly, I'm not satisfied completely.
The main reason for that is, the game is always relevant, maybe not for the playoffs and the big bowls, but for other bowls as well.
Anyway, from all these games, it looks like Navy could win 2 to 3 and even the Notre Dame game is not out of reach. The Irish did not lose that game since Kellys 2nd season with the Irish, but you never know about injuries and so on.
Still, I would pick Notre Dame here.
From the east the team gets East Carolina, UConn and South Florida, which is almost the softest inner conference schedule you can get.
On top of that, the tougher 2 games, so NOT UConn, are at home.
As a mood stopper they got Houston and Memphis on the road in their own division.
So, if you look onto that all, they might go undefeated in the conference, or will drop 1 or 2 against the other contenders.
I think they can do it, so I picked them as division winner.

SMU Mustangs
Last season was a mess for the Mustangs fans.
June Jones, in his 7th season with the team, did quit after 2! games into the season (both losses of cause) and the team did struggle through the whole season, going 1-11, winning only the last game against UConn.
Needless to say, the interims coach was not prolonged and the school got another HC.
Chad Morris was Clemsons OC last season and will probably righten the ship in a few seasons.
A faster track would be surprising, since it was stated by many people that the recruiting under Jones was bad and it just takes time to get the quality of players up again.
So this season will probably be quite sucky again.
Baylor will be a mess, North Texas ar home could be a win, but they could lose it also.
TCU will be another mess and James Madison (FCS) could become the only non conference win this season.
No UConn this season on the schedule, so if they want to beat one of the probably weaker teams, they have to win against Tulane and Tulsa in their own division.
Lucky for them, both are at home.
Will the season be better than last season?
Probably.
Will it be good?
No.
I pick the Mustangs last in the division.

Tulane Green Wave
The best thing with the Tulane team is the nick name, at least the last few seasons.
The last conference title was won 1998, the last winning season was 2013 (7-6 including a bowl loss) and before that in 2002 (8-5 including a bowl win).
That's bad.
The funny thing is, this team was once a member of the SEC. In fact, they were a founding member and even won the conference in the late 40s.
They left 1966.
I ask myself, if some people do pity the guy who made that decision back then?
However, the past few season were a rollercoaster ride under Curtis Johnson.
The move to the AAC last season did not help the team and they finished 3-9.
I'm not saying that he will get fired, but for sure he will feel a bit of heat.
Going from 7-6 to 3-9 is always a bad thing.
Will it get better this season?
Not much.
Duke as season start is not the cupcake game it used to be in the past, in fact the Blue Devils will probably win here, high.
Then they travel to Georgia Tech, which are in discussion for big things this season.
A relieve should then be the Maine (FCS) game, and later they will play Army on the road mid-November.
A record of 2-2 is possible, but needs work.
From the east the team got UCF, Temple and UConn, which is probably a nice mix.
Temple and UConn are totally winnable, even if I would only pick the UConn game as a win.
The last 2 games of the season will probably be the make or break games.
Tulsa and SMU have to be beaten to have at least a small chance for a positive season.
They will need one supposed to be upset, which could be the Temple game.
Overall I think they will fall short a bowl eligible record.

Tulsa Golden Hurricane
Philip Montgomery was brought in from Baylor, where he served as OC the last few seasons.
He is bound to bring back the Hurricanes from the bad seasons they had in the past few years.
The former Tulsa coach Bill Blankenship did win his first 2 season in a big way (8-5 with a bowl loss and 11-3 with a bowl win and conference title), but the last 2 season went into the ground with 3-9 and 2-10.
He was let go then, since losing 2 seasons a row are not common in Tulsa.
Montgomery did great things in Baylor as OC, so the hope is, that he will get the Hurricanes back into the mix of contenders.
With a new conference (the team did join last season), the circumstances are a bit tougher than in the past, but on the other hand, I'm sure he is a different type of coach than the coaches in the past, when the team did normally not hire high flying power 5 coordinators as HC.
The non conference games are not tough, with a nice start against Florida Atlantic, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Louisianaâ€"Monroe on gameday 5.
If things go the right way, 2 to 3 wins are possible. Oklahoma will be too much.
From the east they got UCF, Cincinnati and East Carolina, which is quite hard. They might lose all of those.
In the division, the SMU and the Tulane games are on the road, which might cost the team some wins, if not all.
It's not easy to pick the result of the season.
On one hand, this is Tulsa, under new management, it should be able to win some games.
On the other hand, the turnaround might need a season or 2.
I pick them 5th in the division.

So my TIP is:
Eastern Division
UCF Knights
Cincinnati Bearcats
East Carolina Pirates
South Florida Bulls
Temple University Owls
UConn Huskies

Western Division
Navy Midshipmen
Houston Cougars
Memphis Tigers
Tulane University Green Wave
Tulsa Golden Hurricane
SMU Mustangs

Now a quick overview over the

Independents
Those teams are just grouped together because they did not have a place in one of the regular conferences.
Most are here on purpose.
The specialty of this group is that they don't have conference games by default. They sometimes play against other independent team, but there is no round robin schedule for them to play each team.
They do choose their 12 opponents of the season like any other team in the FBS does with their non conference games.
Negotiations over games in particular years or even game series over several seasons and sometimes decades.

Last season there were 4 teams listed as independents. Now there are 3.
Navy did join the American as planned for this season and does leave Army, Notre Dame and Brigham Young as the last independents.

There are let's say gossip talks that BYU might be on the list for the BIG12 expansion.
All of those talks are speculations, nothing is fix and BYU is far from being a really attractive team for a BIG12 conference, since their scheduling rules and their geographical location would be a big minus on a plus-minus-list.
For this season BYU stays independent.

Teams lost 2015:
Navy

The 3 teams are:
United States Military Academy, or Army Black Knights
University of Notre Dame Fighting Irish
Brigham Young University Cougars

Army Black Knights
I'm still no fan of Army football.
The two other service academies do show that even with different rules than the regular colleges and universities which are fielding football, the teams can compete and can play strong football.
Not on national championship level, but for sure also not as push overs.
Well ... except Army.
Jeff Monken was hired from Georgia Southern when the team was still a FCS team.
He did coach there for 4 seasons, won a division title and a conference title and did win many games more than he lost.
Last season, his 1st with the Knights, they managed to win 4 games with Army, which is more or less the average Army record. (Their last winning season was 2010 with a 7-6 record)
So, things are expected to improve here, but if that really happens .... we will see.
The schedule is quite weak.
With Fordham and Bucknell they have 2 FCS teams on the list, also of cause the 2 service academies Air Force and Navy.
They should be able to win against the FCS teams, but I doubt wins against the 2 military teams.
UConn, Wake Forest, Eastern Michigan and Tulane are no heavy hitters, so they might get a win here or there.
Penn State, Duke, Rice and Rutgers I would put into the very-likely-loss category.
Overall that smells like a 3 to 5 win season.
If they really improve from last season, they could end up with 6+ wins only by winning against the weaker teams.
My Pick is, they will fall short a bowl spot.

Notre Dame Fighting Irish
Notre Dame had their one moment in the BCS-final 2012 and since then the team did fall to second tier team status.
Last season they dropped even out of the ranks.
I'm not sure if Brian Kelly, in his 6th season, is feeling any heat so far, but Notre Dame is not an organization, which likes to lose.
With the money and facilities, there are not many spots in the country with better environment and with that you don't expect 8-5 seasons, even with a bowl win.
This season the team will face many of the usual suspects, but also some new ones.
The season opener against Texas is nice.
Win this and the season gets a nice kick start, lose that and you know the team is in trouble.
Because I don't think Texas is ready for the top level tier teams, so losing against them means, Notre Dame is also not ready.
Virginia and Georgia Tech will be tough, but manageable, lucky for the Irish, the GT game is at home. Otherwise I would have picked the Jackets.
UMass will be a buildup opponent to face Clemson on the road, which I expect them to lose.
Then do come the usual Navy and USC game. This season both at home. I think they will beat Navy, but with USC I'm not sure.
Since I have to make up my mind now, I think USC will be tough and will win a close game.
Temple, Pittsburgh, Wake Forest and Boston College should be wins, if Kelly did improve the team in any way and the final game against Stanford will be fun, but could also be a loss on the road.
A 9-3 season will keep the team out of the playoffs and will avoid ugly discussions which team is more worthy to play in the 4 spots for national championship.
If they manage to win all games, the committee will have to make a tough decision.
With this schedule, Notre Dame should be considered as one of the weaker teams.
By the way: No Michigan, Michigan State or Purdue games, which is based on several things. The most notable is, that Notre Dame did join the ACC in all spots but football and did agree to play 5 ACC teams every season.
To play all those games AND all rivalries is nearly impossible, so the games were set on hiatus.
I'm sure they will bring back those games occasionally, but I doubt a regular series as they had the last few seasons.

Brigham Young Cougars
There are many talks about the Cougars program and how they would be the juiciest addition to the BIG12, since the talk over a BIG12 expansion to 12 was fueled once again.
I still don't buy this.
Not that BYU wouldn't join, pending a nice share of the BIG12 money, but I can't get my head around the big cons in that deal.
The BIG12 would then almost spread from west coast to east coast.
True, they could effort it, all of them, but the traveling miles would be huge.
I still think BYU is best off as independent, as long as the PAC12is not calling.
I doubt a return to the MWC.
Bronco Mendenhall did take over in 2005 and since then he had some success, but the last 3 season all had a 8-5 record and the team lost 2 Bowls in a row.
I don't think he feels some heat under his seat, but for sure the ambitions are bigger than 8 wins per season.
Last season did the team lose too many games against supposed to be weaker teams.
Utah State? Nevada? Memphis? BYU should have won those games, but did not.
This season?
They start with an away game against Nebraska, which can easily be a loss.
Next comes Boise State, which are probably hot, so they might lose here, too.
UCLA, a Michigan team in rebuilding mode under a star coach and then UConn.
If things go really a bad way, they will win their first game against the Huskies.
East Carolina, Cincinnati, Wagner (FCS) and San Jose State will add some wins to the record, until they play Missouri.
The season will close with Fresno State and rivalry game against Utah State on the road.
Honestly, I don't see them winning more than 8, more likely 6 to 7 games, unless the team did build up.
Yes, they have a good QB, so maybe they can win some of the bigger games, but he comes back from a broken leg, so who knows how this will turn out.
My pick is a Bowl season with another sub 10 win season, more likely at the level of last season, including a bowl.

So my TIP is (with no real conference here in place, so only based on wins and losses):

Navy Midshipmen
Notre Dame Fighting Irish
Brigham Young Cougars
Army Black Knights

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