No conference epitomizes conference realignment and its effects on the collegiate landscape more than the American Athletic Conference, formerly known as the Big East.
Off the field, it has been a bit of a nightmare for the former Big East. Syracuse and Pittsburgh are now in the ACC, and Louisville will be joining them next year. Rutgers bolted to the Big 10, and Notre Dame–a non-football member–is taking its other sports to the ACC as well. Boise State and San Diego State had second thoughts and opted to stay in the Mountain West.
Another blow came when the non-football members of the league were fed up with football taking such a priority and split off to form their own conference, taking the Big East name with them.
Luckily, the conference managed to find some success on the field. Half the teams in the conference posted at least eight wins, including two teams with double-digit wins. Cincinnati went 10-3 with a victory over Virginia Tech, but the real highlight of the season came from Louisville. The Cardinals went 11-2 behind quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, a 2013 Heisman favorite, and pummeled mighty Florida 33-23 in the Sugar Bowl.
With the return of Bridgewater and a favorable schedule, Louisville is setting its sights high. Cardinal fans aren’t just hoping for another BCS berth, they want the football team to follow in the steps of the men’s basketball team and bring home a national championship. Papa John’s for everyone!
Cream of the Crop
Louisville, Cincinnati, Rutgers
Louisville fans could not have hoped for a better year than 2012. The football team went 11-2, earned a BCS berth, and throttled SEC heavyweight Florida, setting the state for a top-ten ranking and potential national championship run. Speaking of championships, the women’s basketball team made the championship game while the men’s team won it all. What more could you ask for?
As a result, expectations are sky high for Charlie Strong’s squad entering the 2013 season. Plenty of starters and key backups return, the most important being quarterback Teddy Bridgewater. The junior is a strong Heisman favorite after shredding opposing defenses last year to the tune of 3,718 yards with 27 touchdowns against 8 interceptions. Bridgewater was deadly accurate, too, completing 68.5 percent of his throws. He won’t have to do it alone, though, as Louisville added an intriguing piece at running back. Michael Dyer was the championship game MVP for Auburn’s national title team in 2010 but has had some issues and been forced to leave both Auburn and Arkansas State. If he can get his act together and stay on the field, he’ll give the Cardinal offense a proven, athletic option at tailback.
Louisville’s defense has steadily improved over the course of Strong’s tenure, and that trend should continue in 2013 as plenty of experienced players return. The line needs to get stronger against the run and in generating a pass rush, but the linebackers and secondary are experienced and ready to hold their own.
The schedule also favors the Cardinals quite nicely. An experienced and battle-tested Ohio squad offers a potential stumbling block to start the season, but Louisville should still win that game easily. Kentucky, Eastern Kentucky, and FIU round out the non-conference games, and the Cardinals get Rutgers, Central Florida, and Houston at home. The biggest game is the finale at Cincinnati, and that will likely decide the conference.
A national title likely won’t happen–even if Louisville runs the table, too much has to happen for them to climb into the top two of the BCS rankings–but a double-digit win total, league title, and BCS bowl are definitely attainable.
The Bearcats may be the most invisible and underrated team of the past several years. Brian Kelly took the Bearcats to two BCS bowls and nearly made the national title game in 2009 before leaving for
Notre Dame. Successor Butch Jones maintained the momentum–Cincinnati has earned a share of the past two Big East titles–yet chose to leave the school to take the Tennessee job. Despite all the success the Bearcats have had on the field, coaches don’t want to stick around.
Perhaps Cincinnati has found the right man this time. Instead of hiring an up-and-comer, the school turned to an old veteran and hired former Auburn and Texas Tech coach Tommy
Tuberville. Tuberville’s background is defense, and he’ll have to put his experience to good use to rebuild a defense that struggled at times last year. Cincinnati must replace most of its defensive line, but the linebacking corps ought to be one of the better units in the league.
The offense is in good hands, though. Between seniors Munchie Legaux and Brendon Kay, Cincinnati has two experienced and talented quarterbacks to run the offense. Each ran for at least 360 yards and passed for over 1,200 yards with at least 10 touchdown passes. Running back Ralph David Abernathy IV returns and is dangerous every time he touches the ball, whether it’s out of the backfield, catching passes, or returning kicks. The offense will have to replace the production of star tight end Travis Kelce (722 yards receiving) and running back George Winn (1,334 rushing yards) but can rely on steady senior wideout Anthony McClung and five returning starters on the offensive line.
Cincinnati is the biggest threat to Louisville in the AAC, and if everything holds to form, their matchup on December 5 should be a dandy. Cincinnati gets Purdue, Illinois, and Miami (OH) out-of-conference should win every game prior to that matchup with the Cardinals. A road game at Rutgers in mid-November will be a challenge, but the Bearcats ought to be 10-1 or 11-0 going into their showdown with Louisville. Tuberville has a history of taking down a highly ranked opponent every year, so don’t be surprised if he does it again and rains on Louisville’s farewell party.
Rutgers Scarlet Knights
Man, we may as call this section the “Farewell Tour” instead of the “Cream of the Crop” as both Louisville and Rutgers are playing their final season in the league before moving on. Louisville will be joining the ACC while Rutgers heads to the Big Ten.
The Scarlet Knights would like to enter their new environs with some momentum, and it will be up to a young team to build off of last year’s 9-4 campaign. Coach Kyle Flood has done a phenomenal job of recruiting talent to New Jersey, but he must get all that potential to live up to the hype.
To say Rutgers struggled on offense would be an understatement. The Scarlet Knights couldn’t establish a consistent running game and wasn’t particularly effective in the passing game. It’ll be up to new offensive coordinator Ron Prince to instill some measure of competency in this unit. Prince does inherit an experienced quarterback in Gary Nova, but the junior must cut down on his interceptions (16 in 2012) and become more accurate (57 percent completion percentage). The team must replace departed 1,000-yard rusher Jawan Jamison, but leading candidate Savon Huggins only averaged 3.4 yards a carry last year. Junior wide receiver Brandon Coleman is a big-play threat at wide receiver, but the rest of the group is untested.
Rutgers’ identity under former coach Greg Schiano and now Flood has been that of a tough, physical defense, and last year’s unit was no exception. The Knights were fourth in the nation in points allowed, yielding only 14.2 points a game. They’ll be hard-pressed to repeat that performance in 2013 after losing a significant number of playmakers. Star linebacker Khaseem Greene is gone, and three starters on the defensive line must be replaced. The secondary is even worse shape as the top three cornerbacks as well as the top three safeties are all gone. Flood has compiled plenty of prized recruits, but they are young and green. The ability is there, but it’s going to take time for them to gel into a cohesive, dominant unit.
It is precisely that young but unproven talent that makes Rutgers so hard to predict. If the new guys step right in and don’t miss a beat, and if the offense improves to at least a passable unit, then Rutgers could be in the mix for the conference title. If not, they could struggle to make a bowl game. Non-conference matchups against a tough Fresno State team and Arkansas are obstacles, and the Scarlet Knights have to travel to Louisville and Central Florida. Still, Rutgers has become one of the better programs in the conference, and the talent Flood has stockpiled is impressive. Rutgers wins seven or eight games, and 2013 serves as a nice stepping stone for all the young guys before heading to the Big Ten.
Middle of the Pack
Central Florida, Houston, USF
Central Florida Golden Knights
Central Florida has been one of the better teams in Conference USA for awhile now, and the Golden Knights are looking to prove themselves against a step up in competition. The offense returns quite a few starters, but the defense has some production it needs to replace.
Tough quarterback Blake Bortles is back after throwing for 3,000 yards for 25 touchdowns and 7 interceptions in 2012. The offense loses stud running back Latavius Murray, but Miami transfer Storm Johnson has plenty of potential and should be the featured back. Most of the receivers return, as do three starters on the offensive line. If Johnson can nail down the running back job, this offense should be pretty good.
The defense, long a strength for Central Florida, will likely suffer a regression this season. The unit was vulnerable against the run last year and loses its top three defensive ends and will be really green at tackle. The secondary has a few experienced players but will have to rely on a lot of untested guys.
Penn State and South Carolina will be tough non-conference tests for the Golden Knights. A talented offense offsets a rebuilding defense, but this is one of the better programs in the AAC. Figure 7-9 wins for the Golden Knights.
Houston is the most high-profile team to join the AAC in 2013. The Cougars were one of the best mid-major teams in the country for most of the past few years. Art Briles churned out yards and wins before leaving to rebuild Baylor, and he was replaced by Kevin Sumlin. Behind record-setting quarterback Case Keenum, Sumlin’s Houston teams lit up scoreboards and tore apart defenses, nearly making a BCS bowl in 2011. Sumlin has since left to become the head coach at Texas A&M, and isn’t doing too shabby.
The first year of the post-Sumlin era was pretty rocky. The Cougars lost their first three games, won their next three to get to 3-3, then were doomed by a late-season three-game slide. Head coach Tony Levine needs to improve the consistency of his team. Quarterback David Piland is back, but like the rest of this team, he was up-and-down. Highly-touted freshman John O’Korn is waiting in the wings if Piland falters, and as if that weren’t pressure enough, Piland lost his best offensive weapon when running back Charles Sims transferred to West Virginia. The receiving corps is young and full of potential–Deontay Greenberry and Markeith Ambles were both blue-chip recruits–but is lacking in experience.
Houston needs all those highly-touted recruits to play up to form quickly because the defense has some hills to fill. Two of the three starting linebackers are gone, as are six defensive linemen. The good news is that the secondary is solid, even after losing first-round pick D.J. Hayden. Of course, that won’t matter if the line can’t stop the run or put pressure on the quarterback.
An easy schedule means the Cougars will certainly go bowling this year and could win close to ten games. Houston’s not ready to challenge the top of its new league yet, but watch out for this team in 2014 and 2015.
South Florida Bulls
Willie Taggart took Western Kentucky to its first-ever bowl game, and his reward is turning around a South Florida program that has failed to live up to its potential for a few years now. He’ll have to do it without quarterback B.J. Daniels, who finally graduated after seemingly being the face of the program for a decade. Daniels was hurt last year, and his backups did nothing to create optimism for this season. Finding a competent quarterback will be priority number one for Taggart and the South Florida offense. Priority number two will be finding a starting tailback as the leading returning rusher had only 51 carries in 2012.
The news is much better on the other side of the line of scrimmage as a defense that was solid a year ago returns plenty of experience. The defensive line is both stout and deep, and while the linebackers lose two starters, the replacements are experienced. The biggest question resides in an inexperienced secondary. The top two safeties return, but the cornerbacks are all unproven.
Aside from Louisville and Cincinnati, parity reigns in the AAC. South Florida has a friendly schedule–Michigan State is a tough game, but Miami is beatable, and the Bulls get Louisville at home–so if the secondary gels and the offensive backfield comes together, South Florida could enjoy a really nice season. Of course, those are big ifs, and with a new coaching staff and major questions on offense, 6-8 wins is more realistic.
Bottom of the Barrel
UConn, SMU, Memphis, Temple
Connecticut was a weird team in 2012. Solid on defense but horrid on offense, the Huskies lost at home to Temple yet somehow beat Louisville on the road. Remember that awesome trick-shot football video from a couple years ago? The guy in that clip was UConn quarterback Johnny McEntee, and apparently being able to hit a trashcan from the upper deck doesn’t translate to the field because McEntee completed only 10-of-25 passes last year and couldn’t beat out Chandler Whitmer for the starting job despite the latter throwing 16 interceptions and only 9 touchdowns.
Quarterback woes certainly help explain the ineptitude of the offense, but they weren’t the only problem. Whoever was behind center didn’t get much help from a running game that failed to produce a single back who averaged at least 4.0 yards per carry. Receiver Geremy Davis and Shakim Phillips are the only experienced receivers, and the tight ends are untested.
The situation is much brighter on defense. UConn’s defense was pretty good a year ago and has been the strength of the program for a number of years. There are concerns–both starting corners, two starting linebackers, and the top two defensive linemen all need to be replaced–but UConn’s talent pool on defense is much, much better than that on offense.
A non-conference game against Michigan will be tough, and Buffalo’s defense offers a sizable challenge to the Huskies’ anemic offense, but the potential for six wins and a bowl game is there. Of course, quite a few of those games could go the other way and leave the Huskies on the outside looking in. Whatever happens, it won’t be pretty to watch.
Southern Methodist Mustangs
June Jones has done it again, engineering another solid turnaround of a previously woebegone program. After getting hammered with the death penalty by the NCAA , SMU didn’t make a bowl game for 25 years until Jones arrived. SMU has now gone to a bowl game for four straight years, but Jones will have his work cut out for him if he wants to extend that streak to a fifth year.
One thing that is certain is that SMU will throw the ball. A lot. And then they’ll throw some more. Jones, a devoted disciple of the Run’N’Shoot offense, brought in Hal Mumme, the architect of the Air Raid offense utilized by coaches such as Mike Leach and Dana Holgorsen. Quarterback Garrett Gilbert returns for his senior season. He has failed to live up to the massive hype he had at Texas, but having an experienced quarterback is always a good thing, especially when you have to replace a 1,000-yard rusher and three starters on the offensive line.
The defense needs extensive rebuilding. The top four defensive linemen and two of the top for linebackers are gone, and their replacements are unproven. SMU fans can take comfort in the fact that the secondary is both experienced and skilled.
With all the rebuilding that needs to be done, there is no way SMU can survive a schedule that includes Texas Tech, Texas A&M, and TCU as non-conference games. The Mustangs just have too many questions to think all the breaks will go their way and will fall short of a bowl game by a game or two.
Memphis football has pretty much been a laughing stock in recent years, and the inclusion of the school into a BCS conference caused some outrage because the Tigers hadn’t done anything on the field to prove they deserved it (the basketball team is pretty good, though). From 2009-2011, Memphis went 5-31.
Times may be changing, however, as the team showed some promise under first-year head coach Justin Fuente. The former TCU offensive coordinator guided the Tigers to a 4-8 finish in 2012; that may not seem like much, but anytime you can surpass your win total from the previous three years in just one season, it’s a good thing.
Jacob Karam returns at quarterback for his senior season, and while he didn’t put up many yards (1,895), he did take care of the ball (14 touchdowns, only 3 interceptions). The offense loses receiver Marcus Rucker but returns Tevin Jones, Keiwone Malone, and a pair of effective tight ends in Alan Cross and Jesse Milleson. The improvement in the passing game will help take some of the burden off a running game that is still trying to find its legs, no pun intended.
Memphis steadily improved on defense throughout the season, and with plenty of returning players along the line and at linebacker, this unit should continue to get better and will be the strength of the team. The secondary is thin, which is a concern, but the hope is that the deep and experienced line can provide a pass rush to make things easier for the corners and safeties.
There is still plenty of work to be done, especially on offense, but at least there is hope in Memphis. The Tigers aren’t quite ready for a bowl game just yet, but they’re headed in the right direction.
Poor Temple. After Al Golden revived the Owls only to leave for the sunnier climes of Miami, the school turned to Steve Addazio. He led the Owls to one of their best seasons ever in 2011 but bolted after last season to take over Boston College. Former Temple assistant Matt Rhule now has the task of righting the ship and getting the Owls back to where they were at the beginning of the decade.
On offense, the Owls boast an experienced offensive line that returns five players with starting experience. Temple has questions in the backfield; leading rusher Montel Harris and top backup Matt Brown are gone, and quarterback Chris Coyer has switched positions. The only experienced quarterback, senior Clinton Granger, threw just 55 passes last season. Temple was awful at throwing the football a year ago and must improve in that area to get some big plays and take the pressure off the run game.
The defense ought to be in better shape after playing a plethora of young and untested players a year ago. With a year of experience under their belts, those guys should show some improvement.
This is still a really young team, and while the schedule isn’t daunting, it’s not easy, either. Rhule has things headed in the right direction in terms of recruiting, but having to find a quarterback and replace your most effective offensive weapons is never a recipe for success. A bowl game is possible, but 4-5 wins is more likely. Temple is a team to keep an eye on for the future, though.
I really was tempted to go with Cincinnati here; I’ve been high on the Bearcats for years, and the Big East/AAC preseason favorites always seem to stumble somewhere along the way. The Bearcats are experienced and have playmakers of their own, and of all the teams in the AAC, they’re they one team that can go toe-to-toe with the Cardinals on both sides of the ball. Plus, the game is in Cincinnati, and Tommy Tuberville has a penchant for pulling off a huge upset at least once a year. A Cincinnati victory would not be a surprise at all.
Still, I have a feeling that Louisville isn’t as susceptible as people think. Sure, they are probably overrated because of their impressive victory over Florida, but this is still a good team. The offense is one of the best in the country, and not only is Bridgewater the best player in the league, he might be the best player in the country. Charlie Strong is a tremendous coach and has done a phenomenal job in building this program, and his steady demeanor will keep his team focused and on-track. It’ll be a helluva finish, but Louisville wins the crown.