The American Athletic Conference (AAC) was better than almost anyone expected in 2015. The conference went a respectable 10-13 against opponents from the Power 5 conferences. Their 43.5 win percentage was better than that of both the ACC (9-13) and Pac-12 (6-9).
The winners of the AAC were Houston, who had a dream first season under new head coach Tom Herman. The Cougars opened 10-0 before a shocking 17-20 loss at UConn. They bounced back with a 52-31 win over Navy to secure the East and then beat Temple 24-13 in the title game.
Houston received the Group of 5 Bowl bid and got to play Florida State in the Peach Bowl. They went on to defeat the Seminoles 38-24 and finished the year ranked No. 8 in the country.
The Cougars weren’t the only double-digit win team out of the American. Navy went 11-2 and Temple finished at 10-4. Memphis just missed out on the 10-win mark, going 9-4, but did have that big win over Ole Miss.
Looking ahead to the 2016 campaign, the AAC could once again make some noise in the playoff talk. I’ve studied up on all 12 teams and this is how I see the conference playing out this year.
AAC West Predictions
Last year it was a clear three-team race for the top spot in the West with Houston, Navy and Memphis. That doesn’t figure to be the case this season. The Cougars are the overwhelming favorite and rightfully so.
While Houston only returns 11 starters, they get back star quarterback Greg Ward. The senior signal caller led the team in both passing and rushing last year. As long as he stays healthy, the offense is going to come very close to last year’s numbers (40.4 ppg and 484 ypg).
Navy and Memphis can’t be counted out of the West race, both have some big obstacles to overcome. The Midshipmen have just 8 starters back and have to replace quarterback Keenan Reynolds. Memphis also loses their star signal caller in Paxton Lynch, who as a first round draft pick.
After the top three teams, there’s a decent drop-off. The best of the bottom three figures to be Tulsa. The Golden Hurricane get back 14 starters and will be explosive on offense. However, they do have to play the top 3 teams in the West on the road and draw Cincinnati out of the East.
That leaves SMU and Tulane. The Mustangs went just 2-10 last year, but could end up causing some headaches for the top teams. SMU will be in the second year under head coach Chad Morris. They also have 16 starters returning from last season and showed some signs of taking that next step. The problem for the Mustangs is the schedule. Their 4 conference home games are against Houston, Memphis, USF and Navy. They also draw Baylor and TCU in non-conference play.
Tulane is excited about the future under new head coach Willie Fritz, but figure to struggle in year one. They will be transitioning to the spread option offense Fritz ran at Georgia Southern.
AAC East Predictions
Going into last season, most thought Cincinnati would run away with the East. That didn’t happen, as the Bearcats went just 4-4 in league play.
Temple took control of the division and would win the East with a record of 7-1. Their lone loss came against USF, who was a major surprise in the AAC. After a 1-3 start, the Bulls went 7-1 over their last 8 and finished 6-2 in league play.
All signs point to these three teams fighting it out for the top spot. Though, I actually think Cincinnati and USF are the clear 1-2 in the division. In fact, I have them both going 7-1, with the Bearcats winning the head-to-head matchup.
I believe Cincinnati is flying under the radar. The Bearcats are going to put up a lot of points with the talent they have at quarterback. The defense should also be much improved with 8 starters coming back.
USF is also loaded. The Bulls have 14 starters returning, including their big three on offense. The trio consisting of quarterback Quinton Flowers, running back Marlon Mack and wide out Rodney Adams. My big concern is they have to play Cincinnati on the road one week after hosting Florida State. USF also has difficult road games at Memphis and Temple.
The Owls can’t be counted out. Temple gets both the Bearcats and Bulls at home, plus avoid having to play Houston. While they have 12 starters back, they are not nearly as experienced. I worry how the defense will respond to the loss of star linebacker Tyler Matakevich.
My big sleeper in the East is Connecticut. Head coach Bob Diaco has the program trending in the right direction and will have 16 starters back. That includes 10 on the offensive side of the ball. They went 4-4 in the AAC last year, scoring just 19.0 ppg in conference play. If the offense can get going, this team could generate some big upsets.
Hard to get excited about the other two teams in East Carolina and UCF. Both will be in the first year under new head coaches. While I have them both going 2-6, I like UCF a little more. The Knights have a league-best 17 returning starters. Keep in mind they had gone 31-9 the previous three seasons, before last year’s 0-12 finish.