Before every college football season, there are projections, prognostications and opinions, and inevitably, most are wrong. Whether those inaccuracies come because of bias, injury or something that’s just downright weird, the reason college football is so endearing is the fundamental and romantic concept that anything can happen on a Saturday in the fall — even for our team.
With that in mind, we turn to the computer — the soulless, loveless computer — to guide us into the 2014 college football season. Through a series of algorithms, a pile of analysis and plenty of voodoo, the fine folks at PredictionMachine.com have predicted the future, and in the American Athletic Conference, it looks like this (rounded projected record in parentheses):
Houston Cougars (9-3, Birmingham Bowl)
Man says: It was supposed to be a rebuilding year for the Cougs in 2013, but they were in the thick of things throughout the year, thanks to the emergence of freshman quarterback John O’Korn. Houston returns the top offense in the AAC and an underrated defense, making them the clear-cut favorite to win the league. They have an advantageous schedule as well — the Cougs should go undefeated in the non-con games and cruise through the early AAC schedule. The Cougs end the regular season with two games on the road, at SMU and at Cincinnati, which could decide if they’re the class of the league, and perhaps the Group of Five.
UCF Knights (9-3 or 8-4, Miami Beach Bowl)
Man says: To the causal fan, UCF’s magical 2013 season was the Blake Bortles and Storm Johnson Show, but the Knights were far more than that. Bortles and Johnson are now gone, but a stellar defense returns, led by linebacker Terrance Plummer. But for a team that narrowly escaped a second loss multiple times last season, is a strong defense enough? Probably not. This squad could easily start 1-3 on the year, with games vs. Penn State (in Ireland), at Missouri, and at Houston to start the year. That said, this is a good squad who might take some lumps, but will still be in the top class of the league.
Cincinnati Bearcats (9-3 or 8-4, Armed Forces Bowl)
Man says: It’s difficult to say what to expect from the Bearcats, who have an advantageous (though strange) schedule, a strong returning defense, and an offense that could be as good as any in the AAC (as soon as they figure out if Gunner Kiel or Munchie Legaux is starting at quarterback). The Bearcats will have the latest start in college football — not starting play until Sept 12 (seriously), and they have tough non-con schedule, featuring games at Ohio State and Miami. But the two toughest AAC games — vs. ECU and Houston — will be played at home. The Bearcats won’t contend for the College Football Playoff, but they could end up winning the AAC.
East Carolina Pirates (8-4, Beef O'Brady's Bowl)
Man says: The new guys have one of the nation’s best offenses, and if they have success in 2014, they’re going to throw for it. The Pirates are led by super-dark-horse Heisman candidate Shane Carden at quarterback and stud receiver Justin Hardy. If fantasy college football is your thing, you want both of those guys on your team. But in real football, they’ll have to win by shootout, because there are nothing but questions on defense. Add in a tough schedule (at South Carolina, at Virginia Tech, vs. North Carolina, at Cincinnati) and a shock season looks unlikely. But it will be fun to watch.
Connecticut Huskies (6-6, Military Bowl)
Man says: Sounds right. They’re not terrible, but they’re not likely to win the league either with a new coach and a necessary culture change. They’ll teeter on bowl eligibility all season, likely missing out — never really inspiring or discouraging.
Temple Owls (5-7)
Man says: It’s hard to agree with this projection, seeing as Temple is reshuffling much of their depth chart ahead of the 2014 season. That said, there’s a great deal of parity at the bottom of the league, and the Owls could find success behind quarterback PJ Walker, who stood out at the end of the 2013 season, almost knocking off UCF.
South Florida Bulls (5-7)
Man says: The rebuild continues, and while the roster is stocked with Florida talent, coach Willie Taggart is yet to put together a team capable of competing with the top teams in the AAC. USF has a commendable schedule with early games vs. Maryland, NC State and at Wisconsin, and if the Bulls can compete in those games, momentum could change the paradigm — but with those three likely losses and the majority of the winnable conference games coming on the road, bowl eligibility looks like a tall task in 2014.
Memphis Tigers (4-8 or 5-7)
Man says: This could well be the shock team in the AAC and perhaps even the nation. Coach Justin Fuente has done a fantastic job in bringing momentum to a dormant program. Learn the name now, because he’ll be coaching a Power Five program next season. The Tigers have a strong and experienced defensive line, led by Martin Ifedi, and a pragmatic offense. Avoiding UCF and ECU in conference play is another big boost. Bowl eligibility and an upset down the stretch should be the expectation for this team.
Tulane Green Wave (4-8)
Man says: The Green Wave was bowl eligible in Conference USA, but in a deep and wide-open American, Curtis Johnson’s team has its work cut out for it. Playing the first game at the school’s new on-campus stadium could spark a win over an enigmatic Georgia Tech in Week Two, but without a standout unit to count on and a terribly young linebacker core, the Green Wave likely won’t progress in 2014.
Tulsa Golden Hurricane (4-8)
Man says: Last year was a nightmare for Tulsa, a team that was as consistent as any mid-major in the country, year-in, year-out. Moving up to the AAC could create difficulties for a squad that limped to a 3-9 season in 2013, but I think it will be the challenge that pulls the program back to respectability. There’s nothing particularly special about this Tulsa squad, at least compared to its new counterparts, but it returns a strong and exceptionally coached defense, and that will likely be enough to reach a bowl in 2014.
Southern Methodist Mustangs (4-8)
Man says: A June Jones team can’t have back-to-back bad seasons, right? Well, that’s going to be put to the test in 2014. The Mustangs are inexperienced and face a hellacious schedule — but they also have one of the nation’s top offensive minds at the helm, making SMU is the AAC’s biggest wildcard. A bowl game might be a tall task, but some upsets down the stretch certainly aren’t.