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American Decline: Examining the Bottom of the AAC

Which AAC cellar-dwellers are most likely to bounce back this season?

Mark L. Baer-USA TODAY Sports

For a conference widely regarded as the strongest of the Group of Five (though the Mountain West likely would've won that title in 2014), the American Athletic Conference was absolutely dreadful at the bottom of the standings last season. Four teams finished 117th or lower in F/+, which is remarkably bad when you remember that a fair portion this conference was granted an automatic BCS bid just a couple of seasons ago. The oddest part of all this is that this not-so-fearsome foursome all had a pretty decent recent histories before bottoming out over the past couple of seasons. Let's take a look at how they fell so far, and which teams have the best chance of bouncing back in 2015.

Tulsa Golden Hurricane

2012 record, F/+: 11-3, 43rd
2013 record, F/+: 3-9, 94th
2014 record, F/+: 2-10, 117th

The Golden Hurricane appeared to have something really good going-- Bill Blankenship had a very nice first two seasons, plus the program would be making a step up from Conference USA to the AAC in the near future, and they'd really been the class of the conference over the last few seasons. But when Todd Graham's players graduated, Blankenship's lack of recruiting success caught up to him. Tulsa plummeted to 3-9 in their last season in C-USA, and in a pivotal year for Blankenship's future, couldn't overcome a horrible defense and won just two games all season.

To Tulsa's credit, they acted swiftly. Blankenship was fired in the offseason and replaced with former Baylor offensive coordinator Phillip Montgomery, who's familiar with the area and wants to bring a up-tempo spread offense to the Hurricane.

It's actually not difficult at all to see Tulsa being relatively decent in 2015. They were the best of the bottom four AAC teams (we're going by F/+ here, not the standings, because Tulane was a significant amount better than these four despite only going 2-6) and have the pieces to run the offense Montgomery wants to run. The Hurricane return almost their entire offense, including a competent quarterback in Dane Evans who threw for over 3,000 yards last season, and one of the conference's best wideouts in Keevan Lucas. The defense will likely still be pretty bad, but Tulsa's got more than enough firepower to win their fair share of shootouts. Six wins are definitely on the table here.

SMU Mustangs

2012 record, F/+: 7-6, 63rd
2013 record, F/+: 5-7, 84th
2014 record, F/+: 1-11, 127th

The fall was quick and painful for SMU. June Jones never quite lived up to his potential in Dallas, but he turned a pretty bad program into a pretty decent one, and expectations were still fairly high that the Mustangs could compete in the AAC in his tenure, even after a mediocre 5-7 record in 2013.

Somehow, his team seemed to quit on him before they even got out of the gate. SMU wasn't just the worst team in the country over the first half of the season, they were one of the worst teams of the BCS era, and Jones resigned just nine days into the season. Interim coach Tom Mason was able to right the ship from 'entirely dead' to 'mostly dead,' and to the Mustangs' credit they picked up their lone win in their season finale against UConn... but goodness, this team was just awful.

The Mustangs were far, far too bad for this to be anything but a multi-year rebuilding project, but SMU ponied up (ha!) and pulled in one of the most sought-after coaches of the past few years, Clemson offensive coordinator Chad Morris. Morris is an offensive wizard who's got a couple interesting pieces on offense (quarterback Matt Davis is a former four-star recruit and a fantastic runner, and most of the offense returns around him) and an absolute black hole on defense. Morris looks like a great hire and can definitely get this team on the right path in a couple seasons, but the improvement will likely be modest in 2015.

USF Bulls

2012 record, F/+: 3-9, 71st
2013 record, F/+: 2-10, 99th
2014 record, F/+: 4-8, 123rd

Skip Holtz left the Bulls in an absolute ditch after going 3-9 and losing his job in 2012, so USF brought in Willie Taggart, who had recently pulled an impressive turnaround at Western Kentucky. Thus far, Taggart has proceeded to drive the Bulls further into said ditch, and he enters his third season on a very, very hot seat. On paper, the Bulls improved to 4-8 in 2014 and defeated each of the other teams on this list, but it was a bit of fool's gold: USF didn't beat a team higher than 117th in F/+, and won their three conference games by an average of four points.

There are definitely reasons why the Bulls could improve. They're recruiting the best of any program in the conference, and Taggart is switching to a more personnel-friendly spread offense. But it seems more likely that the Bulls are too far down the power-I rabbit hole now, and it would be a pretty big surprise if they improved much in 2015, given that Taggart's recruits haven't made much of an impact yet. But there are certainly enough pieces and enough talent on this team that success in 2016 under a new scheme is possible.

UConn Huskies

2012 record, F/+: 5-7, 75th
2013 record, F/+: 3-9, 93rd
2014 record, F/+: 2-10, 119th

No one really knew what UConn was thinking when they hired Paul Pasqualoni to replace uber-successful Randy Edsall (who took the Huskies to a BCS bowl in 2010!)... and years later, no one really knows what they were thinking. The Huskies were consistently mediocre under Pasqualoni and finally bottomed out in 2013, prompting his firing.

Enter Bob Diaco, who spent most of 2014 clearing out the mess that Pasqualoni left. The Huskies are probably the biggest enigma on the list, as we've seen flashes of competency (a victory over UCF, a close loss to Boise State), and all-out inability to play football (losing to SMU). There's no way to form a definitive opinion on Diaco yet-- this season will likely be very telling one way or the other-- but the safe bet is that UConn won't approach six wins in 2015 either way, though the future may be perfectly bright.