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Which former CUSA team is best poised for AAC success in 2023?

Charlotte, FAU, North Texas, Rice, UAB, and UTSA all transition to a new league after many battles as CUSA opponents through the years.

NCAA Football: Cure Bowl-Troy at Texas at San Antonio Jeremy Reper-USA TODAY Sports

On July 1, the 11-team American Athletic Conference subtracts three of its members and adds six. Overall the conference expands to 14, matching the ACC, Big 12, Big Ten, and SEC as the largest conferences for the 2023 football season.

Nearly half of the AAC will be comprised of former CUSA newcomers. Charlotte, Florida Atlantic, North Texas, Rice, UAB, and UTSA are among the six institutions making the transition, a move which has been in the works since October 2021.

But how will these teams fare in year one as AAC members? When the AAC was founded from the remnants of the Big East in 2013, UCF captured the conference title in its inaugural season, fresh off a transition from the CUSA. Ten years later, could any of the six CUSA additions see similar success?

Among the six rising AAC members, only two retains their head coaches from the 2022 season — Rice and UTSA. Thus, the majority of these programs are not only transitioning conferences, but breaking in a new era from a personnel standpoint as well. With reigning champion Tulane returning plenty of firepower, mixed in with lofty expectations for perennial standouts Memphis and SMU, a conference title might not be the realistic expectation for the majority of the six teams. But there is at least one bona fide contender among the newcomers.

Below is a breakdown of each new AAC team’s roster, strengths, weaknesses, and expectations for the 2023 season:

Charlotte 49ers

2022 recap: 3-9, 2-6 CUSA. Did not qualify for bowl game.

NCAA Football: Charlotte at South Carolina
Running back Shadrick Byrd is one of the notable incumbent members of Charlotte’s transitioning roster. Byrd rushed for 620 yards and four touchdowns in 2022.
Jeff Blake-USA TODAY Sports

Charlotte’s 2022 season was a disaster as early as Week 0, and it only worsened as the year progressed. Opening the year with a 30-point loss to FAU quickly descended into a 17-point defeat at the hands of an FCS team, and the overall finish was 3-9 — a mark which cost Will Healy his job, three seasons after leading the program to its first-ever bowl. Like many CUSA-to-AAC call-ups, Charlotte is starting fresh with a new head coach in Biff Poggi.

The former Michigan associate head coach walks into an interesting rebuilding project in the Queen City, and his squad is as heavily composed of transfers as any team in the country. More than 50 percent of the projected offensive and defensive two-deep lineups are incoming transfers, and that includes both quarterbacks expected to duel for the job. FCS transfer Jalon Jones played under Poggi at Saint Frances in Maryland, and he’ll compete with Micah Bowens — a former 4-star recruit with stops at Penn State and Oklahoma.

Starting running back Shadrick Byrd is one of the few familiar faces on the offense, and he’ll be surrounded with imported talent such as former Georgia State starting tackle Johnathan Bass, as well as wide receivers Jack Hestera and Jaden Bradley, who saw recurring playing time at Colorado and Pittsburgh, respectively.

Charlotte finished 129th in scoring defense and 128th in total defense a year ago, but the unit experienced enough offseason turnover for the 2022 depth chart to look unrecognizable. Outside linebacker Prince Bemah, the only player to exceed 60 tackles, returns to the lineup, as does strong safety Wayne Jones, the only 49er with multiple interceptions last season. But elsewhere, newcomers are abundant. The front seven is loaded with former Michigan talent as Eyabi Okie and Julius Welschof man the defensive end spots and Nikhai Hill-Green, who registered 50 tackles for the 2021 Big Ten champions, likely earns a starting linebacker nod. The cornerbacks, DeAndre Hollins and Dontae Balfour, both enter Charlotte after stints at North Carolina. The 49er defense doesn’t wield the most experience, but it’s stacked with players from notable programs looking for a greater opportunity to contribute in 2023.

Verdict: Charlotte posted the worst record among the six programs transitioning to the AAC, and it will be no surprise if the 49ers are picked to finish last in the upcoming preseason poll. It’s hard to assess a collection of transfers led by a first-time FBS head coach, but the 49ers could surprise some folks if the team gels together exceptionally well. Year one of the rebuild may come with growing pains, but Poggi could have something special down the road in Charlotte if he continues to master the portal and develop talent.

Florida Atlantic Owls

2022 recap: 5-7, 4-4 CUSA. Did not qualify for bowl game.

Valero Alamo Bowl - Texas v Colorado
First-year head coach Tom Herman has never seen a losing record in six seasons coaching. He has four AP Top 25 finishes and two New Year’s Six bowl victories.
Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images

Florida Atlantic made a major splash in the coaching carousel this offseason, hiring Tom Herman to replace Willie Taggart after three consecutive sub-.500 seasons. Herman has succeeded in both head coaching destinations, leading Houston and Texas to New Year’s Six bowl victories within two years on the job. FAU, fresh off a 5-7 record, is no stranger to significant turnarounds lately, as the Owls claimed a pair of 11-win conference championship seasons in the Lane Kiffin era — one after a 3-9 year and another following a 5-7 campaign.

Herman reunites with his former Longhorn quarterback Casey Thompson in Boca Raton which provides FAU an established starter from day one. Thompson exhibited solid quarterback play at Texas and Nebraska the past two years, completing over 63 percent of his passes with a 41-to-19 touchdown-to-interception ratio in that timespan. Pairing a 1,000-yard rusher in Larry McCammon III with Kobe Lewis, who attained the century mark several years ago at Central Michigan, also makes for a viable run game. Rounding out the star skill position players is wide receiver LaJohntay Wester, who should instantly become Thompson’s favorite target after totaling a team-high 719 yards and eight touchdowns a season ago.

FAU featured one of the better offensive lines in the country last year, permitting just 1.17 sacks per game — good for 19th in the FBS. The Owls return one part-time and two full-time starters from that unit, although the line’s lone all-conference honoree Brendan Bordner is gone. On the other side of the trenches, the team severely lacked a premier pass rusher last year, ranking 15th-to-last in the FBS with just 1.5 sacks per game. Evan Anderson does a serviceable job clogging up the run lanes as the anchor of the line, but FAU could see vast defensive improvement if Chris Jones and Courtney McBride take the next step as disruptive pass rushers.

The rest of the defense returns many of its major pieces from 2022 including Eddie Williams and Jaylen Wester at linebacker, and Dwight Toombs and Armani-Eli Adams in the secondary. Each of the top four tacklers return, giving defensive coordinator Roc Bellatoni ample talent to work with in his second stint coaching the Owls’ defense.

Verdict: Other than UTSA, FAU enters the AAC with the most complete roster. The Owls break in one of the conference’s top quarterbacks in Casey Thompson and surround him with impressive experience at running back, wide receiver, and on the o-line. The defense wasn’t much to marvel at last year, ranking 107th in terms of yards allowed, but the Owls should feature a starting lineup exclusively consisting of juniors and seniors this year — and experience in college football can go a long way. With slight defensive improvement, expect FAU back in bowl season to kickstart its AAC tenure and the Herman era.

North Texas Mean Green

2022 recap: 7-7, 6-2 CUSA. Lost Frisco Bowl to Boise State, 35-32.

Ayo Adeyi is one of the four members of North Texas’ rotating stable of running backs returning for 2023. Adeyi led all Mean Green rushers with 807 rushing yards last year.
Photo by Matthew Pearce/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

North Texas improved its record from 2019 to 2020, from 2020 to 2021, and again from 2021 to 2022. The Mean Green participated in the 2022 CUSA Championship Game, falling to UTSA on the road, 48-27. Yet that was not enough for Seth Littrell to see an eighth season in Denton, and the program ultimately went a different direction with the hiring of Eric Morris. Morris’ new staff witnessed a near-complete overhaul, only retaining running backs coach Patrick Cobbs from Littrell’s tenure.

A common occurrence among programs experiencing a staff overhaul, the transfer portal became quite active following North Texas’ bowl game. Key contributors lost include deep threat receiver Jyaire Shorter, tight end Jake Roberts, and linebacker Larry Nixon. But transfer portal taketh, transfer portal giveth, and the Mean Green’s new starting quarterback Chandler Rogers was an important offseason acquisition from ULM. Rogers is expected to succeed Austin Aune at quarterback after completing 67.5 percent of passes for 2,403 yards, 15 touchdowns, and seven interceptions with the Warhawks last year.

Sustaining a top 40 passing offense for consecutive years should be North Texas’ focus, because the running game is unquestionably in great hands. The Mean Green boast four starting caliber running backs on the roster in Ayo Adeyi, Ikaika Ragsdale, Oscar Adaway III, and Isaiah Johnson, who all return after combining for 2,391 rushing yards and 19 touchdowns for the nation’s 25th-ranked ground attack. North Texas lost its top lineman in First Team All-CUSA selection Manase Mose, but the team still trots out a veteran line bolstered by impressive transfer depth.

So how did North Texas finish 7-7 in 2022 with that much offensive success? Ranking 110th in pass defense and 116th in run defense will do that, so the Mean Green must emphasize growth on that side of the ball. Having defensive end Mazin Richards (7.5 sacks, 12.5 tackles for loss in 2022) as the foundation is a good starting point, but fortifying the linebacker depth after the losses of Nixon and KD Davis could be challenging. First Team All-CUSA cornerback Ridge Texada returns for a senior campaign, but there is plenty of improvement needed throughout the rest of the secondary to prevent another season ranking in the bottom 15 in total defense.

Verdict: North Texas is a wildcard team which seems destined to finish with five wins, plus or minus two. It’s a new coaching staff, but the Mean Green should win some AAC games by their dominant rushing attack alone. Defense is certainly the greatest question mark, but with a new coordinator in place and star talent at defensive end and cornerback, North Texas could find early success there with a manageable non-conference schedule.

Rice Owls

2022 recap: 5-8, 3-5 CUSA. Lost LendingTree Bowl to Southern Miss, 38-24.

TCU v West Virginia
Rice will break in JT Daniels as its quarterback this fall. Daniels had previous stops at USC, Georgia, and West Virginia, starting three games for the 2021 national champion Bulldogs.
Photo by G Fiume/Getty Images

Early in the Mike Bloomgren era, Rice was renowned for dominant defensive play, while the Owls struggled to generate consistency on the offensive side of the ball. Last season, with second-year offensive coordinator Marques Tuiasosopo guiding the ship, Rice’s offense finally established some verticality in the passing game, and the result was the program’s winningest season of Bloomgren’s tenure.

This year, the passing attack comes with untapped potential considering the Owls struck gold in the transfer portal with former 5-star quarterback recruit JT Daniels. The former USC, Georgia, and West Virginia transfer joins an Owl squad well equipped at the wide receiver position with two explosive playmakers in Brad Rozner and Luke McCaffrey. At 65th in passing offense in 2022, the Owls finished in the 50th percentile for the first time since 2014, and this team has serious potential to improve upon that ranking with Daniels at the helm.

Rice’s rushing attack didn’t sustain its early success through the end of the year, and the Owls will have many options in 2023 when deciding on a feature back or two for this offense. Having a veteran line led by tackles Clay Servin and Ethan Onianwa should help on outside runs, but the interior line needs renovation after losing reliable veterans Shea Baker and Isaac Klarkowski.

Despite the uptick in offensive production, the Owls finished 11th-to-last in opponent points per game last year and were one of eight programs to allow at least 5.4 yards per rush — which was evident in Frank Gore Jr.’s record 329-yard rushing performance in the LendingTree Bowl. Rice didn’t add any FBS transfers to this unit, so the Owls’ defense will mostly consist of incumbent talent. Four of the top five tacklers return, including outside linebacker Josh Pearcy who is expected to spearhead the pass rush after leading the team in sacks last year. Another name to watch on defense is potential NFL prospect Gabe Taylor, a havoc-wreaking strong safety who is no stranger to contributing to the turnover battle.

Verdict: The Owls are an intriguing addition to the AAC, possibly fielding their best team in a decade for their inaugural year. They search for their first winning season since 2014, but if Daniels, McCaffrey, and Co. can create an electrifying offense and the secondary play remains stellar, Rice has potential to make noise and qualify for bowl season once again.

UAB Blazers

2022 recap: 7-6, 4-4 CUSA. Defeated Miami (OH) in Bahamas Bowl, 24-20.

Defensive tackle Fish McWilliams is the only reigning First Team All-CUSA selection to return to UAB this fall. McWilliams pitched in a career-high 32 tackles and 5.5 tackles for loss in 2022.
Photo by Michael Wade/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Prior to UTSA’s emergence as the team to beat in the CUSA, UAB was viewed as the standard of the conference. The Blazers, reborn in 2017 under head coach Bill Clark, won two conference titles from 2018-20 with a division title sandwiched in between. But Clark stepped down prior to the 2022 season and Bryant Vincent took over as interim. Despite accruing a winning record and claiming postseason hardware, Vincent was not retained as head coach — instead, successful high school coach and former Super Bowl champion quarterback Trent Dilfer got the nod as an external hire.

The Blazers lose their offensive centerpiece in running back DeWayne McBride. McBride posted 1,713 rushing yards and 19 touchdowns in a dominant season, averaging 7.4 yards per carry which ranked first among all 1,000-yard rushers. Still, that element of the offense remains in good hands with Jermaine Brown Jr. (948 rushing yards) back in the lineup, supported by Maryland transfer Isaiah Jacobs. But Brown must be supported by an entirely new cast of characters on the line, as all five offensive linemen (four which were All-CUSA selections) departed from the program this offseason.

The passing game comes with more questions, however. Signs point to former Baylor transfer Jacob Zeno stepping into the starting role in his second year on the roster. Zeno earned a pair of starts in Dylan Hopkins’ absence last year, one which included a respectable 332-yard showing in a shootout loss to UTSA. Tejhaun Palmer and Samario Rudolph look to assist Zeno in a passing attack which has featured scarce attempts for significant yardage in recent years. But under Dilfer and new offensive coordinator Alex Mortensen, the unit could see some stylistic change.

As strong as the run game was under McBride’s reign, the defense has typically been the determinant of UAB’s recent success. UAB surrendered 23.2 points per game last year while exhibiting a 21st-ranked pass defense. Only three opponents tallied more than three touchdowns on the Blazers in 2022 — SEC runner-up LSU, CUSA champion UTSA, and Rice — but the unit returns just two of its top 10 tacklers and only one of its four All-CUSA honorees (defensive tackle Fish McWilliams). UAB hopes its new-look defense led by McWilliams and free safety Keondre Swoopes can retain its pedigree under first-year defensive coordinator Sione Ta’ufo’ou, who Dilfer brought along from Lipscomb Academy.

Verdict: The 2023 season is a transient time for UAB football. Last year’s team was essentially a .500 squad, but if Dilfer is able to work in a more dangerous passing game and the overhauled defense doesn’t regress too much, the Blazers can string together their seventh-straight winning season since the program was revived in 2017.

UTSA Roadrunners

2022 recap: 11-3, 8-0 CUSA. Lost Cure Bowl to Troy, 18-12.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: DEC 03 C-USA Championship Game - Western Kentucky at UTSA
Frank Harris looks to capture a third-straight conference title for UTSA, with wide receivers Joshua Cephus and De’Corian Clark by his side.
Photo by Ken Murray/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The AAC officially added the six CUSA programs in October 2021, and ever since that moment, UTSA treated every CUSA game like it was its last. The Roadrunners compiled a 15-1 conference record over the past two seasons, hosted two CUSA Championship Games, and emerged victorious in both at the Alamodome.

The Jeff Traylor era has only lasted three seasons, yet has already been a fruitful time for a program on the rise. The only thing left for the Roadrunners to claim is their first-ever bowl win... And their first AAC championship. The latter is certainly a possibility in UTSA’s first season holding membership status. Reigning champion Tulane will be the greatest competition, but if UTSA can overpower the Green Wave in New Orleans on Nov. 25, the Alamodome could potentially host a third-straight conference title game.

Offensively, the Roadrunners are still the machine they’ve been the past two seasons, and it all starts with No. 0. Quarterback Frank Harris is back for a fourth season as the primary starter after an efficient 4,000-yard, 32-touchdown season where he completed 70 percent of his passes. Two of his premier weapons De’Corian Clark and Joshua Cephus are back after combining for 1,726 yards and 14 touchdowns last year. Even with the program’s all-time leading receiver Zakhari Franklin transferring, the Roadrunners’ aerial attack — which ranked 13th in yardage in 2022 — remains loaded with weapons and should sustain its lofty stature. Leading rusher Kevorian Barnes returns, and with Harris’ dual-threat tendencies, UTSA has the firepower to sustain its top 50 rushing attack with several faces returning on the line.

Defensively, leading tackler Jamal Ligon is back, as is the heart and soul of the team in Rashad Wisdom — a two-time First Team All-CUSA selection coming off a season-ending shoulder injury. Wisdom will be surrounded by new faces in the secondary, however, as Clifford Chattman and Corey Mayfield Jr. (who combined for eight interceptions in 2022) are no longer donning Roadrunner helmets. But the front seven is still somewhat fortified with star nose tackle Brandon Brown and top pass rusher Trey Moore (18.0 tackles for loss, 8.0 sacks) back in the mix.

Verdict: Fourth down miscues and turnovers plagued the Roadrunners in each of their three losses last season, and many of these errors seemed preventable. So given the talent and experience Traylor operates with in 2023, UTSA has virtually every box checked to compete for an AAC title, and a third-consecutive conference championship could become a reality if they cut down on the aforementioned mistakes and “don’t eat the cheese,” as Traylor often reiterates.