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2023 AAC Media Day Recap: The eight incumbent teams

Storylines from East Carolina, Memphis, Navy, SMU, South Florida, Temple, Tulane, and Tulsa at media days in Arlington, TX.

NCAA Football: Cotton Bowl-Tulane at Southern California Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

The American Athletic Conference is bigger than ever.

In a college football offseason defined by conference realignment, the AAC saw its nucleus shift tremendously. The league lost three of its premier programs — Cincinnati, Houston, and UCF — to the Big 12, but added six CUSA schools — Charlotte, Florida Atlantic, North Texas, Rice, UAB, and UTSA — to fill the void left behind.

That makes for a 14-team league, which is tied with four other conferences for the most crowded table in the FBS. While the six newcomers generated plenty of buzz at AAC media days in Arlington, TX, the eight teams that stood pat this summer also took center stage at Arlington.

Here are media day storylines concerning the conference’s acquainted members of East Carolina, Memphis, Navy, SMU, South Florida, Temple, Tulane, and Tulsa:

East Carolina Pirates

NCAA Football: Birmingham Bowl-Coastal Carolina at East Carolina
East Carolina claimed its first bowl victory since 2013 last season, dismantling Coastal Carolina 53-29 in the Birmingham Bowl.
Vasha Hunt-USA TODAY Sports

East Carolina endured six consecutive losing seasons from 2015-20, longing to resurrect a once-proud football program. When head coach Mike Houston was hired in 2019, his culture was not instilled over night. But after four years of manning the sidelines in Greenville, NC, it’s clear Houston’s mission has come to fruition. The Pirates have strung together consecutive winning seasons, sweetened by a dominant Birmingham Bowl victory over Coastal Carolina last December.

“It feels amazing,” fifth-year outside linebacker Jeremy Lewis said on watching the trajectory of the program change. “We’ve been through the ups and the downs. Thanks to Coach Houston, he changed the culture around, he changed the locker room around, and we’ve just been winning ever since following in his footsteps. It’s an amazing feeling not waiting to win. Now winning is the expectation. Winning used to be foreign for us, but now we go out there and expect to win every time we go out there.”

To sustain the recent trend of success, Houston will be challenged by operating without the only quarterback he’s ever known as a head coach. Holton Ahlers held the reins of QB No. 1 for four-and-a-half years and left Greenville as college football’s active passing leader. Not only does Ahlers’ vacancy need to be filled, but ECU is presented with other offensive challenges such as replacing running back Keaton Mitchell (1,452 rushing yards, 7.2 yards per carry in 2022) and its top three receiving yards leaders from last fall. But Houston believes the culture established in Greenville can facilitate a seamless transition as players like sophomore quarterback Mason Garcia become the new face of the offense.

“First couple of years there, he was young, he made young mistakes, but he learned from them. A lot of our success the last couple years on offense comes from his poise, so now we’re starting a little bit on the same path with Mason,” Houston said. “Mason has been here for a couple years. He’s been able to watch (Holton), play some, he’s been able to practice and develop, so he’s prepared for this opportunity. Although he doesn’t have the experience Holton has, he’s really prepared at this point in his career. So I do think the expectations should be pretty high.”

Memphis Tigers

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 26 Old Dominion at South Alabama
Former Old Dominion running back Blake Watson rushed for 921 yards last season and looks to add a hint of explosiveness to Memphis’ rushing attack in 2023.
Photo by Bobby McDuffie/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

On Tuesday morning at AAC media days, Memphis head coach Ryan Silverfield took a stroll around AT&T Stadium. That venue holds significant meaning to the fourth-year head coach, as he launched his head coaching career in magnificent fashion on those grounds at the 2019 Cotton Bowl — perhaps the Tigers’ biggest game in program history. Years later, Silverfield reflects on how such an accomplishment can become a reality for this program once again.

“We had the 12th youngest team in all of college football last year,” Silverfield said. “I think the growth and maturity of our guys and some of the new faces we’ll add will allow us to be able to succeed. Our expectations are to compete for a championship... We’ve gotta have a great training camp. We’ve got to stay healthy, but all the parts are there and the pieces are in place for us to go out and have success. We’ve got to have a different finish mentality.”

Memphis is renowned for immense skill position talent. The Tigers have sent the likes of Darrell Henderson, Antonio Gibson, Tony Pollard, Kenneth Gainwell, and Calvin Austin to the NFL Draft in the past five years alone. But last season, Memphis generated zero 100-yard rushing performances and just three 100-yard receiving performances. The Tigers addressed that by adding established contributors from the portal including Old Dominion running back Blake Watson, Missouri wide receiver Tauskie Dove, and Toledo wide receiver DeMeer Blankumsee. Equipped with a talented third-year quarterback in Seth Henigan as the facilitator, recapturing that explosiveness in the skill positions could be the difference between a return trip to the New Year’s Six for Memphis.

“That’s our job as coaches to recruit those type of guys and continue to develop those kinds of guys within our program,” Silverfield said. “We weren’t as explosive and consistent as we needed to be. We’ve always had a lot of good skill players, that’s unique to the whole thing, but I think we have a lot of depth at those positions. Sometimes we’ve got a bunch of depth and it’s not one star that steps up.”

Navy Midshipmen

Brian Newberry takes over the Navy head coaching duties after 15 seasons of Ken Niumatalolo.
Photo by Mark Goldman/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

A typical conference media day commences with the commissioner’s press conference, where college football’s burning topics of conference realignment, NIL, and the transfer portal are discussed at length. That was no exception at AAC media day, and all of those topics were talking points for Commissioner Mike Aresco. But there is one outlier in the conference that doesn’t partake in the chaotic world of NIL and reloading through the transfer portal — Navy.

“‘Luxury’ may not be the right word, but it’s kind of nice to not have to deal with it,” head coach Brian Newberry said. “When you lose a player in the portal, you can’t go into the portal and replace that player. The truth is, it hasn’t been an issue much. Guys come to school at the Naval Academy come for a reason. They understand the value of this place.”

Navy’s signature triple option offense will remain the same, and perhaps it will be even more beneficial given college football’s updated clock rules — where stoppages on first downs only occur in the final two minutes of each half. But that’s not the only change the Midshipmen are required to adapt to. For the first time since 2007, Ken Niumatalolo will not be manning the sideline as head coach. Instead, the program promoted defensive coordinator Brian Newberry to Niumatalolo’s former position. Newberry will place an emphasis on starting off stronger this season, after dreary Week 1s have plagued the program the past three years.

“There’s a lot of reasons we’ve gotten off to a slow start,” Newberry said. “There’s not one thing in particular I point my finger to. Part of it is youth for us. Part of it is the way that we’ve prepared going into the season, going back to spring football and fall camp. Right now we’re practicing in a different way, so I fully expect us to get out to a fast start this year. There’s no excuses not to at this point.”

SMU Mustangs

After two years of being led by Tanner Mordecai, SMU will transition to Preston Stone at quarterback. The former four-start commit was SMU’s most prized recruit in program history.
Photo by Matthew Visinsky/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

SMU established an identity as one of the most explosive offenses in college football over the past five years. The Mustangs haven’t finished outside the FBS top 15 in scoring since 2018, and that has been fueled by excellent quarterback play by former Big 12 transfers Shane Buechele and Tanner Mordecai. But this year, SMU will break in one of its original recruits at quarterback. The highest-rated recruit in program history, Preston Stone has patiently waited behind Mordecai on the depth chart for two seasons. But the local four-star prospect is finally making his long-awaited debut as the starting quarterback when SMU hosts Louisiana Tech on Sept. 2.

“Preston’s been ready from day one,” running back Tyler Lavine said. “He’s one of the hardest working kids on our team, putting in the extra work every day. He’s a super confident kid, smart guy, really talented quarterback, and I’m really excited what he can do this year and in the future.”

The Mustangs will operate in a new-look AAC this year, devoid of programs such as UCF, Cincinnati, and Houston which consistently qualified for the conference championship game. Despite four consecutive winning seasons, including three which featured a national AP Poll ranking, SMU has yet to make it to that heralded first week of December. Entering year two as head coach, Rhett Lashlee is looking to take advantage of the new-look league and finally break into contention status this year.

“When you’re in a really good league, there’s no easy weeks,” Lashlee said. “We’ve felt like over the last four, five years, the program has been gaining momentum, consistently winning and going to bowl games, finishing in the top three, four, five in our league. We’ve been putting ourselves in contention. Hopefully we can build on that. We’ve got some really hungry returning players.”

South Florida Bulls

Tulane v USF
New head coach Alex Golesh will work with quarterback Gerry Bohanon, who started seven games before a season-ending shoulder injury last fall.
Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

The past three years haven’t been the kindest to South Florida football, and the Bulls have compiled an aggregate record of 4-29 over that timespan. This offseason, the program opted for a coaching change, hiring Tennessee offensive coordinator Alex Golesh to succeed Jeff Scott. Golesh enters Tampa after conducting the nation’s top scoring offense from 2022 at Tennessee, a unit which averaged 46.1 points per game. Those impressive numbers helped leverage Golesh into his first FBS head coaching job, but the main qualities his players have noticed so far are his abilities to drive camaraderie and accountability.

“The biggest piece he brought to the team is accountability and making sure he hold guys accountable,” defensive tackle Rashad Cheney Jr. said of Golesh. “As far as building a culture, getting around to guys and loving guys — he instilled that in us his first days. You’re just seeing dudes build better relationships with dudes you would never think you’d talk to before. And his attitude toward everybody — he treats everyone the same.”

A 1-11 record without an FBS victory is difficult to spin into a positive, but South Florida was awfully close to stealing several victories from some of the toughest opponents on its 2022 schedule. The Bulls were one possession away from defeating Florida, 9-win Cincinnati, and 9-win UCF, losing those games by a combined 14 points. A season unfolding in such manner is familiar territory to another AAC program, as Tulane stumbled to a 2-10 record in 2021, with several heartbreaking losses against respectable competition. The Green Wave exchanged its 2-10 mark into a 12-2 conference championship season over the course of one offseason, and South Florida will attempt to execute a similar turnaround this fall.

“Honestly, we don’t really talk too much about those games or think too much about those games; it’s just something that we know,” quarterback Gerry Bohanon said of last year’s close calls. “We fell short. We knew the games were tight. We didn’t win those games. It’s just about winning those games, winning the day, and winning everything that we do. Winning starts with the small stuff. Winning doesn’t start on Saturdays, so just embracing that — we have to earn the right to win on Saturdays.”

Temple Owls

Cincinnati v Temple
E.J. Warner’s most recent game featured 527 passing yards and five touchdowns on a 71.4 percent completion rate.
Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

Temple finished 3-9 in Stan Drayton’s start-up year as the program’s head coach. While the Owls were far from bowl eligibility, the program unlocked something special late in the season. True freshman quarterback E.J. Warner took over the starting reins in mid-September and finished the year as a more polished version of himself. In his latest four outings, Warner averaged 381 passing yards with 10 touchdown strikes and only three interceptions — and three of those contests featured a completion rate exceeding 71 percent. With his first offseason as quarterback No. 1 under his belt, the 19-year old Warner is ready to break through as one of the AAC’s premier players.

“Last year, I went in not really knowing how much I was gonna play,” Warner said. “The stats show that it clicked Week 9 or whatever, but you just get more comfortable naturally. It’s not really a big giant step or a big moment you realize, but all that confidence kind of leads up to greater things. I think I showed that at the end of the year.

But even after that 4-game explosion to conclude 2022, the AAC Freshman of the Year saw areas where he still needed vast development. The 6’0” quarterback upgraded from a physicality standpoint, understanding the level of athleticism required to compete against AAC defenses on a weekly basis. Stellar quarterback play is often a requirement to win this conference, and Temple hopes Warner’s incremental improvements come to fruition in the standings.

“I’m getting stronger, faster — coming in last year as an 18-year old freshman, you could see physically that gap that I had to grow,” Warner said. “You see different areas of my game that can use that improvement. I’ve gained a bunch of weight. I’ve gained a bunch of strength and speed this offseason, which should take my game to the next level in certain areas. It’s gonna be huge for me and definitely help in the long run.”

Tulane Green Wave

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: JAN 02 Goodyear Cotton Bowl
Center Sincere Haynesworth represented Tulane at AAC media days, right across the street from the sight of the Cotton Bowl victory in January.
Photo by William Purnell/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The AAC lost three of its premier programs this offseason, but the current “standard” of the conference remains, ready to defend its title. Tulane rapidly ascended into the conference’s program to beat after posting a 12-2 record in 2022, complete with a conference championship and thrilling Cotton Bowl victory over USC. This offseason presents a much different feel on Tulane’s campus than previous ones. Running it back with eight All-AAC selections from 2022, the Green Wave enter the new season with a target on their back — a stark contrast from entering the 2022 campaign fresh off a 2-10 record.

“They contrast a lot, but they’re actually kind of similar as well because you’ve got that chip on your shoulder,” center Sincere Haynesworth said. “You want to prove yourself after going 2-10 and you want to show everyone what you can do and what’s really possible. But now we want to build on that. We want to show everyone it wasn’t a mistake and we want to show everyone that we are a winning team and we want to build on that winning culture. There’s a lot of people who think we can’t do that or we’ve been projected to have not as good of a season, and to us, that’s an even bigger chip than proving ourselves.”

When looking at on-field personnel, one of Tulane’s greatest obstacles to repeating as AAC champions is finding a viable replacement to Tyjae Spears, who captured AAC Offensive Player of the Year honors after an explosive campaign featuring 1,581 rushing yards and 19 touchdowns. It’s unclear if Tulane will utilize Shaadie Clayton-Johnon, Iverson Celestine, or Shedro Louis as a workhorse back or rotate several faces at the position, but the Green Wave’s replacement plan for Spears will be made easier by an established offensive line returning four starters.

“The game’s won and lost in the trenches,” Haynesworth said. “Those (running backs) can’t do much if not for the front five blocking for them. As good as Tyjae was, he still needed an offensive line and I think we have a lot of really good talent in our running back room. As long as we continue on, really paying attention to our detail and making as little mistakes as possible, that’s kind of our focus to our running game this year.”

Tulsa Golden Hurricane

NCAA Football: Cincinnati at Tulsa
Strong safety Kendarin Ray was an integral part of Tulsa’s most recent conference championship appearance in 2020, posting 62 tackles and breaking up seven passes that season.
Brett Rojo-USA TODAY Sports

Tulsa is one of the seven AAC team executing a coaching change this offseason. Philip Montgomery was ousted after eight years with the program after finishing last season 5-7. Replacing the longtime frontman is former Indiana head coach Kevin Wilson, who arrives on the plains after most recently serving a six-year stint as Ohio State’s offensive coordinator. The offensive mastermind will work with quarterback Braylon Braxton, who enters his first year as a full-time starter. Braxton’s last on-field action was a career performance against Houston, featuring personal-bests in passing yards (316), rushing yards (51), and touchdowns accounted for (4), and he believes that 2022 finale can be a springboard for 2023.

“I’m a guy whose always had a lot of confidence, but that Houston win gave me a bit of an edge that I needed,” Braxton said. “Having the guys look at me as the guy now — I’ve just had to do a lot of grinding. And I’ve had to be very consistent every single day, show up the same guy every single day.”

Head coaching changes often lead to a mass exodus through the transfer portal. Transfers ensued as quarterback Davis Brin left for Georgia Southern and linebacker Justin Wright relocated to Oklahoma State. Another name that entered the portal was veteran strong safety Kendarin Ray — a three-year starter who was an instrumental part of Tulsa’s 2020 AAC Championship Game run. But upon speaking with Wilson, Ray decided Tulsa was still the perfect place to cap off his final year of eligibility and withdrew from the portal.

“When Coach Wilson came into town, we had some conversations, he got to meet my parents, and I can say I loved what he was telling me,” Ray said. “He told me I had a good opportunity, I built a good foundation at Tulsa. He wasn’t saying I can’t leave, but I’m always welcome here if I want to come back. It just resonated with me so much. I mean a lot to the team and to the locker room and adapted to that, so I came back to where I started off.”