Nearly half of the 2023 American Athletic Conference is comprised of newcomers. On July 1, the league officially added six former Conference USA members to fill the vacancies created by the departure of Cincinnati, Houston, and UCF to the Big 12.
Charlotte, Florida Atlantic, North Texas, Rice, UAB, and UTSA all congregated in Arlington, TX in recognition of their inaugural AAC media days to preview their first season in a new home. Here are storylines from each of the six as they complete their transition to the AAC:
Perhaps the team that generated the most buzz at AAC media day was the youngest FBS program of the bunch. Charlotte was picked to finish 14th in the preseason media poll, following a 3-9 season which included a coaching change and immense roster turnover. Biff Poggi was hired to his first FBS head coaching gig last November following a 2-year stint as an associate head coach at Michigan, and Poggi took exception to the ranking. After only three questions were asked at his press conference, Poggi pounded the podium with the departing words:
“That’s it? Three questions. Maybe that’s because you have us ranked last, that’s what you think of us. We get that message. Thank you.”
Poggi’s vibrant approach stole the show at AAC media days, strutting around the venue in Arlington wearing a suit despite triple-digit temperatures, all while chewing on a cigar as the event concluded. He will be tasked with handling the most transfer laden roster in the AAC, where roughly two-thirds of the projected two-deep are newcomers from other schools.
“It’s fun,” Poggi said. “It’s like painting a masterpiece. You use a bunch of different brushes and a bunch of different colors and if you do it well, it’s something that goes into a museum.”
Among those transfers are players Poggi worked with in the past. Quarterback Jalon Jones reunites with Poggi after working together at Saint Frances Academy, while defensive end Eyabi Okie and outside linebacker Nikhai Hill-Green hail from the coach’s more recent stomping grounds of Michigan.
“All of the kids we brought in had successes and failures,” associate head coach Kyle DeVan said. “I think that goes with coaching as well and that’s the unique thing about the transfer portal. Especially in the winter and when we first got here, it was tough. Everybody comes from a different practice style or different philosophy or different cause, so when we’re trying to install what we do, it’s rough in the beginning. These are guys with one or two years left that know they have to succeed in order for this to be successful. They know it’s urgent.”
Florida Atlantic Owls
Florida Atlantic enters its new conference accompanied by the coach with the highest win percentage in AAC history. After a year off as a television analyst for CBS Sports Network, a rejuvenated Tom Herman rejoins the coaching ranks in Boca Raton, hoping to replicate the same success he witnessed at past stops of Houston and Texas, where he won a pair of New Year’s Six bowls complemented with top 10 finishes.
“I could not be happier,” Herman said. “These past eight months have been the most fun I’ve had coaching in a long time. I’ve been so impressed with how hard our players go at Florida Atlantic and how tough they are both mentally and physically, and how quickly they bought into our way of doing things... It reminds me so much of our first year at the University of Houston.”
Herman inherits a Florida Atlantic squad which hasn’t experienced a winning season since Lane Kiffin’s final year at the helm in 2020 — far from the standard of a coach who has never finished below .500 in six years running FBS programs. He described his takeover of Florida Atlantic as “parental,” taking drastic measures to get his point across — but with unconditional love serving as the underlying foundation of every action.
“We had a 5-7 locker room, so we locked it. We locked the doors and made them earn their way back in. It was only a couple days, but they got the message loud and clear,” Herman said. “When a player gets to our program, we’re gonna shower them with unconditional love and we’re gonna give them every tool to be successful in life and on the field. Much like a parent, being held to some very high standards, and much like a parent, there are consequences when those standards aren’t upheld.”
North Texas Mean Green
North Texas qualified for the CUSA Championship Game last year and saw marginal improvements in their overall record in three consecutive seasons, yet the program opted to separate from head coach Seth Littrell prior to joining its new league. Replacing Littrell is former Texas Tech and Washington State offensive coordinator Eric Morris, who hopes to sustain the firepower of an offense which finished 21st in yards per game output last season.
“He’s just a great competitor and also a great coach,” defensive end Mazin Richards said. “When he first got here when we were in the Frisco Bowl, he talked to us individually and he told me, ‘I’m a competitive guy. If we’re getting sacks at practice, I’m gonna be very mad. I’m gonna talk back to you.’ But he’s running routes at practice. It’s just a family environment. He even started this leadership council — something that he implemented that’s really helping us be better.”
The Mean Green boasted one of the nation’s more potent offenses last year, but there’s certainly work to be done on the defensive side. North Texas ranked 22nd-to-last in passing yards allowed per game and 16th-to-last in rushing yards surrendered — overall, producing the 11th largest yardage allotment in the country. Reigning First Team All-CUSA edge rusher Mazin Richards, who attained that honor in his first season after upgrading from the Division II level, plans to lead a different defensive result as North Texas integrates into the AAC.
“You can’t do the same thing you did last year,” said Richards, who put on significant muscle mass this offseason. “That’s not really gonna get you anywhere. You have to evolve every year, but I’m finding new ways I can be better doing different kinds of drills and workouts. It’s a different mentality, but hopefully I can get that (First Team All-AAC) this year.”
Rice is one of two programs jumping from the CUSA to the AAC without starting anew with a head coach. Mike Bloomgren is back for his sixth year on campus after attaining his best record yet at 5-8 in 2022, accompanied with a bowl game appearance. Still, Rice has loftier goals as the program starves for its first winning season since 2014. To improve upon this record, Bloomgren lured in journeyman quarterback JT Daniels in the transfer portal this offseason — a process eight years in the making. After previous stops at USC, Georgia, and West Virginia, the former 5-star recruit has now found his final collegiate home in Houston with the Owls.
“Heavily Bloom and (offensive coordinator Marques) Tui(asosopo) influenced,” Bloomgren said on his decision to commit to Rice. “I wanted to go to a place where I played in pro-style, run an offense which shows my strengths, and Bloom and Tui started recruiting me in like 1974, so since then I’ve had a really good relationship.”
Representing the Owls at media days was another highly-touted high school quarterback recruit. Luke McCaffrey, a former No. 1 ranked dual threat quarterback in the state of Colorado, transitioned to wide receiver last season and witnessed immediate success in the new role. McCaffrey ranked first among all Owls with 58 receptions and proved his explosive playmaking ability with 723 receiving yards and six touchdowns. Now with a year at the position under his belt, he enters 2023 as Rice’s top receiver — hoping to further boost an aerial attack which saw its best production of the Bloomgren era last fall.
“It’s a blast,” McCaffrey said, reflecting on his first season at receiver. “It’s year two. You have some experience. Just to be able to build off that every year and to have the guys around me, that I can learn from their experience as well. Our offensive unit has so many guys who have started multiple years and that’s special, especially when you have a quarterback coming in having the prowess JT does.”
UAB has been the model of consistency since the program returned from the ashes in 2017. The Blazers have yet to register a losing season since their rebirth, and they’ll look to sustain that trend amidst a complicated offseason. Not only does the team changes conferences from the CUSA to the AAC, but for the second consecutive year, a head coaching change is also taking place. Bryant Vincent held interim status throughout last season after Bill Clark stepped down in June 2022, but was not retained despite posting a 7-6 record complete with a Bahamas Bowl victory. Instead, UAB opted to go a different route and hire former Super Bowl champion quarterback and ESPN analyst Trent Dilfer, who most recently won consecutive high school state championships at Lipscomb Academy in Tennessee.
“I don’t care what you think, what he thinks, what Tom Herman thinks, what Nick Saban thinks. I don’t care,” Dilfer said on potential scrutiny, given his unconventional path to becoming a collegiate head coach. “I care what (quarterback) Jacob Zeno thinks, what (middle linebacker) Jackson Bratton thinks. I go to bed every night thinking about what they’re thinking about... I care deeply what our tribe thinks about me and how I’m serving them, but I honestly do not care what is written about me, what is said about me. I’ve been in the spotlight for so long. I’ve been booed out of stadiums. I’m known as the worst quarterback who’s ever won a Super Bowl... I don’t care if they like or dislike that I’m here.”
Dilfer enters the college head coaching ranks at a revolutionary time for the sport — where subjects such as NIL and the transfer portal, which were foreign concepts as recently as five years ago, reign supreme in media day conversations. The former high school coach is already a staunch advocate against colleges poaching players that have not entered the portal, discussing this topic at length at his first AAC media day.
“It’s cheating to coerce a player off a roster whether you do it through a third person, through an agent or collective — no matter how you do it, it’s cheating,” Dilfer said. “Say one of my players, an All-American, says, ‘Coach, I’ve got to go explore what I can get in free agency.’ Great. Enter the portal. Fair game... But don’t have a scouting department in your building that’s doing cut-ups of my players and going to coerce them to enter the portal when they didn’t want to enter the portal.”
Not many leagues can claim they host two reigning conference champions. Not only does the AAC flaunt its 2022 champion Tulane, but the league also inherits UTSA which won back-to-back CUSA titles in 2021 and 2022. Under fourth-year head coach Jeff Traylor, the Roadrunners are currently in the midst of a golden era, rapidly vaulting into a juggernaut from both a wins and losses perspective and a fan engagement standpoint. The result is one of the largest and most recognizable brands in the new-look AAC, which was immediately recognized in the form of a second-place appearance in the preseason media day poll.
“It’s definitely something I envisioned going into committing here and being here,” strong safety Rashad Wisdom said. “Just to watch it all come to fruition has been awesome. Watching the highs and lows and everything in between, that’s the biggest reason why we are where we are. We’ve endured those hard times and stayed strong, stayed true to where we are. It’s been a collective effort along with the community as well — with the city and how they’ve supported us.”
UTSA trotted out two players donning the same No. 0 jersey to represent the University in Arlington. Frank Harris and Rashad Wisdom have been program staples for a long time, as Harris’ time with the Roadrunners dates back to 2017, while Wisdom first arrived on campus in 2019. Now an inseparable bond, the camaraderie between the two faces of UTSA football dates back to their middle school football days in the San Antonio era. In their final season together, the reigning Conference USA MVP quarterback and two-time First Team All-CUSA selection at safety will look to sustain the legacy they built in their new conference.
“Our dynamic is unique and you can see that whenever we do interviews together,” Wisdom said of his relationship with Harris. “We clown on each other but also love each other up... Even going to high school and playing against each other, it was always love and respect. He was one of the big reasons I ended up coming here. He hosted me on my visit, and it’s been a unique relationship and we’ve definitely built it over time.”