We’re three weeks through the 2023 college football season, and it’s been an eventful one for the American Athletic Conference which is in the midst of its first season featuring 14 teams.
Memphis remains the only unbeaten team from the league and logged the first conference win of the season Thursday night in a chaotic 28-24 finish against Navy. Conversely, East Carolina is the only AAC squad striving for its first win of 2023 after a 43-28 loss to Appalachian State.
All 14 teams were in action this weekend. South Florida gave Alabama fits before bowing out in the fourth quarter, UTSA lost an offensive-oriented showdown to Army on Friday night, North Texas earned its first win over old CUSA rival Louisiana Tech on a game-winning field goal, Tulane got back in the win column without Michael Pratt, and that’s only a snippet of what happened this weekend.
Here are some takeaways from Week 3 of AAC action.
Byrum Brown is a magician with the ball
Probably one of the most dissected games this week will be what transpired at Raymond James Stadium on Friday. South Florida hosted a matchup against the juggernaut that is Alabama, having won just one FBS game in the last 1,420 days, dating back to October 2019. And for Nick Saban’s Crimson Tide, it was quite unfamiliar territory considering it was just the program’s second non-conference road game since 2011.
The Bulls led for the majority of the first half and never trailed until the 4:35 mark of the third quarter. South Florida’s defense forced a whopping eight punts and dominated Alabama’s quarterbacks with pressure, producing five sacks and limiting the Crimson Tide to 10-of-23 from the pocket. Defensive coordinator Todd Orlando, notable for previous stops at Houston and Texas, dialed up a spectacular game and limited college football’s most notable dynasty to a mere 17 points and zero first half touchdowns.
But let’s talk about South Florida’s offense which failed to cross the goal line despite a litany of opportunities. That loss was not on quarterback Byrum Brown. While his passing numbers of 14-of-28 for 87 yards and an interception are certainly nothing to marvel at, those stats were the result of the constant duress he faced for four quarters. South Florida’s offensive line was always its strongest unit in the Jeff Scott era, but this year, it hasn’t provided its electrifying quarterback with ample protection.
Brown absorbed five sacks against Alabama, but this wasn’t just the result of playing an Alabama defense. He took six sacks to Florida A&M of the FCS the week prior and five to WKU in Week 1. Only Old Dominion yields more sacks per game than the 5.33 surrendered by South Florida. And even factoring in all of that sack yardage, Brown still leads all FBS quarterbacks in rushing yards and ranks 23rd in the country with 275. He posted 92 on Alabama’s defense, miraculously escaping pressure on a multitude of occasions and slipping past defenders with elusive moves.
If the Bulls can fortify that offensive line and give the talented redshirt freshman time to throw, South Florida’s offense can take the next step — because Brown is an unbelievable playmaker to build around.
Byrum Brown in the open field pic.twitter.com/DiwYKdjOsc— Cam Mellor (@CamMellor) September 16, 2023
Byrum Brown continues to be electric for USF with his legs ⚡️ pic.twitter.com/dsdXOSjQGu— Cam Mellor (@CamMellor) September 16, 2023
Defense keeps wave rolling in Pratt’s absence
Tulane exacted revenge on the only opponent it failed to beat from the 2022 schedule. The Green Wave stormed into Hattiesburg, MS and exited the Battle of the Bell with the coveted rivalry trophy they missed out on last September. Tulane didn’t allow a single Southern Miss end zone appearance, stonewalling the Golden Eagles in 21-3 fashion.
While the Green Wave offensive output could have been higher, the team was operating without starting quarterback Michael Pratt for the second consecutive contest. For a reminder of what the All-AAC quarterback is capable of, Pratt completed 14-of-15 passes for 294 yards and four touchdowns in a Week 1 showdown with South Alabama — the same South Alabama defense which steamrolled Oklahoma State 33-7 this weekend.
But in Pratt’s absence, Tulane’s defense has been AAC championship caliber in every manner possible. Yes, even in a 37-20 defeat to Ole Miss, the defense gave the Green Wave plenty of opportunities to pull off an upset. The Rebels only had 17 points through three quarters before padding their output with 20 points, thanks to a turnover-laden fourth quarter by Tulane. In that contest, the Green Wave defensive line asserted their dominance with four sacks and eight tackles for loss, and they forced five punts in the defeat.
Against Southern Miss, it was more of the same from Tulane’s formidable front. Southern Miss, which boasts a bona fide star at running back in Frank Gore Jr., couldn’t budge past the line of scrimmage. The run game picked up a measly 35 yards on 30 attempts, and Tulane wound up with three sacks and 11 tackles for loss in the defeat.
The ringleader of Tulane’s defense is nose tackle Patrick Jenkins, who notably forced a crunch time safety to alter the outcome of last year’s Cotton Bowl. Jenkins leads the unit with 3.5 sacks and 4.5 tackles for loss on the season, but other rushers have made their presence felt including defensive tackle Kameron Hamilton and defensive ends Darius Hodges and Keith Cooper Jr. Tulane is tied 10th nationally in tackles for loss, and the defense’s assertiveness up front is certainly enough to keep the wins stacking while Pratt heals his knee injury.
Reloading the Pirate ship won’t take one season
The rebirth of East Carolina football has been a fun story to follow over the last two seasons. The Pirates, which racked up a bevy of ACC victories and ranked wins throughout the 2000s and early 2010s, fell on hard times in the latter part of the last decade. But head coach Mike Houston turned the program around, snapping the program’s six-year losing record streak in 2021 and one-upping it in 2022 with an 8-5 record and bowl victory.
The bittersweet problem with that 2022 team — it was a senior-led program to the highest degree. This offseason, the Pirate offense lost a five-year starting quarterback in Holton Ahlers, who ranks 11th all-time in FBS passing yards, as well as explosive running back Keaton Mitchell, and the top three receiving yards leaders — 1,000-yard receivers Isaiah Winstead and C.J. Johnson, as well as tight end Ryan Jones. The only returning offensive player who started over 50 percent of the games in 2022 was right guard Isaiah Foote, suggesting the extremity of this 2023 rebuilding project.
Even the defense was zapped of two of its top three tacklers and its lone 2022 All-AAC selection in cornerback Malik Fleming, who transferred from Houston. Through two games, the youth and inexperience of this ECU team is showing, and the Pirates are one of seven winless teams in the country.
ECU hung with Marshall for three quarters in Week 2 before unraveling in the fourth quarter. The same game trajectory was observed Saturday versus in-state foe Appalachian State, as the Pirates traded punch for punch for roughly two-and-a-half quarters before bowing out in the fourth. Oftentimes, fourth quarters are a testament to depth, and given ECU’s mass exodus of talent this offseason, that depth and experience is not on the same footing as that of other teams yet. Turnovers have been a major issue as well, and the offense needs time to gel, just like it did when Ahlers took the full-time starting reins in 2019.
The Pirates experimented with a quarterback change last week, replacing Mason Garcia with Alex Flinn. They’re rotating new running backs and new receivers in and seeing what works. This may be a long season for ECU faithful after a prosperous two years, but Mike Houston has shown the ability to develop his players into a finished product before. The Pirates may not reach the postseason this season, but the experience accrued right now could pay dividends in 2024 or later.