Year Two of American Athletic Conference Football will kickoff this Thursday when Tulsa hosts Tulane at 8pm on CBS Sports. Ten out of eleven members of the conference will be in action this weekend with games against some of the best teams in college football.
Cincinnati, pegged by many to be the favorite in the conference, won't play until September 12th. I have the Bearcats first on my weekly power rankings but there are a couple of teams who could surpass them with a strong start to the season.
Here is my first crack at power ranking the American Athletic Conference going into Week 1:
Last year the Cincinnati Bearcats went 9-3 in what was a tumultuous regular season. They stumbled out of the gate to a 3-2 start before rattling off six straight wins in conference play. The regular season ended with a loss to Louisville, which was followed by a loss to North Carolina in the Belk Bowl.
Offensively, they return their top three running backs, four out of their top five receivers and three out of five starting linemen from last year's team. Quarterback Munchie Legaux is healthy and should make trouble for opposing defenses as a dual-threat quarterback. Defensively they return most of their starters though there are some concerns up the middle with two defensive tackles, a middle linebacker and a safety to replace from last year.
They had some struggles at special teams and on the road, but this team is now one year older and should take a step up in Tommy Tuberville's second year. Right now they're my favorite to win the AAC.
2. East Carolina
East Carolina, one of three newcomers to the conference, should contend for the AAC title. Star quarterback Shane Carden is primed for a great senior season after throwing for over 4.000 yards and 30 touchdowns while completing 70% of his passes in 2013. His offense loses starting running back Vintavious Cooper but returns its top two receivers.
Last year, as members of Conference USA, the Pirates finished 10-3 with losses to Virginia Tech and Tulane by a combined eight points before losing badly in the regular season finale to Marshall. Head Coach Ruffin McNeil is in his fourth season in Greenville, going 19-19 in his first three years. They play North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia Tech this year out of conference and will have to play conference favorites Cincinnati and UCF as well.
UCF shocked the world by beating Baylor in the Fiesta Bowl last year after surprisingly beating out Louisville for the AAC title. This year the Knights are without star QB Blake Bortles, the NFL Draft's third overall pick, and RB Storm Johnson but return an excellent receiving corps and most of a what was a very good defense last year. They could easily win the conference.
The Knights have a tough start to the season, opening against Penn State in Ireland before playing Missouri, Houston and BYU in three out of the next four weeks. With a first-year starter at quarterback, I think they could get off to a rocky start.
The Houston Cougars will christen a new stadium following last years promising 8-5 season-- their first in the AAC. They return starting QB John O'Korn, who won the job as a true freshman last year, and a talented group of skill players as well.
Defensively, the Cougars will be stout against the run thanks to the return of last year's starting front seven. They face a big test in their third game of the season against BYU on the road-- if they can find a way to win that one we could be looking at a very sexy match-up on October 2nd against UCF.
USF had a rough 2013, kicking the season off with a loss to FCS McNeese State on their way to an 0-5 start. They finished the season 2-10 but hopes are high for a rapid rebound in Bull country. They were a very young team last year but as a result are returning a lot of starters at key positions who gained valuable game experience in 2013. There are some question marks on the defensive side of the ball but in a wide-open conference they are my pick as the leader of the middle tier.
June Jones' SMU Mustangs will once again count on a fast-paced offense to win shootouts. Defensively they haven't been all that special but the front seven should be solid and if the unit can take a step up from last year the Mustangs could improve. They might be a better team than they were last year, but with TCU, Baylor and Texas A&M on the non-conference slate I expect them to go 5-7 like they did last year.
You could argue that after number four on this list, everything is complete guesswork. I honestly think USF and SMU will be a cut above the rest of the middle but now at seven this is truly a pick 'em. So I'm going with Tulane here. This is a football program which has had it's moments-- remember Patrick Ramsey and JP Losman? Well, try not to remember their NFL careers, they were great in college! Matt Forte went there!
Tulane joins the conference after a 7-5 regular season in C-USA which was followed by a close loss to UL-Lafayette in the New Orleans Bowl. Third year head coach Curtis Johnson took over one of the worst teams in college football and has this team moving in the right direction-- they should take another step up this year.
UConn had a very, very rough start to 2013, with losses to Towson, Maryland and Buffalo leading to the mid-season firing of head coach Paul Pasqualoni. They're hoping a new head coach along with the momentum of quarterback Casey Cochran's 3-1 finish to last season can be a springboard for relative success in 2014.
The Husky faithful do not expect a rebuilding season as there is actually some decent talent on the roster, especially at the skill positions. The defense should be solid and if the offensive line can hold up UConn could surprise some people.
Tulsa, along with Tulane and ECU are the new guys in the conference. But they still see a lot of familiar faces from their Conference USA days. The Golden Hurricane are replacing a starting quarterback, most of it's skill position production and three starting offensive linemen. The defense should actually be pretty good, but overall this will be a tough year for Tulsa against improved competition.
People who are smarter than me like what Justin Fuentes is doing in Memphis. It looks like they may take a step up this year and eventually be decent down the road. Don't expect much this year.
Temple lost a lot of games last year, 10 to be exact, but gosh darnit did they lose a bunch of close ones. They even managed to keep it close against eventual AAC and Fiesta Bowl champion UCF, losing by 3. They gave up 28 unanswered to blow a 21-point lead against UConn and also lost to FCS Fordham and FBS cellar dweller Idaho... they should be the worst team in the conference this year.