Becoming another “Power” conference appears to be a goal for the American Athletic Conference, and 2017 should allow them to prove their worth. With 18 non-conference games against Power 5 schools, the AAC is primed to make a lot of noise.
Most of these games come at a great time for AAC schools, as the teams involved are expecting successful seasons. There are plenty of great matchups, and the national exposure each team will receive could produce large dividends. Below is a list of the top 10 non-conference matchups against Power 5 teams.
10. SMU at TCU - September 16th
This will be the 97th meeting between these two, and despite recent success for the Horned Frogs, the series is actually quite close (TCU leads 49-40-7). Last season, SMU took a 3-0 lead just 3:17 into the game and ended up trailing TCU just 6-3 at halftime. TCU pulled away in the fourth quarter, and wound up scoring 33 unanswered points after that initial Mustang field goal to win the game. SMU coach Chad Morris has fans hoping for a winning season in 2017, which would be their first since 2012 under June Jones. A win in Fort Worth would stun the college football world, but don’t count the Mustangs out just yet. After all, many didn’t expect last year’s contest to be a three point game halfway through. Winning on the road is always difficult, but what a statement it would be for SMU to pull that off.
9. Temple at Notre Dame - September 2nd
It may seem strange to think, but all of the pressure will be on the home team. Notre Dame had a horrendous season in 2016, and their coach is on the hot seat yet again. Even though Temple is going through turnover on the coaching staff, the Owls have nothing to lose.
Notre Dame has more talent, but the intangibles could favor the visitors. If things start going wrong for Notre Dame, momentum could shift quickly in Temple’s direction. If Temple can hang around long enough, Brian Kelly’s “luck” may just run out.
8. Tulsa at Oklahoma State - September 2nd
This matchup showcases two teams that many people consider “sleepers” heading into 2017. Tulsa has been on the rise under Phillip Montgomery, and Oklahoma State returns its dynamic duo of Mason Rudolph and James Washington. While preseason hype doesn’t help in a game, it should provide for plenty of buildup heading into the opening week.
Tulsa loses a lot of talent offensively, but Montgomery’s recruits should finally become main contributors. The Pokes have their sights on the College Football Playoff, and the combo of Rudolph and Washington will play a vital role in getting there. Montgomery will need to get his team to play the best they ever have, as winning in Boone Pickens Stadium is not easy.
7. Cincinnati at Michigan - September 9th
Heading to The Big House makes this the toughest matchup for any AAC team. Even though Michigan needs to replace plenty of starters, the Wolverines have recruited well to replenish that talent. This will be Luke Fickell’s first road game, and it doesn’t get much harder than this.
This is the first meeting between the two teams, but the two head coaches have a history against each other. Fickell is coming from Ohio State, where he was calling the defensive plays against Michigan’s coach Jim Harbaugh. Fickell’s insight into Harbaugh’s tendencies should prove valuable for the Bearcats, but the big question will be if his team has enough talent to compete for four quarters on the road.
6. Navy at Notre Dame - November 18th
This game has so much tradition in its rich history. Unfortunately, this contest could be predictable by the time its played. With Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly’s job status up in the air, he may not be around for this if things go south. If the Irish struggle like last year or have an average year, Kelly may be fired and this game could be close. If they get back to their winning ways and have a remarkable season, Navy probably won’t stand a chance.
There is a reason Notre Dame leads the overall series 76-13-1, but that doesn’t mean the underdog can’t pull off an upset like last year. One concerning stat is that Navy has only won this game consecutively twice since 1960-61, which was during a period when the Midshipmen won five of eight in the series. Could 2016’s win be a sign of change?
5. UCF vs Georgia Tech - September 16th
The George O’Leary bowl! The Knights and Yellow Jackets haven’t faced off since 2000, when Tech won 41-10 and George O’Leary was coaching for the Yellow Jackets. Tech’s triple option will be difficult to defend, but three year signal caller Justin Thomas is gone.
That being said, the Knights’ defense should improve, and Scott Frost’s up-tempo offense should be dangerous as well. UCF will endure an interesting stretch to begin the season. After opening with FIU, they host Memphis and the Yellow Jackets in consecutive weeks, and follow that up with our next matchup.
4. UCF at Maryland - September 23rd
Both teams should have their “first game jitters” out of the way by the third week of the season. Coaches Scott Frost and DJ Durkin have their teams on the rise, and both are looking to take that next step. The Knights and Terrapins improved from a combined 3-21 in 2015 to 12-14 last season.
UCF is looking to compete for the AAC East, and a win over a Power 5 team would benefit them immensely. Frost can combine his stellar 2017 recruiting class with an impressive season to make UCF a competitor again in the AAC. This matchup should be even more juicy being that former Maryland commit Cordarrian Richardson will be on UCF’s sideline.
3. USF vs Illinois - September 15th
This may be getting ahead of myself, but this appears to be the most likely victory for the AAC in this list. USF’s stock is sharply rising while Illinois is still trying to get going under Lovie Smith. Bulls’ QB Quinton Flowers exploded onto the college scene last season, and many are expecting a big year from the senior in 2017.
With new coach Charlie Strong running the show, Flowers also could benefit from an improved defense so he doesn’t have to carry the team offensively. Offensively, he will improve under OC Sterlin Gilbert, who came over with Strong from Texas. Normally, Power 5 teams run up the score against Group of 5 teams, but the Bulls could invert that trend. Flowers’ Heisman stock could skyrocket after this one.
2. Houston vs Texas Tech - September 23rd
If anyone knows how to beat a Power 5 team, it’s the Cougars. Houston hasn’t lost to a Power 5 team since 2013 and is 6-0 in that span (3-0 against Top 10 teams). It might seem like this is some sort of revenge game for the Cougars against the Big 12. After getting snubbed in the Big 12’s expansion, and then Texas taking its coach, you wouldn’t blame the players for being particularly motivated for this game. Most players will say otherwise, but they can still do some damage to the Red Raiders by putting coach Kliff Kingsbury in some hot water.
Kingsbury’s seat is about as hot as Texas in July, and the Red Raiders struggled last season. However, combined with the Cougars’ unproven secondary, Texas Tech will provide a difficult challenge by constantly moving the ball downfield through the air. Tech will need to get off to a good start if they want to keep their coach around. Heading to Houston could cause issues, just ask Louisville what it’s like to fall behind in TDECU Stadium.
1. Memphis vs UCLA - September 16th
Memphis’ non-conference schedule is set up for a successful run in 2017, and the biggest matchup on their schedule is against UCLA in the third week. The Tigers will be hosting the game, which could be a huge boost with the hometown crowd behind them. Everyone knows the Tigers will be ready, but how the Bruins come in remains the question.
Jim Mora is undoubtedly on hot seat after going a combined 12-13 the last two season. He gets his golden child back in Josh Rosen (missed most of 2016 due to injury), but has a tough opening matchup against Texas A&M. Should the Bruins come in at 1-1 (sorry, Hawai’i), it may be easier for Memphis to pounce quickly in the game. Regardless of UCLA’s start, a win should catapult the Tigers into the New Year’s Six conversation immediately.
With the AAC pushing to become the sixth “Power” conference in college football, winning these games will be great additions to their resume.
Wins would further prove that the AAC can compete with and beat the best. 2017 is a big test for the AAC, and the results could dictate the path they travel in the future.