The 2017 college football season is upon us, and the AAC gets things started with USF’s matchup against San Jose State on Saturday. Underdog Dynasty links up with Down the Drive’s Clayton Truton and The Daily Stampede’s Ryan Smith for the roundtable. as we answer some questions and make predictions for the upcoming season.
Who is your surprise (good or bad) team in AAC this year?
Joe Serpico: SMU is the team to keep an eye on in. Chad Morris has brought in talent and this is the year they put it all together. They likely won’t be in the discussion to win the division, but they will be a headache for their opponents.
Many are expecting Tulane to take the next step under Willie Fritz, but the schedule is brutal and they don’t have the firepower that the rest of the conference has to offer.
Joey Broback: Cincinnati will be the good surprise this year. Luke Fickell has done a tremendous job of changing the Bearcats culture in the offseason, and I think they surprise the conference and get close to bowl eligibility this year.
Navy will be a bad surprise. Will Worth was a pleasant surprise at quarterback last year after losing four year star Keenan Reynolds, but the magic at quarterback is over. Zach Abey doesn’t have the special ability to be a major factor, and combined with a rebuilding offense, the Midshipmen might struggle in 2017.
Clayton Truton: Depends on whether or not you consider Southern Methodist a surprise. The Mustangs will win eight or nine games this year. Chad Morris has been building an offensive juggernaut for the last couple of seasons in Dallas. From the videos I've seen, SMU quarterback Ben Hicks looks like he's been on the old Soloflex machine all off-season. He already had a great arm, but now he is going to be able to move. Everyone knows that wide receiver Courtland Sutton is the most electrifying force in sports entertainment, but his teammate Xavier Castille is a pocket rocket in his own right. SMU has found some playmakers on defense too. Most notably, defensive end Justin Lawler.
On the bad side, I expect Navy to take a couple of steps back this year. On offense, this is certainly a rebuilding year. The core of their running attack graduated and they need to find backs who can replace about 2,500 yards of offense in 2017. I predict that Navy does not reach bowl eligibility in 2017.
Grant Cohen: Houston is on my radar screen coming out of the West. They are under-looked largely because it is Major Applewhite’s first year as head coach of the Cougars. Applewhite knows what it takes to win, especially offensively when his offense turned in 22 wins during his two years as offensive coordinator.
Ed Oliver returns after a phenomenal freshman season, proving himself to be one of the best defensive players in college football with his All-American honors.
The unfortunate surprise will be Temple. Although they are coming off an AAC championship, Temple has to replace starters at quarterback and running back on offense. Those holes will be too much to fill, especially when playing some of their toughest opponents early in the season.
Ryan Smith: There are about two or three teams that I think could make a surprise run, but I'll say that this is the year SMU breaks through and winds up in the mix for the West title. On the other end, I think Tulsa loses a bit too much firepower for me to feel comfortable picking them higher than, say, fourth in the division.
Who is your breakout player?
Joe: Much of the hype surrounding USF has been centered around Quinton Flowers and deservedly so, but D’Ernest Johnson is in line for a big season as well. Someone has to replace Marlon Mack’s role on the offense and Johnson could post even better numbers.
Joey: UCF quarterback McKenzie Milton. He’s just what Scott Frost needs at the position, and the Knights are poised for a breakout year.
Clayton: SMU receiver
Xavier Castille James Porche.
Grant: Tulsa receiver Keenan Johnson. In order for Tulsa’s offense to be successful, the Golden Hurricane need solid receivers. Johnson showed sparks with his 30 receptions, but he’ll be in a larger role this season.
Ryan: "Breakout" is a relative term here, but I think that this is the season where Riley Ferguson gets the national attention that he deserves. Ferguson was tremendous last season, but was overshadowed by the likes of Quinton Flowers and Greg Ward Jr. I like Memphis to break into the rankings at some point this season-- perhaps with an upset of UCLA?-- and Ferguson to put up big-time numbers.
Who is your pick to win AAC Defensive Player of the Year & Offensive Player of the Year?
Joe: Quinton Flowers (QB - USF), Ed Oliver (DT - Houston)
Joey: Riley Ferguson (QB - Memphis), Ed Oliver (DT- Houston)
Clayton: Quinton Flowers (QB - USF), Matthew Adams (LB - Houston)
Grant: Quinton Flowers (QB - USF), Ed Oliver (DT-Houston)
Ryan: Riley Ferguson (QB - Memphis), Ed Oliver (DT-Houston)
Over/Under 8 Teams from AAC will qualify for a bowl game
Joe: Push. Four teams will struggle to get to bowl eligiblity.
Joey: Over. UConn, ECU, and Tulane don’t make it, so nine will get in.
Clayton: Over. Nine. Everyone but Navy, East Carolina, and UConn will go bowling.
Grant: Over. Nine teams will play in December or January, but East Carolina, Tulane and UCONN will be watching from their couch.
Ryan: Push. UConn, ECU and Tulane are long shots, which leaves Cincinnati, and perhaps SMU and Tulsa, as the bubble teams. I'll say one of that trio misses a bowl, which would make this a push. Bailout answer, yes, but I'll take eight on the dot.
Over/Under 4 Wins against the Power 5 this season...
Joe: Push. Houston, Memphis, UCF and USF each get one win over a P5 school, but that’s all.
Joey: Over. USF over Illinois. Houston over Arizona and Texas Tech. Memphis over UCLA. UCF over Georgia Tech.
Clayton: Over. I predict eight. Here are a few that come to mind: Houston will beat the Tucson Richrods and the Lubbock Kingsburys. USF beats the Chambana Lovies. Memphis is going to beat the Westwood Moras.
Grant: Over. USF beats Illinois, Houston beats Arizona and Texas Tech, UCF beats Georgia Tech and Maryland, UCONN beats Boston College.
Ryan: I'll take the over on this one. USF should beat Illinois, Houston should top one, if not both, of Arizona and Texas Tech, and elsewhere other AAC teams get the likes of Virginia and Maryland. There are enough opportunities here.
Your sleeper picks to win AAC East and AAC West are…
Joe: Can the defending champs be considered a sleeper? Temple is looking for a new signal caller, but whoever gets the job will have some talent to spread the ball around to. Pair that with a strong defense and special teams and the Owls could win the East once again. Tulsa is another team looking for quarterback, but they have D’Angelo Brewer running behind the best offensive line in the conference. If Philip Montgomery can win the West, he might get a few phone calls from some P5 schools.
Joey: Anyone in the East since USF has been the unanimous pick, so I’ll say Cincinnati simply because they have the talent and coach Fickell has the players buying into the program. SMU could be the sleeper team in the West. If they can figure things out defensively, they will be tough to beat even with Memphis and Houston competing for the top spot.
Clayton: People are underestimating Temple this year. They can certainly win the East. They have several good looking quarterbacks vying to replace Phillip Walker and they are laden with skill-position talent. The defensive side of the ball has some question marks, but don't be surprised to see them in the championship game.
In the West, SMU has the talent on the offensive side of the ball to win this whole conference. Whether or not their defense can muster a consistent pass rush is the big question.
Grant: If any team can deny USF a spot in the AAC championship game, it’s UCF. The Knights return 14 starters and their defense is strong in the middle. Linebacker Shaquem Griffin led the defense with 11.5 sacks to earn the conference’s Defensive Player of the Year honors and his prescence changes the defense. Tulsa is overlooked because they will have a new quarterback, who has yet to be decided. The Golden Hurricane’s running game is reliable and there is athleticism with the wideouts. Whether it is Chad President or Luke Skipper commanding the ship, Tulsa’s offense could throw a lot of teams off-balance and land themselves in the AAC championship game.
Ryan: For the East: UCF. Scott Frost has been doing an incredible job on the recruiting trail, and if he start to mold the offense into the Oregon-style, hurry-up spread he's been promising, this team could be pretty scary. The defense will likely regress a bit, but they could still probably afford a pair of conference losses and still host USF for the East division title on Thanksgiving weekend. I also love what Luke Fickell is doing at Cincinnati, but I'm not sure they have the horses to contend for a division title in year one.
The West is harder. Memphis and Houston should be the favorites, so neither really counts as a sleeper, and while I like SMU and think they'll have a good season, I don't see them taking home the division. I'll take Navy here, because if there's one thing I've learned from the Midshipmen's two years in the AAC, it's to never count them out just because of personnel losses. They may not be as dangerous as the past two seasons, but I'm sure they'll still find a way to be in the hunt for the crown.
Which coach do you see as most likely to not return after 2017 either due to a firing, retirement, or leaving for another job?
Joe: Tulsa’s Philip Montgomery. I previously mentioned that he could get offers elsewhere if he gets the Golden Hurricane in the AAC title game. Mike Norvell and Chad Morris could also be on the move.
Joey: Memphis’ Mike Norvell. I understand its only his second year, but the Tigers should have a successful season, and somebody is going to snatch him away from Memphis eventually.
Clayton: UConn's Randy Edsall. After a few Saturday shellackings, this return to Storrs is going to seem like a bad idea. He is going to spend the second half of most games checking the classifieds in the Hartford Courant for a timeshare in Tampa.
Grant: Navy’s Ken Niumatalolo. Niumatalolo was offered the BYU job two years ago, but it wasn’t a powerful enough program to turn him away from Navy. He’s led Navy to at least eight wins with five straight bowl game appearances, which makes him a prime target for Power 5 schools.
Ryan: If Charlie Strong lives up to expectations at USF and manages to win double-digit games, I'd imagine he'll be off to a bigger job. Elsewhere, Chad Morris seems to be on the verge of big things and could earn himself a big-time offer.
Who do you like to win AAC (please pick who will beat who in Championship Game)?
Joe: USF beats Memphis in AAC title game.
Joey: Memphis beats USF in the title game.
Clayton: Houston beats USF in the AAC title game.
Grant: USF beats Houston in the AAC title game.
Ryan: USF seems a safe bet to win the East, but I'm not sure they beat whoever emerges from the West. For now, I'll err on the side of continuity and take Memphis over the Bulls in the title game.