2016 NCAA Football Preview: American Athletic Conference

August 28, 2016
By K. Becks

Similar to 2015, we’ll find out just how dedicated I am to having all of the college football conference previews completed prior to the first FBS game’s kickoff on Thursday evening.

With two previews down and nine to go, this isn’t going to be easy.

Next we’ll take a look at the American Athletic Conference.

Overview

The conference that more or less replaced the Big East in the FBS division may not be one of the so-called Power conferences (it was debatable if the Big East was by the end), but to say that it didn’t play Power conference caliber football in 2015 would be incorrect. Houston showed it was one of the most dangerous teams in the nation with a 38-24 thrashing of heavily favored Florida State in the Peach Bowl and Temple hosted College Gameday for the first time in school history when it entered the Notre Dame game undefeated in late October.

Much of the hype from Houston’s 2015 campaign will carry over into this season, and it helps the rest of the teams in the conference as much as it does the Cougars. Look at the out-of-conference schedules for many of the teams in the AAC, and you’ll be able to find several where the Power conference opponent may not even be the favorite in the matchup. Houston, South Florida, Cincinnati, Temple, Navy and potentially some others should all be able to hold their own against the top conferences in the nation.

From the perspective of a College Football Playoff spot, a lot will ride on the very early games and more than likely some good luck. The AAC’s future continues to look bright, however, as the clear leader of the second tier of conferences in FBS.

College Football Playoff Contenders

Houston

No one will be taking the Cougars lightly in 2016 after what the team was able to accomplish in Tom Herman’s first season. Houston was one of the most difficult teams in the country to stop last year, reminding many of the offense that Ohio State ran en route to a national title in 2014 (when Herman was the offensive coordinator for the Buckeyes). What is scary about the 2016 squad is that there may be additional wrinkles to what was already a complex unit to prepare against. Running back Duke Catalon will bring a true rushing presence to accommodate Greg Ward Jr.’s skills on the ground, and he is physical, too.

Houston will have no time to ease into the season, as perhaps its most difficult contest of the year takes place on opening weekend. If the Cougars can upset Oklahoma in Houston’s NRG Stadium, then the sky appears to be the limit for a program that already has a New Year’s Six bowl victory in the last year. As unlikely as it may appear on paper, keep in mind that no one was giving the Cougars a chance against Florida State in the Peach Bowl, either. Offensively, the talent on the field and wearing the headset is there to beat anyone in the country.

Watch Out! (Team That Could Surprise)

Tulsa

No team in the American Conference could have more of a swing in number of victories this season based on the performance of a one side of the ball than Tulsa. The Golden Hurricane aren’t just good offensively – they’re great. Quarterback Dane Evans adjusted very well to Phillip Montgomery’s up-tempo offense and should be one of the top passers in the nation this season. Although not all of them were victories, Tulsa scored at least 35 points in eight games last season and there is no reason to think that couldn’t happen again or even improved upon.

But for all the offense the Golden Hurricane can produce, the defensive performance will dictate whether they’re a middle-of-the-road AAC team or a potential championship contender. As the No. 125 overall defense in terms of yards allowed in 2015, the only place to go for Tulsa is up. Even a slight improvement could mean big things for this team as it was within two touchdowns in five of its seven losses last season.

Hi, My Name Is… (Players to Watch)

Duke Catalon, Houston sophomore running back

A former Texas Longhorn, Catalon was somewhat of a practice squad legend last season, impressing head coach Tom Herman so much with his physicality that he has already pegged him as a key contributor to the offense in 2016. The 210 pound sophomore will bring a dangerous presence to an already dangerous unit with his ability to bully opposing defenses. The last thing that Houston needs is for Greg Ward Jr. to take the brunt of the defense’s hits in the running game. With Catalon in the backfield, he won’t have to do so.

Although not as big, expect Catalon to be used similarly to the way that Herman utilized Carlos Hyde at Ohio State. Like Hyde, Catalon loves to deliver punishment to the opposition and has deceptive speed. And to add to that, Catalon had over 300 receiving yards his senior year of high school and can be used in the short passing game as well.

Quinton Flowers, South Florida junior quarterback

If South Florida is to take the next step from “promising young team” to “conference championship contender” in 2016, then Quinton Flowers will mature dramatically and become a star in the league. There is no denying the raw talent of the 6’0″, 200 pound junior, whose speed and incredible balance allow him to do things on the football field that very few quarterbacks in the country could even dream of doing. But Flowers also exhibited several times last season that he had not yet accepted the leadership role that his team needs him to assume to reach their potential.

With a full season of starting experience under his belt, the pouting after a bad play must come to an end. Flowers has the ability to be the American Conference’s offensive MVP, but he also needs to understand that mistakes will happen and his team is watching how he handles adversity. Given that 2016 won’t be his first go-around and the team around him is solid, expect a different player mentally this season.

Out-Of-Conference Games to Watch

Houston vs. Oklahoma [game at NRG Stadium, Houston] (September 3)

If Houston is going to contend for a Playoff spot in 2016, a victory over No. 3 Oklahoma is a must. The victory would likely elevate the Cougars into the top 10 by Week 2, which is where they will need to be considering the rest of the schedule sees a significant dropoff after opening weekend.

Offensively, Houston should be able to hang with Oklahoma despite a solid returning unit defensively for the Sooners. But there needs to be significant improvement in the secondary for the Cougars to be able to effectively contain Baker Mayfield. If Houston expects to be able to outgun the Sooners, Tom Herman’s squad may end up just a bit short. Championship caliber football teams are solid on both sides of the football, not just one. Especially against a team like Oklahoma, the Cougars will need to get some stops to win.

Florida State at South Florida (September 24)

Although the rain may have contributed to Florida State’s slow start, when these two teams played in 2015 it was more competitive than most people would have predicted. This season, South Florida is good enough to challenge their in-state rival once again and this time it wouldn’t be considered a fluke.

Willie Taggert’s team returns almost the entire linebacker corps and secondary to a defense that was opportunistic last season, forcing 17 interceptions. Sean Maguire started the second half of Florida State’s games in 2015 but was noticeably rattled by Houston’s blitzing scheme and aggressiveness in the Peach Bowl. If the Bulls can get to Maguire in the pocket and force him to make quick decisions, they could keep this game close by way of turnovers.

In-Conference Games to Watch

South Florida at Cincinnati (October 1)

Both of these teams are likely going to play second fiddle to Houston in the conference, but if the Cougars slip up somewhere then these are the two most likely squads to assume the role of the AAC’s top team. Cincinnati has a lot of experience at quarterback with Gunner Kiel and he should be protected well by an offensive line that returns three seniors, but South Florida has athleticism that in several areas the Bearcats can’t match.

This game kicks off the Bulls’ conference slate while Cincinnati will have already played Houston two weeks earlier, so it will be interesting to see how the Bearcats approach this contest. Two losses to begin conference play would be damning to the chances for a conference title, so don’t be surprised if Cincinnati appears to be playing with a sense of urgency that South Florida may not share. Whether this will outweigh the talent gap will be interesting to watch.

Tulsa at Houston (October 15)

If you like offense, be sure to mark this game down on your calendar. Neither team was very good at stopping the pass last season but both were¬†extremely good in the passing game of the offensive side. The ability for each team to score points quickly should ensure that this one will be worth watching for all four quarters. Even if one side gets out to a big lead, you can’t consider it over in the first half.

Phillip Montgomery and Tom Herman were two of the best offensive coordinators in the country two seasons ago, and now both are using their offensive schemes to elevate AAC teams to heights greater than most people believed possible. Tulsa finished its 2015 season with a three point loss that eclipsed the century mark in terms of total points scored between the two teams. With the way Tulsa and Houston can move the football against solid defenses, 100 total points between these two is not out of the question.

Conference Predictions

East Division

1. Cincinnati (9-3, [6-2])

2. South Florida (9-3, [6-2])

3. Temple (9-3, [6-2])

4. East Carolina (4-8, [3-5])

5. Connecticut (5-7, [3-5])

6. Central Florida (2-10, [1-7])

West Division

1. Houston (10-2, [8-0])

2. Tulsa (10-2, [7-1])

3. Navy (7-5, [5-3])

4. Southern Methodist (3-9, [2-6])

5. Memphis (5-7, [2-6])

6. Tulane (3-9, [1-7])

Conference Championship (Cincinnati vs. Houston)

Winner: Houston

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