2014 NCAA Football Preview: American Athletic Conference

August 12, 2014

Two articles in two days. It isn’t often that I promise something to my readers and actually deliver.

Let’s dive right in to the American Athletic Conference preview.


Just when you thought you had successfully memorized the teams in the awkwardly named American Athletic Conference, the football gods went and changed things. In its second year of existence under the current name, the AAC lost two members and gained three. Say goodbye to Louisville and Rutgers and give a big welcome to East Carolina, Tulane and Tulsa.

To some extent, the tip of the AAC’s sword has become a bit dull. No longer does the conference receive an automatic bid to one of the major bowl games, and the replacement of Louisville and Rutgers with perennial Conference USA contenders East Carolina and Tulsa doesn’t really draw tons of interest from the casual football fan. But for those willing to dig a little deeper to find competitive college football, this is a truly interesting conference.

Everything is even. From the top tier squads to the bottom rung of the conference, the talent gap isn’t as large as you might find in other non-Power Five leagues. As in past years when the Big East only consisted of eight teams, expect a lot of close games and quality competition to rise to the top by the end of the year. It’s unlikely that you’ll find one of these teams playing in a one of the marquee bowl games, but there’s always the chance that a Central Florida is waiting in the wings.

I may not be able to convince everyone that this is football worth watching, but for the diehards wondering, the AAC is still a quality product.

Team(s) With the Best Shot at a Playoff Bid


The only way that an American Athletic Conference team will make the College Football Playoff these days is by running the table and beginning the year ranked highly in the polls. While the former is absolutely possible (albeit unlikely), the latter did not happen. In fact, Cincinnati and Houston were the only AAC teams to receive Top 25 votes in the USA Today poll, and both teams were fairly far down the list (receiving six and five votes, respectively).

Don’t be surprised if in the future an AAC team is in the mix for one of the four playoff spots. As schools such as East Carolina and Tulsa begin to see the positive effects from a recruiting standpoint by playing in a more competitive conference, the level of play should improve as well as the reputation of the league heading into each new season. But that is at least a few years away, so I wouldn’t bet the house on an AAC team breaking into the playoff party quite yet.

Watch Out! (Team That Could Surprise)


The Tigers have been hanging around the bottom of whatever conference they have been in for quite some time, winning more than three games just once since 2009. But 2014 could mark the return of not only a competitive program, but one that is headed to a bowl game at the end of the year. Memphis has improved significantly on defense thanks to defensive coordinator Barry Odom, and Odom will have seven returning starters to work with to build on that progress. The offense is where the Tigers could make the biggest gains over 2013, where the team was ranked outside the Top 100 nationally in scoring, passing and total offense.

With redshirt sophomore quarterback Paxton Lynch having a year of growing pains under his belt, chances are that Memphis will take better care of the ball on offense this year. This alone could have a major impact on the team’s record, as four of its nine losses in 2013 were by seven points or fewer. Add in a schedule that is favorable after mid-October and you’ve got a team that is primed for a return to the postseason.

Hi, My Name Is… (Player to Watch)

Shane Carden (Sr.), East Carolina quarterback

Those that followed Conference USA last season know just how good Carden can be. The 2013 Conference USA MVP is one of the better quarterbacks in the entire country, let alone the best one in the AAC. Carden averaged over 315 yards passing and completed an impressive 70.5 percent of his passes last season for East Carolina while also finishing ninth in the country in touchdown passes thrown with 33. As if he needed any help, Carden also gets to throw to future NFL receiver Justin Hardy which only helps his numbers.

If East Carolina is to win the AAC in its first year as a member of the conference, Carden must continue to light up the scoreboard with his strong arm. The Pirates are in the midst of a defensive rebuilding project this season, so Carden and the rest of the offense will be integral in keeping East Carolina in games against teams like Houston and Central Florida, which can also score quickly. Fortunately, Carden has more experience than any of his competitors as he has started every game since his sophomore year.

Out-Of-Conference Game to Watch

Cincinnati vs. Ohio State (September 27th)

This in-state rivalry is being played for the first time since the 2006-2007 campaign, which consequently is the same season that the Buckeyes were trounced in the national title game by current Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer’s Florida Gators. The Buckeyes made a statement by beating the Bearcats 37-7 in 2006, but don’t expect Cincinnati to go down so easily this time around. The Bearcats are routinely one of the more stifling defenses in the AAC and return seven starters to a defense that ranked ninth in the country in yards allowed per game last season.

Offensively, Cincinnati may have a hard time moving the ball against Ohio State’s vaunted defense, but there is a ray of hope. Notre Dame transfer Gunner Kiel will most likely be the starting quarterback for the Bearcats and has the arm to give the Buckeyes fits. The No. 1 rated quarterback coming out of high school two years ago, Kiel will get the opportunity to play a team like Ohio State only a few times a year at Cincinnati. Don’t be surprised if the young gunslinger gives Coach Meyer & Co. a scare under the lights at The Shoe.

In-Conference Game to Watch

Houston vs. Cincinnati (December 6th)

This game could be the deciding factor in determining the AAC champion, and the fact that it is the final game of the season for both teams just adds to the drama. Houston is in good position to be in the running for the conference title thanks to a favorable schedule, but struggled down the stretch last season after opening up at 7-1. Cincinnati has been a perennial Big East/AAC contender for the past decade and the number of players it returns this year suggests much of the same for 2014.

This game poses a contrast of styles, with Houston looking to overwhelm opponents with its offensive flare while Cincinnati prefers to get things done on the defensive end. Since the game is being played at Cincinnati in December, there is the possibility that the weather could favor Cincinnati’s style. However, Houston also returns the bulk of its defensive cast from 2013, and assuming that the pass defense is better the Cougars won’t be allowing points left and right. It’s difficult to tell how many touchdowns we’ll see in this one, but you can bet on it being an extremely close game.

Conference Predictions

1. East Carolina (9-3, [8-0])

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

3. Cincinnati (8-4, [6-2])

4. Central Florida (8-4, [6-2])

5. Memphis (6-6, [4-4])

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

7. Temple (4-8, [3-5])

8. Tulane (3-9, [2-6])

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

10. Southern Methodist (2-10, [2-6])

11. South Florida (3-9, [1-7])

Questions from the Readers

This is a section dedicated to the readers, where I will answer the questions you have sent me through Facebook, Twitter (@KBecks_ATC) or email (kbecks@aroundthecorn.com). Unfortunately, there were no questions sent regarding the AAC or its teams. Feel free to ask multiple questions, as I will answer any appropriate question that is submitted in time. Thanks guys.

– K. Becks

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