2015 NCAA Football Preview: American Athletic Conference

August 31, 2015

If you’re still reading this, then you’re too late.

Around The Corn had its heyday when I was still in college, unsure of what I’d be doing professionally and still holding onto the ounce of hope that someone other than the people I had met in person would discover my writing and feel it was good enough to be published by a credible source.

While that ship has sailed, one thing still remains: my love of writing (and making predictions) about college football. This site has gone through a few transitions already (and will be going through another fairly soon. Surprise.), but one constant that will remain is that college football is a focal point of ATC.

So as tradition holds, I am beginning my college football conference previews far too late and am now scrambling to have everything published before the games begin this coming Thursday. I’d like to say that it was a planned personal challenge to wait this long, but at this point who am I kidding?

We’ll start by taking a look at the American Athletic Conference. And if you are curious, we’ll be covering the conferences in alphabetical order this year as I don’t have the time to arrange them in some cutesy way like general geographic location as I have done in prior years.


The American Athletic Conference has developed itself quite nicely in the two years since changing its name from the Big East Conference. Now a 12 team league with a conference championship game to cap off the regular season madness, the AAC has done everything in its power to position itself as the country’s number one alternative to Power 5 conference football. Although the league was unable to hold onto powers Boise State and TCU during the tumultuous transition years, respectable programs Houston, UCF and most recently Navy have bolstered a lineup that would compete favorably with the remaining Group of Five conferences.

This isn’t a conference that will earn headlines for its College Football Playoff runs, but it is a league worth keeping an eye on. Offensive juggernauts Cincinnati and Memphis have the talent to keep pace with most teams in the country, while perennial defensive stalwart Central Florida will remain a threat despite going through somewhat of a transition on the defensive side in 2015. All in all, this is a league worth watching, especially on special weeknight features.

College Football Playoff Contenders


While the AAC is clearly the strongest Group of Five conference heading into the 2015-2016 season, there isn’t any reason to suggest that one of its 12 teams will realistically compete for one of the four playoff slots. League favorites Cincinnati, Memphis and Houston are all decent teams but have difficult enough schedules that an undefeated season seems unlikely. Additionally, an undefeated AAC school wouldn’t even be a sure bet to be chosen over the handful of one-loss power conference programs that are sure to exist by December.

Although figuratively speaking a playoff bid is likely off the table for this league, a shot at one of the New Year’s Six bowl games is a real possibility. Any one of the AAC teams that makes it through the regular season with one or perhaps even two losses could be in consideration for one of those spots. And if last year is any indication, the fiesta (pun intended) that is the New Year’s Six bowls is nothing to turn your nose up at, especially as an AAC squad.

Team That Could Surprise


The Cougars are riding a wave of momentum following the 2014 season in which the team came back from three touchdowns behind to stun Pittsburgh in the Armed Forces Bowl. That, along with the hiring of new head coach Tom Herman, has the offense in exactly the right place heading into the 2015 season.

Herman’s play calling abilities were on display in Columbus before he took the job in Houston, and if the Buckeyes’ national title run in which they averaged 47.6 points en route to being crowned champions is any indication, they work well with the right personnel. Luckily for Herman, quarterback Greg Ward Jr. has a skillset similar to that of guys like Braxton Miller and J.T. Barrett, whom Herman worked with in Columbus.

Hi, My Name Is… (Players to Watch)

Paxton Lynch – Memphis junior quarterback

It will be difficult to miss Lynch when he’s on the field, and not just because he is the signal caller for the Tigers. The 6’7″, 230 pound junior is also routinely one of the tallest players on the gridiron, which gives him a distinct advantage and is also one of the reasons that his arm strength is something opposing defensive coordinators fear. Groomed under head coach Justin Fuente, who was the quarterbacks coach and co-offensive coordinator when Andy Dalton was at TCU, Lynch should continue to improve and become one of the best quarterbacks in the AAC in 2015.

Without much returning to the Memphis offense in terms of skill position players, Lynch will be leaned upon heavily at the beginning of the season. However, with four offensive linemen returning and a decent set of legs, the tall quarterback should have no problem with the tall task.

Keenan Reynolds, Navy senior quarterback

One of the strongest leaders in any huddle across the country, Keenan Reynolds will play his senior season in unfamiliar territory. After over 100 years of being an independent, Navy will play in a conference for the first time this season. Not only does this mean an uptick in strength of schedule, but it also means that Navy means more than a win or loss on the schedule to AAC teams. Now, conference position is at stake.

Reynolds is one of the few returning starters to the Navy offense, meaning that his leadership role will be even more important in 2015. As the linchpin of a complex triple option offense, the senior will be responsible for the bulk of the offensive yards that Navy gains, as well as the bulk of its touchdowns. Last season, Reynolds set the FBS single season record for rushing touchdowns. Expect more great things from this highly talented individual.

Out-of-Conference Games to Watch

Penn State at Temple (September 5)

This in-state rivalry doesn’t sound like much to talk about, and historically, it hasn’t been. The Nittany Lions hold a 35-3-1 advantage in the series and look poised to have a strong 2015 campaign. But don’t count out the Owls in this one, as Temple is returning nearly every defensive starter from last season and could give Penn State quarterback Christian Hackenberg all he can handle in the season opener.

The biggest question for Temple will be whether it can put up enough points to close the deal on its Big Ten foe. This should be a defensive struggle for both teams, so don’t expect more than 20 points from either side or for Hackenberg to make a case for the Heisman in Week 1.

Houston at Louisville (September 12)

The Cougars are coming off of a thrilling bowl victory over Pittsburgh to end the 2014 campaign and are now lead by former offensive coordinator Tom Herman, so there is a buzz about this season’s squad in Houston. Thanks to dual-threat option Greg Ward Jr. at quarterback, Herman has a special athlete that should be able to run the kind of offense that he employed while in Columbus alongside Urban Meyer. This makes for a tantalizing matchup against Bobby Petrino’s defense.

Assuming that Houston is not overpowered by the size of Louisville, this should be a very entertaining game that pits strength against strength. While winning on the road is never tough, Houston appears to have the talent to go into Louisville and steal a victory as the underdog.

In-Conference Games to Watch

Cincinnati at Memphis (September 24)

Although these two teams are in separate divisions now, this is still the premier matchup on the AAC schedule. Both Memphis and Cincinnati have capable quarterbacks and speedy skill players that will test the defenses, meaning that this one has the potential to be a shootout. At the same time, defense could play an integral role as turnovers could be the deciding factor in this game.

In the secondary, Memphis should have a slight advantage despite needing to replace almost its entire core from last season. Cincinnati was burned several times through the air in 2014 and it should be expected that Memphis will look to take advantage of a weakness that may still exist this season.

Memphis at Houston (November 14)

Perhaps ATC is high on the Cougars because of the familiarity with Tom Herman. But whatever the reason may be, the confidence exists that this late season contest will decide which school represents the West Division in the AAC title game. Houston will be coming off of another difficult test against Cincinnati the week prior, while Memphis will have had to prepare for Navy’s triple option the first week of November.

Houston may have the best defensive secondary in the conference, which will play a major role in this game. Unlike Cincinnati, which will have to rely heavily on the offense to perform, Houston has the luxury of a defense that can actually bail the offense out if needed. Memphis will need to play a complete game in order to prevent the upstarts from stealing the division title.

Conference Predictions

East Division

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

2. Temple (7-5, [5-3])

3. Central Florida (7-5, [5-3])

4. East Carolina (5-7, [4-4])

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

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

West Division

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

2. Memphis (8-4, [6-2])

3. Navy (8-4, [5-3])

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

5. Tulane (4-8, [2-6])

6. Tulsa (1-11, [0-8])

Championship Game (Cincinnati vs. Houston)

Winner: Houston

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