College football 2017: American Athletic Conference preview
For each of the next 11 days, leading up to the start of the 2017 college football season, USA TODAY Sports will publish a preview of one FBS conference. Today, the AAC.
The American Athletic Conference has offered up its services as the sixth power conference in a Football Bowl Subdivision that only has room for five. The math doesn’t work out in the league’s favor.
But I can see the foresight involved in making such a bold claim — just as I can see how staking said claim to being the sixth power conference might rub the Mountain West Conference, for example, the wrong way.
Start with the unquestioned positive. The current television contract attached with the College Football Playoff immediately puts an end to the idea that the American is destined to join the current Power Five structure. Yet by planting its flag a hair behind the Power Five, the American deftly separates itself in the court of public opinion from its Group of Five peers.
It’s possible to make a case where this mindset — repeated in hashtags, banners, media writeups and elsewhere — eventually trickles into acceptance, giving the American a leg up on the Mountain West, its prime Group of Five competition, in the chase for the annual access-bowl bid to a New Year’s Six bowl. This would be good for business.
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But the American must back up its claim with on-field results. Is the league better than the Mountain West? Deeper, perhaps, if not by much. Better? Depends on the year. Maybe not in 2017.
Undiscussed and unmentioned on the main dais last month at American media days, if whispered off stage, is how the league’s Power Six movement sets the American on a collision course with the Mountain West. On the field, that’s been the case throughout the brief history of the Playoff.
Off the field, the rivalry has taken on a new tone. The American wants to be viewed as the closest thing the Group of Five has to a power conference — and they’ve shared that feeling with the world of college football. Now the league must back up its braggadocio on Saturdays.
QB: Quinton Flowers, South Florida
RB: D’Angelo Brewer, Tulsa
RB: Ryquell Armstead, Temple
WR: Courtland Sutton, SMU
WR: Anthony Miller, Memphis
TE: Mitchell Wilcox, South Florida
OL: Evan Plagg, Tulsa
OL: Evan Martin, Navy
OL: Chandler Miller, Tulsa
OL: Tyler Bowling, Tulsa
OL: Brandon Smith, East Carolina
DL: Justin Lawler, SMU
DL: Ed Oliver, Houston
DL: Deadrin Senat, South Florida
DL: Jesse Brubaker, Tulsa
LB: Auggie Sanchez, South Florida
LB: Genard Avery, Memphis
LB: Shaquem Griffin, UCF
CB: Jamar Summers, Connecticut
CB: Deatrick Nichols, South Florida
S: Sean Chandler, Temple
S: Garrett Davis, Houston
K: Redford Jones, Tulsa
P: Spencer Smith, Memphis
RET: Tony Pollard, Memphis
Quarterback: South Florida. Quinton Flowers gives USF a dual-threat menace and is one of the most dangerous players in the country.
Running back: Navy. The running game and this backfield will keep on rolling even as the Midshipmen replace four of last season’s five leading rushers.
Wide receivers and tight ends: SMU. Courtland Sutton is one of the nation’s best, and the Mustangs’ group as a whole touts talent, proven production and depth.
Offensive line: Tulsa. This line touts three consensus all-conference picks: Chandler Miller in the middle, Tyler Bowling at guard and Evan Plagg on the outside.
Defensive line: Houston. The Cougars have sophomore sensation Ed Oliver. That’s enough.
Linebacker: Navy and UCF. Call it a tie. Navy’s Micah Thomas and the Knights’ Shaquem Griffin rank among the league’s top overall defenders.
Secondary: Temple. Three starters return from a secondary that consistently ranks at or near the top of the American.
Special teams: Memphis. The Tigers’ can tout the league’s best punter and return man, but the loss of kicker Jake Elliott leaves a void that will be impossible to replace.
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RANKING THE STARTING QBs
1. Quinton Flowers, South Florida. Flowers is the conference’s best hope of earning Heisman Trophy consideration.
2. Riley Ferguson, Memphis. The best pure passer in the American is a player to monitor on a national scale.
3. Kyle Allen, Houston. Allen’s ready to take off in his first year as the Cougars’ starter.
4. Thomas Sirk, East Carolina. If healthy, Sirk is good enough to help lift ECU to bowl eligibility. But he’s suffered three Achilles injuries, so ECU should have Gardner Minshew ready to go.
5. McKenzie Milton, UCF. He might not look the part of a star, but I think Milton will take a significant step forward as a sophomore and develop into one of the league’s best during his run as the Knights’ starter.
6. Chad President, Tulsa. There’s no doubt that Tulsa will get strong quarterback play despite the lack of proven production at the position.
7. Ben Hicks, SMU. The presumed starter, Hicks still needs a solid fall camp to fend off Rafe Peavey and retain the job.
8. Zach Abey, Navy. Abey takes over for the underrated Will Worth after accounting for more than 700 yards of total offense a year ago.
9. Jonathan Banks, Tulane. Landing the former Kansas State transfer will give Willie Fritz the style of quarterback he needs to run his offense.
10. Hayden Moore, Cincinnati. The safe bet is on Moore’s experience giving him the edge, but new head coach Luke Fickell has created some room for backup Ross Trail to make his move.
11. David Pindell, UConn. The junior-college transfer beat out senior Bryant Shirreffs, a 20-game starter during the past two seasons, to gain the keys to new offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee’s system.
12. Todd Centeio, Temple. There are four contenders for the starting job, including a nice prospect in redshirt freshman Anthony Russo, but Centeio has the legs and mentality to separate himself from the pack.
South Florida OT Grant Polk. The Virginia transfer may get squeezed out of a starting role on the blind side but will be a key cog in the Bulls’ line rotation.
UCF RB Cordarrian Richardson. A four-star recruit who flipped to UCF from Maryland, Richardson is pegged for a key role as the bigger back in the Knights’ running game.
Connecticut CB Tre Bell. After sitting out last fall as a transfer from Vanderbilt, Bell fits the mold for what first-year UConn defensive coordinator Bill Crocker is looking for at cornerback.
Houston DL Reggie Chevis. The graduate transfer from Texas A&M gives Houston another strong piece along an imposing defensive front.
Memphis CBs Tito Windham and Marcus Green. The two junior-college additions began their careers at Oklahoma before finding a solid landing spot in the Tigers’ secondary.
GAMES OF THE YEAR
Tulsa at Oklahoma State, Aug. 31. Tulsa is going to score points on the Cowboys, but probably not as many points as the Cowboys will score on Tulsa.
Temple at Notre Dame, Sept. 2. The Geoff Collins’ era kicks off in grand style.
Temple at South Florida, Sept. 21. A first-month matchup with a key tiebreaker on the line.
Air Force at Navy, Oct. 7. Part one of Navy’s chase for the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy.
Houston at Tulsa, Oct. 14. One of the great pairings of the conference season: Houston’s defensive line against Tulsa’s offensive front.
Memphis at Tulsa, Nov. 3. Memphis could really solidify its hold on the division by topping the Golden Hurricane on the road.
Navy at Houston, Nov. 24. Houston will want revenge after last year’s heartbreaking loss in Annapolis.
Navy vs. Army, Dec. 9 (in Philadelphia). One of the great rivalries in sports.
BEST CHANCE AT THE PLAYOFF
The answer is South Florida, for all the reasons discussed since Charlie Strong’s arrival as Willie Taggart’s replacement.
The Bulls have the quarterback: Quinton Flowers is a high-level college starter and one of the best at his position in the Group of Five. The Bulls have an offensive scheme that works, an impressive core of experienced returning starters and the confidence that comes from last year’s 10-win finish — confidence that might be only bolstered by Strong’s arrival.
Then there’s the schedule, which is a joke. USF will face one Power Five opponent during non-conference play in Illinois, but the Illini are more like Power Five and a Half. The Bulls otherwise draw San Jose State, Stony Brook and UMass. Yawn.
Temple comes at home, as does Houston, Tulsa and Cincinnati. The league road games are UConn, ECU, Tulane and UCF. (UCF already is dreaming of ending the Bulls’ quest for a perfect season in the finale.)
With this schedule, the Bulls couldn’t sniff the four-team Playoff field if they were sitting outside the door of the selection committee in Grapevine, Texas. So, here’s the plan: USF goes 13-0, maybe finishes the regular season in the top 10 and makes an access bowl.
And if not 13-0 — or at worst 12-1 or 11-2? Then the Mountain West is sending its champion to a New Year’s Six bowl and the American’s winner is heading to Birmingham. I’ve heard it’s beautiful there around Christmas time.