By Richard Cirminiello
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With all of the comings and goings over the past year, the conference formerly known as the Big East ought to consider relocating its league offices to Grand Central Terminal.
Picked apart like a lifeless entity of late, the Big East has mercifully expired, giving way to the American Athletic Conference. Or, more appropriately, Conference USA: The Sequel. The Big East never was very good at retaining its marquee members, losing teams to three more prominent leagues during a steady decade of decline.
First, a little housekeeping that will require pen and paper. Syracuse and Pitt are already gone, becoming the two newest members of the ACC. Louisville and Rutgers will spend one more season on the sinking vessel before taking life rafts to the ACC and the Big Ten, respectively, in 2014. Houston, Memphis, SMU and UCF have been imported from Conference USA. East Carolina, Tulane and Tulsa will be heading East a year from now. Cincinnati, Connecticut, South Florida and Temple have stayed put, but by no choice of their own.
The tumult and the revolving door of exits and new entries aside, the AAC has a singular storyline as the 2013 season quickly approaches: Louisville. The Cardinals are home to one of the nation’s premier talents, QB Teddy Bridgewater, a rising coach, Charlie Strong, and a team looking to build on last year’s Sugar Bowl shocker over Florida. Louisville is trending on a national level. And if a soft schedule can be overcome, the Cards believe an improbable push toward national championship contention might be their going-away present to the AAC.
Louisville is the consensus favorite to run away with the title this year. The three programs with the best shot of flipping the script are Cincinnati, Rutgers and UCF, in no particular order. The Bearcats have a new coach—again—replacing Butch Jones with Tommy Tuberville. The Scarlet Knights have holes to fill on both sides of the ball, while needing the backfield tandem of QB Gary Nova and RB Savon Huggins to deliver. UCF brings a Blake Bortles-led offense into 2013 that ought to make for a smoother landing in a new league.
From here, there are six teams that’ll be fighting for one of the league’s six automatic bowl tie-ins. Memphis and Temple are unlikely to be factors. Connecticut, Houston, South Florida and SMU, on the other hand, could be in the mix. The Huskies want to rebound following back-to-back 5-7 seasons. The Cougars have issues of their own after slumping in 2012, and then losing star RB Charles Sims to West Virginia. Hope in Tampa comes from the presence of head coach Willie Taggart, an upgrade at the helm as the personnel slowly rebuilds. June Jones and his Mustangs avoid Louisville, but must rebuild after losing many of last season’s brightest performers.
Enjoy your automatic BCS bowl berth, American Athletic Conference. Like the BCS itself, that ticket to a big-payday January event expires at the end of the year. All eyes in 2013 will be riveted to Louisville, a program capable of bringing widespread attention to the disjointed league, even as the Cards prepare for life in a different home a year from now.
Team That'll Surprise
UCF – Of the AAC’s four imports from Conference USA, none is better positioned for instant success than the Knights. The program is accustomed to winning, going 10-4 in 2012, and is being led into new terrain by venerable head coach George O’Leary. Question marks on both lines will prevent UCF from contending for its first-ever BCS bowl game. However, the offense is potent enough to carry the program to the upper echelon of the league standings. Blake Bortles is the AAC’s next best thing at quarterback to Teddy Bridgewater, and the offense is flush with playmakers, such as RB Storm Johnson and last season’s top four receivers. UCF will outgun opponents this fall, making good on its long-awaited promotion to a more competitive conference.
Team That'll Disappoint
Rutgers – After finishing in a four-way tie atop the Big East in 2012, the Scarlet Knights could be shown a somewhat chilly exit as they prepare for life as a member of the Big Ten. There aren’t a lot of sure-things coming back to Kyle Flood’s second team, save for WR Brandon Coleman, a couple of O-linemen and a couple of Merrells, DE Jamil and LB Jamal. Rutgers has issues in the backfield, and it needs to replace all four of last season’s first-team defensive all-stars. Now, the AAC has been watered-down enough by realignment to make a bowl game a likelihood. But, don’t be surprised if the Knights slip to 7-5, while grappling with Cincinnati and UCF just to finish as the runner-up to Louisville.
Game of the Year …
Louisville at Cincinnati, Dec. 5 - The annual tilt between these border rivals is for the Keg of Nails. This year’s primetime, Friday night meeting at Nippert Stadium could have a lot more than just household hardware items hanging in the balance. Of course, when two of the league’s better teams hook up, there will always be championship implications. For Louisville, though, the AAC crown might be just a small part of the grand equation. If the Cards can get to this point unblemished, the short trip to Cincy would represent their final chance to show voters that they belong in the BCS National Championship Game discussion. And with the Cards off to the ACC in 2014, there are no guarantees that this longstanding tradition, which began in 1929, has a future beyond this year.
5 Big-Time Players Who Deserve a Bigger Spotlight ...
1. S Calvin Pryor, Jr. Louisville
2. QB Blake Bortles, Jr. UCF
3. LB Greg Blair, Sr. Cincinnati
4. CB Kenneth Acker, Sr. SMU
5. LB DeDe Lattimore, Sr. South Florida
Coach on the Hot Seat
Paul Pasqualoni, Connecticut – The hiring of Pasqualoni didn’t make a whole lot of sense when it happened two years ago. After back-to-back 5-7 seasons, the move is beginning to look like a disaster. The Huskies brass decided to bring Pasqualoni back to the Big East after he’d spent six years away from the college game and reached the age of 60. Huh? Yeah, Storrs is a tough place to win when the ball isn’t round, but UConn did win the Big East and play in the Fiesta Bowl in 2010, Randy Edsall’s final year on the sidelines. If Pasqualoni fails to guide the Huskies back to a bowl game in 2013, it would qualify as a shock if this questionable experiment was allowed to continue for a fourth season.
5 Non-Conference Games the AAC better take very, very seriously
1. Ohio at Louisville, Aug. 31
2. Rutgers at Fresno State, Aug. 29
3. Cincinnati at Miami University, Sept. 21
4. UCF at Florida International, Sept. 7
5. Houston at UTSA, Sept. 28
- Teddy Bridgewater will heroically finish at least one game with a severe limp. He’ll also struggle to gain much traction in Heisman circles, because Louisville’s toughest opponent in 2013 might not even be ranked in the Top 25 by December.
- Louisville will stumble once along the way, ending the debate about the team’s viability as a national championship contender. Remember that the clear-cut class of the AAC did struggle in 2012, including late losses to Syracuse and Connecticut.
- Gary Nova-to-Brandon Coleman will be a dynamite pitch-and-catch combo. The rest of the Rutgers program, though, will be rather bland and uninspiring.
- Cincinnati LB Jeff Luc will be very bad news for the concussion lawsuit that’s been levied at the NCAA. The Florida State transfer will quickly become one of the nastiest hitters in the AAC.
- A new leader, Tommy Tuberville, won’t derail Cincinnati’s personality as one of the best-kept secrets in the FBS. The winners of at least a share of four of the last five Big East crowns will again be near the top of the standings in 2013.
- UCF will challenge Louisville as the most prolific offense in the league. QB Blake Bortles is a next-level distributor surrounded by no scarcity of speed or explosiveness at running back and wide receiver.
- Houston WR Deontay Greenberry will become a major headache for AAC defensive backs unaccustomed to facing young receivers with his combination of size, speed and elusiveness. A second year with head coach Tony Levine and QB David Piland is going to aid the development of the former five-star Greenberry.
- Paul Pasqualoni will become the first FBS coach to get the axe after Connecticut falls to Temple on Nov. 23. The Huskies will finish 6-6, and be led by defensive coordinator Hank Hughes in the Beef ‘O’ Brady’s Bowl.
- Playing in a new league will allow the Q rating of SMU RB Traylon Shead and CB Kenneth Acker to grow exponentially. Shead is a 6-2, 230-pound former four-star recruit of Texas, while Acker is a next-level playmaker in need of a bigger following.
- Growing frustrated with the inconsistencies of senior QB Garrett Gilbert, SMU head coach June Jones will begin the Neal Burcham era on the Hilltop a half-year earlier than expected. The Mustangs like the upside potential of their redshirt freshman triggerman.
-South Florida newcomer Aaron Lynch will tear through the American Athletic Conference, laying the groundwork to become the second defensive end selected in next April’s NFL Draft. The Notre Dame transfer has operated this offseason with the focus of a player who knows a fat paycheck awaits him.
- South Florida will be the league’s hottest team in November, earning 36-year-old head coach Willie Taggart the distinction of being one of the fastest rising young coaches in America.
- Justin Fuente will interview for promotions in December. The Memphis head coach has made the kind of progress that doesn’t always show up in the standings, but ADs have are paying close attention to his efforts.
- Temple QB Connor Reilly will quickly gain a following, in and out of Philadelphia. The two-sport Owl, who’s also a starting outfielder, has gone from a holder on field goals to the top of the depth chart with a terrific offseason.
5 Best Pro Prospects
1. QB Teddy Bridgewater, Jr. Louisville
2. DE Aaron Lynch, Soph. South Florida
3. WR Brandon Coleman, Jr. Rutgers
4. LB Yawin Smallwood, Jr. Connecticut
5. S Hakeem Smith, Sr. Louisville
5 Biggest Shoes to Fill
1. LB Kevin Snyder for Khaseem Greene, Rutgers
2. LB Jefferson Ashiru for Sio Moore, Connecticut
3. RB Ralph David Abernathy IV for George Winn, Cincinnati
4. DE Tim Willman for Trevardo Williams, Connecticut
5. C Jake Smith for Mario Benavides, Louisville