2014 CFN American Athletic Conference Preview
UCF LB Terrance Plummer
2014 CFN American Preview - Out of the Big 5, can the American rise back up and be a power?
American Athletic Preview
By Richard Cirminiello
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In a world of haves and have-nots, the American has officially been relegated to college football’s version of Triple-A.
After enjoying privileged status throughout the BCS era, the conference formerly known as the Big East watched the clock strike 12 on it after champion UCF shocked Baylor in January’s Fiesta Bowl. Goodbye, Power 5. Hello, Group of 5. So long, automatic bid to a lucrative postseason payday. Glad to make your acquaintances, Miami Beach Bowl.
With the dust now beginning to settle on realignment, the American has emerged as one of the machination’s big losers. The conference that once housed Miami, Virginia Tech, Pitt and West Virginia now looks like some amalgam of Conference USA and a handful of programs bigger leagues didn’t want. In a microcosm of the past few years, the American is now adding East Carolina, Tulane and Tulsa to offset the losses of its best draw, Louisville, and its representative from the New York market, Rutgers.
Life goes on. And, hey, it’s not as if the play in Conference USA hasn’t been fun since its inception in 1995. The 2014 season will be marked by a competitive race to the title and terrific performances out of the quarterbacks. The league that was once typified by its defenses and physicality is gradually changing identities with the influx of programs from the South and Southwest.
UCF is coming off a memorable year that included a league crown, a BCS bowl win and an alum, QB Blake Bortles, getting drafted No. 3 overall by the Jacksonville Jaguars. For the Knights to repeat, they’ll need someone to step up and play efficiently from behind center. With even average quarterback play, UCF has more than enough skill position and defensive talent to add more hardware to the trophy case.
The Knights’ biggest threats will come from Cincinnati, Houston and East Carolina. The ever-consistent Bearcats won nine games in Tommy Tuberville’s debut, and now have access to former can’t-miss Notre Dame QB Gunner Kiel. The Pirates are bringing arguably the league’s best quarterback, Shane Carden, to their new home. Carden is a dynamic playmaker, who hopes to do for the American what Bortles did in 2013 as a first-year import. Look out for the Cougars, though. Tony Levine’s third team is primed to deliver the kind of season that ends with a crown. Houston is that deep and gifted on both sides of the ball in 2014.
The balance of the American will jockey for one of five bowl tie-ins. SMU, Tulsa and South Florida are looking to rebound from disappointing seasons. Tulane is out to show that 2013 was no fluke. Memphis and Temple continue to build for young coaches. And UConn’s Bob Diaco is angling for a fast start as the league’s only rookie head coach.
The makeover of the American is almost complete, save for the addition of Navy in 2015. The bad news doesn’t need to be repeated. The good news is that the conference finally has solid footing now that the realignment carousel has stopped spinning. The fight for the top will be entertaining in 2014, and the league has multiple candidates capable of representing the Group of 5 in the Cotton Bowl, Fiesta Bowl or Peach Bowl.
Team That'll Surprise
Houston – The Cougars began to turn the corner in 2013 under Tony Levine. This fall, they open up the engine on the highway. Each of Houston’s four regular season losses were by a touchdown or less. And since much of that team is back and a year older, it’s going to be in a far better position to deliver in tight games. The offense is loaded with skill position talent, headed by the pitch-and-catch combo of John O’Korn-to-Deontay Greenberry, and an attacking D will continue to create havoc. With 28 full or part-time starters back, Houston is ready to emerge from the pack of American contenders.
Team That'll Disappoint
East Carolina – There’s Shane Carden-to-Justin Hardy … and an awful lot of question marks in Greenville. The Pirates will score plenty in 2014, and they’ll be a handful for opposing defensive backfields. But there’s no glossing over the number of new starters being broken in, especially as the level of competition rises in a new league. There’ll be three new starters on the O-line, and an already rebuilding D-line is going to miss injured pass rusher Terrell Stanley. Carden will keep ECU in games, while drawing the attention of pro scouts. The program, though, won’t contend in its American debut unless a bunch of lesser-known cogs quickly flatten learning curves.
Game of the Year …
UCF at Houston, Oct. 2 – Now that Louisville is in the ACC, the American will be showcasing some of its other programs in 2014 and beyond. The Cougars will be entertaining the defending league champs on Oct. 2, with a Thursday night audience getting its first good look at the host’s brand-new $100 million home. If Houston is truly ready to take the next step under third-year head coach Tony Levine, it’ll build momentum here on the backs of UCF. The matchup between the John O’Korn-led Cougar offense and the speedy, veteran Knight D will be one of the most intriguing all season in this league.
5 Big-Time Players Who Deserve a Bigger Spotlight ...
1. QB Shane Carden, Sr. East Carolina
2. LB Tyler Matakevich, Jr. Temple
3. FS Trevon Stewart, Jr. Houston
4. LB Terrance Plummer, Sr. UCF
5. RB Kenneth Pope, Sr. SMU
Coach on the Hot Seat
Justin Fuente, Memphis – Technically, Fuente isn’t on a traditional hot seat. But he is on the hottest seat among American coaches. No one is in imminent, Will Muschamp-like danger in a league dominated by coaches who’re either safe or within the first two years of their tenure. However, that shouldn’t suggest Fuente isn’t feeling pressure to produce better results. He’s 7-17 through two years, including 1-7 in league play last fall. While the Tigers are improving, the administration expects that progress to begin impacting the standings. Since Fuente arrived from TCU as a noted developer of quarterbacks, his fate could be tied to the maturation of sophomore Paxton Lynch, who hit a wall in the second half of 2013.
5 Non-Conference Games the AAC better take very, very seriously
1. UTSA at Houston, Aug. 29
2. SMU at North Texas, Sept. 6
3. Middle Tennessee at Memphis, Sept. 20
4. Texas State at Tulsa, Sept. 27
5. Western Carolina at South Florida, Aug. 30
- June Jones will announce in December that he’s leaving the Hilltop for Hawaii, which has already had enough of Norm Chow. The cash-strapped Warriors will find a way for Jones to finish his career on the islands.
- Houston will win the conference and finish the season ranked in the Top 25, which will heat up the phone lines of head coach Tony Levine’s agent.
- Boise State transfer Nick Patti will eventually be Blake Bortles’ successor at UCF. Patti has a ton to learn as the newest member of the competition. But he brings a spark to an offense that must find a way to utilize the league’s best collection of wide receivers.
- South Florida’s Willie Taggart will use 2014 to remind everyone why he’s still one of the hottest young coaches in college football. Oh, the offense will again struggle, but the Bulls will use a lot of young players, while getting closer to what Taggart expects from his teams.
- Kevin Pope, SMU’s linebacker-turned-running back, will become a household name in American circles. The 225-pounder gives the Mustangs the balance that their erratic passing attack sorely needs.
- Munchie Legaux will finish the season as Cincinnati’s starting quarterback. Gunner Kiel has the name recognition and pedigree as a former can’t-miss recruit, but Legaux’s heart and determination coming off a severe knee injury will bear fruit at some point in 2014.
- Houston WR Markeith Ambles will build on his breakout bowl performance versus Vanderbilt to become one of the league’s biggest offensive surprises of 2014. Ambles plus Deontay Greenberry will make the Cougar passing game downright unstoppable at times this fall.
- From out of nowhere, Tulsa will house one of the league’s top defensive backfields. Pro-caliber FS Demarco Nelson is back from injury to join up-and-coming Hurricane defenders Michael Mudoh and Will Barrow.
- East Carolina QB Shane Carden will shoot up NFL Draft boards. No, he’s not Blake Bortles, but his accuracy, zip on his throws and command of the offense will grow on scouts this fall.
- Opposing quarterbacks will ignore Tulane CB Lorenzo Doss. NFL scouts will not. Doss will add weight and sharpen his skills before becoming the rare Green Wave player to leave school early for the draft.
- Temple QB P.J. Walker will continue his ascent to stardom, leaving numerous coaches around the region wondering how such a dual-threat talent ended up in Philadelphia.
- Houston FS Trevon Stewart’s knack for wreaking havoc all over the field will result in a smattering of comparisons to former LSU star Tyrann Mathieu. The similarities in style are unmistakable.
- East Carolina’s Justin Hardy will become the second-straight wide receiver to win the Burlsworth Trophy, given to the nation’s top one-time walk-on. Wisconsin’s Jared Abbrederis won the award in 2013.
- UCF will yield the fewest touchdowns passes in America. With all four starters—and their backups—returning, it will once again compel opponents to the run ball on the Knights. CB Jacoby Glenn and SS Clayton Geathers are American DBs with ACC skill sets.
- No American coach will be fired at the end of the season.
5 Best Pro Prospects
1. CB Lorenzo Doss, Jr. Tulane
2. WR Justin Hardy, Sr. East Carolina
3. WR Deontay Greenberry, Jr. Houston
4. CB Byron Jones, Sr. Connecticut
5. LT Eric Lefeld, Sr. Cincinnati
5 Biggest Shoes to Fill
1. QB Justin Holman, Pete DiNovo, Tyler Harris or Nick Patti for Blake Bortles, UCF
2. LB Graham Stewart for Yawin Smallwood, Connecticut
3. LB Jeff Luc for Greg Blair, Cincinnati
4. P Spencer Smith or Evan Michael for Tom Hornsey, Memphis
5. RB William Stanback for Storm Johnson, UCF