SQ American Athletic Conference Preview

The college football season is less than a month away from kicking off, and most teams have already begun their fall camps. And just in time for the regular season, our writers have cooked up previews for all of the conferences in the FBS. We last covered the Mountain West, and today we will take a look at the American Athletic Conference.

What Happened in 2014:

Conference Co-Champions: UCF 9-4 (7-1), Cincinnati 9-4 (7-1) and Memphis 10-3 (7-1)

Coach of the Year: Justin Fuente, Memphis

After going a dismal 3-9 in 2013, Fuente and Memphis flipped the script and finished atop the American Athletic Conference as opposed to the cellar, where many experts predicted the team would finish. Although Memphis shared the conference title with both UCF and Cincinnati last season, it was the first conference crown the Tigers held since 1971 when the team was a member of the Missouri Valley Conference. The Tigers even found themselves in the top-25 at season's end.

Offensive Player of the Year: QB Shane Carden, East Carolina

Carden's senior season was nothing short of spectacular, especially statistically speaking. The East Carolina signal caller finished second in the nation in passing yards (4,736) and third in passing yards per game (364.3). Carden led the Pirates to an early top-20 ranking after racing out to a 6-1 start, throwing for 2,574 yards during that span.

Co-Defensive Players of the Year: CB Jacoby Glenn, UCF / LB Tank Jakes, Memphis

Jacoby Glenn was one of the best shutdown corners in college football last season, leading the conference in both interceptions (7) and passes defended (18). He helped lead UCF to the 11th best pass efficiency defense (107.76) in the nation. Glenn was also named to the American Athletic Conference First Team for the second consecutive season.

Tank Jakes, on the other hand, was one of best pass rushers in the conference. Jakes tallied 15.5 tackles for loss (1st in AAC) along with six sacks, proving to be a nightmare for opposing quarterbacks. One of the key components to a defense that finished first in the AAC in turnover margin (+11), Jakes forced four fumbles to lead the team.

Three Memorable Games:

1. East Carolina 30 vs. UCF 32, Dec. 4th - In case you missed it, this game had arguably the best finish of all season. Entering the final quarter, East Carolina trailed UCF, 26-9, but scored 21 unanswered points to take a 30-26 lead. With only time for one final play, UCF QB Justin Holman chucked a Hail Mary 51 yards down the field that miraculously landed in the hands of receiver Breshad Perriman, leaving ECU fans silent and stunned.

2. Tulsa 38 vs. Tulane 31 2OT, Aug. 28th - This game was surely one of the best to watch during the first week of play last season. Tulsa QB Dane Evans threw for four touchdowns, and the final one went eight yards to Conner Floyd in the second overtime period. Just two plays after that, Demarco Nelson sealed the game for the Golden Hurricane by intercepting a pass from Tanner Lee.

3. Cincinnati 54 vs. East Carolina 46, Nov. 13th - East Carolina's Shane Carden's comeback attempt wasn't enough in this one. Carden put the team on his back, throwing for two touchdowns and running for another to put East Carolina up 46-45 with a minute left. However, the defense couldn't hold up as Cincinnati signal caller, Gunner Kiel, led a 35-yard drive to put freshman kicker Andrew Gantz in position for a 47-yard field goal. Gantz sank the career-long kick and Cincinnati escaped with the victory.

Looking Ahead to 2015:

Conference Favorite: Cincinnati

Claiming just a share of the American Athletic Conference title last season, Cincinnati is now the favorite to claim the prize for itself in 2015. With the now expanded AAC, Cincinnati will have to win the East Division in order to get a shot at the conference title game. That shouldn't be too difficult seeing as how the only real competition in the division this season will be Temple and UCF. 

Gunslinger QB Gunner Kiel returns to the helm of the Cincinnati offense, and is the key to the team's success in 2015. How Kiel performs will determine how far the Bearcats go this season. In his first season as the starter, Kiel threw for 3,254 yards and tied a Cincinnati single-season record for passing touchdowns with 31.

Defense could be a problem for the Bearcats again this season. Cincinnati brings in its third defensive coordinator in the last three seasons, hoping he can fix a defense that ranked 87th in rushing (183.69), 100th in passing (255.4) and 98th in total defense (439.1). Losing key pieces like linebackers Jeff Luc (133 tackles) and Nick Temple (113 tackles) and defensive end Terrell Hartsfield (9 sacks, 12 tackles for loss) could really hinder Cincinnati's front seven.

If the defense can improve jus t a little bit and make stops when it needs to, the offense will assuredly put enough points on the board. Expect the Bearcats to finish the season with eight or nine wins.

Conference Dark Horse: Navy

After more than a century of being an independent, Navy joined the American Athletic Conference; clearly the most fitting conference for the team to join, given the name. And even though it's just its first season in the conference, Navy has a good shot at being crowned the champion. 

Navy's triple-option attack is sure to give plenty of teams headaches this season, especially with the way QB Keenan Reynolds runs the offense. Reynolds already holds most of the school's records to his name, and has rushed for the most touchdowns (64) as a QB in NCAA history. However, he is not constrained to just running the ball in this offense; he can be pretty deadly with the pass, throwing for 843 yards last season.

With the way Navy's schedule sets up, there's a real possibility that the Midshipmen could win ten games. At the very least, the team should be able to muster at least six conference wins. The two toughest AAC games for Navy this season will come on the road against Memphis and Houston. If the team can win at least one of those games, it will be in good shape to play in the conference title bout.

Most Improved Team: Houston

Dipping into Urban Meyer's coaching tree usually isn't a bad idea (see Charlie Strong, Dan Mullen or Kyle Whittingham), and it's what Houston did when selecting former Ohio State OC Tom Herman. Herman did wonders for the Buckeyes' offense last season and the Cougars are hoping some of the magic will rub off on them.

Houston returns a wealth of talent on both ends of the ball, bringing back 15 starters in all. The talent is most notably deep at running back, where the Cougars return the AAC's best one-two punch in Kenneth Farrow and Ryan Jackson. A dynamic duo, Farrow and Jackson combined for 1,647 yards rushing and 19 touchdowns.

The real question is who will start under center for the Cougars in 2015? Coming into fall camp, the battle is between incumbent Greg Ward and Utah transfer Adam Schluz. Ward, who started last season as a receiver, showed great ability as a quarterback after taking over the roll a third of the way through the season. As a dual threat, Ward racked up 2,010 passing yards and 573 rushing yards. Seeing what Herman did with Ohio State's QBs last season, I wouldn't be surprised to see Ward have a breakout season, if he's named the starter.

Looking at the defense, Houston has arguably the best secondary in the conference. Corner William Jackson is drawing a lot of NFL Draft buzz after nabbing two interceptions and breaking up ten passes last season. Adrian McDonald and Trevon Stewart, a couple of ball-hawking safeties, combined for eight interceptions and 131 tackles last season. 

Freshmen to Watch: 

1. Tristan Payton, WR, UCF - Payton, a 4-star recruit that flipped from USC shortly before signing day, could provide an immediate impact for the Knights in 2015. He's an explosive athlete that will do damage when he gets into the open field. He may not run the fastest 40 (4.63 according to ESPN), but he can still make defenders miss. Payton was named the MVP in the Semper Fidelis All-American Bowl last year after racking up 101 receiving yards and two touchdown receptions.

2. Kareem Ali, CB, Temple - Joining a Temple defense that is returning pretty much all of its starters, Ali will still be able to find opportunities for playing time. He's got speed to match even the fastest of receivers, having been clocked at 4.40 in the 40 according to 247Sports. That speed could also be utilized in the return game for the Owls. Ali tallied 45 tackles, intercepted two passes, and played in the US Army All-American Game last year. 

3. Chad President, QB, Tulsa - Although incumbent Dane Evans is expected to retain the starter's job, President could push for playing time if things don't work out well for the Golden Hurricane early on. President, a former Baylor commit, ran a similar style offense that head coach Phillip Montgomery employs and shouldn't have trouble picking up the playbook. President has dual-threat abilities and is as much of a threat with his arm as he is with his legs. President threw for 1,781 yards and ran for 865 more during his senior year of high school.

Offensive Player of the Year Prediction: Keenan Reynolds, QB, Navy

Reynolds is one of the most dynamic play-makers in college football. He's a lock to rush for over 1,000 yards due to Navy's triple-option offense, permitted he stays healthy. On top of that, he's only 13 rushing touchdowns away from tying the NCAA career record set by Montee Ball. There is no doubt that Reynolds will pass that record as he rushed for 23 last season and 31 the year before that. Reynolds is a game-changer, and he is the type of quarterback that teams hate to face.

Defensive Player of the Year Prediction: Tyler Matakevich, LB, Temple

The Temple Owls will have one of the nation's best defenses again in 2015, after finishing tied-for-fourth in the nation in scoring defense (17.5 ppg) last season. And coming back to lead that defense is linebacker Tyler Matakevich. Matakevich registered 117 tackles last season, and is looking to become only the seventh player in FBS history to have recorded at least 100 tackles in all four seasons of his eligibility. He may have only recorded 1.5 sacks last season, but he was in the backfield enough to garner 10.5 tackles for loss.

Three Games to Watch:

1. Cincinnati at Memphis, Sept. 24th - An early cross-divisional matchup between conference powers should be great to watch. Two of the top QB's in the conference square off in this one: Gunner Kiel leads the Bearcats' offense and breakout star Paxton Lynch will lead the Tigers. Memphis had one of the best defenses in the conference last season, but only returns four starters this season. Look for Kiel to exploit this inexperienced unit.

2. Cincinnati at Houston, Nov. 7th - This late season matchup could, in fact, be a preview of the American Athletic Conference title game. There's a lot to like about Houston QB Greg Ward this year, especially playing in Tom Herman's offense. Since the inc eption of the AAC, Cincinnati has won both contests against the Cougars, with a touchdown being the difference in each game.

3. Navy at Memphis, Nov. 7th - If Navy is going to get to the conference title bout, it will have to go through a strong Memphis team first. Memphis, having claimed a share of the AAC last season, is looking to take the title for itself this season, and will be sure to give Navy a heck of a fight. Navy averaged 338 rushing yards per game last season while Memphis only gave up an average of 121.54 rushing yards in 2014. With that being said, it will be interesting to see which team prevails.

Upcoming Games

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