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American Athletic Spring Preview

E-mail Rich Cirminiello 
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Start: February 27, Spring Game: April 4 

The program you can set your watch to hopes to still be ticking in January. If Cincinnati isn’t the most underrated program in college football, it’s in the team photo. The Bearcats, despite routine changes in leadership, have remarkably won no fewer than eight games in eight of the last nine years. Tommy Tuberville has led the team to back-to-back nine-win campaigns, though blowout losses in second-tier bowl games have left it stumbling into the offseason. Cincy is eyeing a much stronger final kick in 2015, which will preferably include an American title and a shot at representing the Group of Five conferences in one of the six New Year’s bowl games. This squad has been solid of late, but it hasn’t been nationally relevant since Brian Kelly left for Notre Dame in 2009. 

No one is worried about … the scoring machine. The Bearcats normed 34 points per game in 2014, but that could wind up being chumps change compared to the 2015 edition. QB Gunner Kiel should be even better in Year 2, especially since last season’s top rusher, Mike Boone, and eight most productive pass-catchers are back. This attack will be experienced, balanced and potent. 

Extra attention must be given to … the linebackers. The Bearcats were as shaky as they were on D in 2014, and now they’ve got to retool up the middle now that DT Camaron Beard and linebackers Nick Temple and Jeff Luc have graduated. Temple and Luc were two of the team’s three 100-tackle guys, with Kevin Brown being the next closest linebacker with 30 stops. 

Start: March 7, Spring Game: April 11

The legend of Randy Edsall grows with each passing year. Bob Diaco is the latest coach to be humbled by the challenges of coaching at a basketball school in Storrs, Conn. Since Edsall left the Huskies in 2010, the team has strung together four straight losing seasons, getting progressively worse each fall. Diaco’s honeymoon is already over after his first team capped a 2-10 debacle by becoming SMU’s only victim of 2014. Even the habitually positive young coach was alarmed at the giant mess that left for him by predecessor Paul Pasqualoni. For Diaco to see this rebuilding project to the end, he’s going to need patience, both from himself and from his administration. 

No one is worried about … the run defense. The Huskies have always been scrappy on defense, and this year should be no different. There are holes to fill, sure, and losing Jefferson Ashiru to a transfer doesn’t help. But NG Julian Campenni, linebackers Marquise Vann and Graham Stewart and safeties Andrew Adams and Obi Melifonwu form the backbone of a D that’ll be tough to navigate on the ground. 

Extra attention must be given to … every aspect of the offense, but especially the line. Line play has been the Huskies’ biggest issue during the current four-year skid, crushing any chance of developing talent from the backfield. UConn failed to run the ball consistently in 2014, gave up too many sacks and lacks a true anchor to build around in the trenches. 

East Carolina 
Start: March 20, Spring Game: April 18

It’s the dawn of a new era in Greenville, as QB Shane Carden and WR Justin Hardy move on to the next level. Carden and Hardy are two of the all-time greats to ever play for ECU, leaving a specter of doubt entering 2015. Plus, it’s not as if the Pirates are carrying a head of steam into the new year. They were unable to handle prosperity—and the spotlight—last fall, slumping to a 2-4 finish after entering the national lexicon with back-to-back upsets of Virginia Tech and North Carolina. The offense will also be missing leading rusher Breon Allen and influential coordinator Lincoln Riley, making for an intriguing offseason for head coach Ruffin McNeill. 

No one is worried about … the front seven. The defense, for a change, might be able to carry the load in the early going. It didn’t get a lot of attention, but the Pirates allowed just 3.3 yards per carry in 2014. And the 2015 team will be bolstered by the return to health DL Terrell Stanley, who hopes to rejoin playmaking linebackers Zeek Bigger and Montese Overton. 

Extra attention must be given to … the quarterbacks. No one is going to replace Carden overnight. But if someone, such as 2014 backup Kurt Benkert, can take what’s given to him, there’s enough returning talent to keep the offense from falling off a cliff. The line features two all-stars, Ike Harris and J.T. Boyd, and WR Isaiah Jones and RB Chris Hairston have been itching for bigger roles. 

South Florida 
Start: February 23, Spring Game: March 28 

It’s now or never for Willie Taggart. Last year, the honeymoon ended for the South Florida head coach. This fall, he tries to avoid being served divorce papers from the administration. In two seasons, Taggart hasn’t been able to guide the Bulls out of a funk that’s lasted for four consecutive losing campaigns. The promise of an emerging force out of Tampa has been replaced by despair, futility and lagging fan support. To address his program’s prolonged slump, Taggart fired both of his coordinators in December. The reshuffled staff will be coaching for its future, because there’s too much potential at USF for the program to continue on its current course. 

No one is worried about … the running game. Marlon Mack had an auspicious college debut, improbably rising to the All-AAC First Team. And the best is still ahead for a back who’s bigger, stronger and better prepared to shoulder the load in his second season. That Taggart is a former back himself will only hasten Mack’s development and maturation. 

Extra attention must be given to … the passing game. Not since 2011 has South Florida produced more touchdown passes than interceptions in a season. So, increasing the tempo and spreading things out this year will matter little if the quarterbacks remain a mess and if a suitable replacement for Andre Davis on the outside isn’t developed. 

Start: March 23, Spring Game: April 25

Spoiler Alert: Temple has the ingredients to be the surprise team of 2015 in the American. Matt Rhule has quietly done a solid job in his two seasons on Broad Street, finishing a respectable .500 in 2014. Best of all, the Owls exceeded expectations, including upsets of Vanderbilt and East Carolina, with minimal input from seniors. Now that everyone is a year older, and all five of last year’s all-leaguers return, Temple is a candidate to be this year’s Memphis. All eyes, however, will be focused on QB P.J. Walker, whose sophomore slump a year ago is the most pressing issue to be addressed between now and the opening day visit from Penn State. 

No one is worried about … the defense. Just one starter must be replaced from a D that gave up just 17 points per game last fall. With LB Tyler Matakevich fueling the charge, Temple is about to relive the Al Golden days, when the defense rolled up its sleeves and set the tempo. The Owls will be especially tough at the line of scrimmage, clamping down on opposing ground games. 

Extra attention must be given to … special teams. You want to raise the bar and play in a bowl game, Temple? Start doing the little things better. The Owls were shaky in all phases, missing field goals, shanking punts and generally making life harder on the offensive and defensive units. If it means opening up competitions for jobs, Rhule must get better play from his specialists. 

Start: March 18, Spring Game: April 18 

UCF is destined to remain one of the American powerbrokers, especially since George O’Leary is back for his 12th year in Orlando. With speculation running rampant that the 68-year-old O’Leary might retire, he anted up for another season. And that sideline continuity, even with the rest of the staff facing changes, ensures that the Knights will once again be a league contender. UCF drifted a bit from the heights of its 12-win 2013 campaign, yet still managed to capture no less than a share of the conference crown for a second straight year. A chunk of the offseason will be used to get the players acclimated to new leaders on both sides of the ball, Brent Key on offense and Chuck Bresnahan on D. 

No one is worried about … the D-line. Although the defense has been rocked by graduations since the end of the 2014 season, the front wall has largely been spared. Athletic DT Jaryl Mamea needs to be replaced, but DT Demetris Anderson and ends Thomas Niles and Miles Pace are bucking for bigger roles. Niles, in particular, is the type of player who can change the tempo of a game with his burst. 

Extra attention must be given to … the defensive backfield. The Knights produce playmaking corners and safeties with the regularity of an ACC or SEC team. But this season presents an unusually difficult challenge for Key and his assistants. When sophomore CB Jacoby Glenn declared for the NFL Draft, it meant four terrific starters would need to be replaced. If last season’s reserves can’t quickly flatten the learning curve, UCF could be the target of opposing quarterbacks in the early stages of the season.


Start: March 9, Spring Game: April 18

Status quo just wasn’t cutting it at Houston, so the program will be plotting a new direction in 2015. After going sideways for three years under Tony Levine, the Cougars cut their losses and hired hot-shot offensive coordinator Tom Herman away from Urban Meyer’s Ohio State staff. It was a bold and decisive move, as well as a clear statement that mediocrity will not be accepted by the administration. Houston, aided by a state-of-the-art stadium and a fertile recruiting base, is eyeing a return to the Art Briles or Kevin Sumlin years, when 10-win seasons and conference contention were not considered outside the norm. 

No one is worried about … the defensive backfield. The offensive backfield is pretty good, too, but the secondary could be the American’s most disruptive this year. None of the key contributors were lost to graduation, and CB William Jackson and safeties Trevon Stewart and Adrian McDonald have all-league chops. Underrated Boise State transfer Lee Hightower is also expected back after missing half of 2014 to injury. 

Extra attention must be given to … the D-line. When Houston pressured the quarterback in 2014, it was often the result of attacking coordinator David Gibbs, who turned loose his athletic linebackers. Herman’s staff, though, hopes to get more heat from a middling collection of returning linemen, none of whom appear capable of requiring double-teams. 

Start: March 1, Spring Game: April 10

Now that Memphis has delivered a remarkable season, the trick will be to stay on course. The Tigers authored one of 2014’s biggest surprises, shedding years of futility by winning 10 games, including a wild Miami Beach Bowl and a share of the American title. Absolutely no one saw last year’s uprising coming. In even bigger news, up-and-coming head coach Justin Fuente is still on the payroll, lending hope that Memphis can avoid becoming the dreaded one-hit wonder. Fuente has already shown signs of capitalizing on the momentum with his most recent recruiting class, a much-needed talent infusion for a team facing significant turnover on both sides of the ball. 

No one is worried about … special teams. Memphis has curiously become one of the nation’s sneaky-good programs at developing first-rate punters and placekickers. The Tigers will once again be in solid shape with the returns of PK Jake Elliott and P Spencer Smith, who were named first and second-team all-league, respectively, a year ago. 

Extra attention must be given to … the defense. The turnover on D is extensive and far-reaching, even encompassing coordinator Barry Odom, who’s back at Missouri. Seven of last season’s top eight tacklers—and all three of the unit’s first-team all-stars—are gone, leaving a gaping hole in talent and leadership on the defensive side of the ball. 

Start: March 9, Spring Game: April 10

After well over a century of independence, Navy has finally relented and joined a conference. Having the Midshipmen in the American will mean many things to the academy and to the league. With a home, Navy now has an opportunity to win titles, compete for a New Year’s Six bowl game and extend its football footprint, particularly to Florida and Texas. For the American, the Midshipmen represent an important piece of the realignment puzzle. The conference, which was torn apart by fleeing members in recent years, has located stability in the form of two six-team divisions, with the Mids residing in the West. 

No one is worried about … the rushing attack. Grinding out yards between the tackles is the least of Ken Niumatalolo’s worries entering 2015, especially with record-setting QB Keenan Reynolds back at the controls. Yeah, there’s been some turnover in the backfield, but assertive FB Chris Swain is poised to pick up the slack and become a statistical star. 

Extra attention must be given to … the linebackers. Leading tackler Jordan Drake will be tough to replace from the second level. Ditto Chris Johnson. Daniel Gonzales is back to settle in as the new leader of the group, but who else will step up and support a run defense that gave up almost five yards per carry in 2014? 

Start: March 17, Spring Game: April 18

The storm has passed. The rebuilding is already in full swing in Dallas. SMU slogged through a miserable season reminiscent of the post-Death Penalty days, losing its coach after two games and waiting until the final weekend to win a game. But the arrival of new head coach Chad Morris brings hope for a turnaround. Landing Morris was a coup for the administration. While at Clemson, he was one of the nation’s most coveted offensive coordinators, and he has deep-rooted ties to the state of Texas. Patience, though, will need to be exercised early on because the cupboard needs restocking, and properly installing new systems requires considerable time. 

No one is worried about … the offensive line. Technically, the new staff will worry about every area of the two-deep after SMU was outscored by an average score of 41-11. In relative terms, though, the Mustangs feel most confident about an O-line returning all five of last year’s starters. The blocking unit can’t help but be better, simply because of a full season of valuable reps. 

Extra attention must be given to … quarterbacks. Like most offenses, Morris’ hinges on the competency and decision-making of the quarterbacks, which produced just six touchdown passes on the Hilltop last year. The coach will give every opportunity to hotshot rookie Ben Hicks to unseat holdovers Matt Davis and Garrett Krstitch. 

Start: February 18, Spring Game: March 21 

How long must Green Wave fans wait for the next breakthrough season? After ending its Conference USA tenure with an unlikely bowl berth in 2013, Tulane reverted back to old form in its American debut. The Green Wave went 3-9 in 2014, and has now gone 3-13 in its last 16 games versus FBS opponents. One of the few silver linings from a year ago was that an unusually high number of freshmen lettered, lending hope that the 2015 edition will be distinctly more competitive. All eyes this offseason will be on sophomore QB Tanner Lee, whose development will have the biggest impact on Tulane’s quest for a return to respectability. 

No one is worried about … the back seven. Even without CB Lorenzo Doss and S Sam Schofield, the secondary and linebackers ought to be the strength of the 2015 team. Nico Marley is an undersized wrecking ball from the second level, and CB Parry Nickerson and S Darion Monroe return to a ball-hawking defensive backfield that helped create 28 takeaways in 2014. 

Extra attention must be given to … the entire offense. The defense needs work, but the offense holds the key to this year’s team. Tulane was unable to score more than 14 points in eight of last season’s last nine games. While Lee is the linchpin, the line must protect better and last year’s rookie pass-catchers will be counted on to make a quantum leap in Year 2. 

Start: March 8, Spring Game: April 18

It’s the dawn of a new day at Tulsa, as the Golden Hurricane attempts to recapture its winning ways. Tulsa severed ties with underachieving Bill Blankenship last December, replacing him with former Baylor assistant Philip Montgomery. Montgomery brings with him a fresh energy, as well as 16 years as an Art Briles’ disciple. Historically, when the Hurricane has flourished it was on the back of an up-tempo attack, which the new regime is in the process of installing. And while Montgomery inherits a team that won just five games the last two years, this is still a Tulsa program that won at least eight games in the prior decade. Plus, the Hurricane returns a slew of starters, which could make for a soft landing in 2015 for the first-year staff. 

No one is worried about … the passing attack. Montgomery wants to air it out, and he has the right ingredients for early success. Dane Evans had too many turnovers in 2014, but did throw for 23 touchdowns and more than 3,100 yards. And the junior’s chief targets, Keevan Lucas and Keyarris Garrett, are both among the most talented wide receivers in the American. 

Extra attention must be given to … every facet of the defense. The offense in 2015 will be much further ahead than the D, which was gutted for 39 points per game and almost seven yards per play last fall. The talent on hand is actually better than the 2014 results, which were partly attributable to poor coaching and fundamentals. This is an important year for Bill Young, the team’s veteran and well-respected coordinator. 

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