American Athletic Conference Preview 2016: Prologue

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Teams from around the American Athletic Conference last season adopted #AmericanRising, a Twitter hashtag that perfectly described the state of the league’s football in 2015. Commissioner Mike Aresco’s declaration at AAC Media Days in August that the league was striving to make the Power Five the Power Six essentially called the American’s shot.

American teams wrote a laundry list of individual accomplishments for the annals. Both Temple and Memphis claimed regional bragging rights over power-conference counterparts, with the Owls blasting Penn State for their first win in the series since the 1940s, and the Tigers mauling an Ole Miss bunch that concluded 2015 ranked in the top 10.

Speaking of rankings, four American Athletic Conference members broke into the Top 25 at various points in the season. Navy (18) and Houston (8) finished in the polls for their best, respective final marks in several decades.

Quarterbacks led both American Top 20 finishers, as Keenan Reynolds and Greg Ward Jr. each generated Heisman Trophy talk along the way. They capped their seasons with two of the most impressive, individual performances of the bowl season: Reynolds pasted Pitt with three rushing touchdowns and a fourth passing, while Ward led the Cougars’ Peach Bowl romp of Florida State with two touchdowns on the ground and one in the air.

Reynolds is now pursuing a roster spot with the nearby Baltimore Ravens, while Ward takes up the mantle as the face of the American Athletic Conference in its encore season. Just how successful that sequel is hinges on Ward’s Houston Cougars.

The Peach Bowl served as a springboard for UH into 2016, building the necessary preseason hype a Group of Five program would need to ever sniff the College Football Playoff. Entry into the postseason championship is paramount to bring Aresco’s Power Six vision to life, and Houston has the kind of schedule that warrants consideration. The Coogs kick off with Oklahoma, host Louisville late in the season, and draw a daunting conference slate that sends them to Navy and Cincinnati.

While much of the national attention paid to the AAC focuses on Houston and its pursuit of Playoff consideration, the American around the Cougars is indeed rising. Navy and Memphis lost enough key pieces that one or both should take a step back, but other successful teams a season ago may have only begun scratching the surface.

Willie Taggart’s efforts to unleash USF’s full potential have started bearing fruit. The Bulls reached eight wins in 2015, and should contend for the East division crown in 2016. Competition on that side of the league expects to be stiff, however.

Connecticut’s stifling defense thwarted Houston’s Playoff dreams a season ago. Fiery head coach Bob Diaco has the Huskies trending in the right direction — the opposite direction of longtime Big East/American power Cincinnati. Although the Bearcats dipped from the heights Brian Kelly and Butch Jones reached previously, Tommy Tuberville has the talent to contend for a conference championship.

Ultimately, everyone in the East chases Temple — and not simply because the Owls are defending divisional champions, but because Matt Rhule might quietly have the best-kept secret in all of college football.

While Houston gets the spotlight, Temple builds around a veteran roster, rife with talent on both sides of the ball. The Owls must replace linebacker Tyler Matakevich, whose run to the Bronko Nagurski helped punctuate the American Athletic Conference’s breakthrough campaign, but Temple’s loaded otherwise. Running back Jahad Thomas has the play-making ability to kick down the door of Heisman conversations a la Reynolds and Ward a season ago.

It’s a great time for the American, and the conference’s football won’t be a one-year wonder.

Perhaps the most promising offseason developments for the long-term outlook of the American Athletic Conference, and certainly its 2016, is the retention of standout coaches.

Memphis lost Justin Fuente to Virginia Tech after his rebuilding job reached its culmination. However, the most underrated coach in college football, Ken Niumatalolo, remained at Navy despite rumors of aggressive courting from BYU.

Taggart stayed at USF to see his rebuilding job go to the next phase. Connecticut extended Diaco’s contract just last week. The conference also bolstered its ranks with a new addition, as Tulane lured proven winner Willie Fritz away from Georgia Southern.

Coming full circle to Houston, the Cougars kept Tom Herman despite his name repeatedly floating in connection to Power Five openings.

All week at CFB Huddle, we’ll examine the layout for the exciting American Athletic Conference season to come.