American Athletic Preview 2016: Ranking The Nonconference Games

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CFB Huddle’s American Athletic Preview Week turns focus outside the AAC and to the ACC, Big 12, Mountain West, MAC. From these conferences come opponents in some of the AAC’s most promising non-league dates.

Nonconference play contributed to the positive perception of the American a year ago: Houston’s defeats of Louisville and Vanderbilt, Memphis routing Ole Miss, Temple blasting Penn State.

The league has similar opportunities ahead of it in the season to come.

AMERICAN ATHLETIC PREVIEW 2016: 16 BEST NONCONFERENCE GAMES

16. Tulane vs. Louisiana-Lafayette

Saturday, Sept. 24

This matchup might seem inconsequential. In the grand scheme of college football next season, it probably is. But for a rebuilding Tulane program, knocking off an in-state foe with a recent run of success sends a message about the direction of the Green Wave under new head coach Willie Fritz.

Tulane’s in a position more comparable to Stanford, Northwestern or Vanderbilt in that it must recruit nationally to find talent that meets the school’s lofty academic standards. However, with the bevy of prep talent in Louisiana, planting a flag locally first is paramount to the overall effort.

15. East Carolina vs. NC State

Saturday, Sept. 10

Group of Five programs don’t get too many chances to host Power Five brethren, thus need to capitalize when they do. East Carolina has such an opportunity, drawing NC State early in the slate.

That’s important, because the Wolfpack are replacing standout quarterback Jacoby Brissett and may still be adjusting come Week 2.

14. Memphis at Ole Miss

Saturday, Oct. 1

I hesitated including this one in the American Athletic Preview. After the Tigers’ lopsided win over the Rebels a season ago, I assume Oct. 1 is circled in red ink on calendars all over the Ole Miss athletic facility.

With Memphis replacing both Paxton Lynch and Justin Fuente, and Ole Miss reloading for another pursuit of an elusive SEC title, this matchup is quite poor on paper. But then, one could have probably said the same this time last year.

13. Memphis vs. Bowling Green

Saturday, Sept. 24

Last season’s meeting produced 85 combined points in a wild Tigers’ win. Justin Fuente and Dino Babers may be gone, but their respective replacements, Mike Norvell and Mike Jinks, promise to keep the pedal to the metal.

Norvell coordinated Arizona State’s potent offense the last four seasons. Jinks worked as No. 2 on Kliff Kingsbury’s Texas Tech staff. Despite each breaking in new quarterbacks, the likely for another track meet remains high.

12. Connecticut vs. Syracuse

Saturday, Sept. 24

Bob Diaco’s aggressive defensive style clashes with the uptempo, high-flying passing attack of new Syracuse head coach Dino Babers for an early-season measuring stick of both programs.

UConn ranks among my dark-horse teams to know in 2016, in large part due to that stifling defense. The Huskies must take advantage of this early-season opportunity against a Power Five opponent — a rebuilding Power Five opponent, but one nonetheless.

11. Tulsa at Fresno State

Saturday, Sept. 24

Tulsa could be the surprise of the American Athletic Conference in 2016, but reaching conference play on the right side of .500 is imperative. Home games against San Jose State and North Carolina A&T should offset a paycheck trip to Ohio State, leaving this trip to Fresno State as the biggest question mark on the nonconference docket.

Fresno State’s in a tenuous year under head coach Tim DeRuyter. The Bulldogs need to rebound from finishes of 6-8 in 2014, and 3-9 in 2015. Their early docket is challenging, with plenty of road dates packed into the first half, which makes this home game of critical importance.

For Tulsa to steal a win in the Valley sets Philip Montgomery’s team up nicely in his second year at the helm.

10. Navy at Air Force

Saturday, Oct. 1

Every Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy since 1997 has gone to either Annapolis or Colorado, and that shouldn’t change in 2016.

Both squads come off important seasons: Air Force reached its first Mountain West Conference Championship Game, while Navy torpedoed to its best finish in decades, finishing ranked in the Top 20.

The Falcons return the more veteran roster, and host this year’s opening installment in the three-game Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy series. A win here sets up Navy for its push in the American, while also putting the Mids on course to an 11th CiC Trophy in the last 13 years.

9. Connecticut at Boston College

Saturday, Nov. 19

Certainly regional rivalries just feel right. UConn and BC feels right.

Aside from UMass, which only joined a few years ago and is still feeling out its place in the subdivision, these are New England’s sole FBS programs. To that end, I think a trophy is in order — and Bob Diaco doesn’t mind commissioning trophies for any reason he sees fit.

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The 2016 versions of the Huskies and Eagles also share similar qualities. Both feature elite defenses with some major question marks on offense. Factor in the cold weather of a late November weekend, and these teams could combine to produce a baseball score. It’s like Sox vs. Yanks on the gridiron.

8. USF vs. Florida State

Saturday, Sept. 24

Florida State returns to Tampa for the first time since 2012, when the Bulls played the eventual ACC champion Seminoles to a surprisingly competitive 30-17 final.

This year’s Florida State bunch is considerably better — but the same is true of USF.

An upset’s unlikely, but USF keeping pace with Florida State sends a message ahead of American league play. It’s also important for the Bulls to close out the nonconference slate strong; the Seminoles cap a challenging, three-game stretch with dates against Northern Illinois and a road trip to Syracuse in the preceding weeks.

7. Cincinnati vs. BYU

Saturday, Nov. 5

This is the return match of last year’s raucous BYU rally in Provo. Cincinnati took a one-score lead into the fourth quarter, but gave up 21 points in the final 15 minutes to lose, 38-24.

Gunner Kiel was injured and Hayden Moore struggled — an unfortunate theme in the Bearcats’ most disappointing campaign since 2010.

After finishing just 7-6 a year ago, Tommy Tuberville needs a bounce-back in 2016. The schedule breaks down for the Bearcats to close strong, but they need to defend home turf against a BYU team with Top 25-caliber talent.

6. Navy vs. Army

at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore – Saturday, Dec. 10

Navy’s thoroughly dominated its chief rival every year since 2001, but not without sweating. Last year’s 21-17 Midshipmen win matched the series’ closest final margin since Navy began this run, but was arguably Army’s best opportunity to win.

The cliche of throwing out records when rivals meet may be hammered into the ground, but the 2015 Army-Navy Game proves it true. With the Mids’ identity for next season still unknown to the general public, and the Cadets showing signs of improvement under head coach Jeff Monken, the 2016 encounter could be a wild ride.

5. USF vs. Northern Illinois

Saturday, Sept. 10

Consider me irrationally excited for this nonconference matchup. In fact, of all the games highlighted in this American Athletic preview, USF and Northern Illinois might be the contest I’m most anticipating.

USF was on the cusp of becoming a perennial power last decade, but fell apart shortly after Jim Leavitt’s ouster. Willie Taggart’s efforts to reach USF’s potential started bearing fruit last season, and the 2016 Bulls look like AAC title contenders.

But while USF hit reset on its ascent, Northern Illinois exploded. Since 2003, NIU ranks as one of the most successful programs in all of college football. Among non-Power Five programs, only Boise State’s been better. For perspective, last year was something of a rebuilding season for the Huskies — and they played in the MAC Championship Game.

4. Temple at Penn State

Saturday, Sept. 10

Temple’s 27-10 rout of Penn State last September marked the Owls’ first win over their in-state counterparts since 1941. That victory fittingly catapulted Temple to an historic season, which included an appearance in the AAC Championship Game.

The 2016 Temple squad is loaded with returning starters on both sides of the ball. Houston’s garnered much of the buzz as far as Group of Five contenders for the New Year’s Six go, but defending East division champion Temple could present a stiff challenge to that spot.

Beating Penn State in Happy Valley, which has never happened in Temple history, could rocket the Owls to even greater heights than they reached a season ago.

3. Navy vs. Notre Dame

at EverBank Stadium in Jacksonville, Florida – Saturday, Nov. 5

An historic rivalry dating back almost nine decades, the annual Navy-Notre Dame encounter almost always provides fireworks. After the Midshipmen put a scare in the Fighting Irish in 2014, Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly quipped, “As a coach that’s really all you can ask for, to win a football game and give a lot of young guys experience. And then, not have to play Navy against until next year.”

This year’s “next year” doesn’t come until late in the season, and will be played in Jacksonville, Florida. It’s not Maryland, but it’s closer than Dublin, Ireland.

2. Houston vs. Louisville

Thursday, Nov. 17

Big games late in the season go a long way in bolstering the portfolio of a contender. Houston draws just such a game in nonconference play, hosting what should be a resurgent Louisville squad in the regular season’s penultimate weekend.

This matchup features two of the nation’s most exciting quarterbacks in Houston’s Greg Ward Jr., and Louisville breakout star Lamar Jackson. The two play with a similarly explosive, dual-threat style. Depending on how the 2016 campaign breaks for each, this game could have Heisman implications.

Houston’s hoping this game also factors into mounting a feasible Playoff campaign. But first, the Coogs have some other business to address…

1. Houston vs. Oklahoma

at NRG Stadium in Houston – Saturday, Sept. 3

Any talk of Houston contending for the College Football Playoff begins or ends Week 1. The Cougars fittingly open with a team that reached that milestone, defending Big 12 champion Oklahoma.

On a weekend being hyped as the biggest opening Saturday in college football history, Houston-Oklahoma just might be the best of all the matchups — better than Texas A&M-UCLA, Auburn-Clemson, Wisconsin-LSU and even USC-Alabama.

For the Cougars to draw the Sooners in what is ostensibly a home game makes it all the more significant. Rarely is a Group of Five afforded an opportunity like this. Should Houston win, Greg Ward Jr. moves to the forefront of the Heisman conversation, and the pressure is on for Tom Herman to take this team to the promised land.