2017 College Football Preview: AAC continues its growth

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The one Group of Five conference that received the most attention since the inception of the College Football Playoff was the American Athletic Conference (AAC).

In 2015, the AAC had a surprising season that resulted in Houston making it to the Peach Bowl on the Group of Five auto-bid. The Cougars stunned Florida State.

Because of this, Houston, led by head coach Tom Herman, received tons of attention nationally. Early on in 2016, it appeared as though Houston would not just reach a New Year’s Six game, but also a College Football Playoff appearance.

However, road losses to Navy and SMU torpedoed the Cougars’ chances of being the first Group of Five team in the College Football Playoff.

The Cougars lost their remaining two games, including the Las Vegas Bowl to San Diego State.

However, by the time of the bowl game, Herman had already left for the University of Texas.

Herman was one of several head coaches to leave for different programs. South Florida coach Willie Taggart went to Oregon and Matt Ruhle went to Baylor.

Both UConn coach Bob Diaco was dismissed and Cincinnati coach (and former, if only brief, Alabama governor candidate) Tommy Tuberville resigned.

Offensive coordinator Major Applewhite, who coached the bowl game, took over the program for Houston.

Applewhite is one of five new head coaching additions to the AAC this season. The others are Randy Edsall (making his glorious trip home) at UConn, Charlie Strong at South Florida, Luke Fickell at Cincinnati and Geoff Collins at Temple.

The AAC hopes to have a better bowl season than the one they had last year. Of the seven teams to reach a bowl, only two (South Florida and Tulsa) won their respective games.

USF defeated South Carolina in the Birmingham Bowl, while Tulsa defeated Central Michigan in the Miami Beach Bowl.

The AAC has stood as an odd team out when it comes to the Power Five. The conference wants that respect that they want to be part of a Power Six.

If the AAC wants a voice, they need to get respect. If they want respect, they’ll need to step up their game and play as legitimate contenders.

The AAC needs to keep moving forward. It’s not enough to just rely on the success Houston had in recent years. It can’t just be Navy. The rest of the conference needs to step up.

Because of this, expectations undoubtedly will run high for a few teams in the AAC, especially the likely favorite.

Team to beat: USF Bulls

If ever there seemed like a team that could really play the role of a Group of Five crasher, it has to be USF.

They might not have Taggart, but Charlie Strong is a solid upgrade to go. The Bulls bring Strong into a program that looks really solid.

In pre-season polling, the media unanimously picked USF to win the East division and definitely chose the Bulls as the odds-on favorite to win the conference.

Last year with Taggart as coach, the Bulls had their best season as a football program. They won 11 games, including the Birmingham Bowl.

USF has never won 10 games in a season, prior to 2016. The program has only been around for 20 years.

In fact, Strong is the fourth coach for the Bulls in school history. The Bulls have been to eight bowl games as a program. With the addition of Strong, the team could aspire to a better bowl game.

With Quinton Flowers back at quarterback, this team can win a lot of games, and they’ll need to if they want the same attention Houston got.

Flowers led the conference in total offensive yards with 4,337 yards, which by the way, is more total offensive yards than these following teams:

  • Iowa
  • Kansas
  • Virginia
  • Marshall
  • Boston College
  • Fresno State
  • UConn
  • Rutgers

I could go on, but that would be cruel. Instead, here’s the page where you can look all of that up.

The non-conference schedule likely hurts USF’s hopes of being that first Group of Five team to make a playoff.

They have San Jose State, Stony Brook, Illinois and UMass on the schedule this season. All four teams had sub-.500 records last year.

If USF wants consideration from the committee, they’ll need to win those in-conference games. Those games will matter for them in the end.

Team Most Likely to Surprise: Memphis Tigers

It might not seem like much of a surprise to see Memphis, given that they were voted by the media as the preseason favorite to win the West.

However, Memphis could do much more than just win their division this season. It’s not out of the realm of possibility to see them win the AAC outright. We picked Memphis as a possible party crasher to the NY6 Bowls.

The Tigers had a top offense in 2016 and there’s no reason why it won’t be fun to watch again in 2017.

They have leading passer and Maxwell and O’Brien Award watch list candidate Riley Ferguson back.

Ferguson did a terrific job, leading the AAC in 2016 in passing yards (3,698).

Additionally, Ferguson has his main receiver, Anthony Miller back. Miller, a watch list candidate for the Biletnikoff Award, finishing with 1,434 yards to finish second in the AAC.

The most noteworthy non-conference game on the schedule is the one at home versus UCLA…which has an 11 a.m. local start time.

Team Most Likely to Disappoint: Navy Midshipman

Navy did win the West division last year. However, they lost their last three games of the season, including to Army.

This season won’t be as easy for the Midshipman to win the AAC West Division. Memphis and Houston were both voted ahead of Navy. And you can’t discount Tulsa in this instance, either.

Navy has to play all three teams on the road. Additionally, they play Notre Dame in South Bend. It might have gone well for the Midshipman against Notre Dame last year. However, this year could be different.

Navy has enough potential wins on this schedule to still make a bowl game. However, with the way everything looks in the west, it would be surprising to see them win the division.

Offensive Player to Watch: DeAngelo Brewer- Tulsa RB

This was a tough position to pick. We could’ve easily gone with the aforementioned Flowers or Ferguson.

However, Brewer has a big opportunity to make a lot of noise for Tulsa. Last season, Brewer finished third in the conference in rushing with 1,435 yards.

Because of the success last year, Brewer’s name has been attached to the Maxwell and Doak Walker Award watch list.

Tulsa won 10 games last year. If they make a run at the conference and win it, you can bet Brewer had a lot to do with that effort.

Defensive Player to Watch: Ed Oliver- Houston DT

It would’ve been easy to pick UCF linebacker Shaqueem Griffin for this spot. He is the reigning defensive player of the year in the AAC, after all.

However, there’s no denying the impact Ed Oliver made on Houston in his freshman year. Last season, Oliver finished tied four fourth in the nation in tackles for a loss with 22. If he can do that as a freshman, imagine how much better he’ll be for his sophomore season.

Oliver’s name is featured on the watch list for the Walter Camp, Bednarik, Maxwell, Nagurski and Outland awards.