Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Long and Suite Preview: The American Athletic Conference

UCF's Blake Bortles should be the AAC's most important player not named Teddy Bridgewater.

By Joe Parello  @HerewegoJoe

The new American Athletic Conference was born out of the great schism between the Big East's "Catholic 7" and the conference's not-so-Catholic, football playing members.

Those seven schools chose to separate and form a league for "basketball-minded schools" (No, the ridiculousness of Catholic institutions calling themselves basketball-minded is not lost on me), and they took the Big East name with them.

Left in their wreckage is the AAC, a conference now comprised of teams on their way to the greener pastures of more powerful conferences (Louisville and Rutgers), teams desperately trying to follow those schools out the door (Cincinnati and UConn), a late Big East addition stuck in limbo (South Florida), a team the Big East once cast off (Temple), and a horde of former Conference USA squads (Central Florida, Houston, Memphis and SMU).

With the departure of Louisville and Rutgers to the ACC and Big Ten, respectively, next season, the AAC will add a few more former C-USA teams to round out its ranks. But, the conference will also lose it's "Automatic Qualifying" distinction. That means the conference's champion will not be guaranteed a spot in one of the marquee bowls associated with the new college football playoff.

Instead, the AAC's champion will have to be the highest ranked team among the champions of the "Gang of Five" conferences, which also includes the MAC, the Mountain West, Conference USA and Sun Belt. So, that means you better enjoy the preview this year, because after this season, the AAC officially becomes a mid-major.

Teddy and the Cards

Louisville junior quarterback Teddy Bridgewater put himself in contention for this year's Heisman by shocking the country in last season's Sugar Bowl. His 266 yard, two touchdown performance against a great Florida defense introduced him to the casual fan, and he will hope to carry that momentum into 2013.
But the Cardinals too have high hopes, with many thinking they could run the table and crash the BCS Championship Game. Coach Charlie Strong has done a sensational job building a complete team at this traditional basketball school, and the schedule does set up nicely for an undefeated Cardinals seasons.

In conference, only road games against Cincinnati and USF seem like a problem, as Louisville gets Rutgers and UCF home. In the non-conference, a trip to in-state rival Kentucky could be interesting, but the Wildcats are still a ways away from being a true "SEC" team. Actually, Louisville's biggest challenge of the year may be the home opener against MAC power Ohio.

Add in the fact that the Cardinals will also get star running back Michael Dyer (MVP of the 2011 BCS Championship Game) in a transfer, and that schedule just seems way too easy for a team that returns a Heisman candidate and nine starters from a stingy defense.

New Hope in Tampa?

The Bulls are stuck in power conference limbo (They don't have quite as much to offer power conferences as Cincinnati and UConn, but do have some redeeming qualities), and they're hoping new coach Willie Taggart can build the program back up and make the athletic department more attractive.

On paper, Taggert's move from Western Kentucky to Tampa seems like a slam dunk. He did more with less than almost any coach in the country last season, he's considered a dynamic recruiter and offensive innovator and, on top of it all, he's from the Tampa Bay area.

Now, keep in mind that Skip Holtz, who went 2-14 in conference play during his two seasons at USF, was considered to be a perfect fit on paper as well. Still, it's hard not to be excited about the young Taggart's potential.

While at Western Kentucky, Taggart's offenses revolved around a physical inside running game and a smart quarterback. Whether he has those pieces NOW at USF remains to be seen, but if he lives up to his reputation as a recruiting dynamo, he should soon have the players he needs to run his scheme. Defensively is where the Bulls could see an immediate turnaround.

The Bulls gave up three different game-winning drives of 75 yards or more last season, but seven starters return from a defense that does have talent, particularly in the defensive backfield. The pass rush will need to improve, but look for former Freshman All American and Notre Dame transfer Aaron Lynch to give the defense a little more bite in his first year playing for the Bulls.

Possible Sleeper: Southern Methodist

The Mustangs finished last season on a great note, defeating Fresno State in the Hawaii Bowl, but the usually explosive Run n' Shoot offense that coach June Jones' teams are known for was pedestrian at best.

Quarterback Garrett Gilbert, who you may know from that time he filled in for an injured Colt McCoy against Alabama in the 2009 BCS title game, returns for his senior season after getting a crash course in the offense a year a go. Expect bigger things from Gilbert in his second year as SMU's starter, and Jones has built and unexpectedly stout defense as well.

Joining Gilbert in the backfield is another former Longhorn, junior Taylor Shead. Coaches are hoping he can fill in for three-time 1,000 yard rusher Zach Line, but the biggest question offensively will be the rebuilt offensive line. If the group led by senior left tackle Benn Gottschalk can gel together, this could be the most successful football team in Dallas.

Editor's Note: TCU is in Fort Worth.

Players to Watch

Aaron Lynch (So.), DE, USF. Blake Bortles (Jr.), QB, UCF. Yawin Smallwood (Jr.), LB, UConn

As I mentioned above, the Bulls are hoping Lynch is the same guy that earned Freshman All American honors while at Notre Dame in 2011. The Cape Coral native recorded 5.5 sacks off the bench for the Irish that year, and he was reportedly dominant during the Bulls' spring practices. The former five star prospect could be just what the doctor ordered for a team that could cover down the field, but often simply couldn't get to the quarterback.

Bortles could be the conference's most important player not named Teddy Bridgewater, and is almost certainly the AAC's second-best quarterback. The 6-foot-5 gun slinger thew for over 3,000 yards and 25 touchdowns in a breakout sophomore campaign last year, and if the Knights are to make a run at the conference crown (As some are predicting), he will have to be even better in 2013.

UConn enters year three under coach Paul Pasqualoni hoping to get back to a bowl game for the first time since playing in the Fiesta Bowl after the 2010 season. Smallwood will probably have the biggest hand in getting the Huskies back to the postseason, as the unquestioned leader of an underrated UConn defense. After 120 tackles and four sacks a year ago, Smallwood should be considered one of the best linebackers in the conference, but he'll have to be even better this year as the Huskies graduated their other two starters at the position.

Projections for 2013

Here is how I see the AAC shaking out in 2013.

Insider Opinion: Kels Dayton  @RoundballDaily
Our good buddy Kels joins us weekly on our "Taking You to School" basketball podcast, but he also covers AAC football for WTNH in Connecticut. On top of his studio gig, he currently serves as editor of the station's new sports site, "SportzEdge," where he covers highs school, college and pro sports, while only occasionally ranting about steroids/LeBron James. -JP

I can’t even tell you how many times I wrote “Big East” instead of “AAC” to start this column off. But as Sporting News’ Pete Williams put it, there’s nothing “Big” or “East” about this conference anymore. It’s enough to bring a man to tears.

Ok, so the Big East wasn’t exactly a football juggernaut during its 21-year existence, but the league has had its moments on the gridiron. Remember those Miami teams of the early 2000’s? Or Michael Vick and Virginia Tech in ’99, or those Rich Rodriguez-led West Virginia teams that were intoxicating to watch?

It’s all over now, as the league has morphed into a strange descendant of Conference USA. There will be a new record book, new history, new pretty much everything.

Louisville should be the class of the AAC in its first (and only) year in the conference, as many college football experts have the Cardinals in the Top 10. Quarterback Teddy Bridgewater is a Heisman candidate, having thrown for 3,718 yards and 27 touchdowns last season. His name is also coming up in a lot of conversations about the 2014 NFL Draft, and expectations are sky-high for the junior quarterback this season. Louisville also boasts a pair of talented receivers in DeVante Parker and Eli Rogers, both of whom will be big-time playmakers this season.

The Cards have one of the most explosive offenses in the nation and proved their worth by upsetting Florida in the Sugar Bowl last season. They’re a good team—but let’s be real--if they played in the SEC or Big Ten, they wouldn’t be anywhere near the Top 10 in the nation.

Outside of Louisville, there’s not much to get excited about in this conference. Rutgers and Cincinnati figure to finish near the top of the league, but that’s like being the second-best actor in “Sharknado.”


This program has had its moments since coming up from Division 1-AA in 2000, but UConn fans are getting impatient with the product in Storrs. The Huskies had steadily been moving up the national ladder under former coach Randy Edsall, but UConn has taken a giant step backward under Paul Pasqualoni.

His archaic offense is exactly what Missouri defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson meant when he coined the term “old man football.” Pasqualoni refuses to get with the times, opting for basic pro-style sets instead of giving into the fast-paced spread offenses that have changed the game.

It’s like reading a random sports blog when you already know about SuiteSports.

It just doesn’t make any sense.

What’s worse is that the offense will be more predictable than Mike Lupica. There’s no passing game, as quarterback Chandler Whitmer threw 16 interceptions last season and effectively needs to prove that he’s not colorblind this year.

Despite the coach and quarterback, there is enough talent in Storrs to hold everyone over until basketball season. UConn boasts one of the better running backs in the country in junior Lyle McCombs, who rushed for 860 yards and six touchdowns behind a weak offensive line last season.

He’s on the preseason Doak Walker candidate list.

The defense should be stout as usual, despite losing three players to the NFL. Junior linebacker Yawin Smallwood will be playing on Sundays sometime soon, and could be the best defensive player in the AAC. The entire unit will be experienced, as eight upperclassmen return as starters. If Connecticut can get something…anything…out of Chandler Whitmer, it could vault past the Central Florida’s and SMU’s into the top half of the conference. Anything less than a 7-5 record and a bowl bid, and Pasqualoni will be out of a job.

No comments :