Previewing the American Athletic Conference

In its final season before joining the ACC, heavy favorite Louisville will try to hold off rival Cincinnati. (USA TODAY Sports)

In its final season before joining the ACC, heavy favorite Louisville will try to hold off rival Cincinnati. (USA TODAY Sports)

We are just days away from kickoff of the 2013 college football season, and to prepare Sports on Earth is spending all week publishing everything you need to know about each conference in America. The schedule:

Monday: Pac-12 and Mountain West
Tuesday: ACC and the American

Here is everything you need to know about the American Athletic Conference:

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1. Let’s not pretend the American Athletic Conference is anything but a realigned Conference USA. But at least Louisville and Rutgers are still here this year. In 2014, they’ll be gone, to be replaced by East Carolina, Tulane and Tulsa, with Navy joining in 2015, meaning this is the last chance for the conference to acquire any national respect before dropping out of the automatic-bid pool as the BCS ends. A league title for Louisville appears to be almost a foregone conclusion at this point, so one has to dig for interesting storylines.

2. A weak league does not necessarily mean the conference can’t be fun. Just look at SMU. The death penalty is finally a distant memory, as the Mustangs have qualified for four straight bowls — winning three of them — since June Jones took over in 2008. Jones went 1-11 in his first year and hasn’t won fewer than seven games since. Considering SMU hadn’t gone to a bowl game since 1984, that’s a good run, and it can repeat that feat this year. The journey will certainly be interesting. Jones has had years of success with a run-and-shoot system, but if that wasn’t enough, he hired Hal Mumme, the Father of the Air Raid, as his passing game coordinator. And if that’s not enough, their quarterback is Garrett Gilbert, who is most known for replacing the injured Colt McCoy in the national title game against Alabama four years ago. SMU’s passing offense was in the middle of the pack in Conference USA last year, but the addition of Mumme is a less-than-subtle hint of what’s to come, as if Jones’ resume isn’t enough.

3. Of course, for all the potential fun Jones and Mumme can have, there’s Connecticut, Temple and Memphis to drag things down. Of the three, Temple averaged the most yards per play last year, ranking 99th nationally, and the Huskies, Owls and Tigers won a total of 13 games between them. That won’t change much this year. For all Randy Edsall’s apparent faults at Maryland, UConn has stumbled to 5-7 in consecutive seasons under Paul Pasqualoni since Edsall’s departure. Temple’s leading passer, Chris Coyer, threw for 946 yards under Steve Addazio, who left for Boston College, and has been moved to H-back. Temple replaced Addazio with Matt Rhule, a Giants assistant offensive line coach and former Temple assistant. And Memphis is 9-39 in the last four seasons, meaning the only reason it’s here is because it has a good basketball team.

4. Three boring teams need to be balanced out, and part of the entertainment quotient is supposed to be filled by Houston, but the Cougars fell flat under Tony Levine following the departure of Kevin Sumlin to Texas A&M. Last year was jarring for the program, although Sumlin did actually go 5-7 too in 2010 before the breakthrough 13-1 campaign in 2011. But to make matters worse for Houston, the offseason has not been kind. Star running back Charles Sims surprisingly decided to take advantage of the graduate transfer rule and left for West Virginia, and leading receiver Dewayne Pearce was ruled academically ineligible. So instead of returning nine starters, the offense is down to seven with its two best playmakers leaving since the end of spring practice, on top of an unsettled quarterback situation after a hit-and-miss debut season by David Piland.

5. Houston isn’t the only solid program in need of a turnaround. The Skip Holtz era was a disaster at South Florida, as he dropped from 8-5 to 5-7 to 3-9 and is now at Louisiana Tech. However, USF is in good hands after it hired Willie Taggart, and it could surprise a team or two. An assistant under Jim Harbaugh at Stanford from 2007-09, Taggart made Western Kentucky competitive, taking over an 0-10 team, going 2-10 in year one, then winning seven games each of the next two years with the Hilltoppers’ first bowl appearance ever. A Florida native, Taggart will find it much easier recruiting to South Florida in his home state than to Western Kentucky, and in the offseason he already landed Penn State QB transfer Steven Bench, who’s eligible immediately to compete for the job, although he lags behind in the race. More notably, USF will get a big defensive boost from Notre Dame transfer Aaron Lynch, who’s already drawn rave reviews and NFL hype despite his limited playing experience (6.5 tackles for loss in 2011). In a conference lacking playmakers, he’s certain to make a lot of noise.

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The 10 Best Players in the American
1. Teddy Bridgewater, QB, Louisville
2. Aaron Lynch, DE, South Florida
3. Hakeem Smith, S, Louisville
4. Brandon Coleman, WR, Rutgers
5. Calvin Pryor, S, Louisville
6. Yawin Smallwood, LB, Connecticut
7. DeVante Parker, WR, Louisville
8. Blake Bortles, QB, UCF
9. Eric Lefeld, OT, Cincinnati
10. Kenneth Acker, CB, SMU

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6. The structure of the American has been rather odd geographically, but one thing that makes sense is USF and UCF finally being in the same conference (even if it remains weird that South Florida is in Tampa, not Miami). They’re both veterans of Conference USA, but they never actually overlapped: When USF was in C-USA in 2003-04, UCF was laughably out of place in the Mid-American Conference playing a bunch of teams from Ohio. But the natural rivals will finally become rivals in practice, and they’ll meet for the first time since 2008. Long-term, USF is in good shape, but UCF should have the upper hand in 2013 thanks mainly to its experience at quarterback with Blake Bortles, who threw for 3,059 yards and 25 TDs in a 10-4 season last year.

7. Bortles, along with Teddy Bridgewater, is one of only two proven playmakers at quarterback in the conference. Rutgers has a veteran in Gary Nova, but while he often drew a “game manager” label last year, he threw 16 interceptions. Rutgers needs Nova to be both more of a playmaker and a better decision-maker. With only five starters returning to what was a very good defense (star LB Khaseem Greene is gone) , the Scarlet Knights desperately need more production on offense, where they have an NFL-caliber receiver in 6-foot-6 Brandon Coleman but little else, as leading returning rusher Savon Huggins averaged only 3.4 yards per carry.

8. This is not a deep league, but in its last year before the big jump to the Big Ten, Rutgers will face stiff competition for second place behind Louisville. UCF, SMU and maybe even USF should be in the mix, but most all, don’t sleep on Cincinnati as a contender for 10 wins. Who knows what the Tommy Tuberville era will bring, but the Bearcats have won 10 games in five of six seasons, the only exception being a 4-8 blip in the transition year from Brian Kelly, now at Notre Dame, to Butch Jones, now at Tennessee. Cincinnati is the second best program in a talent-rich high school state, and while the Bearcats aren’t loaded with proven playmakers, aside from linebacker Greg Blair (138 tackles), they return all five starters on the league’s best offensive line, which makes life much easier for whoever the QB is, whether it’s Munchie Legaux or Brendon Kay, who’s replaced Legaux late last season but has battled a shoulder injury in camp.

9. Cincinnati is capable of being the one to upset Louisville in the heated Keg of Nails rivalry, and the Bearcats get Louisville at home on the final Thursday of the season. It’s possible Louisville will be playing for an undefeated regular season in that game. However, more likely, Louisville will have lost earlier and will simply be playing for a conference title, if it hasn’t clinched it already. The Cardinals are talented, but not so talented that they’ll avoid stumbling once, even against a weak schedule. The best bet is the back-to-back games against UCF and at USF after a Thursday home date with Rutgers.

10. Still, just because it might not go undefeated against a bad schedule doesn’t mean Louisville isn’t a top-15 team, or worthy of a BCS bowl bid. The Cardinals proved last year that they can make out just fine in a big game against a supposedly superior opponent. Whatever happens, they are without question the most talented team in the American, and it’s too bad we can’t see what Bridgewater would do against better competition in the ACC, which the Cardinals will call home next season. Bridgewater is the best pure passer in college football, and he gets some more help this year in Florida transfer Gerald Christian at tight end and Auburn transfer Michael Dyer at tailback, to go along with proven wideout DeVante Parker. Regardless of the weak schedule, Louisville should be fun to watch in 2013. Especially for Jacksonville Jaguars fans.

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Projected Standings
1. Louisville (11-1, 7-1)
2. Cincinnati (10-2, 6-2)
3. Rutgers (8-4, 6-2)
4. SMU (6-6, 5-3)
5. UCF (7-5, 5-3)
6. South Florida (6-6, 4-4)
7. Houston (6-6, 3-5)
8. Connecticut (4-8, 2-6)
9. Temple (4-8, 1-7)
10. Memphis (3-9, 1-7)

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Contact me at matt.brown@sportsonearth.com and follow me on Twitter @MattBrownSoE.