2016 American Athletic Conference Football Preview And Power Rankings: Houston Cougars Favored To Repeat As Champions

College football is set to commence its 2016 campaign in less than two weeks, so to kick off Inquisitr’s football conference preview, here is a look at the American Athletic Conference.

The AAC had unprecedented success in 2015, its third year of existence, as eight teams made it to a bowl game and defending conference champions Houston Cougars picked up a New Year’s Six postseason victory over Florida State in the Peach Bowl. Temple, South Florida, Cincinnati, UConn, Navy, Tulsa and Memphis were the other conference teams to go to a bowl game. Last season, AAC teams compiled an 80-74 record as Houston, Navy and Temple all reached double figures in victories.

Houston is the consensus favorite to repeat as champions as the Cougars return 2016 Heisman candidate quarterback Greg Ward Jr., along with several members of a defense that finished ranked in the top 20 nationally. USA Today selected Memphis as the Cougars biggest challengers for the top spot in the West, while South Florida and Temple are expected to battle for supremacy in the East.

The AAC has eight teams ranked among the top 80 FBS squads this year, though there also has been some turnover. Four of the conference’s teams will have new coaches, including UCF, Tulane, ECU and Memphis.

Power Rankings:

1. Houston Cougars (13-1, 7-1 AAC last year). Houston was one of 12 FBS teams to average more than 40 points last season. More impressively, the Cougars were extremely well-balanced as they totaled 3,477 yards through the air and 3,301 yards on the ground.

Ward, along with Clemson’s Deshaun Watson, was one of two quarterbacks to throw for over 2,000 yards and run for more than 1,000 in 2015. The 5-foot-11 senior threw for 2,828 yards and 17 touchdowns while completing 67.2 percent of his passes. He added 1,108 yards and 21 touchdowns on 198 carries.

Ward will have plenty of weapons as senior wide receiver Chance Allen (56 receptions, 752 yards, 6 TDs) returns. He will also have the services of a pair of transfers, sophomore RB Duke Catalan (Texas) and junior WR Ra’Shaad Samples (Oklahoma State). Junior wide receiver Steven Dunbar (31 receptions, 382 yards, 6 TDs) and versatile senior Brandon Wilson are candidates for a breakout campaign.

Senior linebacker Steven Taylor (92 tackles, 10 sacks, 18.5 tackles for loss and 2 INTs) leads the defense. Freshman DT Ed Oliver, senior DT B.J. Singleton, senior DE Cameron Malveaux and Wilson are also players to watch.

Houston opens up the season at NRG Stadium against Oklahoma on Sept. 3. The Cougars’ other tough games, according to The Comeback, will be home games against UConn (Sept.29) and Louisville (Nov. 17). In total, UH will play 12 regular season games with seven home games and five road games. The only non-FBS team on the schedule is Lamar.

2. USF Bulls (8-5, 6-2). USF won seven of its last nine games last year to qualify for its first bowl game since 2010. The Bulls have also doubled their win total in each of coach Willie Taggart’s first three years and are 14-23 under him.

My News 13 reports that USF returns 93 percent of its offense, including junior signal caller Quinton Flowers and sensational junior running back Marlon Mack. Flowers is a dual-threat quarterback who compiled 3,287 yards from scrimmage and 34 touchdowns in 2015. He completed 59.1 percent (163-276) of his passes for 22 scores and eight interceptions. Mack ran for 100 yards in each of his last five contests and has reached the 1,000 plateau in both of his collegiate seasons. The 6-foot-1, 205-pounder rushed for 1,381 yards on 210 carries for a 6.6 yard per carry average.

Senior wide receiver Rodney Allen led the Bulls’ pass catchers with 45 receptions for 822 yards and nine touchdowns.

Defensively, USF returns seven of its top nine tacklers. Junior linebacker Augie Sanchez led the Bulls with 117 tackles and junior cornerback Deatrick Nichlos registered four of the team’s 14 interceptions. Redshirt freshman defensive end Kirk Livingstone has also reportedly looked good this summer.

USF begins the season versus Towson on Sept. 3. The Bulls other non-conference games are against NIU, at Syracuse and vs. Florida State. USF and Houston do not meet during the regular season.

3. Temple Owls (10-4, 7-1). Temple is coming off its best season under fourth-year head coach Matt Ruhle (18-20) as the Owls advanced to the AAC title game and made a bowl game for the first time since 2011.

Temple returns 18 starters, including senior QB P.J. Walker and senior RB Jahad Thomas. Walker has started the past three seasons and is coming off his best season of his career in 2015, throwing 2,973 yards and 19 touchdowns against eight interceptions. He added 207 yards on 81 carries. Thomas had a breakout campaign, running for 1,262 yards and 17 scores on 276 carries.

Defense could be a problem for the Owls as All-American linebacker Tyler Matakevich is in the NFL. The Owls will count on a trio of seniors in linebacker Jarred Alwan (74 tackles, 1.5 sacks) along with defensive ends Haason Reddick (46 tackles, 5.0 sacks) and Praise Martin-Ogulke.

Temple’s biggest non-conference foe will be Penn State on Sept. 17. The Owl’s defeated the Nittany Lions 27-10 last year. They also host Army, Stony Brook and Charlotte.

4. Cincinnati Bearcats (7-6). Cincinnati has 18 seniors on its roster, but there are questions surrounding their quarterback situation. The Bearcats entered fall camp with two experienced signal callers in senior Gunner Kiel and sophomore Hayden Moore. Kiel was the starter most of last season, compiling 2,777 yards along with 19 touchdowns and 11 interceptions while completing 65.1 percent of his passes. Moore, who started the team’s Aug. 13 scrimmage, had nine touchdowns and 11 interceptions for 1,885 yards.

Cincinnati also returns a pair of quality running backs in Mike Boone and Tion Green. Boone, a junior, broke the 100-yard barrier three times and totaled 749 yards as well as nine touchdowns. In the meantime, Green, a senior, racked up a personal best, 729 yards and eight scores.

On the defensive side of the ball, Cincinnati returns the vast majority of their squad that gave up at least 30 points eight times. Senior linebacker Eric Wilson led the Bearcats with 106 stops.

Cincinnati begins the season at home against Tennessee-Martin and then goes on the road to Purdue. The Bearcats follow those two games with home games against Houston, Miami (Ohio) and South Florida. They also host Memphis on Nov. 18.

5. Memphis Tigers (9-4, 5-3) Memphis returns just 13 starters from last year and first-year head coach Mike Norvell has to find a quarterback as Paxton Lynch took his talents to the Denver Broncos.

Junior college transfer Riley Ferguson is expected to start Memphis’ opening game against Southeast Missouri State under center on Sept. 3. Whoever is the Tigers’ quarterback, he will have help in the backfield with Doroland Dorceus. Dorceus, who is a solid pass catcher out of the backfield, ran for 661 yards on 155 carries and eight touchdowns.

Wide outs Anthony Miller (47 receptions, 694 yards and five touchdowns) and Phil Mayhue (51 catches for 670 yards) give the Tigers quality receivers.

Memphis also had to rebuild its defense, though it is still good enough to be ranked in the top-five of the conference, according to Phil Steele of ESPN.

6. UConn Huskies(6-7, 4-4). UConn saw their win increase by four games in year two under head coach Bob Diaco (8-17). Last year, the Huskies had the stingiest defense in the AAC and returns the majority of that unit. Junior linebacker Junior Joseph is the team’s top returning tackler with 93 stops. Junior cornerback Jamar Summers and junior defensive tackle Folorunso Fatukasi are the other key players on the defensive side. Summers was recently named by Fox Sports as one of the top 10 defensive backs this year. He finished last season tied for second in the country with eight interceptions.

Offensively, UConn struggled as the Huskies tallied 22 points twice. Junior quarterback Bryant Shirreffs completed 60.2 percent (168-of-279) of his passes for 2,078 yards and nine touchdowns. He tossed eight interceptions and was sacked 34 times. Shirreffs also had 503 rushing yards.

Junior running back Arkeel Newsome may be the Huskies’ biggest offensive threat. Last year, Newsome ran for 792 yards and six touchdowns on 183 attempts and added 45 receptions for 465 yards and two touchdowns. The 5-foot-7, 185-pounder will also return kicks. UConn will have their top five pass catchers back, including senior Noel Thomas (54 receptions, 719 yards, 3 touchdowns).

7. Navy Midshipmen (11-2, 7-1). Navy will be without college football’s all-time touchdown leader in quarterback Keenan Reynolds, but the good new is that senior Tago Smith does have 18 games of experience, including two starts.

Navy, which is 68-37 under ninth-year head coach Ken Niumatalolo, should battle Memphis and Tulsa for the second spot in the West. Senior WR Jamir Tilllman (29 receptions, 596 yards, 5 TDs) and senior RB Dishan Romine (36 attempts, 378 yards) are the leading offensive returnees.

Senior LB Daniel Gonzales and junior LB Micah Thomas lead a solid Navy defense. Gonzales has recorded 151 tackles and four interceptions over the past two years while Thomas is coming off an outstanding season with 73 tackles, 4.5 tackles for less and 2.5 sacks.

8. Tulsa Golden Hurricane (6-7, 3-5). Last year, Tulsa surpassed their win total from the two previous years combined (5). The Golden Hurricane should be able to at least match that total as senior quarterback Dane Evans is back to run second-year coach Phillip Montgomery’s high-octane offense. Evans, led the AAC with 333.2 yards per game, completed 62.9 percent of his passes for 4,332 yards to go along with 25 touchdowns and just eight interceptions.

Evans will have plenty of weapons as running backs D’Angelo Brewer (837 yards, 6 TDs) and Ramadi Warren (475 yards, 6 TDs) are also back, as are wide receivers Josh Atkinson (76 catches, 1,071 yards, 5 TD), Justin Hobbs (32 receptions, 551 yards) and Keevan Lewis.

Defensively, Tulsa was a disaster as the Golden Hurricane gave up over 500 yards of offense a contest.

9. SMU Mustangs (2-10, 1-7). SMU has had a tough go of it since going to three straight bowl games (2010-2012), posting just a 8-28 record since then. The Mustangs do have a nice quarterback-wide receiver duo in Matt Davis and Courtland Sutton.

Davis, a senior, had his up and downs last year, completing 54.5 percent of his passes for 2,263 yards along with 16 touchdowns and seven interceptions. Sutton was fabulous as a freshman, hauling in 49 passes for 862 yards and nine touchdowns.

SMU will look to improve vastly on the defensive side, where they gave up 45.7 points a game. Junior defensive end Justin Lawler and senior safety Darrion Richardson are the top Mustangs on that side of the ball.

10. East Carolina Pirates (5-7, 3-5). ECU is going through a rebuild with new coach Scottie Montgomery and new quarterback (Rutgers transfer) Phillip Nelson. Nelson has not taken a game snap since starting for Minnesota in 2013. The Pirates also don’t have an experienced running back and will have three new starters on the offensive line. Senior wide receiver Isaiah Jones is the top returning threat, hauling in 98 passes for 1,099 yards and five touchdowns.

Senior defensive tackle Demetri McGill, junior linebacker Jordan Williams and sophomore linebacker Yiannis Bowden lead a thin Pirates defensive unit.

ECU will play three teams from the power five conferences in their first four games — North Carolina State (home), South Carolina (away) and Virginia Tech (away).

11. Tulane Green Wave (3-9, 1-7). Tulane has only one winning season since 2003 and six combined wins over the past two years. However, the Green Wave look to begin anew under Willie Fritz — who has a career 154-69 record in 19 seasons.

Tulane has yet to name a quarterback with competition being between redshirt sophomore Glen Cuiellette, and freshmen Darius Bradwell along with Johnathan Brantley. But the Green Wave do have a plethora of experienced running backs in Dontrell Hilliard, Sherman Badie, Lazedrick Thompson and Josh Rounds. All four backs saw time last year with Hilliard leading the way with 646 yards on 115 carries. Badie rushed for 310 yards and Rounds picked up 207 yards while Thompson tacked on 162 yards.

Defense should be a strength for Tulane with senior defensive tackle Tanzel Smart, senior LB Nico Marley and junior linebacker Jarrod Franklin. Smart, perhaps the conference’s best pro prospect, had 15 of his 64 tackles occur behind the line of scrimmage. Marley had 73 tackles and Franklin tallied 74 stops.

12. UCF Knights (0-12, 0-8). The last time UCF was winless (2004), the Knights went 8-5 the following season.

Head coach Scott Frost has his first head coaching job and has a lot of work ahead of him as the Knights ranked last offensively in all of the FBS. The good news is that UCF does return 10 starters offensively. Senior quarterback Justin Holman is the leading candidate to start the season under center for the Knights. Holman was entirely too unreliable last year, producing 1,374 yards and 14 touchdowns in nine games. Sophomore WR Tre-Quan Smith and fellow classmate C.J. Jones are other key offensive players.

Safety Drico Johnson and defensive tackle Jamiyus Pittman lead a defense that ranked 113th in 2015.

[Photo by John Bazemore/AP Photo]