Following is our preview of the American Athletic Conference, courtesy Chief Analyst Gary Olshan.  First up, the East half of the loop, in predicted order of finish with 2014 straight-up and spread records included, followed by the West...Bruce Marshall, GoldSheet.com Editor                                                          by Gary Olshan, Chief Analyst

CINCINNATI (2014 SUR 9-4; PSR 7-5-1)—Cincy, which is coming off consecutive 9-4 campaigns under third-year mentor Tommy Tuberville, is our choice to capture the AAC title outright in 2015 after splitting the league crown with UCF and Memphis a year ago. Tommy Tuberville says, “We’re pretty good. We’re getting more of the type of players in here that fit what we want to do on offense and defense. We’ve got a good team but we need to take a step forward. We need to play better against some of the higher-ranked teams that we play. We need to finish stronger. Last year we reeled off six or seven straight wins, the we lose the bowl game.”

Cincy, which landed the league’s No. 1 recruiting class this term, went 6-0-1 vs. the spread over the last seven regular season tilts. The Bearcats have circled payback games vs Memphis & Miami-Florida in weeks 4 & 5.

LY’s high-octane aerial assault attack (34.0 ppg) should continue to shine brightly in 2015. Strong-armed 6-4 jr. QB Gunner Kiel (3,254 YP LY), who began his career at Notre Dame, finished with 31 TD passes to tie the school’s single-season record. The Bearcats return their top seven receivers, led by speedy 5-9 Shaq Washington, who had 66 catches and 4 TDs. Mekale McKay & Chris Moore (8 TD catches apiece LY) are the deep threats in UC’s wide-open, four-WR offense. LY’s inconsistent ground assault (only 72nd nationally) should be steadier this campaign, with the healthy return of top RBs Hosey Williams & Tion Green, both of whom missed most of 2014 with injuries. Hungry Mr. Williams figures to battle for the No. 1 job with soph Mike Boone for the No. 1 job, who led the team with 650 YR & 9 TDs as a true freshmen LY.

More concerns exist on a yielding defense (27.2 ppg; 4.8 ypc; only 7 ints. LY), which finished a poor 97th nationally in total yards, allowing a whopping 720 yards in Cincy’s 50-28 thrashing at Ohio State. New defensive coordinator Steve Clinksdale (former DB coach), who’s replacing departed Hank Hughes (hired as the new DL coach at Nebraska) seeks to inject some needed speed on that unit, which has serious rebuilding on its front seven, with only sr. DE Silverberry Mouhon (preseason All-AAC) returning. The veteran secondary (3 starters back)—spearheaded by ubiquitous jr. S Zach Edwards (121 tackles LY)—should benefit from sr. CB Adrian Witty, a vocal team leader who missed most of 2014 with a leg injury.

Special teams are strong, with accurate soph kicker Andrew Gantz (second-team All-AAC LY), who nailed 16 of 20 FGs LY & soph punter Sam Geraci, who improved as the season progressed in LY’s debut.

UCF (2014 SUR 9-4; PSR 8-5)—
UCF,which has captured back-to-back league championships, is in a reloading rather a rebuilding mode, according to crafty 12th-year HC George O’Leary, who returns only 10 starters in 2015. “The culture of the program has one goal: win a conference championship every year.” O’Leary says. “The kids are hungry and understand that.” The Knights, 15-1 SU in the first two years of AAC play, will be properly prepared for the conference trail, toughened-up by challenging road trips to Stanford and South Carolina in September. And ultra-consistent UCF—which as averaged 9.4 wins per year over the past five campaigns—will be sky-high for its conference home opener vs. a UConn squad which pulled off a stunning 37-29 upset in Storrs LY.

Six starters return to an offense (28.1 ppg) smoothly directed by poised 6-4 jr. QB Justin Holman, who came on nicely as the season progressed after early mixed results, completing 223 of 392 passes for 2,952 yards with 23 TDs and 14 interceptions. Holman will be complemented by a seasoned OL (4 starters back) and productive RB William Stanback (697 YR, league-high 12 TDs), who missed several games due to nagging injuries, but was still named to the all-conference for the second consecutive season. Holman, however, must immediately uncover playmakers at WR (top returnee has only 12 grabs) after losing virtually every key pass catcher from 2014. It’s a good bet talented RS frosh Tre’Quann Smith becomes his go-to guy after becoming his favorite target in the spring.

Only four starters are back on LY’s gnarly defense (19.2 ppg) tutored by new defensive coordinator Chuck Bresnahan (the former USF coordinator), who has a rock-solid DL to work with—featuring sr. DE Thomas Niles (team leading 7.5 sacks & 13. TFL in 2014)—but must break in a brand new secondary after seeing CB Jacoby Glenn, the 2014 AAC Co-Defensive Player of the Year, declare early for the NFL draft. “I think it’s the best front four that has been here, “O’Leary says. Among our two-deep, all are back except for one.” Coaches do have several players waiting in the wings at CB, notably jrs. Shaquill Griffin & D.J. Killings (2 ints. LY) and a pair of RS freshmen, Kyle Gibson & Chris Williams, both of whom were among the most heralded signees of the 2014 recruiting class.

On special teams, UCF must rely on RS frosh Matthew Wright to take over for graduated Shawn Moffitt, perhaps the premier kicker in program history.

TEMPLE (2014 SUR 6-6; PSR 6-6)—Temple’s energetic third-year HC Matt Ruhle has his squad on an upward trajectory after going from two wins in 2013 to six in 2014. The Owls have just one conference championship in program history, winning the MAC title (that was the Middle Atlantic Conference) in 1967. We believe the Owls can make a run at the East Division crown if the offense can produce as it did in Rhule’s debut season of 2013. “There’s no reason we shouldn’t be able to bring a conference championship back to Temple,” says Rhule. “We’ve invested a lot of time over these last three years into these kids, so it’s their time and they look like they are going to play at a high level.”

Seven starters return to an offense (23.1 ppg) that should show noticeable progress under athletic 6-1 jr. QB P.J. Walker (2,317 YP, 15 TDP, 13 int.), who’ll operate behind a seasoned OL (4 starters back). Walker, however, who got off to a strong start in 2014, played sporadically over the final seven games, throwing only four TDP and 11 interceptions, as the team unsurprisingly went just 2-5 during that period. Part of the problem was due to a thin, injury-riddled OL and that the Owls never found an adequate replacement for WR Robbie Anderson, who averaged 18 yards per catch and had 9 TDC in 2013. Coaches hope that Hawaii transfer Keith Kirkwood and/or RS frosh Ventell Bryant can emerge to fill that role. LY’s feeble infantry (only 108 ypg; ranked 115th) should have more zest in 2015 with the healthy return of soph RB Zaire Williams (533 YR in 2013 as a frosh), who barely played in 2014 due to a back injury. RB David Hood, who played in only two games as a freshman, also has potential as do a couple of new recruits—four-star T.J. Simmons, who turned down an offer from UCLA and Jager Gardner, who holds the Western North Carolina career high school rushing record (6,955 yds.).

All 11 starters are back on a stingy defense (17.5 ppg LY) ranked in the top 25 nationally in all the major categories in 2014. The linchpin of that veteran unit is omnipresent sr. LB Tyler Matakevich (FBS-leading 355 stops), who is on pace to become the school’s all-time leading tackler. The havoc-wreaking D,” which forced 30 TOs (six returned for scores!) is rock-solid up front, with Ruhle touting 6-2, 250-pound jr. DE Praise Martin-Oquike & 6-4, 285-pound sr. DT Matt Ionannidis as future NFL performers. The blanket-covering secondary is paced by sr. CB Tavon Young, who has 7 career interceptions.

Temple, which was a safety away from a 3-0 home dog mark LY, will be sky high to snap its protracted 31-game losing skein to Penn State in its opener in Philly on September 5. QB P.J. Walker will be especially jazzed after tossing a season-high four picks in the Owls’ misleading 30-13 setback in “Happy Valley” (Nittany Lions led only 20-13 in final period before a “pick-six” extended lead).

EAST CAROLINA (2014 SUR 8-5; PSR 5-8)—Though the coaches and players prefer the term “reloading” rather than rebuilding, ECU’s sixth-year mentor Ruffin McNeil needs to fill some big shoes on the offensive side to make a run at the East Division title. The Pirates, who have been “bowling” in 8 of the last 9 seasons, have also made some staff adjustments and additions. And the schedulemakers have done no favors for ECU, which has four road games in a five-week period. including grueling trips to Florida, new AAC member Navy and BYU, not to mention a tough home game vs. angry, revenge-minded Virginia Tech on September 26.

Six starters are back on the Air Raid offense (35.8 ppg), which lost top swashbucklers, including clever offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley (new o.c. at Oklahoma) and record-setting playmakers, QB Shane Carden & WR Justin Hardy. New, promoted o.c. Dave Nichol (former Pirates’ WR coach) need strong-armed soph Kurt Benkert (8 of 10 passes LY), who was a quick study in the spring, and/or reshirted jr. Blake Kemp to step in and keep the ship on course. The Pirates remain loaded at receiver, thanks to sure-handed jr. Isaiah Jones (81 grabs LY) & 6-6, 250-pound TE Bryce Williams. And look out for prized frosh WR Deondre Farrier, who was wooed by Florida, Miami-Florida and USC, among other. Plus, pass-run balance should be achieved with nifty sr. RB Chris Hairston (6.7 ypc) operating behind a mammoth, senior-laden OL returning four starters.

Five starters are back on a defense (25.8 ppg), which did a better job containing the run (111 ypg; ranked 11th nationally) than the pass (255.5 ypg; ranked 98th) a year ago. Three starters must be replaced on the DL, but sr. returnee DE Johnathan White will get immediate aid in the trenches from sr. DE Terrell Stanley, who has made a dramatic return from injuries in an auto accident that sidelined him LY. He was honorable mention All-C-USA in 2013. The LB corp is well-set, with the senior duo of Zeek Bigger (140 tackles LY) & Montese Overton, while ball-hawking sr. CB Josh Hawkins (5 ints., 11 PBU LY) spearheads a secondary that is deep and experienced.
On special teams, Texas A&M transfer David Plowman also has big shoes to fill, since graduated placekicker Warren Harvey set the career ECU scoring record.

Last year, the Pirates were a perfect 4-0 vs. the spread in the preconference, but a woeful 1-6 as AAC chalk.

SOUTH FLORIDA (2014 SUR 4-8; PSR 6-6)—Word is this could be a do-or-die season for beleaguered third-year HC Willie Taggart (only 6-18 in his first two terms), who fired three assistants immediately after last season, including both coordinators. After going to six consecutive bowl games, USF has suffered four straight losing seasons. Taggart has also dramatically changed the offensive style of play, switching from his signature smash-mouth attack to an uptempo, spread. But we’re not bullish on the offensively-shaky, inexperienced Bulls (only 8 starters back), who probably won’t acquire some much-needed early-season confidence as a result of another formidable non-conference slate, including back-to-back road games at Florida State and Maryland in September.

Five starters are back on a rebooting offense (17.2 ppg LY), which has already taken a blow when experienced drop-back QB Mke White (15 starts over past two years) decided to transfer a few days after the close of spring practice. Soph QB Quinton Flowers, who has quick feet & improved accuracy, and senior Steven Bench will carry their competition into the fall after producing a meager one TD combined in the spring game. After losing four starting WRs, the coaches are counting on Kentucky transfer A.J. Legree & promising soph Ryeshene Bronson to step up in the new, no-huddle. The only bright spot on the offensive side is electrifying soph RB Marlon Mack (1,041 YR & 9 TDs LY)—the AAC Rookie of the Year in 2014—who’ll need to maneuver behind a rebuilt OL (only two starter back). The laboring offense has managed to exceed 21 points only four times over the past two campaigns! Only three starters return on a penetrable defense (27.0 ppg; 4.7 ypc; only 5 ints.) also having a major facelift under first-year defensive coordinator Tom Allen (former Ole Miss LB coach), who has implemented a 4-2-5 formation, transforming a LB into a hybrid position and creating better chances to counter spread offenses. There are some building blocks on the “D,” with jr. LB Nigel Harris, who led the nation with six forced fumbles, and senior S Jamie Byrd (TCU transfer had 95 tackles & 2 ints.). The coaches, however, desperately need to find some pass rushers to take a little pressure off a new pair of CBs.

The Bulls own one of the nation’s top punters in senior Mattias Ciabatti, who averaged a school-record 44.4 yards, with 22 downed inside the 20. But unproven soph Emilio Nadelman will get the first look to replace reliable kicker Marvin Kloss, who was a Lou Groza finalist in 2013.
USF is a highly-profitable 25-11 “unders” over the past three campaigns, while going 8-4 as as a DD-dog over the last two years.

CONNECTICUT (2014 SUR 2-10; PSR 2-10)—Coming off a 2-10 season—the worst in UConn’s 11-year history in the FBS—second-year HB Bob Diaco, who built his reputation as a defensive wiz at Cincinnati and Notre Dame, is still trying to clean up the mess left by Paul Pasqualoni, who went a miserable 10-23 in his nearly three forgettable terms in Storrs. And it will remain a tough assignment for the Huskies to make a major leap forward and go “bowling” for the first time since 2010 due to a rough non-conference schedule, with games at BYU & Missouri and league road games at UCF, Cincinnati & improving Temple. Keep in mind, the error-prone Huskies (26 giveaways LY) suffered seven DD losses LY, with their stunning 37-28 home upset over UCF comprising a short highlight reel for 2014.

Four starters return to LY’s impotent offense 15.5 ppg;122nd nationally), which only reached the red zone 24 times. To shake things up, Diaco shifted his entire staff with every coach moving to a different position, and brought in veteran coach Frank Verducci (he has 31 years of experience on the NFL & collegiate level) as offensive coordinator to help install a physical and ball-controlling running game. Four candidates competing for the QB position, but the front-runner appears to be North Carolina State transfer soph Bryant Shirreffs, a dual-threat triggerman who has shown excellent running ability and impressed the staff with his arm on deep throws. Jr. QB Tim Boyle, who was named the starter late last season and has thrown just one TD with 11 career interceptions, is still in the hunt. Soph RB Ron Johnson (team-leading 428 YR LY) will be the featured ball- carrier, while jr. WR Noel Thomas (26 grabs & 4TDC LY) is a legit downfield threat. Three OL starters return, including the bookend OTs.

The Huskies return seven starters on defense (29.8 ppg LY), including their top four tacklers. And that unit stands a good chance to make noticeable progress in its second year in Diaco’s 3-4 alignment. Senior LBs Marquise Vann and Graham Stewart (10.5 TFL LY), who combined for 203 tackles, anchor the run defense. Moreover, an athletic, veteran secondary is equipped to shrink its big-play allowance after yielding 20 TDP LY. Senior FS Andrew Adams (96 tackles & four interceptions LY) & rangy 6-3 jr. SS Obi Melinfonwu are prime-time performers, while jr. Jhavon Williams & soph Jamar Summers are capable cover CBs.

UConn slipped to 1-3 as a home dog in 2014 after compiling an eye-popping 19-4 spread mark in that favorable role the previous nine campaigns.

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