Following our look at the East half of the American, we present Chief Analyst gary Olshan's preview of the Western portion of the conference, in predicted order of finish with last year's straight-up and spread records included...Bruce Marshall, GoldSheet.com Editor

                                                                 by Gary Olshan, Chief Analyst

HOUSTON (2014 SUR 7-5; PSR 7-5-1)—
The Tom Herman Era begins in Houston after the somewhat surprising firing of third-year HC Tony Levine following LY’s 8-5 campaign. Highly-respected Herman, who brings credibility after winning the national title as the offensive coordinator at Ohio State in 2014, has spent the first several months on the job instilling a toughness that had been lacking the past couple years under mild-mannered Levine. And it appears that the players were ready for a change in the culture, according to Herman, who says, “The really neat thing that I’ve found is there really wasn’t a lot of pushback from the players. As a whole, I feel like a lot of these kids know about playing Texas high school football and on championship teams. They know what it’s like to feel like, look like and be like to win a championship.” And the Cougs benefit from playing the top challengers in the West, Memphis and Navy, at their friendly TDECU Stadium in the month of November.

Seven starters return to an attack (29.8 ppg) that will literally hit the ground running. “The offense will start with running the football and we have two tailbacks to do it,” Herman says. So, look for the special senior RB duo of Kenneth Farrow (AAC-best 15 TDs, 1037 YR LY) & Ryan Jackson (team-leading 661 YR in 2013; 620 YR LY) to be the early focal point of the revamped offense, tutuored by first-year o.c. Major Applewhite, who served as the Texas co-offensive coordinator from 2011-2013. And blue-chip frosh RB Tyreik Gray, who is considered to possess exceptional peripheral vision, to have a chance to work into the mix in the early going. Incumbent QB Greg Ward Jr. ( 67.3%; 2010 YP & 23 TDP LY) , who went 6-2 after taking over the final eight games after staring the first five contests at WR, will compete with Utah transfer Adam Schulz in the fall for the starting job. The Cougs will be young at WR due to graduation and the surprising decision of star Deontay Greenberry (72 grabs LY) to leave early for the NFL draft. WRs DeMarcus Ayers & Steven Dunbar are the only returning pass-catchers with at least 20 receptions, so jr. Chance Allen (Oregon transfer) figures to audition for a starting job. And plenty of fall work is needed on a reshaped OL returning just two starters.

Six starters return to a defense (20.6 ppg) switching to a 3-4 scheme under new co-coordinators Todd Orlando (former Utah State assistant) & Craig Naiver (collegiate d.c. or special teams coach for the previous 16 seasons). But the coaches plan on implementing the same attacking, hard-hitting, ball-hawking unit that has produced a jaw-dropping 73 turnovers over the past two seasons. The strength of the defense will be the highly-experienced secondary (all 4 starters return; 7 players have tallied 99 career starts), featuring Ss Adrian McDonald (8 forced TOs LY), Trevon Stewart (56 stops, 3 ints.) & CB William Jackson, a shutdown cover guy receiving growing attention from NFL scouts. Head-hunting jr. LB Steve Taylor (4 sacks, 9 TFL LY) is coming off a breakout campaign, while jr. Tyus Bowser will be used in a hybrid OLB/DE role in the new scheme. And while Herman likes his three returning starters on the DL, quality depth is needed to be developed behind that proven trio.
Sr. PK Kyle Bullard (nailed 22 of his last 28 FGs), a Lou Groza semifinalist LY, is dependable, but huge improvement is desired in the return game.

Cougs are a sizzling 7-0-1 vs. the spread on the conference trail the last two seasons.

MEMPHIS (2014 SUR 10-3; PSR 8-5)—After serving as the league doormat for many seasons, Memphis finished 10-3 in 2014 and claimed a share of the AAC title under fiery, third-year mentor Justin Fuente. The Tigers, who had their first 10-win campaign since 1938 and their first bowl game since 2008, will now wear the proverbial target on their back. “It’s uncharted territory for us,” Fuente says. “We have to do great job of handling it. We have to realize that we’re not a 10-win team. That was last year. Each team is different, the makeup is different and the mindset is different.” It sounds like Fuente  won’t let his team fall into any complacency. Hence, look for offensively-explosive but defensively restructured Memphis to battle Houston for the division title.

Seven starters are back on a high-powered offense (AAC-leading 36.2 ppg LY), paced by poised and precise 6-7 jr. QB Paxton Lynch (64%; 3,031 YP; 22 TDP LY), who became only the third Tiger triggerman to surpass 3,000 yards in a season. The vaunted aerial attack should continue to thrive, with four of the top six WRs returning, including No. 1 wide-out Mose Frazier (43 catches) & TE Alan Cross (25 grabs LY), who was a first-team all-AAC pick LY. Though LY’s leading RB Brandon Hayes has hung up his cleats, the complementary ground game remains in good shape, with the healthy return of soph Doroland Dorceus (5.8 ypc in 2013), who missed most of last season and spring practice with a knee injury. Also, soph RB Jarvis Cooper (360 YR, 4 TDs) is a punishing 250-pounder with deceptive speed, while jr. RB Sam Craft (303 YR, 3 TDs) is a multi-skilled talent who could line up in the backfield or at receiver. The OL has some rebuilding to do on the right side, with new players plugged in at G & T.

The stout defense (19.5 ppg LY; ranked 11th nationally) was hit hard by losses as only three starters return. In addition, highly-regarded coordinator Barry Odom left to return to Missouri, his alma mater, to serve in the same role. Associate head coach and LB coach Galen Scott, who takes over Odom’s job, must find 3 new LBs, 3 new starting DBs & 2 new starting linemen. Two key graduations were DE Martin Ifedi, who was the school’s career sack leader, and LB Tank Janks, who was the league’s co-Defensive Player of the Year in 2014. “We lost eight senior starters and three senior backups, Fuente says. “We took a pretty big hit and we’ll end up playing some young kids. It’ll be a tremendous challenge to get them ready to play.” The coaches do have several reserves who have played extensively to fill in at those spots, while the premier returnee will be DE/LB Jackson Dillon, who forced two fumbles & had 9 TFL.

Memphis returns the AAC’s top kicker and reigning Special Teams Player of the Year, Jake Elliott, who has converted 37 of 50 FGs in his first two seasons.

NAVY (2014 SUR 8-5; PSR 6-7)—After 134 years as an Independent, Navy will finally play in a conference! The Middies, who own a 34-27-1 record vs. current AAC members, have regularly competed against schools such as SMU, East Carolina and Tulane. Successful ninth-year HC Ken Niumatalolo says capturing the conference title has now been added to the annual goals of beating service academy rivals Army and Air Force to secure the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy and qualifying for a bow game. And after playing tough nonconference schedules on an annual basis, well-prepared Navy figures to be in the hunt for a division title, as its unorthodox triple-option attack will be difficult for opposing defenses to prepare in less than a week.

Four starters return to the well-designed option offense (27.3 ppg; 338 ypg rushing LY) marvelously directed by sr. QB Keenan Reynolds, who already owns a slew of school records and ranks first among QBs in NCAA history with 64 rushing TDs. Hey, he needs just 14 more to pass Wisconsin RB Monte Ball to set the NCAA mark for all players. And Reynolds, who boasts a 21-11 record as a starter, owns a plethora of proven weapons at his disposal, with 245-pound sr. FB Chris Swain (693 YR LY), speedy 5-7 sr. SB DeBrandon Sanders (averaged 8.0 ypc & 19 yds. per catch during his career) and fluid 6-4 jr. WR Jamir Tillman (20 catches, 3 TDs LY) leading the way. The Middies must rebuild its cut-blocking OL after graduating three starters.
Six starters to the defense (27.3 ppg LY), which was highly-permissive vs. the run (allowing 5.1 ypc LY) and recovered only five lost fumbles a year ago. That unit suffered significant losses, most notably DE Paul Quessenbery, LBs Jordan Drake & Chris Johnson & FS Parrish Gaines. That quartet won’t be easy to replace, but to help accelerate the rebuilding process will be sr. NT Bernie Sarra, DE Will Anthony (team-leading 11 TFL) & jr LB Daniel Gonzales (86 tackles & 3 ints. LY). The veteran secondary should be stingy vs. the pass, with CBs Brendon Clements (Miami native has 107 career tackles & 8 PBU) & Quincy Adams (earned honorable mention All-Independent honors LY) defending the last line of the defense.

On STs, two-year backup Gavin Jernigan will get the first crack to replace one of Navy’s finest all-time punters in Pablo Beltran, a four-year starter who ranks second in school history with a 41.8 yard average. Austin Grebe took over as the starting placekicker in the 7th game of last season and was solid, hitting 6 of 6 FGs and 33 of 33 on extra points.

The Middies are 7-2 as an underdog the last two seasons, including a 17-14 minor upset win over San Diego State in LY’s Poinsettia Bowl.

SMU (2014 SUR 1-11; PSR 4-8)—It was a coaching coup for SMU with its high-profile hiring of clever HC Chad Morris, who successfully worked his hurry-up offense for one season at Tulsa and four years at Clemson. Morris brings an uptempo pace to all facets of Mustang football, with things, perhaps, not as dire as they appear after finishing a horrific 1-11 last season. “It was a tough deal with the interim coach coming in at mid-year and they weren’t winning,” says one AAC assistant. “I thought they were probably better than their record indicated; it was just a bad situation.” Having spent 16 years as a Texas high school coach, Morris has quickly used his ties to repair recruiting relationships with coaches in the state, particularly in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. And with the players reportedly buying into Morris’s philosophy and system in the spring, SMU could be a “tougher out” after enduring a string of blowout losses LY. Remember, the Mustangs went “bowling” for 4 straight seasons before regressing the past two campaigns. SMU, however, has a couple of land mines in September, facing powerful instate foes Baylor and TCU, which whipped the Mustangs by a combined 101-0 score in 2014.

Five starters return to what was a moribund offense (11.1 ppg; 269.0 ypg), which finally showed some life last year when jr. QB Matt Davis (613 YR, 4 TDs) took over the starting job the last six games. And Morris is confident that Davis can effectively operate his smash-mouth spread offense. After all, Morris recruited the dual-threat QB who signed with Texas A&M out of high school, while he was Clemson’s offensive coordinator. Davis’s passing skills should improve in the new scheme, which employs two RBs and a TE and relies more on runs between the tackles and vertical passes. The quick tempo can keep defenses off balance when operated properly. And the cupboard isn’t bare for first-year o.c. Joe Craddock, who returns leading WR Darius Joseph (54 catches LY), and could be counting on prized frosh WRs Kevin Thomas & Xavier Castille to make an early impact. At RB, jr. Prescott Line (256 YR, 4 TDs LY) will get some keen competition from incoming freshmen Daniel Gresham, Braeden West & Xavier Jones.

LY’s pathetic defense (41. 3 ppg; 124th nationally), which returns six starters, has switched to a 4-2-5 scheme under new d.c. Van Malone, who coached defensive backs at Oklahoma State for the previous three seasons. This makeover should allow SMU to emphasize speed on the edge and in the secondary while avoiding physical mismatches up front. Malone hopes a more aggressive approach will put players in a position to create mistakes after finishing with a poor -14 TO margin LY (ranked 120th nationally). Rangy 6-4, 216-pound Shakiel Randolph, who has played both safety and CB, should be a good fit in the new Star hybrid role, while DT Zach Wood (4 sacks LY) will anchor the line. The coaches will certainly earn their salaries in their attempt to quickly restore confidence and inject some passion on a defense ranked near the bottom nationally vs. the run and the pass LY.

TULANE (2014 SUR 3-9; PSR 4-8)—After recording its first winning season and bowl appearance since 2002 in its 7-6 campaign in 2013, Tulane reverted back to its losing ways in its move from C-USA to the stronger AAC in 2014. In its disappointing 3-9 campaign, the Green Wave only managed to defeat SE Louisiana & UConn before its shocking 31-24 upset victory at Houston on Nov. 8. But that was the only highlight of a season for a Tulane squad that struggled on both sides of the ball. The pieces are in place for an uptick in HC Curtis Johnson’s fourth season, with 13 starters returning. But the Green Wave will have trouble getting off to a fast start, opening up with back-to-back games vs. Duke (at home) and Georgia Tech (in Atlanta), followed by five FBS opponents coming off bowl eligible seasons.

Six starters are back on an offense (16.0 ppg), which needs to see dramatic improvement after failing to score more than 14 points in 8 of their last 9 games. Strong-armed soph QB Tanner Lee must improve dramatically after tossing more interceptions (14) than TDs (12) in a rough redshirt freshmen debut season. But right out of the gate, Lee should display better rapport with a soph-laden WR corps that learned on the job as newcomers LY. Soph WR Teddy Veal (40 grabs LY) will be the top target, while soph TEs Charles Jones & Trey Scott played more integral roles in the attack during spring practice. With stronger blocking expected from an experienced OL (4 starters return), the run game should be much more effective after finishing a lowly 91st nationally LY. The three-headed monster of speedy Sherman Badie (688 YR, 5.7 ypc), power runner Lazedrick Thompson (533 YR, 4 TDs) & multi-talented Dontrell Hilliard is one of the best in the AAC. Johnson believe the trio is NFL-caliber.

With a solid nucleus of seven starters returning on defense (28.4 ppg LY), Tulane should be closer to its form from 2013 (when it ranked 22nd nationally in yards allowed) than last season (when it dipped to 55th). Diminutive but high-motor 5-9, 200-pound jr. LB Nico Marley (reggae legend Bob’s grandson had 13.5 TFL & 82 tackles), soph CB Parry Nickerson (the Freshman A-A had 6 interceptions LY) & sr. S Darion Monroe, four-star recruit in 2012 who returns as a 4-year starter, are difference-makers on a unit. The Wave are experienced at DT, with jr. All-AAC candidate Tanzel Smart (47 stops) & soph Sean Wilson teaming up for the second straight year. Coaches, however, must find able replacements for S Sam Scofield, who led the team in tackles the last two years, and CB Lorenzo Doss, who declared early for the NFL draft after picking off 15 passes in three seasons. The eligibility of sr. DE Royce La France (6.0 sacks LY) who missed spring practice due to academic reasons, is crucial to a defense that registered only 22 sacks LY.

Uncovering a reliable FG specialist is a top priority for new special teams coach Doug Lichtenberger after Tulane missed 8 of their 16 FG attempts LY. Sr. walk-on Trevor Simms starter has a strong leg but questionable accuracy, while soph Andrew DiRocco fell into a season-long funk after missing a potential game-winning 21-yarder in the opener.

TULSA (2014 SUR 2-10; PSR 5-7)—After going to bowls in 7 of the previous 8 seasons, including a C-USA championship and a Liberty Bowl victory in 2012, Tulsa has fallen on hard times the last two years, going a woeful 5-19 under Bill Blankenship, who was given the pink slip. Enter Philip Montgomery, the former Baylor offensive coordinator, who is prepared to bring the Golden Hurricane back to prominence. “There’s a ton of positive energy around this campus and the community,” says Montgomery. “They’ve won conference championships here. They’ve won a lot of games, and we want to help get them back to that level.” The offense should profit from the new system, but the defense must make a quick fix after finishing near the bottom nationally in the major categories. The Golden Hurricane has a chance to match LY’s win total in the first two weeks (face Florida Atlantic & New Mexico) before a daunting trip to Norman, Oklahoma. Tulsa should make some incremental progress after hitting rock bottom LY. But we still predict the Hurricane to finish at the bottom of the West Division, with not much help from the 2015 recruiting class ranked dead last in the AAC.

Nine starters return to an offense (24.7 ppg LY) switching to a spread attack piloted by jr. Dane Evans (3,102 YP; 23 TDP, 17 ints. LY), who’ll get a strong push from true freshman Chad President, a former Baylor commit, who ran a similar offense during a prolific high school career. “We put a lot of pressure on our quarterback...those guys have to have a great understanding of what we do,” Montgomery says. A couple of topflight weapons should flourish in the restructured offense is deceptively-fast sr. RB Zack Langer (801 YR), who was second in the league in rushing, and glue-fingered jr. WR Keevan Lucas, who had 101 receptions and 11 TDC last season. Sr. WR Keyarris Garrett (47 grabs, 5 TDs) will be a key target as well. “We have good core depth,” Montgomery says, “We just need to put them in a position to make plays and be successful in what we do.”

New, veteran defensive coordinator Bill Young has plenty of work to do to fix a broken defense (6 starters back; 39.3 ppg LY), which yielded fewer than 30 points only once last season (38-28 win over SMU). Young does have some building blocks in sr. DE Derrick Alexander, who had a team-high 12 TFL and 7.5 sacks LY, DT Derrick Luetjen (24 straight starts), and possibly DT Suleiman Masumbuko, who reportedly will soon transfer from Baylor and become eligible immediately as a graduated senior. Plus, soph LB Craig Suits was an FWAA Freshman A-A with 81 tackles, and he’ll be joined by jr. LB Trent Martin, who had 8 TFL in only 9 games LY. The revamped secondary returns only one starter, sr. FS Michael Mudoh (113 stops & 2 ints. LY).

The only sure thing on special teams is strong-legged punter Dalton Parks, who averaged 42 yds. per boot LY. All jobs are open for the other spots, according to Montgomery.

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