Following is Part I of our American preview, courtesy Chief Analyst Gary Olshan.  First up is a look at the East half of the loop; the West gets analyzed in our next installment.  Teams are presented in predicted order of finish, with 2015 straight-up and spread records included...Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

                                               by Gary Olshan, Chief Analyst

SOUTH FLORIDA (2015 SUR 8-5; PSR 10-3)Our No. 1 choice in the East are the ascending Bulls, who made a huge leap last season, making their first bowl appearance since 2010. As a result, 4th-year HC Willie Taggart deservedly received a three-year extension. Expectations are high in Tampa this year, but that has prompted caution from Taggart. “We are a target,” the coach says. “People are going to circle us on their schedule, and we will get everyone’s best shot. But that’s what we want. We want to be a team that people look to and expect big things from. I have to keep reminding the guys, ‘We really haven’t done anything yet..” And the schedule sets up favorably for the Bulls, who open up with home games vs. Towson & Northern Illinois before traveling to Syracuse (a team they beat 45-24 last year). Opening month’s litmus test will be against mighty Florida State in one of the program’s most highly-anticipated home tussles in recent history.


Seven starters return from a “Gulf Coast Offense” (33.6 ppg; 246.5 ypg rushing), which set school records for total offense (5,741 yards) and TDs (54) in 2015. That fast-rising unit is smoothly directed by ever-improving, jr. dual-threat QB Quinton Flowers (59.1%; 991 YR; 34 TDs), who has a plethora of weapons at his disposal. And he now has a capable backup in soph Asiantii Woulard, a UCLA transfer, who was a four-star recruit as a prepster. Explosive jr. RB Marlon Mack, who grew up in the Tampa Bay area, set a single-season record LY with 1,381 YR (6.6 ypc!). The WR corps, spearheaded by Rodney Adams (45 grabs), will be the deepest in years, with 6-3 Marquez Valdes-Scantling (North Carolina State transfer) showing in a head-turning spring he’s ready to make a big impact. Some retooling on an OL returning 2 starters.

Seven starters come back to an aggressive, opportunistic defense (22.9 ppg LY; +10 TO margin), which will continue to employ a 4-2-5 scheme under promoted LB coach Raymond Woodie, who replaces d.c. Tom Allen, who left for the same position at Indiana. The defensive stalwarts are jr. MLB Auggie Sanchez (117 tackles) and WLB Nigel Harris (42 stops), while Woodie says he will use his depth up on a reloading DL to keep players fresh. The risk-taking, seasoned secondary, anchored by first-team all-AAC CB Deatrick Nichols (4 ints.), only finished 84th in yards allowed, but ranked 14th nationally with 17 “picks.”

USF 9-4 as DD-underdog last three years and is 31-17-1 “unders” last four campaigns.

TEMPLE (2015 SUR 10-4 PSR 9-5)Temple has made steady improvement under fourth-year HC Matt Rhule, going from two wins to six then 10 in his first three seasons. Last year the hootin’ Owls beat Penn State for the first times since 1941. And Temple was 7-0 and leading Notre Dame late before succumbing 24-20, and then slumping to a 3-4 finish. But despite losing three defenders to the NFL, expectations are high in the City of Brotherly Love. And the schedule looks highly manageable, with most of their tough AAC tilts played in Philly. That means that the Owls will make a strong defense of their division title in 2015, and another double-digit win total is a real possibility. The big payback game vs. South Florida on Oct. 21 could play a key role in deciding the division champ.

Nine starters are back on an offense (33.8 ppg LY) led by mobile sr. QB P.J. Walker, a fourth-year starter, who already owns the school record for completions (601), TD passes (52) and wins (18)! And Walker, who is just 121 yards shy of the all-time passing mark of 7,495 yards, is blessed with a big-time RB to help shoulder the load. Workhorse Jahad Thomas (1,262 YR, 17 TDs), a first-team All-AAC selection, might be able to stay fresher this year with support from promising RB Ryquell Armstead, who was hampered by a foot injury in the second half of last season. Five of the top six WRs graduated, but we don’t see any drop-off with the return of blossoming Ventrell Bryant (39 grabs) along with a pair of highly-welcomed transfers in Adonis Jennings (Pittsburgh) and Keith Kirkwood (Hawaii).

Six starters return from a defense (20.1 ppg LY) that won’t easily replace tackling machine LB Tyler Matakevich, who was a consensus All-American selection and the undeniable leader of the stop unit. But the Owls have three veteran LBs, spearheaded by sr. Jarred Alwan (74 tackles). Coaches like the talent and size along the DL, with hard-charging sr. DE Haason Reddick (46 tackles, 5 sacks) earning all-conference honors. The secondary possesses a legit NFL prospect in jr. CB Sean Chandler (66 tackles, 4 ints.), while Derrek Thomas, who has been switched from WR to CB, could move into a starting spot as a result of a solid spring. However, sr Nate L. Smith is the only safety with experience in the past two seasons.

The kicking game is an asset, thanks to strong-legged punter Alex Starzyk (42.4 yd. avg.) and accurate PK Austin Jones, who nailed 23 of 28 FG attempts LY.

Hootin’ Owls went 5-1 as an underdog LY and are 16-8-1 “unders” the last two seasons.

CINCINNATI (2015 SUR 7-6; PSR 6-7)Last year’s AAC preseason favorite Cincy was a major disappointment in 2015, slumping to 7-6 after two consecutive 9-4 campaigns. So it’s safe to say, it’s a critical year for fourth-year HC Tommy Tuberville, who’s encountering some trouble attracting the blue-chippers, evidenced by a seventh place standing in the AAC in recruiting, according to some experts. Nevertheless, Tuberville expects to be much better than last year, when he contends, “We’ve got more depth and we’ve got better, younger players. We just don’t have a lot of older players. We’ve got 18 seniors this year, which is pretty good, and I recruited 12 of them.” But the Bearcats must seriously improve in TO margin after ranking a woeful 125th nationally LY. It’s a tough early slate for Cincy, which opens up with Houston and South Florida at Nippert Stadium.

Four starters return from a high-flying attack (33.8 ppg LY; 538 ypg) that set 18 school records last season, but will have a new o.c. and several new starters at the skill positions. First-year o.c. Zac Taylor (Miami Dolphin interim o.c. LY) says the offense will still play at a fast tempo, but expect more pro-style looks that include throwing to the backs and TEs more than in recent years. The big question is at QB. Gunner Kiel (2,777 YP, 19 TDP, 11 ints. LY) had been the starter for most of the past two seasons, but he missed the 2015 Hawaii Bowl for undisclosed personal reasons. Kiel rejoined the team in January, but Tuberville says he must earn his job back by beating out more mobile soph Hayden Moore (9 TDP, 11 ints.), who admirably spelled Kiel as a RS frosh LY. UC must replace its top five receivers, while the infantry is a more proven commodity, with slashing RBs Mike Boone (749 YR, 9 TDs) and Tion Green (729 YR).

Seven starters are back on an ever-changing defense (31.2 ppg) that needs to make dramatic improvement under its fourth defensive coordinator in four seasons. But word is that Tuberville will run the defense on game days, with input from co-d.c. Robert Prunty and other assistants. The top two tacklers return in OLB Erick Wilson (106 stops) and safety Zach Edwards (94), but additional playmakers are needed after forcing a paltry 14 miscues in 2015. Cincy must significantly improve its run defense after yielding 191.7 ypg rushing and 5.2 ypc LY, while the speedier secondary should be provide tighter coverage after being racked by injuries last year.

Topnotch kicking game, with PK Andrew Gantz (he’s converted 37 of 47 career attempts) and punter Sam Geraci (46.3 yd. avg).

CONNECTICUT (2015 SUR 6-7; PSR 6-7)UConn seems to be headed in the right direction under defense-minded, third-year HC Bob Diaco, who did a splendid job of saving his team from a midseason slump to become bowl eligible by upsetting Houston for a true signature win. The Huskies made a nice jump from a 2-10 mark in 2014 to 6-7 last season. But for revitalized UConn to continue its ascension, there must be big improvement on an anemic offense that consistently hung its overburdened defense out to dry last season. The schedule isn’t a picnic, with three ACC teams in non-conference play (albeit all lower-rung opponents), along with challenging road trips to AAC contenders Houston and South Florida. But on the plus side, the Huskies have a chance at a 4-0 start (with 3 home games) since they face Navy—breaking in a new option QB—in Annapolis in the second week.

Nine starters return from an offense (17.2 ppg LY) that has nowhere to go but up after finishing 124th nationally in total yards LY. That pedestrian unit managed to surpass 22 points only twice last season. The incumbent dual-threat QB Bryant Shirreffs (60%; 2,078 YP & 503 YR) must develope his big-play skills after throwing only 9 TDP a year ago. His favorite targets will once again be sr. WR Noel Thomas (54 grabs, 3 TDs) and emerging soph WR Tyraiq Beals (24 catches). But the veteran OL (4 starters back) must provide stouter pass protection, so Shirreffs, who battled some injuries late last season, has ample time to scan downfield. The clear-cut No. 1 weapon is versatile local product RB Arkeel Newsome (792 YR & 465 receiving yds.), who is also the team’s primary KO returner.

Six starters are welcomed back on a hard-hitting, opportunistic defense (19.5 ppg; +9 TO margin). That smartly-coached unit is spearheaded by a forceful LB corps, led by jr. LB Junior Joseph (93 stops) and bolstered by much-ballyhooed Florida State transfer E.J. Levenberry (39 tackles as a Seminole freshman in 2013), who figures to make an immediate impact. The tight-covering secondary (finished first in the AAC) has some good pieces as well, led by ball-snatching jr. CB Jamar Summers (8 ints) and fearless 6-3 sr. S Obi Melifonwu (88 tackles). Moreover, a steady pass rush is supplied by the potent jr. tandem of 6-3, 260-pound DE Luke Carrezola and beefy 6-4, 310-pound DT Foli Fatukasi, who combined for 14 sacks & 25.5 TFL in 2015. Ultra-dependable sr. PK Bobby Puyol made 16 of 18 FG attempts LY.

Defense-oriented UConn 17-7-1 “unders” over the last two seasons.

EAST CAROLINA (2015 SUR 5-7; PSR 5-7)The cupboard is far from bare for new, up-and-coming HC Scottie Montgomery, who served as Duke’s associate HC the past two seasons. After all, ECU had been to 8 bowls in the last 9 seasons prior to LY’s underachieving 5-7 campaign, which surprisingly ended the tenure of popular Ruffin McNeal, who compiled a 43-34 mark in his six seasons. What was learned in the spring that despite that pass-happy offense Montgomery oversaw at Duke, the new coach wants a balanced attack. Montgomery, who is installing a new system that stresses fundamentals and physicality, was impressed with the high football IQs of his players following the spring. A shorter learning curve would be greatly beneficial, with three dicey non-conference tilts in September (hosting NC State & road trips to South Carolina & Virginia Tech), which could set the tone for the season.

Five starters return from an offense (27.4 ppg LY) that will be more pro-style, but will still operate at a fast tempo under first-year o.c. Tony Peterson. QB Philip Nelson, a former Minnesota (16 starts in 2012-13) and Rutgers triggerman, the apparent starter at QB following the transfer of Kurt Benkert to Virginia, where McNeil is now an assistant. The Pirates own their usual depth at WR, led by the dynamic sr. tandem of Isaiah “Zay” Jones (98 grabs, 5 TDs) & Davon Grayson (33). The most experienced RB is 5-9, 187 jr. Anthony Scott, but highly-regarded Tennessee transfer Derrell Scott could be the powerful, between-the-tackles runner sorely lacking last season, when it averaged a meager 3.8 ypc. And watch out for top newcomer frosh RB Hussein Howe, who compiled a whopping 5,026 YR and 86 TDs in four seasons at University Christian High School in Jacksonville, Fla!

New d.c. Kenwick Thompson has tweaked the Pirates’ 3-4 scheme and counts on a more aggressive approach on a middling defense (26.0 ppg; 54th nationally) that brings back six starters. ECU should be able to pull to please Thompson, thanks to what is arguably the AAC’s premier CB tandem in sr. DaShaun Amos and soph Corey Seargent. But high priorities for the coaching staff are fixing a porous rush defense that allowed 174.5 ypg & 18 TDs LY, as well as bolstering a pass rush that averaged a meager 2 sacks per game in 2015. The LB corps is solid with Jordan Williams (81 tackles),Yiannis Brown (3.5 sacks) and Joe Carter, who is returning after missing all of last year with a knee injury.

Special teams are a plus. Worth Gregory had a 43.0-yd. punting average, PK Davis Plowman nailed 10 of 12 FG attempts, and blazing WR Quay Johnson was dangerous on both punt and KO returns.

UCF (2015 SUR 0-12; PSR 2-10)—UCF hopes history repeats itself in 2016. The last time the Knights had a winless campaign was 2004, when they went 0-11 in George O’ Leary’s inaugural season as a coach. The next year, UCF stormed to a conference title game and ended with an 8-5 record. Enter enthusiastic Scott Frost, who was the o.c. at high-octane Oregon for the past three seasons before taking over for a weary O’Leary, who called it quits midway through last season. Remember, UCF had averaged 9.4 victories from 2010-14 and was coming off back-to-back conference championships prior to LY’s shocking 0-12 campaign. So, a rapid turnaround could be in the cards for the proud Knights, likely to make a huge jump in key TO margin after a wretched 126th ranking LY. Despite the anticipated setback at Michigan on September 10th, UCF can still build some needed momentum with a host of other winnable games before a backloaded slate that commences with AAC challenger Temple in Orlando on Oct. 15.

Eight returning starters are elated to switch to a fast-paced, no-huddle attack after generating a horrific 13.9 ppg LY (125th nationally) in O’Leary’s pro-style, ball-control offense. Coaches have delayed the decision on the No. 1 QB until the fall. But our money is on sr. QB Justin Holman, a two-year starter, who should retain his job following LY’s injury-plagued campaign, when he was limited to nine games due to a broken finger. Holman, who showed he was able to adapt to the new attack in the spring, is equipped to exploit his bevy of skilled performers. Soph WRs Tre’Quan Smith (52 grabs) and Tristan Payton (21 catches as a true freshman) are sure-handed targets. And there’s promising youth at RB, notably sophs C.J Jones (339 YR) & Taj McGowan, plus a pair of incoming recruits who possess elite speed. Plus, the veteran OL (4 starters back) provides a strong foundation for the new go-go-go offense.

The changes are nearly as dramatic on the defense (37.7 ppg LY; six starters return) switching from a 4-3 scheme to a 3-4 under first-year d.c. Erik Chinander, who came with Frost from Oregon. The grizzled secondary should be the strength, with possibly four seniors starting on the back-end. The front seven is much more of a work in progress, but the DL could cohere rapidly with three jucos recruited to mesh with hard-to-move 6-0, 300-pound jr. T Jamiyus Pittman, who had 45 stops and a team-best 4.5 sacks LY.

Special teams should be an asset, with punter Caleb Houston (44.2-yd. avg—2nd best in school history!), soph PK Matthew Wright (he nailed 13 of 17 in his freshman debut) along with a stable of young speedsters available in the return game.


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