Being the hyped preseason team in the American Athletic Conference has not been working out in recent years.
Since the old Big East rebranded as the American in 2013, the preseason favorite to win the conference has yet to do so outright. South Florida will try to buck that trend in 2017.
The Bulls, led by former Texas Longhorns coach Charlie Strong, return much of a team that finished 11-2 last season, including senior quarterback Quinton Flowers, a Lamar Jackson-type who put up numbers to rival the Heisman Trophy winner.
“You get this senior-led team. A lot of returners coming back. You got even higher expectations,” Bulls linebacker Augie Sanchez said of USF, the overwhelming pick to win the AAC.
But we’ve seen this before. In 2013, Louisville and Teddy Bridgewater were the big favorites and lost out to Central Florida. Last season, there was talk of Houston and Greg Ward making a playoff run, but the Cougars did not even win the AAC West Division.
Being the strongest conference outside of the Power Five is good for AAC Commissioner Mike Aresco to push his Power Six agenda. But it’s not necessarily conducive to sending a team to a New Year’s Six bowl game.
The Bulls finished second in the East behind league champ Temple last season. They will try to take the next step under the direction of Strong after Willie Taggart left to become Oregon’s coach.
“He’s not coming in trying to change this whole program,” Sanchez said.
There will be tweaks, though. Most notably, former UT offensive coordinator Sterlin Gilbert’s spread offense is rooted in the Baylor system, which asks quarterbacks to make deep throws and emphasizes running between the tackles. How much it varies from Taggart’s Gulf Coast attack, built to let the free-wheeling Flowers blossom, is one of the questions going into the season.
Strong is one of five coaches starting new jobs in the AAC this season. None is facing more pressure to produce right away.
The other new faces are Houston’s Major Applewhite, a former UT quarterback and assistant coach who was promoted from offensive coordinator when Tom Herman took the UT job; Cincinnati’s Luke Fickell, a longtime Ohio State assistant and former Buckeyes linebacker who took over after Tommy Tuberville resigned; Temple’s Geoff Collins, the former Florida defensive coordinator who replaced close friend and current Baylor coach Matt Rhule; and Randy Edsall, who returned for a second stint coaching Connecticut after Bob Diaco was fired.
Applewhite’s Cougars were picked by AAC media to finish second behind Memphis in the West Division, with SMU third. Houston will be led by defensive tackle Ed Oliver, who was an All-American as a freshman last year.
Conference USA boasts high-profile coaches
Butch Davis is back on the sideline, and Lane Kiffin is again leading his own program.
While those high-profile coaches get ready for their Conference USA debuts — Davis at Florida International and Kiffin at Florida Atlantic — coach Bill Clark stayed in place for Alabama-Birmingham’s football revival.
With the return of the Blazers, C-USA again has 14 teams split into seven-team divisions. Clark had just finished his first year at UAB, going 6-6 in 2014 for the school’s first nonlosing record in 10 seasons, when the program was shut down for financial reasons.
Skip Holtz has won nine games three straight years at Louisiana Tech, the defending West Division champion and one of seven C-USA teams that went to bowl games last season. Those bowl teams included Texas-San Antonio and North Texas, both with first-year head coaches who left prominent roles on staffs at Power Five schools.
“A friend of mine uses the analogy that Conference USA is like NASCAR,” Holtz said. “Everybody has the same size engine. It’s just who does the best job of driving it that week, and I think that’s where we are right now. I think it’s an incredibly competitive league.”
After winning back-to-back C-USA titles, Western Kentucky has first-time head coach Mike Sanford Jr., who was Notre Dame’s offensive coordinator. Old Dominion takes a six-game winning streak into this season after winning 10 games in only the Monarchs’ fourth year in Division I and eighth year since restarting the program.
Even though Western Kentucky has a new coach and has to replace seven offensive starters, the Hilltoppers return senior quarterback Mike White, the C-USA preseason offensive player of the year. Middle Tennessee has the impressive quarterback-receiver combo of Brent Stockstill and Richie James. The East Division title could be determined Nov. 17 when the Blue Raiders travel to Bowling Green to play the Hilltoppers.
In the West Division, Louisiana Tech is the team to beat, even though it will have a new starting quarterback for the third straight season. The Bulldogs return 1,000-yard rusher Jarred Craft, three starters on the offensive line and defensive end Jaylon Ferguson, the league’s top sacker.