Leading up to the kickoff of the 2019 college football season, The Game Haus will be previewing each FBS conference and those independent teams. Starting today, with the American Athletic Conference preview, we’ll offer league predictions and look at the top performers while also highlighting key games from each league.
Here is the American Athletic Conference.
With quarterback Darriel Mack Jr. hurt, the door could be open for Notre Dame transfer Brandon Wimbush to take control of the offense. Regardless who is under center, though, a Central Florida program that has one loss over the past two seasons is still the class of the American Athletic Conference.
The Bearcats look to build on an impressive 11-2 turnaround season from 2018. QB Desmond Ridder (2,445 passing yards, 20 touchdown passes) and RB Michael Warren II (1,329 rushing yards, 19 TDs) return, but road games at Ohio State, Marshall, Houston and Memphis won’t make things easy.
3. South Florida
USF won its first seven games last year, then lost the final six. RB Jordan Cronkrite (1,121 yards) is a good one, but the Bulls success should depend on how much improvement is made from a defense that yielded 36.9 points over the final nine games of 2018.
4. East Carolina
New coach Mike Houston enjoyed plenty of success at FCS James Madison, so there is promise of better days ahead for the Pirates. ECU has not been to a bowl game since 2014, and getting there might be a tall order in 2019. Versatile QB Holton Ahlers also led the team in rushing last season.
New coach Rod Carey, who comes over from Northern Illinois, is all about the ground game and ball control. Yet, the Owls’ best player is receiver/return specialist Isaiah Wright. A fifth straight bowl trip should still be in the cards for Temple.
The Huskies last season in the American Athletic Conference can’t be any worse than 2018 (1-11, 0-8), right? One would think UConn may win another game or two, however, there must be some sort of improvement defensively after giving up at least 49 points in all but two games last season.
Dana Holgorsen is now guiding the program he once served as an offensive coordinator. He has one of the country’s best quarterbacks in D’Eriq King and gets to play host to Memphis in a game that should have major division implications.
The Tigers return 16 starters from the defending West champs, which is why they are the league’s preseason choice to win it again, However, dates with Houston, South Florida and Cincinnati in the final three weeks of the regular season could be a tough stretch.
The addition of former Texas QB Shane Buechele is like a Christmas gift for a Mustangs team that finished 5-7 last season and has made one bowl trip in the last six. Anything less than a winning season in Sonny Dykes’ second full campaign at SMU will be a disappointment.
Tulane has kind of become the “It” team in the American Athletic Conference this offseason. After winning their first bowl game since 2002 to finish 7-6 last year, the Green Wave are thinking bigger in 2019. Edge rusher Patrick Johnson (10 1/2 sacks, 16 tackles for loss in 2018) is one of the top defenders in the American Athletic Conference.
Navy is looking to bounce back from its first losing season (3-10) since 2011. If that is to be the case in 2019, the Midshipmen defense must be better after allowing an average of 33.5 points in 2018. They also need to end a 10-game road losing streak, as the seat might be getting hotter under coach Ken Niumatalo.
Five wins over the last two seasons is not helping Philip Montgomery much in the terms of job security. Baylor transfer Zach Smith at quarterback could help Tulsa show some improvement from the last two years, but how much is too hard to tell.
Players to watch
D’Eriq King, QB, Houston: As in 2018, King could receive some Heisman Trophy love. He threw for 2,982 yards with 36 TDs (tied for sixth in the nation) and ran for 674 with another 14 scores, so it’s tough to beat that kind of versatility. Keeping him healthy will be key.
Richie Grant, S, UCF: Arguably the best NFL prospect in the American Athletic Conference, the junior has a nose for the ball whether on the ground or in pass defense. Grant led the Golden Knights with 109 tackles, had six interceptions and forced three fumbles in 2018.
Oct. 4: UCF at Cincinnati. The Bearcats have been outscored 113-39 during a three-game winning streak in the series. Will this year be any different?
Nov. 16: Memphis at Houston. This should be the game that decides the American Athletic Conference West Division title. Memphis has won the last three meetings.
Nov. 30: Tulane at SMU. Both teams have high hopes, and this regular-season finale will determine just how successful things went and if expectations were met.