Cincinnati favored in American; ECU features dynamic duo
Being overlooked won't be a problem for Cincinnati this season.
The Bearcats are favored to win the American Athletic Conference — and loving it.
"As my teammates would say, 'It's about time,'" Cincinnati cornerback Adrian Witty said. "Since we've been here, it's no respect. We're winning. What else more do you want?"
"Here" is the Big East. Or at least it was the Big East. This is Year 2 of the American, the re-incarnated Big East. Cincinnati relocated from Conference USA to the Big East in 2005 and has had only two losing seasons. Every other year, the Bearcats have won at least eight games. They've won double-digits five times, played in two BCS bowls and are 29-9 in the last three years.
So, yes, when the Bearcats bring back 17 starters and hand the quarterback job to former five-star recruit and Notre Dame transfer Gunner Kiel, they are a deserving favorite to win the conference. And with a couple of tough nonconference road games at Ohio State and Miami, the Bearcats set themselves up for a chance to earn a spot in a New Year's bowl.
Things to know about the American Athletic Conference this season.
NO SHOWDOWN: Cincinnati and defending conference champion Central Florida won't play this season. The 11-team league plays eight conference games, so each team misses two league foes. And the conference championship game doesn't start until next season, when Navy joins to give the AAC two six-team divisions. The Bearcats seemed to draw the smoothest path to a title among the top contenders with no UCF, and Houston and East Carolina at home.
REPLACING BLAKE: UCF QB Blake Bortles was the No. 3 overall pick in the NFL draft. He'll be tough to replace. Likely getting the first crack will be sophomore Justin Holman. Also getting a look are redshirt freshman Pete DiNovo, freshman Tyler Harris, and Boise State transfer Nick Patti, who is from Orlando. SMU is the other team in the American replacing a star quarterback after Garrett Gilbert's departure.
WELCOME: Tulane, Tulsa and East Carolina join the American this season, three more Conference USA imports. Tulsa is coming off a tremendously disappointing season, going 3-9 after being picked as one of the favorites in C-USA. Tulane was one of last season's surprises, going 7-6. East Carolina has some retooling to do, but is expected to be the best of the newcomers, a league title contender.
PITCH AND CATCH: East Carolina features one of the most productive quarterback-receiver combos in the country in Shane Carden and Justin Hardy. Carden threw for 4,139 yards and accounted for 43 touchdowns (33 TD passes) last season. Henry needs 84 catches (he had 114 last year) to become the FBS career leader. Oklahoma's Ryan Broyles had 349.
HOLD THAT LINE: Memphis is taking small steps forward under third-year coach Justin Fuente. If the Tigers take a big leap, they'll be led by one of the better defensive lines outside the Big Five conferences. DE Martin Ifedi had 11 1-2 sacks last season, and DE Ricky Hunter and NT Terry Redden are potential all-conference players.
SOPHOMORE STARS: Big things are expected from two sophomore quarterbacks who burst onto the scene as freshmen in 2013. Houston's John O'Korn threw for 3,117 yards and 28 touchdowns as the Cougars bounced back from a down 2012 to win eight games. He also has the best group of receivers in the conference, led by Deontay Greenberry.
Temple's P.J. Walker threw for 2,082 yards and 20 TDs and ran for 332. He gives the Owls hope for a big bounce back from 2-10 in coach Matt Rhule's first season.
HUSKIES' HOPE: Connecticut's Bob Diaco, the former defensive coordinator at Notre Dame, is the only first-year coach in the conference, and he starts with a couple of marquee home games in the first month. The Huskies open against BYU and host Boise State on Sept. 13.
GOOD SIGN: Year 1 under coach Willie Taggart was ugly at times for South Florida (2-10). However, the Bulls signed the top recruiting class in the conference.
STRANGE SCHEDULE: Cincinnati does not play its first game until Sept. 12 against Toledo. Most teams will have played twice by then.
Predicted order of finish:
1, Cincinnati. 2, Houston. 3, UCF. 4, USF. 5, East Carolina. 6, Memphis. 7, SMU. 8, Tulsa. 9, Temple. 10, Tulane. 11, Connecticut.