American Athletic Conference Preview
AAC East

1. Last year the Knights went 11-2 and they have now gone 18-3 in their last 21 games. They were led last year by an offense that averaged 511 ypg, including 285 ypg on the ground and 43.8 ppg. All were school records. QB Flowers is back to lead this potent attack and even they, lost top RB Marlon Mack and to WR Rodney Adams, this is still a team that is loaded on offense and should put up big numbers again, especially with 23 of 29 lettermen back on offense, including seven starters. Thanks to the uptempo offense, the defense struggled last year as they allowed 31.9 ppg and 482 ypg, but they have nine starters back on that side of the ball and new head coach Charlie Strong is a defensive-minded coach, so look for big improvements from their defense. The Bulls missed out on the AAC Title game last year, but they are the team to beat in the East this year and the team to beat in the AAC overall.

2. UCF made great strides in Scott Frost's first year at the helm as they went from 0-12 in 2015 to 6-7 last year and an invite to the Cur Bowl, where they lost to Arkansas State 31-13. This year they should be able to notch a winning record overall. The Knights averaged just 13.9 ppg in 2015, but upped that to 28.8 ppg last year and they should be even better this time around with nine starters back on offense. McKenzie Milton is back to run the offense at QB and should be ready for a breakout season. He has two of his top three RBs returning and eight of their top nine pass catchers as well, so this is an offense that should easily top 30+ ppg this year. The Defense also improved last year as they allowed 13.1 ppg less than they did in 2015, but they could take a slight step back this year as they have just four starters back and just one of their top six tacklers from last year. Despite, the holes on defense, this is still a team that will be better than last year, especially with their offense leading the way. They will challenge the Knights in the East but come up a bit short in the end. Still, they will make it to a bowl game.

3. I like Cincinnati here in the three spot as they get back on track from a very tough 4-8 season a year ago. The offense went to a pro-style attack last year and it did not fare well as they averaged 14.5 ppg less than they did in 2015. This year they have just five starters back on offense, but QB Hayden Moore is one of them and he did have a decent showing when he played last year and he has three of his top four receivers back. They did lose top back Tion Green, but Mike Boone is a senior and will fill the void nicely. The OL is rated as the worst in the league, but still, this is an offense that should improve by at least a TD over last year. The strength of the team this year will be their defense, which has six starters back and is led by one of the best defensive backfields in the league. This will not be a great defense, but they should improve slightly on the 126.9 ppg they allowed last year. The AAC schedule is not that tough for them, with the exception of a road game against USF and they should return to a bowl game after missing out last year.

4. I see that Phil Steele has Temple at #2 in the East, but I just don't see it. Yes, they won the AAC title last year, but they are going through a coaching change, are the least experienced team in the AAC and they also had the worst ranked recruiting class of all the AAC members. This is a team that will take at least two steps back from the last two years. The offense put up 32.4 ppg last year and 29.8 ppg in 2015, but QB Phillip Walker is gone and the QB duties are now in the hands of redshirt freshman Anthony Russo. He does have 6 of his top seven ball carriers back and his top three WRs from last year, but still he is inexperienced and the line is one of the worst in the league. The defense is where this team's bread is usually buttered, but they lose five of their top six tacklers from last year and have just four starters back, plus they have very little depth on that side of the ball. Temple made it to bowl games in each of the last two year, but that streak may come to an end this year.

5. The Connecticut Huskies are off a rough 3-9 season and it prompted the firing of Bob Diaco. He was just 11-26 in his three years here at the school. Taking over is Randy Edsall and this will be his 2nd stint with the school, He was 70-63 in his first stint here, which spanned 11 years. It will take a couple of years to get them back to respectability, but Edsall does have 14 starters back to work with. His first task will be to jumpstart an offense that averaged just 15.8 ppg in the three years under Diaco. They have seven starters back, including QB, Bryant Shirreffs, their top two RBs and two of their top three WRs. They will improve on the 14.8 ppg they put up last year. The defense did slip some last year as they allowed 28.1 ppg, but with seven starters back and the best set of LBs in the league, they will most certainly improve on last years numbers. This is not a bowl team this year, but they will be a team on the upswing.

6. The East Carolina Pirates are off their worst season in 12 years as they went just 3-9 last year, and that is despite starting the year at 2-0. The offense has been a big part of their success over the years, but they averaged just 27.0 ppg last year and they lose top QB Philip Nelson. It looks as if Thomas Sirk will take over at QB. He comes over from Duke and will be asked to lead the offense, The Pirates have four of their top five receiver back, but their RB corps rates as worst in the league and their OL rates as 3rd worst. The depth is better than last year, but still, this offense is a shell of the one that put up 35.8 ppg back in 2014. The real problem for the Pirates is a defense that allowed 36.1 ppg last year, after giving up just 26.0 ppg in 2015. With an offense that will struggle, the defense needs to improve, but it will not be all that easy as they have lost three of their top four tacklers from last year. They do have better depth on defense, which was a problem last year, but still, this unit will struggle. This will not be a good year for the Pirates.

AAC West

1. The Houston Cougars had a solid season last year as they went 9-4 overall, but they did lose 34-10 to San Diego in the Last Vegas Bowl. Greg Ward is gone, but he did have a down year last year and Texas A&M transfer Kyle Allen should be able to fill the void nicely. There are eight starters back from a group that averaged 35.8 ppg, including six of their top seven ball carriers, three of their top four WRs and their entire OL. This offense overall has 29 of 34 lettermen returning and I will look for them to put up around 40 ppg this year. When people think of the Cougars, they don't think defense, but the fact is that they have not allowed more than 23.5 ppg in each of the last four year and with 25 lettermen back, including seven starters, it is unlikely that they will allow more than 23.5 ppg this year. The Cougars have 55 of 71 lettermen back from last year overall and they had the 4tyh best recruiting class in the league a year ago. This is the team to beat in the West, even though they have to travel to USF and Tulsa.

2. The Memphis Tigers had a solid season at 8-5 a year ago and they are primed to have a better one this time around. The offense has been key for the Tigers as they have averaged 36.2 ppg, 40.2 ppg and 38.8 ppg the last three years and with nine starters back, including QB Riley Ferguson, they could have their best offense year over that stretch. Fergurson threw for 3698 yards with 32 TDs and just 10 INTs and he has back his top four ball carriers and top two WRs from last year, including Anthony Miller, who has 1434 yards receiving and 14 TDs a year ago. This is a scary offense that will top last year's 38.8 ppg and they will need to put up some points as their defense will not be all that great with just 16 of 29 lettermen back from last year. The Tigers had the 3rd best recruiting class in the league and even though they have to face Houston and Tulsa on the road, the rest of their schedule sets them up very nicely for a 2nd place finish in the West.

3. The Golden Hurrican had a strong season last year as they finished it at 10-3, but they should take a slight step back this year. Tulsa has 13 starters back this year, but they could be lacking on depth as they had the 3rd worst recruiting class of all the teams in the AAC. Their big loss was QB Dane Evans, who threw for 3348 yards with 32 TDs and just 12 INTs last year. He will be tough to replace. Chad President will get the call, but he has had just three career attempts. He does have the best OL in the league to work behind, but the RB corps and WRs corps are below average. They will not come all that close to the 42.5 ppg they put up last year and won't top the 37.2 ppg they put up in 2015. The defense improved last year by 10 ppg over 2015's numbers and with 26 of 36 lettermen back, including six starters, they could improve a bit more this year. They will be missing three of their top four tacklers from last year, so they have some holes to fill, but it should be a decent defense. They have a home game against Houston on their schedule, but still this team is not as strong as last year. They will make a bowl game, but won't take down Houston in the West.

4. Navy had a solid 9-5 season last year and they made it to the AAC Title game where they lost to the Temple Owls by a score of 34-10. It was part of a three-game skid to end the year as they also lost 21-17 to Army and then lost 48-45 to Louisiana Tech in the Armed Forces bowl. Navy is usually a team that has high turnover and this year is no different, but still they have made it to a bowl game in each of the last five years. The offense has been the catalyst of this team, but it will take a couple of steps back as they have just four starters back on that side of the ball and they return just 31.3% of their yards from last year, which is 119th in the nation. They did have just one starter back last year on offense and still put up 37.9 ppg, It will not be that easy this year. Defense struggled as they allowed 31.0 ppg last year, but with eight starters back on that side of the ball, they should improve on that, especially with seven of their top eight tacklers returning. This is a solid team and they will make it to a bowl game, but road games against Temple, Memphis, Houston and Tulsa will keep them from finishing higher in the standings.

5. The Smu Mustangs increased from one win in 2014 to two in 2015 to five last year, but it may be hard for them to increase this year and get to a bowl game. The offense has been their biggest improvement over the last two years as they averaged just 11.1 ppg in 2014, but improved to 27.8 in 2015 and they put up 27.7 ppg last year. This year they have nine starters back on that side of the ball, including QB Ben Hick, who threw for 2930 yards with 19 TDs and 15 INTs last year. He should improve on those numbers with his top four receivers back, plus he will be aided by his top two RBs returning as well. They should top 30 pgg this year, but it won't be enough for a winning record as their defense is still bad. The Mustangs have allowed 41.3 ppg, 45.7 ppg and 36.3 ppg the last three years and with just five starters back on that side of the ball, they will struggle again. The Schedule is also tough with roadies against Houston, Cincinnati, Navy and Memphis, plus a home game against Tulsa. No bowl for SMU this year.

6. Tulane was just 4-8 last year and despite the fact that they have 16 starters returning this year, they still are my choice to finish in the basement of the AAC. A big reason for that is a schedule that has most of their winnable games on the road, they face East Carolina Navy, Memphis and SMU on the road, while having home games against Tulsa, USF, Cincinnati and Houston. Very tough schedule. The offense has 8 starters back from a group that put up just 24.1 ppg, including their top RB and three of their top 4 WRs. They have Juco transfer Jonathan Banks taking over at QB and he looks like a perfect fit for this offense. The defense improved by 9 ppg over 2015 and with eight starters back this year, they could improve a bit more. This is not a horrible team and they will be very competitive on most days, but still it is hard to see them navigating that tough schedule for more than three or four wins.