AAC Preview

Connor Allen
Connor Allen breaks down each team in the American Athletic Conference including top NFL Draft prospects, win totals, projections and more. (Getty Images)

Welcome to the Rotoworld’s college football preview series! Leading up to the start of the season, we’ll be publishing previews for every Group of 5 and Power 5 conference (plus Independents). They are complete with fantasy projections courtesy of Rotoworld analytics guru Hayden Winks, draft prospects to watch and a full examination of each conference's team's best and worst case scenarios.

Before we get started, a lot of the analytics used in this article stem from Football Outsiders and ESPN's Bill Connelly. S&P+ is "a metric that's based around the core concepts of the Five Factors: efficiency, explosiveness, field position, finishing drives, and turnovers." Definitions of other metrics ("line yards" & "sack rate") I mention can be found here

 

AAC Fantasy Projections 

Quarterbacks PaYD PaTD RuYD FPPG
D'Eriq King (Houston, SR) 3558 36 443 29
Holton Ahlers (East Carolina, SO) 3363 21 678 28
Shane Buechele (SMU, JR) 3653 32 252 24
Desmond Ridder (Cincinnati, SO) 2653 22 514 22
Brandon Wimbush (UCF, SO) 1834 13 359 21
Blake Barnett (South Florida, SR) 3208 19 302 21
Brady White (Memphis, SR) 3087 28 66 19
Justin McMillan (Tulane, SR) 2247 13 407 17
Malcolm Perry (Navy, SR) 505 3 1054 16
Zach Smith (Tulsa, JR) 2710 20 -28 15
Anthony Russo (Temple, JR) 3139 17 91 15
Michael Beaudry (Connecticut, JR) 1094 8 79 13

 

Running Backs RuYD RuTD ReYD FPPG
Patrick Taylor Jr. (Memphis, SR) 1094 11 223 21
Michael Warren II (Cincinnati, JR) 967 10 193 18
Jordan Cronkrite (South Florida, SR) 1125 9 48 16
Greg McCrae (UCF, JR) 967 8 129 16
Darius Bradwell (Tulane, SR) 987 10 18 15
Corey Taylor II (Tulsa, JR) 726 9 131 14
Shamari Brooks (Tulsa, JR) 847 6 73 13
Kevin Mensah (Connecticut, JR) 885 5 68 12
Adrian Killins Jr. (UCF, SR) 467 3 275 11
Patrick Carr (Houston, SR) 839 5 13 11
Nelson Smith (Navy, JR) 764 6 7 10
Corey Dauphine (Tulane, SR) 688 6 0 10
Xavier Jones (SMU, SR) 520 5 93 9
Kenny Gainwell (Memphis, rFR) 570 5 43 9
Art Thompkins (Connecticut, SR) 418 4 134 9
Gerrid Doaks (Cincinnati, SO) 576 5 19 8
Kyle Dobbins (Temple, rFR) 481 4 46 8
Ke'Mon Freeman (SMU, SR) 443 5 43 8
Charles McClelland (Cincinnati, SO) 396 3 87 7
Darius Pinnix (East Carolina, JR) 310 4 131 7
Otis Anderson (UCF, JR) 129 2 211 7
Zavier Scott (Connecticut, SO) 108 1 220 7
Kylan Watkins (Memphis, SO) 456 4 20 7
Jager Gardner (Temple, SR) 427 2 81 7
CJ Williams (Navy, JR) 295 3 140 6
Tavion Thomas (Cincinnati, SO) 281 3 9 5

 

Receivers Rec ReYD ReTD FPPG
James Proche (SMU, SR) 96 1195 8 22
Marquez Stevenson (Houston, JR) 70 926 9 19
Damonte Coxie (Memphis, JR) 65 1008 7 17
Keylon Stokes (Tulsa, JR) 59 827 5 15
Randall St. Felix (South Florida, SO) 56 959 5 15
Reggie Roberson Jr. (SMU, JR) 56 868 6 15
Johnny Ford (South Florida, SO) 33 454 2 14
Branden Mack (Temple, JR) 58 798 4 14
Gabriel Davis (UCF, JR) 53 774 5 13
Darnell Mooney (Tulane, SR) 44 756 4 12
Keith Corbin (Houston, SR) 40 649 6 12
Deondre Farrier (East Carolina, SR) 54 641 4 12
Rashad Medaris (Cincinnati, SR) 43 694 4 12
Courtney Lark (Houston, SR) 39 582 6 11
Keenen Johnson (Tulsa, SR) 45 560 5 11
Isaiah Wright (Temple, SR) 40 562 3 10
Jalen McCleskey (Tulane, SR) 44 512 3 9
Leroy Henley (East Carolina, SO) 36 521 3 9
Cameron Hairston (Connecticut, SO) 41 442 3 9
Pop Williams (Memphis, SR) 37 416 4 9
Randle Jones (Temple, SR) 36 507 3 8
Tre Nixon (UCF, JR) 35 467 3 8
Blake Proehl (East Carolina, SO) 35 402 2 8
Bryson Smith (Houston, SO) 31 299 3 7
Antonio Gibson (Memphis, SR) 27 405 3 7
Marlon Williams (UCF, JR) 32 380 2 7
Tyler Snead (East Carolina, rFR) 27 427 2 7
Stanley Clerveaux (South Florida, SR) 32 383 2 7
Jayshon Jackson (Cincinnati, SO) 30 363 2 7
Quayvon Skanes (Connecticut, JR) 31 331 2 7
Sam Crawford (Tulsa, SO) 27 358 3 7
Heron Maurisseau (Connecticut, rFR) 31 331 2 6
Tyler Page (SMU, JR) 20 398 2 6
C.J. Sanders (SMU, SR) 25 332 2 6
Thomas Geddis (Cincinnati, SR) 25 282 2 6
Eddie McDoom (South Florida, JR) 24 324 1 5
Myron Gailliard (SMU, SR) 24 197 2 5

 

Tight End Rec ReYD ReTD FPPG
Mitchell Wilcox (South Florida, SR) 42 504 3 9
Josiah Deguara (Cincinnati, SR) 35 435 4 9
Joey Magnifico (Memphis, SR) 32 444 3 8
Kylen Granson (SMU, JR) 32 320 2 7
Anthony Watley (East Carolina, SR) 26 252 2 5

 

Projected Standings

American West

American East

Memphis 10-1 (8-0 in conference)

Cincinnati 9-3 (6-2 in conference)

Houston 8-4 (6-2 in conference)

Temple 9-3 (6-2 in conference)

SMU 6-6 (4-4 in conference)

UCF 9-3 (6-2 in conference)

Tulane 4-8 (3-5 in conference)

USF 5-7 (4-4 in conference)

Tulsa 4-8 (2-6 in conference)

ECU 3-9 (1-7 in conference)

Navy 3-9 (2-6 in conference)

UConn 1-11 (0-8 in conference)

American West

 

Memphis Tigers

2018 record: 8-6 (5-3 in conference)

Best NFL Draft prospect: TE Joey Magnifico. Has enough speed to get downfield and a scrappy blocker, Magnifico is one of several AAC tight ends to keep an eye on this fall.

 

The case for: After going 8-6 in 2018 the Tigers will be looking to continue building on their success. QB Brady White was awarded another year of eligibility and will remain the starter. White transferred to Memphis after minimal playtime at Arizona State and was fairly efficient last season, averaging 8.4 yards per attempt while completing 62.8 percent of his passes.  All of White’s top pass-catchers from last season return including No. 1 WR Damonte Coxie who racked up 1,174 yards and seven touchdowns on 72 receptions. While they lose both RB Darrell Henderson and RB Tony Pollard (who lined up in the slot a bunch), they return Patrick Taylor Jr. He rushed for 1,122 yards on 5.4 yards per carry last season and reached the endzone 18 total times. HC Mike Norvell noted that Taylor is a “game-changer” for the Tigers this year and figures to take on an increased workload in 2019. Behind him, RB Kenny Gainwell is in line for a substantial role.

Memphis lost a few players up front from last year’s dominant unit but added two JUCO transfers and still have former four-star Obinna Eze waiting for action. After finishing 2018 ranked 14th in offensive S&P+, a top-10 finish in S&P+ is within range if the offensive line turns out to be above average. The defense returns a vast majority of starters and should improve in both run (50th) and pass defense (99th). There are legitimately zero noticeable holes on the defense after last season, even with new defensive coordinator Adam Fuller. He spearheaded Marshall’s 22nd ranked defense (S&P+) from last season and should be able to make the most of the team’s returning talent.

The Tigers figure to regress in the “close game” category after losing all three one-score games by a combined five points. If all goes well it isn’t unrealistic for the Tigers to go undefeated. The issue is --just like UCF last year -- their schedule caps their ceiling. The Tigers will be favored in every game this season and only play two teams in the top-50 of Bill Connelly’s projected S&P+, both of which come at home. That helps them in the win column, but even if they win every game it’s highly unlikely the college football playoff committee will grant them a spot in the four-team playoff. A top-tier bowl game is certainly within reach in 2019.

 

The case against: The biggest loss on Memphis’ offense has to be RB Darrell Henderson who racked up 2,204 yards from scrimmage and 22 touchdowns last season. His presence will be greatly missed. Part of Henderson’s success was due to an incredible offensive line that opened massive running lanes and ranked No. 1 overall in Football Outsiders’ Power success rate. They will have to replace three starters from that line meaning they likely won’t be as good in this category next season. The main thing Memphis will have to deal with is turnover on their coaching staff, specifically their offensive coordinator, defensive coordinator, and special teams coordinator.

While it’s fair to anticipate improvement from the defense with a lot of returning starters, there’s always a chance certain players just aren’t that good or have already reached their ceilings. Ranking 87th in S&P+ is nothing to be overly excited about, and with a new defensive coordinator in town, it’s very possible they get worse while adjusting to the scheme. This would put more pressure on the offense which may not be able to respond after losing two players who combined for more than 3,300 yards from scrimmage last season. If this hypothetical scenario plays out Memphis could bottom out at six or seven wins.

 

Vegas over/under win total: 9

Prediction: OVER

Houston Cougars

2018 record: 8-5 (5-3 in conference)

Best NFL Draft prospect: QB D'Eriq King. King may not crush it on the size front, but he is a dynamic runner and passer who could have a fit in an NFL which is increasingly trending toward college spread concepts. Kyler Murray's success in the fall could impact how teams view him in an off-hand way.

 

The case for: The Cougars decided to can former head coach Major Applewhite despite a respectable 15-11 career record as their coach. Enter former West Virginia coach Dana Holgerson who joins the team after coaching at West Virginia since 2011.  The offense averaged a whopping 43.9 points per game last season (5th in the country), while the defense allowed 37.2 (119th in the country). All Houston’s defense had to do was allow less than 40 points and they have a pretty good shot at winning (they scored 40 in all but three games). They also lost every single game they allowed 40 or more points. A lot of the offense remains the same and if the defense can even become remotely competent, this Houston team could be dangerous.

The offense returns stud QB D’Eriq King who averaged 8.6 yards per attempt while completing 63.5 percent of his passes and posting an impressive 36/6 TD/INT ratio. He was also uber dangerous on the ground while averaging 6.1 yards per carry to the tune of 674 yards and 14 rushing touchdowns. King returns nearly all of his weapons including top wideout Marquez Stevenson who racked up 1,019 yards and nine touchdowns on 75 receptions. The running game should also remain strong with Patrick Carr (868 yards, 5.7 yards per carry) and Mulbah Car (325 yards, 4.9 yards per carry) returning to Houston. The offensive line returns three seniors who are all solid and should be able to outweigh the growing pains caused by replacing two spots.

 

The case against: There isn’t too much of a case for the offense to be bad, but there’s potential for them to not be as dominant. With the change in head coach and offensive coordinator, it’s always possible King doesn’t latch onto the scheme as quickly as he needs to. The offensive line also has to replace two of their top offensive lineman from last season. The Cougars also don’t have much of a contingency plan behind King. If he gets injured, their offense could go from top-10 to bottom-50 in a blink of an eye.                                                                                                       

The defense lose stud defender Ed Oliver who was selected in the first round of the 2019 NFL Draft last spring. He’s one of numerous players that are no longer with the program. They are missing three of their top linebackers, cornerbacks, and a defensive end. There will be a ton of new faces for the Cougars which could either be really good, or really bad. Their defense was fairly poor last season but there’s little room to go down. Holgerson’s track record shouldn’t inspire much confidence though as WVU was notorious for trying to boat race the opponents.

 

Vegas over/under win total: 8

Prediction: PUSH

SMU Mustangs

2018 record: 5-7 (4-4 in conference)

Best NFL Draft prospect: S Rodney Clemons. High IQ player with an innate feel for his movements. Clemons has logged an interception each of the past three seasons. Day 3 could see him off the board next spring.

 

The case for: After ranking 105th in S&P+ on offense, SMU needed to make some changes heading into 2018. The biggest difference will be graduate transfer QB Shane Buechele making his way from Texas. Buechele completed 62.2 percent of his passes at Texas while averaging 7.2 yards per attempt with a 30/16 TD/INT ratio. He should provide a nice upgrade from last year’s starter, Ben Hicks, who was significantly worse in all three statistical categories. The offensive line was also a disaster last season, mostly due to injury. They had 11 players start at least one game up front for them. It’s unlikely they’ll be struck with as much injury and naturally improve upon last season’s 123rd ranking in “line yards.” 

RB Xavier Jones and Ke’Mon Freemon will be big beneficiaries of that after combining for just 650 rushing yards and eight touchdowns last year. Both should be able to vastly outproduce their numbers from last season with more opportunity and an improved offensive line. The passing offense returns all of their top weapons, including James Proche who racked up 1,199 yards and 12 touchdowns on 93 receptions. No. 2 WR Reggie Roberson junior was more of a downfield threat and recorded 802 yards and six touchdowns on 52 receptions. Former Cornell redshirt junior TE Tommy McIntyre transferred to SMU as a graduate this offseason and should play a role in the offense as well. At 6-foot-8, 262-pounds at the minimum he can be a strong blocker and unique red zone threat. There should be a good amount of confidence in the offense improving in nearly every aspect in 2019.

Last year, defensive coordinator Kevin Kane helped the unit improve dramatically in his first season with the team (from 113th in 2017 to 79th in 2018). He also has the benefit of returning 10 contributors from last season’s front seven as well as six defensive backs. There’s a solid chance he parlays this into even more success in 2019 with the potential for the unit to crack the top-50. The schedule features five teams who rank 90th or worse, 4-of-5 which come at home. Those games are “must-wins” for a program that’s looking to improve upon their 6-win 2018 season.

 

The case against: The pass defense allowed a 63 percent completion rate (101st) and returns most of that same secondary. As I’ve preached in my conference previews before, returning a lot of players from a unit is generally good due to continuity, unless the players are bad. In this case, they just might not have too much talent in the secondary. They also won’t have much depth at safety either with three of their top-5 at the position departing. An injury to either of the two remaining starters could be the Achilles’ heel of this defense.

SMU’s schedule is pretty brutal. They have two back-to-back road trips with two of the games coming against opponents projected to rank in the top-35 (TCU and Memphis), and the other two in the top-75 (Houston, USF). There’s a good chance they lose all of those games. A January road game against Navy won’t be an easy win either considering the potential conditions. SMU is a relatively low-ceiling, high-floor team in 2019.

 

Win total over/under: 6

Prediction: PUSH

Tulane Green Wave

2018 record: 7-6 (5-3 in conference)

Best NFL Draft prospect: WR Jalen McCleskey. McClesky has the quick feet of a man running on hot coals. In fact, that's probably the best way to describe the Oklahoma State transfer's game -- he plays like his feet are on fire.

 

The case for: Tulane’s improved in three consecutive years under Willie Fritz and was topped off by a 41-24 win over Louisiana in the AutoNation Cure Bowl. They return a lot of players from last year’s 7-6 season and have plenty of reasons to be optimistic about 2019. Justin McMillan returns as the starting quarterback and will look to pioneer the offense to a bit more success. He wasn’t forced to pass much and attempted only more than 25 passes in three games. His 10/4 TD/INT ratio was respectable, especially when considering he added another five touchdowns and 238 yards on the ground. His accuracy failed him at times but he still averaged 8.5 yards per attempt, nearly a full yard higher than Jonathan Banks who started last season. 

McMillan lost a few pass-catchers but returns No. 1 WR Darnell Mooney. He was electric last season (48-993-8) and averaged 20 yards per reception, was second in the AAC in yards per route run (2.96), and contributed the highest passer rating (132.2) among all returning AAC wideouts. Former Oklahoma State receiver Jalen McCleskey is another intriguing playmaker and figures to slide in as their No. 1A receiving option. The running game should remain a strength with RB Darius Bradwell and Corey Dauphine returning after combining for 1,919 yards and 18 total touchdowns.  The offensive line added two transfers who will compete for a starting spot and should help the unit improve. The offense should crack the top-100 in S&P+ after ranking 106th last season.

The defense will look to improve after ranking 65th in S&P+ overall, highlighted by ranking 39th against the run. They return almost their entire defensive line from last season and have minimal losses elsewhere. OLB junior Patrick Johnson racked up 44 pressures last season and will be a staple of the defense again. They return a number of role players in the secondary but will need them to take another step forward to retain the same level of play in 2019. The Green Wave went 5-1 under McMillan’s tutelage last season and will look to continue that. The schedule isn’t overly favorable but gives them a solid floor of 3-4 wins and the potential to at least match 2018’s seven wins.

 

The case against: While McMillan didn’t throw too many interceptions, he only completed 51.3 percent of his passes. He also only averaged four yards per attempt with his legs. To continue piling on, McMillan lost three of his top four targets and beyond Mooney the depth chart is largely unknown. The offensive line was awful last season in pass protection, ranking 120th in sack rate. Despite the running back’s success the offensive line ranked just 70th in “line yards.” They lose three starters and may not be as strong as a run-blocking unit this year.

The defense should be pretty good but lost linebacker Zachery Harris and tackle Robert Kennedy who played big roles. They took big hits in the secondary where they lost their top safety, Roderic Teamer jr, and cornerback, Donnie Lewis Jr. It will be tough for them to post another season as the 63rd ranked S&P+ passing defense. The schedule figures to be a hindrance for the Green Wave to actually improve in the win column. They play on the road against Auburn and Memphis and play at home against UCF. All three of those games are nearly guaranteed losses. They only play three games against teams projected to rank outside the top-100, but Navy comes on the back-end of back-to-back road games. This game is a bit dicier than it appears on paper while the rest of the games are pretty much up for grabs. This gives them a pretty wide range of outcomes which could get the better of them if their defense regresses and offense can’t take a step forward.

 

Vegas over/under win total: 5.5

Prediction: UNDER

Tulsa Golden Hurricane

2018 record: 3-9 (2-6 in conference)

Best NFL Draft prospect: DE Trevis Gipson. While raw, Gipson could be worth a long-game lotto ticket for NFL purposes. Exceedingly active, with a whopping five fumbles forced last fall.

 

The case for: With some teams, it’s easy to talk about the positives of last season but when looking at Tulsa there weren’t very many. They went 3-9, ranked 109th in offensive S&P+, and 96th in defensive S&P+. You may ask, why is this bit in “the case for?” Mostly to show that Tulsa *should* improve upon many of these numbers. They have two promising players duking it out for the starting quarterback spot in Seth Boomer and former Baylor QB Zach Smith. Boomer led the team in passing yards while tossing nine touchdowns and only four interceptions. Smith saw a decent amount of time at Baylor during his freshman and sophomore seasons, completing 55.8 percent of his passes while averaging 7.5 yards per attempt. The two split reps during spring practices and a decision on the starter may not come until deep in fall camp.

They return three of their top four pass-catchers from last season and should have plenty of weapons for whoever wins the starting quarterback job. The running game is spearheaded by Corey Taylor II and Shamari Brooks who combined for 1,813 yards and 18 touchdowns last season. Both figure to play a similar role this season and see around 200 touches a piece. The offensive line lost a few full-time starters but returns four total players with starting experience. Making sure they retain strong run-blocking will be key for the potential of Tulsa’s offense.

The defense will be anchored by their top two linebackers who return after a strong 2018 season. They also have an intriguing secondary with three returning starters at cornerback in Allie Green IV, Akayleb Evans, and Reggie Robinson II. Their pass defense ranked 53rd in S&P+ last season and will likely turn in another top-75 season. Their schedule gifts them with three opponents who rank outside the top-110 in Bill Connelly's S&P+ projections. They also draw Wyoming at home, a game that figures to be a toss-up with a slight lean towards Tulsa on their home turf.

 

The case against: Returning your starting quarterback is generally a good sign, but in the case of Tulsa, Seth Boomer shouldn’t inspire too much confidence. He only completed 51 percent of his passes at seven yards per attempt. He was among the worst starting quarterbacks in all of college football last year. Transfer Zach Smith should win the starting job and if he can’t that’s a pretty big indictment of his talent. Whoever wins the starting job will be without last year’s No. 2 wideout, Justin Hobbs. They also have to replace three starters from an offensive line that ranked 73rd in “line yards.” This will mostly impact the running game that already didn’t see either of their top backs eclipse more than 4.8 yards per carry last season. Brooks and Taylor will both likely see a decrease in efficiency on the ground.

The defense is a bit up in the air with their 93rd ranked run defense potentially getting worse. Redshirt junior T Waahid Muhaamad medically retired in July, a big hit to the Golden Hurricane’s defense. Draft Analyst’s Tony Pauline originally listed him as the top draft prospect on the team and believed he could have been a mid-round pick. The pass defense was their strongest aspect but they lost their top safety from last season in McKinley Whitfield. The schedule doesn’t do them too many favors with no true “tune-up game” and having to square off against Michigan State and Oklahoma State in two of their first three weeks. They have to play three more teams after those games projected to rank inside the top-50 in S&P+ as well. With five games likely to be bad losses, it would be impressive to see a team like this finish 0.500 or better.

 

Vegas over/under win total: 4.5

Prediction: UNDER

Navy Midshipmen

2018 record: 3-10 (2-6 in conference)

Best NFL Draft prospect: QB Malcolm Perry. Perry could see a late draft look on his wheels alone, though if he is to crack the NFL, it won't be happening permanently at quarterback. Taysom Hill 2.0 perhaps.

 

The case for: Navy hit their lowest win total in the Ken Niumatalolo era by a wide margin last year. His next worst season was a 5-7 record all the way back in 2011. One bad year among many good ones (87-58 record at Navy) makes me want to believe that this was just a blip on the radar. They return QB Malcolm Perry who saw some time at slotback last season and led the team in rushing (1,087 yards). As one of the best athletes on their team in Navy’s run-heavy option offense, Perry figures to be the focal point. Senior RB Tazh Maloy is listed as one of their starters at slotback along with C.J. Williams. Both figure to play significant roles. When Navy does pass, Mychal Cooper and Ryan Mitchell will likely be the top options. If their passing game can improve a bit it would dramatically improve the offense as a whole.

The defense will likely look a bit different, and that’s probably a good thing. Defensive Coordinator Dale Pehrson retired after last season and they brought in former Kennesaw State coach Brian Newberry. Newberry will be a nice change of pace after Navy produced it’s worst defensive finish in a long time. They don’t have much in the way of returners as they are essentially replacing their entire front seven and half of their secondary. But like I said, they were putrid (114th in S&P+) so it may not be a bad thing.

Even if Army only improves marginally, there are plenty of winnable games on the schedule. They play six games against teams ranked 90th or-worse in Bill Connelly’s S&P+ projections and four of them come at home. There is a decent shot they begin their climb back to where they were four years ago.

 

The case against: Since going 11-2 in 2015 the Midshipmen have been slowly drowning. 9-5 in 2016, 7-6 in 2017, then 3-10 in 2018. Has Ken Niumatalolo lost his touch? It’s certainly possible, but it may not have as much to do with his on-the-field coaching as not having talent. The offense will look a little different this season and that may not be a good thing. Perry is athletic and a good runner but struggled as a passer last season, even in the context of Navy’s offense. He completed just 36 percent of his 25 pass attempts while averaging 8.9 yards per attempt. Most collegiate quarterbacks would be pleased with throwing twice as many touchdowns as interceptions but Perry literally only had two touchdowns and one interception. We can’t expect much more on 25 attempts, but his lack of experience is still interesting. In addition to an inexperienced passer in Perry, leading wide receiver Taylor Jackson departs with his 222 receiving yards. Cooper and Mitchell are expected to step up this year but combined for just 182 yards last season.

The defense was abysmal last year, ranking 114th in defensive S&P+. They specifically struggled against the pass where they ranked 119th in S&P+. They are almost completely redoing the defense with most of their starters departing. There will probably be a lot of growing pains with plenty of new starters and a new defensive coordinator. It wouldn’t be surprising to see them finish around the same range of efficiency in 2019. While they play a number of soft opponents in 2018, those aren’t anything close to guaranteed wins as they themselves are also projected to be bad. Depending on how the season goes, they may only be favored at home against East Carolina and a hapless Connecticut program. One win is certainly within their range of outcomes if Niumatalolo can’t dramatically improve both units in 2019.

 

Vegas over/under win total: 6

Prediction: UNDER

Cincinnati Bearcats

2018 record: 11-2 (6-2 in conference)

Best NFL Draft prospect: TE Josiah Deguara. A rock-solid blocking option who lacks for downfield speed and will be fighting for a Day 3 selection.

 

The case for: The Bearcats are coming off an impressive 11-2 season after ending 2017 with a 4-8 record. The incredible turnaround saw them average 34.9 points per game (23rd in the country) while only allowing 17.2 (9th in the country). This was all while using a number of young players in the starting lineup who shined. Almost all of them return, giving Bearcats enthusiasts plenty of hope for the upcoming season.

QB Desmond Ridder played exceptionally well as a freshman, completing 62.4 percent of his passes while averaging 7.9 yards per attempt and posting a 20/5 TD/INT ratio. Even with last season’s top wideout out of the picture, the No. 2-No. 6 options all return. As long as one of them take a step forward, the receiving corps should be in pretty good shape. RB Michael Warren will likely be the centerpiece of the offense after rushing for 1,329 yards and 19 touchdowns on 244 carries. He was also utilized as a pass-catcher (25-232-1) and figures to remain the focal point of the offense.

The defense was stellar last season, ranking 36th in S&P+ while allowing the lowest completion rate in the country. They should be Cincinnati’s strongest unit again in 2019 after returning most of their best players in the secondary and linebacker group. Their defensive line will have a number of new faces but also return Kevin Mouhon after he suffered a season-ending injury in 2018. Cincinnati doesn’t have to play back-to-back road games at any point this season and has the benefit of playing four teams who rank outside the top-90 in S&P+.  It wouldn’t be surprising to see Cincinnati rip off another double-digit win season in 2019.

 

The case against: The offense finished just 74th in S&P+ last season and lost more pieces than most think. A lot of issues may stem from the offensive line where three new players will be thrust into the starting lineup. There’s a legitimate chance they don’t pan out which dampens both the running game and Ridder’s upside. He’ll also be without last season’s No. 1 option, Kahlil Lewis, who racked up 782 receiving yards and nine touchdowns on 56 receptions. Is it smart to bank on improvement from a young quarterback who lost his No. 1 wideout and will likely have less time to throw? I’d lean with no.

The defense doesn’t lose much on the back end, but the defensive line may need to be reworked. They lost their top tackles in addition to defensive end Kimoni Fitz. They have a number of players who hypothetically should fill the void, but that’s not a guarantee. While the schedule doesn’t look too intimidating on paper, they have to travel to Ohio State and Memphis while drawing UCF at home. Beyond the four games against teams who rank outside the top-90 in Bill Connelly’s projected S&P+, every other contest is winnable for either side. This gives the Bearcats a fairly wide range of outcomes despite the 11-2 finish in 2018.

 

Vegas over/under win total: 6

Prediction: OVER

Temple Owls

2018 record: 8-5 (7-1 in conference) 

Best NFL Draft prospect: QB Anthony Russo. A pro-style thrower through and through, Russo couples smarts and an arm with a developing sense of the game. Stamp him as a sleeper behind the big boys.

 

The case for: Temple was expected to hire former Miami DC Manny Diaz as the team’s head coach – and technically did for about 18 days. Then Diaz bolted back to Miami after HC Mark Richt retired, leaving the Owls emptyhanded. Instead, they ended up with former NIU HC Rod Carey. Carey has been a much better defensive coach in his career as of late and specifically focuses on running the ball on offense.

They’ll likely turn to a combination of senior RB Jager Gardner and sophomore Jeremy Jennings. Neither has much experience but could thrive behind Temple’s offensive line which returns 4-of-5 starters from last season. The passing game could be more efficient this year with junior QB Anthony Russo having a full offseason to work as the starter. They return WR Branden Mack (44-601-5) and Randle Jones (23-445-4) who are expected to take on an even bigger role this year. Their offense ranked 76th in S&P+ last season and has a good shot of improving with plenty of talent returning.

The defense was their strongest unit, finishing the season ranked 42nd in S&P+. This is highlighted by their 7th ranked passing defense S&P+ finish. They lost a few starters but picked up a graduate transfer from Penn State in S Ayron Monroe who didn’t contribute much for the Nittany Lions but should make an impact for Temple. They also have a few players who saw some playing time in the secondary last season and should be able to step up and make an impact. Up front, Temple has two interesting defensive ends in Quincy Roche and Zack Mesday. They should make up a formidable pass-rush after combining for 10 sacks last season. The schedule is pretty favorable for the Owls who don’t have to play a single back-to-back road game and play against seven teams projected to rank 85th or worse in S&P+. If they win all the games they are expected to take care of and win a close one against Maryland, USF, or Cincinnati they can easily match last season’s 8-5 record.

 

The case against: Carey has been a run-first coordinator thus far in his career which may not be a great fit with the Owls’ personnel. They lost leading rusher Ryquell Armstead to the NFL this offseason. Their best returning running back is senior Jager Gardner who only had 253 rushing yards on 65 carries (3.9 yards per carry). Anthony Russo took over last season and was up-and-down. He completed just 57.4 percent of his passes while averaging 7.4 yards per attempt. He also threw exactly as many interceptions as touchdowns (14). He played fairly average and will need to step up if the running game isn’t clicking.

Unfortunately, a lot of the stellar defense had to do with Rock Ya-Sin who was selected with the No. 34 overall pick in the 2019 NFL Draft. They also lost their top three safeties from last season. They have a few guys who are expected to competently fill in, but there’s almost no shot Temple approaches the top-10 of passing S&P+ defense. Given the turnover, there’s a good chance they aren’t even in the top-50. With the pass defense likely taking a step back the overall unit won’t be nearly as strong. The offense will need to make up for the declining defense if they want to take steps forward as a team.

 

Vegas over/under win total: 6.5

Prediction: OVER

UCF Knights

2018 record: 12-1 (8-0 in conference)

Best NFL Draft prospect: WR Gabriel Davis. At 6-foot-3, 213 pounds, Davis has the frame for red zone work and an intriguing athletic profile which could push him up boards with strong testing work in the spring.

 

The case for:  UCF completed their second-straight undefeated regular season in 2018 prior to the bowl game against a surging LSU team. While they had a better record than some of the college football playoff semifinalists, their strength of schedule gave them little chance of the committee giving them the thumbs up. Those same issues will ring true this year even if the Knights are able to string together another 12-0 regular season. While it’s easy to look at the team and say “no way they make another run,” they return plenty of exciting players on both sides of the ball.

QB McKenzie Milton won’t be available this year after last season’s disturbing injury at the end of the season. He’ll continue to rehab in hopes of a return in 2020. They aren’t completely out of luck at the position though with either Notre Dame grad transfer QB Brandon Wimbush likely at the helm. QB Darriel Mack was expected to compete with Wimbush but recently suffered a broken ankle and has no timetable for return. Even if Wimbush doesn’t take a personal step forward in accuracy, he’ll have a nice array of skill players around him. They return wideouts Gabriel Davis and Tre Nixon who were the Nos. 1 and 2 pass-catchers from last season. RB Adrian Killins is also a factor in the passing game, averaging 19.8 yards per reception to the tune of 377 yards on 19 receptions. His speed makes a legitimate difference for the offense. He and Greg McCrae return in the backfield after combining for over 2,300 yards from scrimmage last season. Part of the reason for their success was the offensive line which ranked No. 8 in “Line Yards.”

The defense figures to remain strong in the secondary after ranking 50th in passing defense S&P+ and returning their top two corners and safety. They have plenty of depth at linebacker and brought in a lot of players to address the defensive line. That includes two JUCO transfers and five freshmen. The defense has a chance to maintain top-50 efficiency if some of the newcomers make an instant impact up front. Playing in the AAC, their schedule is by no means difficult. Everything is relative though, and after two straight undefeated regular seasons the bar is set incredibly high. They should be favored in every single game this season and only have one set of back-to-back road games. Luckily for them, that comes with a bye week in between and is against two of the weaker AAC teams in Tulsa and Tulane.
 

The case against: Grad transfers normally present exciting options but in the case of Brandon Wimbush that couldn’t be further from the truth. At Notre Dame he completed 50.5% of passes while averaging 6.8 yards per attempt. He didn’t even finish out 2018 as the starter and was unseated by replacement-level QB Ian Book. Wimbush leaves a lot on the table with accuracy, a massive difference from McKenzie Milton who completed 59.2 percent of his passes while averaging 9.2 yards per attempt. Maybe Wimbush struggled due to the strength of schedule and system, but it’s tough to bank on a major improvement. They also lost their No. 2 wideout and slot wide receiver Dredrick Snelson who accrued 688 yards and five touchdowns on 43 receptions. The offensive line likely won’t be able to post another top-10 season in “line yards” or a top-50 season in “sack rate” after losing two big-time starters. This could spell trouble for Wimbush and the Knights offense.
 

While the secondary should be solid, they lost two of their top three safeties. The defense line also figures to be in bad shape after losing nearly all of their starters and depth. There’s a slim chance they repeat the ranking of 47th in S&P+ run defense. Beyond DE Brendon Hayes (three sacks) they only return two defensive ends who don’t have much to show for in their careers. They also lost last year’s starting MLB in Pat Jasinski. While their schedule isn’t overly challenging there are a few roadblocks along the way. A home game against Stanford should be close and a road trip to Cincinnati won’t be a walk in the park. It seems unlikely they post another undefeated regular season.

 

Win total over/under: 9.5

Prediction: UNDER

USF Bulls

2018 record: 7-6 (3-5 in conference)

Best NFL Draft prospect: TE Mitchell WilcoxA jack-of-all-trades tight end with sleeper potential but athleticism questions. In a thinner tight end class, has sleeper/riser potential.

 

The case for: Heading into the eighth game of the season against Houston last year, South Florida ranked No. 21 in the country and was 7-0. They had scored 20-or-more points in every game and 30-or-more in 4-of-7 contests. Everything changed after the 21-point loss to Houston as they tumbled to six-straight losses afterward. They scored less than 20 points in half of their games and allowed 27-or-more points in all of them. You couldn’t have imagined a worse ending for the Bulls. Luckily for HC Charlie Strong and company, there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic.

They replaced their offensive coordinator with Kerwin Bell, a former Division 2 coach at Valdosta State. He’ll have plenty of weapons to create a formidable offense as QB Blake Barnett, RB Jordan Cronkrite, and WR Randall St. Felix all return.  Barnett is a former four-star prospect who spent time at Alabama and Arizona State before finding a home at USF.  He suffered a few minor injuries down the road and ended his season with a 61.1 completion percentage while averaging 7.7 yards per attempt.  St. Felix figures to be his top option after a stellar freshman season (33-679-4). Change-of-pace running back turned slot wide receiver Johnny Ford should replace a good bit of production lost by WR Tyre McCants and has been described as a “natural” in the slot. With Ford lined up as a wideout (115 carries last season), Cronkrite figures to take on an expanded role as the lead back after racking up 1,121 yards on just 184 carries (6.1 yards per carry) last season. The whole offense will be bolstered by the offensive line which returns seven players with some type of starting experience. This is made possible after injuries struck last year and forced multiple players into bigger roles. A bad turn of events last season will likely help them out this year.

The defense had its fair share of mishaps last year and will look to improve in 2019. They retain star linebacker Nico Sawtelle who was arguably their top defender in games he played (six). They also return a number of key players in the secondary – even if their depth isn’t great. As long as they stay healthy, they should be able to approach last seasons 51st-ranked Passing defense S&P+. The schedule gifts the Bulls with four games which should all be wins against teams ranked outside the top 110 in S&P+.

 

The case against: Barnett struggled down the stretch with the rest of the team and ended up with a 12/11 TD/INT ratio, something that will need to improve if the Bulls want to be a top-tier team within the AAC. It won’t help that he lost last season’s leading wideout Tyre McCants (59-617-3). There aren’t too many holes to poke in the offense other than maybe first-year offensive coordinator Kerwin Bell not working out. While his offensive stats were good at the Division 2 level, he is inheriting a mid-level division one program with a number of difficult matchups.

While the offense should have some hope to play better, I’m not as optimistic about the defense. They ranked 90th in rush defense S&P+ last season and lost a number of starters including two of their top three tackles. They lost essentially all of their depth at linebacker and over half of their secondary is gone including corner Ronnie Hoggins. The defense is one or two injuries away from seeing the bottom fall out and taking a big tumble in overall efficiency. In addition to the potentially poor defense, the schedule isn’t very favorable. They have a back-to-back road game scenario against Navy and East Carolina during conference play. Both teams would normally be easier games but anything can happen on a long road trip. They also have to play against three teams projected to rank inside the top-30 and five teams inside the top-50 of projected S&P+. Playing that many games against tough teams severely limits their ceiling given their roster outlook.

 

Vegas over/under win total: 8

Prediction: UNDER

East Carolina Pirates

2018 record: 3-9 (1-7 in conference)

Best NFL Draft prospect: G D’Ante Smith. Nice movement skills for a 6-foot-4, 294-pound tackle. Will need polish and scrub if he is to stick on an NFL roster.

 

The case for: The Pirates started off the 2018 season in a weird fashion, losing to North Carolina A&T by five then following that up by thrashing North Carolina 41-19. They continued with a 13-20 loss to South Florida and a narrow 37-35 win over Old Dominion. Things got ugly afterward, losing 7-of-8 to close out the season. Head Coach Scottie Montgomery didn’t survive the end of the year and finished his stint at ECU with a 9-26 record.

They’ve now hired Mike Houston, a long-time Carolina coach who’s been at a High school, Division 3, and Division 2 program within the state of North Carolina. His last stop was as James Madison where he won an FCS title in his first season in 2016. ECU is hoping Houston’s strong track record at lower levels continues into the ranks of Division 1. A lot of work will need to be done in order for the Pirates to be relevant especially after their finish of 119th in S&P+. QB Holton Ahlers returns after seeing plenty of playing time last season and posting a 12/3 TD/INT ratio. He also added 592 yards and six touchdowns on 119 carries (5.0 yards per carry) on the ground. The Pirates return five of their top six wideouts, giving Ahlers a solid base of weapons. At least one of them will need to step up to replace former No. 1 wideout Trevon Brown’s production. The running game was abysmal last season with leading rusher RB Anthony Scott compiling 405 yards on 103 carries (3.9 yards per carry). The good news is, the offensive line should give it a boost this season. After multiple injuries to the offensive line last season, they return seven players with starting experience. Between the line improving and a number of suitable replacements who should all be an upgrade over RB Anthony Scott, we can pencil in some type of improvement.

The Pirates' defense returns nearly everyone from a unit which improved dramatically since 2017. It’s fair to be worried about the loss of DE Nate Harvey but they return the rest of their starters in the front seven and brought in a three-star JUCO transfer. The secondary returns a good majority of their starters and could improve solely due to continuity. The schedule features two matchups against FCS opponents at home in Gardner-Webb and William & Mary early in the season as well as a road game against Navy in between. They play a total of five games against teams projected to rank 115th or lower in Bill Connelly’s S&P+ projections and don’t have to play back-to-back road games once all year.

 

The case against: Even though they beat North Carolina, the Pirates were not a very good team. The offense scored 10-or-fewer points in four games while the defense allowed 40-or-more points in five games. East Carolina has won three games each of their last three seasons but now has a new head coach. Whether Houston can improve upon Montgomery’s woes remains to be seen. QB Holton Ahlers figures to be the starter in 2019 but was an abysmal passer last season, completing just 48.3 of his passes while averaging 6.8 yards per attempt. The Pirates top pass-catcher from last season, Trevon Brown (74-1,123-9), has also since departed. He more than doubled the next closes pass-catcher in receptions and more than tripled the next closest in receiving yards. His loss can’t be understated, especially when the quarterback is hoping to improve as a passer. The running game was a trainwreck last year, largely in part to a mosh-posh offensive line. They figure to have better luck on the injury front this year, but none of the starters were very good when they played. Even though they return a number of starters on offense, it wouldn’t be surprising to see them continue their struggle.

The defense lost its best player on this side of the ball in Nate Harvey. He racked up 14.5 sacks and 24.5 tackles for loss as a senior and will be greatly missed by the Pirates defense.  Even with Harvey breathing down the necks of opposing passers, ECU still ranked 107th in passing defense S&P+. This could spell trouble in 2019 as ECU returns nearly all of their starters. Continuity is good unless the players aren’t very talented. The Pirates schedule looks pretty soft with five matchups against teams projected to rank outside the top-115 in S&P+. The issue is, outside of the two games against FCS opponents, the other three are all on the road. Both Navy and Old Dominion could give the Pirates fits on the road despite being some of their weakest opponents. Outside of those five games, the Pirates don’t have much of a chance to add to the win column. Every game except a matchup against Tulsa will be against a top-75 opponent or will be played on the road.

 

Win total over/under: 3.5

Prediction: UNDER

UConn Huskies

2018 record: 1-11 (0-8 in conference)

Best NFL Draft prospect: T Matt Peart. Has shown progress each year in college, particularly in terms of developmental technique. UConn might not have much, but Peart ain't nothing. Potential Day 3 dude.

 

The case for: I’ve noted this before, but “the case for” section should always be viewed relatively. The expectation for UConn is a lot different than UCF this season and needs to be understood as such. How exciting can a team that’s gone 3-9 and 1-11 the past two seasons really be? Some changes have been made and there is room for relative optimism.

After allowing 605 points last year, they rightfully fired their defensive coordinator. He’s been replaced by Lou Spanos, a former analyst for UCLA and Alabama. He legitimately can’t get worse in terms of S&P+ (130th). If we are going to look at this situation with rose-colored glasses, the defense was extremely young last season and returns a vast majority of starters and contributors. They also added Columbia grad transfer Mike Hinton and JUCO linebacker Dillon Harris who could play a role pretty quickly.

The offense was much better than the defense (99th in S&P+) with a few highlights. The running game was strong and returns leading rusher Kevin Mensah. He added 1,045 rushing yards and six touchdowns on 225 carries (4.6 yards per carry). With former starting QB David Pindell departed, there will be a two-way quarterback competition between Steven Krajewski and Division II transfer Mike Beaudry. Krajewski is a former three-star recruit who has hypothetical potential. There are a few spots on the schedule where UConn could snag a win. They should actually start the season with a winning record as Wagner is first up on the schedule. Wagner was 4-7 last season in the FCS and have to play at UConn.  The Huskies next winnable matchup comes against Massachusetts who is projected to rank 125th in S&P+. They then draw two home games against Navy (118th) and East Carolina (113th). If Connecticut takes even a slight step forward in some areas those games should be somewhat competitive. Four wins would be their best season during the Randy Edsall era, a relatively good year.

 

The case against: I could probably go on for quite a while in this section but I’ll try to keep it brief as I’m not a huge “kick em’ while their down” type of person. Randy Edsall remains the head coach after the team allowed the most points per game among all 130 teams (50.4) last season. They allowed fewer than 30 points just once and scored more than 30 points just twice. That’s not a very good recipe for success. Their only win came by seven against FCS program Rhode Island. The defense was so inexplicably bad that they ranked either 130th or 129th in all of Football Outsiders main metrics.

Their offense was significantly better but lost their starting quarterback. Pindell was a solid quarterback given their horrendous overall outlook and his rushing ability (1,139 yards) will be missed. Marvin Washington was last season’s backup quarterback and had an edge on the starting job but entered the transfer portal this offseason. This leaves just Steven Krajewski and Division II transfer Mike Beaudry. Neither are very appealing as starters on paper but maybe one of them surprises. The receiving corps is just as dreadful with redshirt junior WR Keyion Dixon in the transfer portal. Only one of their top eight pass-catchers from last year returns. They’ll need a nice influx of talent in order for their passing game to be even remotely close to last season’s. A 2.5 win total is honestly generous for a team that’s this bad.  The only game I think we can pencil in a win is against a bad FCS team in Wagner. Their next easiest game is at Massachusetts where they will likely be touchdown underdogs. With the defense likely to remain in the cellar and the offense taking a step back with a new starting quarterback, it’s hard to imagine them winning more than one or two games in 2019.

 

Vegas over/under win total: 2.5

Prediction: UNDER