2016-08-12 08:33

The arguable strongest non-power5-conference (they are called the Group of 5, which is as bad as non-power5, sorry) is

The American Athletic Conference

The conference had last season a great public run for the new years bowl spot, which is guaranteed to a non-power5 team.
In 2014 this was Boise State (MWC), but in during the 2015 season it became quite clear that an American Athletic Conference team would get the spot, if no major letdown would happen to several teams.
Temple, Houston, Memphis and Navy were all in the mix and at the end did Houston win the conference and played in the big money bowl (and won it, as did Boise State in 2014).
The result of this is, that depended on the team winning the AAC, that team could make the college football playoffs which would give that team a chance to win a national championship. Just to put this into perspective, the last time a non-power5 team won a national championship was 1984 when BYU won the title by getting voted #1 from AP and Coaches Poll as member of the WAC.
Since then, zip, nothing. Many team were close, but at the end did not even a shared title go to a non-power5 team.
The chances are still slim and it basically does only involve Houston, but this is a major step forward for the team and the conferences and the AAC in particular.
But this does come with a prize.
Houston is one of the teams in the front row of the upcoming Big12 expansion.
Nothing is public, but if that happens, the American Athletic would lose one of the most successful teams of the past few season, a major recruiting territory, a lot of prestige and a major team with regular chances for the big juicy New Year’s bowl (which prize money is shared inside the conference).
The Big12 is in evaluation mode for now, but the only thing which does NOT speak in Houston favor is that this would be the fifth Texas team and a team from a different state would open the marketing and recruiting market up, instead of making recruiting and marketing harder for all the other Texas based schools especially.
On the other hand does at the moment the SEC get some market shares from the Houston market through Texas A&M and with Houston in the Big12 there is a chance to shift a part of that attention back to the Big12, which might be worth more than an additional market through a second tier team (in terms of relevance inside the Home State) like Colorado State (Main team are the Colorado Buffalos) or Memphis (Main team are the Tennessee Volunteers).

Other teams in the chatter for the Big12 out of this conference are Central Florida, Cincinnati, South Florida and Memphis. Even Tulane was on some lists.

I'm sure something will happen, maybe before season start, which is not far away, latest in the upcoming off season in winter 2017.

So here are 12 Teams:

Eastern Division
University of Central Florida Knights
University of Cincinnati Bearcats
University of Connecticut Huskies
East Carolina University Pirates
University of South Florida Bulls
Temple University Owls

Western Division
University of Houston Cougars
University of Memphis Tigers
United States Naval Academy Midshipmen
Southern Methodist University Mustangs
Tulane University Green Wave
University of Tulsa Golden Hurricane

There were a lot of coaching changes after last season, so it will be hard to judge the success of the teams based on that.
Still I will do my best here.

My way-too-early-pick for this season is:

Eastern Division
Temple University Owls
South Florida Bulls
Cincinnati Bearcats
UConn Huskies
East Carolina Pirates
UCF Knights

Western Division
Navy Midshipmen
Houston Cougars
Memphis Tigers
Tulane University Green Wave
Tulsa Golden Hurricane
SMU Mustangs

Under such conditions, the conference championship game would be between Temples and Houston, again, and I pick Houston as champ, again.
They have really a good team and will eventually make it even to the playoffs.

Now let's get a bit into the details:

Eastern Division

Will we see a reloading or a rebuilding UCF Knights team?
Last season was a nightmare for Knights fans.
George O'Leary did in his 12th season lose the control over the team and was at the same time some kind of interim Athletic Director, so he basically had to fire himself after a 0-8 start (which came after a conference winning 9-4 season in 2014).
Of cause he did not fire himself, he did "step down" after a 0-8 start and an interims coach did finish the season, which had zero wins, so 0-12.
A new AD was selected and after that a new coach came in, Scott Frost, former OC and QB coach of Oregon for 3 seasons.
Frost should find a group of players, well recruited and able to play. Even while they did not have great results in 2015, they won the conference in 2014 and 2013.
Of cause there are not many players left from 2013 and 2014, but O'Leary did recruit well in the past, so Frost needs to get the best out of this group and should then start building his team on top of that over the seasons.
As mentioned above will the Big12 expansion plans be a part of this season and the part Central Florida might play in those.
Overall that's a tough setup, but it could happen the team does bounce back from last season with a big bang, or it can happen that the team needs some time to adjust and start over.
The first 4 games will be non-conference games and beside the season opener against a FCS team and Florida International I think they will lose.
Two Big10 teams should be way too good to compete against them. That Maryland game is at home, maybe that will be a close one.
Inside the conference they play from the West Houston, Tulsa and Tulane.
Could be worse, especially with Tulsa and Tulane at home they have two games which they might be able to win, if all pieces do come together.
Unfortunate for the Knights do they play the probably 2 teams inside the division closest to them regarding strength on the road, East Carolina and UConn.
Given the current circumstances, the season for the Knights does not look too bright.
I think they will win some games, but not many.
On the other hand it could happen that this team just comes into the season and wins, wins and wins.
I doubt it, but that kind of development is normally not foreseeable.
So I put them at the bottom of the East division, as 6th team, assuming a rough season with a slightly trend upwards towards the end of the season.

Can you see the Connecticut (UConn) Huskies in the Big12?
Yes, you did reed it right, UConn and Big12 were mentioned in the same sentence.
According to some information did UConn express interest in joining the Big12.
They will for sure be investigated, but honestly I think their chances are slim.
The geographical distance from Big12 territory to Connecticut is quite huge and should be a major con on the list.
Now add a mid to low level football team (but a good basketball team) and this become more of a dream.
Still, some factors might speak in favor of the team, so again also here will this be an issue over the season.
Bob Diaco did win 6 games last season and lost 7, including a bowl game.
That's better than the season before (2-10).
Now will this team advance further or will it stay on that level, at least regarding the results?
The non-conference games are challenging.
They play a FCS team, which should be a win, but then 3 ACC teams.
A bit lucky for them is, those teams are far from being ACC contenders, but I think they will have a hard time winning against them.
I think 1 additional win is possible (probably Virginia), everything more would be great for the team.
Don't expect too many games from the West-games, playing Navy (road), Houston (road) and Tulane.
I pick 1 win here.
The rest is a mixed schedule inside the division, with not real pros or cons.
Since I think Temple, South Florida and Cincinnati will have the division decided between themselves, I think UConn will have to battle East Carolina for the 4th place.
They play them end of October, on the road.
Mixed this all together I think they will just lose that one crucial game too much.
They might finish with 7 wins, more likely 6 wins as last season.
5th in the East.

Will the new coach turn the East Carolina Pirates around?
The school did hire Scottie Montgomery, former assistant HC and OC of Duke.
Last season the Pirates did finish 5-7 and fired Ruffin McNeill after 6 seasons.
Expectations are high in the Dukes OC, being one of the reasons the Blue Devils were so successful in the past few season, something very unusual for Blue Devils football.
In theory he is supposed to come into the school and should righten the team in basically no time.
We will see, whether the execution of that plan will be successful.
They start against a FCS team, but play 2 ACC teams and 1 SEC team as non-conference games after that.
Honestly I expect 3 losses from the power5-games, leaving the team with just 1 win out of this.
With Navy, Tulsa and SMU they have a good chance to get some wins out of the West.
Navy will have to adjust to a new QB, Tulsa and SMU are mid-level to low level teams, so exactly the kind of teams you need to beat if you like to climb inside the division.
I think they will win 2 of those 3 games.
That leaves the division games, which are not that good, but with UCF and UConn at home, the team might win enough to get the 4th spot inside the conference.
Maybe by tie breaker.
UConn and East Carolina will likely battle it out, in direct compare and through the games against the same opponents.
My guess is, that East Carolina has a slightly better chance to win this direct compare in their favor.

Will the Cincinnati Bearcats come back?
The team did finish 7-6 in 2015, including a bowl loss (Tuberville has lost all bowls with Cincinnati so far), after two 9-4 seasons before that and a shared conference title in 2014.
So will they come back and play for the conference, again, or will they stay in mid field?
Tommy Tuberville is in his 4th season and normally that one is a crucial one, because that means it's his team now in total.
No old players from past coaches left on the roster, all recruited by him now.
For some coaches this did mean they made a rise, some made a dive regarding wins.
The Bearcats are also in the mix for the Big12 expansion, which will maybe influence the season a bit.
Non-conference games do start with a FCS game, and then it gets rougher.
Purdue is a Big10 team, played on the road, Miami (OH) from the MAC will be easy, but BYU, even at home, will be tough.
I do not see them winning all games, but 2 to 3 wins are still in the mix.
They play Houston, Memphis and Tulsa from the West and the two tough games (Houston and Memphis) are played at home.
If this team becomes good enough to win the conference, those two games will be the indication.
Honestly I have doubts they can win against Houston, but Memphis and Tulsa might be possible.
Having Temple on the road does hurt a bit, playing South Florida at home might compensate this.
Both teams are in the mix for the division title, so the Bearcats need to win those crucial games.
Overall I think they will suffer too many conference losses to finish on top of the division.
It might come down to a tied division title and tie breaker rules, which I expect other teams to win.
This will be close and they can win it all or fall to 3rd.
My pick is, they will fall to 3rd.

Is this the season of the South Florida Bulls?
The team did finish 8-5 last season, including a Bowl loss and Willie Taggart is in his 4th season now.
If all pieces do come together, this team could be special.
Last season did the team even beat later division champ Temple, but since they lost to Navy and Memphis, the Temple Owls had 1 win more after the last gameday.
This season this should not happen, the Bulls should be better.
To collect wins in general will the season start with a FCS team.
A strong MAC team at home should be a nice test, but no threat, the two ACC teams should be too strong, even if they won against Syracuse last season, the rematch is now on the road.
So 2 wins possible.
The teams from the Western Division are Navy, Memphis and SMU (same as last season, it seems the conference does schedule in 2 seasons a home game and an away games and keeps the 3 teams, then shifts to the next 3 teams and plays again home and away on 2 following seasons).
This season they might be able to win against Navy, but Memphis and SMU on the road will be tough.
Most crucial games inside the division will be Cincinnati and Temple.
Both are on the road this season.
Hence, it will be tough to win the division.
I think they can finish 2nd, battling the Bearcats for that spot.

Will the Temple Owls just come out and win this season?
In 2015 it was a dream come true (or almost) for the team.
The team did finish 10-4, including a conference final loss against Houston and a bowl loss against Toledo.
Still a very successful season for Temple.
Last time the team did win 10 games in a season? 1979!
Now Matt Rhule is in his 4th season and will try to have an even better team.
It will help to start the season at home against Army, playing a FCS team and then having the rematch against Penn State (they won last season at home), this time on the road.
Add a weak Charlotte (CUSA) team and you have an overview over the non-conference games.
I assume 3-1 here, since Penn State at home will be too much.
Playing Memphis on the road this season might become also tough, SMU and Tulane should be wins.
Crucial games inside the division are back-to-back-games against South Florida and Cincinnati, but both at home.
They can reach the conference final again.
In fact I pick them as 1st, even some do see them drop a bit.
That schedule is too good to let is pass.
If they reach the final, they will likely face a strong Houston team, again, which will likely be too much to win against, again.

Eastern Division

How long will it take to make the Tulane Green Wave a winning team?
I really picked them last season to get a bowl spot, but instead they finished 3-9 and the HC had to go.
Before I talk about the new HC, I just want to put Tulanes success in the past in perspective.
The overall record of the team is so far .449, they visited since the team was founded in 1893(!) 12 bowls and won 4 of those.
Last bowl season was 2013, their last season in the CUSA, which was a 7-6 season with a loss in that bowl.
Before that they went to a bowl in 2002 with an 8-5 season and a bowl win and before THAT a very unusual Tulane season (last season of Tommy Bowden as their HC, he went to Clemson to coach there for 10 seasons) with a 12-0 record including a conference title and a bowl win in 1998.
Yes, 2 of the 4 bowl wins are already spend and there is still 100 years left of history.
I think it's clear that this team has no real history as powerhouse or winning team.
Tulane was always a very academical oriented institution, which did lead to less success on the football field (similar to Duke and Stanford in the past).
So with their new HC they will face a quite strange situation.
If he wins, fast and a lot, he will very likely get offers, fast and probably also a lot of them, from schools who can pay more.
That happened with Tommy Bowden, when he went 11-0 in his 2nd season at Tulane and bolted to Clemson (The Bowl was managed by an interim coach).
As consequence would Tulane again have to search for a winning coach, which is not that easy, as history at Tulane did show.
On the other hand could the coach just win a few games or maybe even win almost no games.
That would result in another coaching search.
You see, as long as they don't find a coach WILLING to stay for several seasons, the chances to lift Tulane into a long-term winning team are slim.
Anyway, Willie Fritz was selected to coach that Tulane team for the next few seasons.
He came from Georgia Southern, where he did oversee the first 2 seasons in the FBS by that team and he won the conference in the first season, finished 3rd in the second.
The salary upgrade from Georgia Southern to Tulane was likely between 600.000$ and 800.000$, which is of cause in that wage area much money.
He inherited a team with no real strength, so first thing he will have to do is, motivate them.
They will aim for a few more wins than last season, for sure.
Chances are quite good to win 4 games, even when losing against a mid to low level ACC team will likely be the start.
After that they can harvest the first win against a FCS team.
Most interesting games from the non-conference games will be Louisiana-Lafayette at home and UMass on the road.
I think they will lose against the Ragin' Cajuns, but UMass might fall to them.
That would be 2 wins.
From the East they play UCF (on the road, what a pity), Temple and UConn (also on the road, damn).
Those 3 can become all losses, based on the not so optimal home and away locations.
That means they need would need 2 wins from inside the division to get those 4 wins.
Weakest teams will likely be Tulsa and SMU.
SMU is at home, so this is a chance, Tulsa is an away game.
Added up, I don't think they will win 4+ games, but it all depends on the team and their motivation under a new coach.
I see them 6th in the division.

Will the SMU Mustangs improve this season?
Chad Morris, former Clemson OC, came in last season and won 2 games with the team.
That's the 1 game more they won the season before when June Jones did quit and an interims coach had to manage the team for the remaining 10 games.
I think expectations are high that the Clemson man, since Clemsons was high last season (well, after Morris was gone, think about that ...), will win some more games.
My take on this is, that he likely will win some more, but not many.
They play a FCS team, a weak SBC team and two strong Big12 teams.
I expect them to win against the FCS and the SBC team, but of cause the Big12 games are out of reach.
That's for the non-conference games.
Would be 2 wins, same amount as last season.
Now add the East division games.
East Carolina, South Florida and Temple are probably too much to ask for. The weakest team, East Carolina, is played on the road.
So the additional wins have to be taken from inside the division.
I see Navy, Houston and Memphis as too strong, even if ALL of those are played at home.
ALL played at home does automatically mean, the other games are on the road.
So, will they be able to beat Tulsa and/or Tulane on the road?
I can see them winning against Tulane, not against Tulsa, mean I pick them 5th in the division.

Is there a golden Future for the Tulsa Golden Hurricane?
Success on FBS level is also quite new for Tulsa, but in the past they had some great seasons, prior the division-I split in 1978 and also after the split between FBS and FCS (formerly known as division I-A and division I-AA).
Tulsa stayed on FBS level, but they were not that successful anymore and when they joined the WAC in 1996 they had a hard time at that phase.
When they joined the CUSA in 2005 they had some success and won the conference twice, only to suffer a bit in recent years.
Philip Montgomery is now in his 2nd season and won 6 games last season, went to a bowl (lost) and will try to make Tulsa a winner again.
Can happen, the problem is, there are a lot of good teams in the division, so they might become better in terms of strength, but maybe not in the record.
They play their non-conference game all at the start, playing 2 mid-level MWC-teams, a college football playoff contender and a FCS team.
I think they can win 2 games here, maybe even 3.
The East will offer ECU, UCF and Cincinnati.
Those can become 2 wins as well, with Cincinnati, even at home, considered as a long shot, but possible.
Now they have to face the division rivals and there you have the SMU and Tulane as mid-level or low level teams both at home.
A great chance to win those as well, makes it 6 wins on my list.
They have the potential to exceed that.
I don't think they will challenge Memphis, Navy and Houston, so at the end I had to pick them 4th in the division.

Will there be a drop in performance of the Memphis Tigers?
The Tigers were quite close of winning the division until the November came and the team lost against Navy, Houston and Temple.
They lost also the Bowl game, but that was already under an interims coach, since Justin Fuente was selected to succeed Frank Beamer at Virginia Tech.
Memphis did s e l e c t assistant HC and OC of Arizona State in 2015 Mike Norvell.
He does get a quite hot team, and eventually he can build on that.
The only disturbing thing can be the talk around the Big12 expansion, where Memphis is heavily trying to get one spot in the Big12.
New coach and disturbance, good combination?
Eventually not really bad, since it would be a great progress for the team to become a BIG12 team.
Non-conference games do start with a FCS team, then Kansas, Bowling Green and Ole Miss.
The Tigers can finish here with 3 wins, if the team can play as last season.
If they need to adjust, I think Bowling Green could be tough, Kansas also.
From the East we have Temple, South Florida and Cincinnati, making this the toughest inter division schedule of all teams.
Lucky them, 2 of those are home games.
The rest is also tough, but most important is Navy on the road and Houston at home at season final.
I have the feeling that under this conditions we won't see a really competing Memphis team.
They will be strong, no doubt, but they will drop too many games to really have a chance for the division crown.
I pick them 3rd in the West.

Will the Navy Midshipmen adjust to life after Keenan Reynolds?
Lucky Navy, did they keep Ken Niumatalolo as HC, now in his 9th full season with the team.
He got a call from BYU after the 2015 to become the next BYU coach, but for whatever reasons he decided to stay with Navy.
So he is back and only the starting QB Reynolds is gone, a void which will be hard to fill.
They start the season against a FCS team, will of cause play Army and Air Force to keep the Commander-In-Chief-Trophy they won last season and will also play Notre Dame as rivals.
Beside the Irish-game I think they can finish with 3 wins, but that Air Force game is on the road and they might lose to the Falcons this season.
From the East they have UConn, East Carolina and South Florida, unfortunate for them South Florida as possible toughest game out of this on the road.
Good thing for them they play Houston and Memphis at home, so IF they can somehow keep the strength of last season, they might be able to upset 1 of them or both.
I think Memphis could possibly lose this season, adding one more win to the Navy record.
Adding this all up the Midshipmen will likely lose a few more games than last season, but will probably stay strong enough to finish 2nd in the division.

Will the Houston Cougars get into the playoffs?
It's very fascinating.
Last season came Tom Herman in, the former OC of then reigning national champion Ohio State and did win big with the Cougars.
He inherited an 8-5 team with a good roster and did win the conference and did win the Peach Bowl against Florida State finishing ranked at #8 and a 13-1 record.
Since then is the press hot on the question what the playoff committee had done if Houston wouldn't had lost to UConn during the season.
And since this is the past, the press is even hotter in the question, whether the Cougars would get ranked high enough to grab a playoff spot away from a power5-team, if they go undefeated THIS season.
There are many discussions on that topic, most of them stating that they would need a perfect season to even have a chance and that it's still a long shot then.
Here is my take on that.
A playoff spot is given by the playoff committee and they do this by sorting the teams based on record, schedule and obviously also a personal felt strength of team.
A perfect playing MAC team will not get considerations, as long as even 1- or 2-loss teams from a power5 conference are available, because the strength of schedule and the felt strength of the team of such a power5-team is for sure higher as long as not too many losses do happen.
Houston did everything right regarding felt strength of the team.
I think many do now believe the team is a strong one, regardless they did not play a single game so far.
In general they have this season a higher starting position for the rankings than a season before inside the heats of the committee members, regardless they might be worse than last season.
If now the power5-teams do also win and win their conferences in perfect shape, which is possible, Houston wouldn't stand a chance.
Assuming perfect champs from ACC, PAC, BIG12, BIG10 and SEC, the committee would have to s e l e c t at least 1 perfect team to be left out, if now Houston from the AAC would be perfect on top of that (and maybe even Notre Dame), the committee would have to think twice whether 2 (or even 3) power5 conference champs would be left out.
I say no way in that case.
But the reality is different.
Perfect seasons are rare and chances are high we will see 1-loss or even 2-loss teams in the playoffs.
THEN a perfect Houston team would have a chance.
Because that would mean the have beaten Oklahoma (Big12) at season opener, a FCS team, a SBC team and a strong Louisville (ACC) team as non-conference games. That would be juicy points.
I personally have doubts regarding Oklahoma, but Louisville might be beatable since it's played at home.
From the East they would have beaten Cincinnati on the road, UConn and UCF.
All possible or even very likely, with the Bearcats game the toughest one.
On top they would have beaten Navy and Memphis on the road and of cause would have won the rest of the games.
Can they do this?
Is that likely?
I think the team will lose at some point 2 games in total.
Still they will reach the conference final and will likely win it to get a New Year’s bowl spot.
They are my 1st team in the division and conference.

This could become the last or almost last season of the American conference with that combination of teams.
It's very likely that 1 up to 3 teams will leave the conference in the next 1 to 3 season to the Big12, the timeframe is a bit depended on the time when the Big12 made up their mind and when the schools do send in the divorce papers.
As far as I know they have to announce the departure 1 year up front (but I don't know the exact date they would need to send those papers in to play already for the Big12 in 2017 in theory), so it's quite likely they will leave for 2018 season.

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