College Football Preview: All Eyes on Bridgewater, Louisville in Inaugural AAC

Teams: Cincinnati, Connecticut, Houston, Louisville, Memphis, Rutgers, SMU, Temple, UCF, and USF


Best Team: Louisville


Best Coach: Charlie Strong (Louisville)


Top Players: QB Teddy Bridgewater (Louisville), WR DeVante Parker (Louisville), WR Brandon Coleman (Rutgers), DE Ryne Giddins (USF), DE Aaron Lynch (USF), LB Yawin Smallwood (Connecticut), LB Derrick Mathews (Houston), LB Greg Blair (Cincinnati), S Calvin Pryor (Louisville), S Hakeem Smith (Louisville)


Top Storyline: Louisville pursues national title led by Heisman hopeful Bridgewater.


The reorganized Big East, now known as The American Athletic Conference, will enjoy its last year as a power conference in 2013. However, it is unlikely that the lofty status will be needed as Louisville returns one of the nation’s premier teams.


After a shocking upset victory over Florida in the Sugar Bowl, there is perhaps no hotter team in the country than the Louisville Cardinals, who are poised to roll through conference play and perhaps make a run for the national title.


Following an offseason where head coach Charlie Strong turned down offers from bigger schools, he returns for his fourth year with 16 starters back in the fold. The best and most well known of those returners is junior quarterback Teddy Bridgewater who threw for 3718 yards last season.


Bridgewater is extremely poised, has a great arm, and makes good decisions. He is among the frontrunners for the Heisman, and, despite only six starters on offense returning, he should have plenty of help. Senior running back Senorise Perry (705 yards and 11 touchdowns) returns after an injury cut his season short in 2012. Junior bruiser Dominque Brown also returns after sitting out last season due to injury, and, perhaps the best back of all, is transfer running back Michael Dyer, the former BCS National Championship Game MVP. Dyer transferred to Louisville after sitting out a year following dismissals from Auburn and Arkansas State. The talented back will get a chance to resurrect his career with the Cardinals.


Outside of the backfield, junior wide receiver DeVante Parker (744 yards and 10 touchdowns) is a lethal weapon and a big play waiting to happen. Second leading receiver Damian Copeland also returns, and junior tight end Gerald Christian will get his chance to shine after transferring from Florida. Christian could end the season as one of the nation’s best, and I would also keep an eye on true freshman receiver James Quick.


Defensively, the Cardinals should also have a stellar unit, returning all but one starter from last season’s team. Safeties Hakeem Smith and Calvin Pryor are considered some of the nation’s best and should be dominant in 2013.


Prediction: Some may dismiss the Cardinals due to their conference and easy schedule, but this is a legitimate title team. The offense of Louisville returns several key players, but the additions of Dyer and Christian are also significant. Moreover, Charlie Strong, a defensive guru, has all the pieces needed for a shutdown defense. The Bridgewater-led Cardinals are strong on their own, and a schedule in which the “tough games” are against Ohio, at Kentucky, versus UCF, at USF, and at Cincinnati could result in a berth in the title game.


Outside of Louisville, The American lacks a real powerhouse team. Nevertheless, the conference features a number of teams that should be very competitive in 2013. The best of that bunch is likely George O’Leary’s UCF Knights. Junior quarterback Blake Bortles (3059 yards) returns as does his top four receivers which should give the Knights one of the league’s premier passing attacks. In the running game, Latavius Murray is now with the Oakland Raiders, but former Miami Hurrican Storm Johnson (507 yards) is more than talented enough to fill the void. On the other side of the ball, the Knights return only five starters from last season with junior safety Clayton Geathers (117 tackles) the leading returner.


Prediction: UCF went 10-4 last season, but three likely losses jump out on their 2013 schedule. They play at Penn State, against South Carolina, and at Louisville. While each of those are projected losses, a surprise win against Louisville could put them in the driver’s seat to run the table in The American as they avoid Cincinnati altogether. Conversely, a loss in each of those games as well as some surprise defeats at the hands of teams like Connecticut, Houston, Rutgers, USF, and SMU could cause a quick slide. Eight wins seems about right for this team.


The first three coaches on this list (Strong, O’Leary, and now Tommy Tuberville) show how much stronger the AAC is than the previous conferences we have covered. Tuberville, who has had success at Texas Tech, Auburn, and Ole Miss, takes over a successful program and has 13 starters returning from a 10-3 season in 2012. However, Tuberville begins his tenure with the Cincinnati Bearcats with some serious decisions to make, most notably at quarterback where seniors Brendon Kay and Munchie Legaux are still competing. Whoever wins the job will be surrounded by little experience at the skill position, but will have all five linemen return from 2012 with junior Eric Lefield, who was named First Team Big East least season, leading the way. On defense, many of the Bearcats top players from a year ago are gone, but senior linebacker Greg Blair (138 tackles, 2.5 sacks. 6.5 TFLs, and 2 interceptions) is one of the nation’s best.


Prediction: Cincinnati finished 10-3 last season, and, although they are not quite as talented as a year ago, they could finish with a similar record in 2013. The Bearcats should be favored in their early games, but face a tough stretch at the end of the season against SMU, at Rutgers, at Houston, and against Louisville. Nine wins is a reasonable goal for this team, although they may not be quite as good as such a record would indicate.


With ten offensive starters returning, the Houston Cougars should be able to score a lot of points in 2013. Junior quarterback David Piland (2924 passing yards) and senior running back Charles Sims (851 rushing yards, 373 receiving yards, and 14 total touchdowns) form a strong punch and each of the top six receivers return for the Cougars who also return four others who had more than 100 yards receiving. Second year coach Tony Levine should have plenty of weapons to go to offensively, but it is a little rougher on the other side of the ball with first round draft pick D.J. Hayden and five other 2012 starters gone. Nevertheless, sophomore safety Trevon Stewart (126 tackles, 1 sack, 2.5 TFLs, and 1 interception) and junior linebacker Derrick Mathews (126 tackles, 6 sacks, and 11 TFLs) are some of the best in the conference.


Prediction: The Cougars were 5-7 last year, and they are a real wild card in 2013. Their offensive firepower should give them an opportunity in just about any game, but most games are toss ups for the team. Contests against Southern, at Temple, at UTSA, and against Memphis should be victories. Those are all within the first five games. Rice, BYU, at Rutgers, USF, Cincinnati, and SMU are real coin flips. They should be underdogs at UCF and at Louisville, but they could pull a surprise. I will peg this team in the 7-5 or 8-4 range, but there are few teams tougher to project.


Like the Cougars, the Connecticut Huskies are coming off a 5-7 season. Unlike their more southern conference rival, however, the Huskies will need to see improvement on the offensive side of the ball if they hope to be competitive. After a rough year on the scoreboard in 2012, the Huskies return junior quarterback Chandler Whitmer (2664 yards) who will have to be more mistake free this season after throwing for far more interceptions (16) than touchdowns (9) last year. Junior running back Lyle McCombs (860 yards), on the other hand, will look to revert to his 2011 self when he ran for more than 1100 yards for the Huskies. With 4 of 5 offensive linemen returning, he should be poised to do just that. Defensively, the Huskies lose standout Sio Moore to the NFL but return standout junior linebacker Yawin Smallwood. The tenacious defender recorded 120 tackles, 4 sacks, and 11 TFLs last season leading a strong Huskies defense. Junior cornerback Byron Jones is a standout in the defensive backfield as well.


Prediction: No team can thrive with a quarterback that turns the ball over and does not make plays. If Whitmer steps up his game, the Huskies could be en route to a 7-5 type season. If he does not, winnable games like at Buffalo, against USF, at SMU, and against Rutgers could turn into losses.


Much like their former Big East counterpart, Rutgers will be looking for their junior quarterback to take his game to the next level although Gary Nova is starting from a much better vantage point. Nova threw for 2695 yards last season and had a much better touchdown to interception ratio (22-16), plus he has 6’6” wide receiver Brandon Coleman (716 yards and 10 touchdowns) to throw the ball up to. With four or five offensive linemen returning, I also expect a huge year from running back Savon Huggins who has yet to live up to his promise after being one of the nation’s best out of high school. The defense will take a hit after losing Khaseem Greene and Logan Ryan to the NFL, but they do return a number of players who make plays in their opponent’s backfield which always bolsters an inexperienced unit (only four starters return). Among that group of players are twin brothers, DE Jamil Merrell (40 tackles, 5.5 sacks, and 5 TFLs) and LB Jamal Merrell (83 tackles, 1 sack, and 7.5 TFLs).


Prediction: The Scarlet Knights face a tough schedule that includes away games against Fresno State, SMU, Louisville, UCF, and Connecticut. Home games against Arkansas, Houston, Cincinnati, and USF cannot be taken lightly either. Given their schedule a 6-6 type season is a solid year for Rutgers. Look for the Scarlet Knights to be better in 2014.


June Jones loves to score a lot of points, and he will look for returning quarterback Garrett Gilbert (2932 passing yards) to build on the improvement he showed toward the end of last season in order for SMU to be competitive. The return of receivers Jeremy Johnson, Der’Rick Thompson, and Keenan Holman should help in that quest. Defensively, the Mustangs were inconsistent last year and lost Margus Hunt to the NFL. Senior cornerback Kenneth Acker (50 tackles, 2 TFLs, 12 PBUs, and 3 interceptions) is the top returner.


Prediction: After years of being a doormat following the return to football after the death penalty, SMU has worked their way back to respectability, going 7-6 last season. Building on that success in the AAC will prove a challenge. At this point, this looks like a four or five win team at best.


Willie Taggart takes over for the USF Bulls after the program has struggled in recent years. The young coach has a tall task on his hands after a 3-9 season in 2012, but has two of the nation’s best at the defensive end in Notre Dame transfer sophomore Aaron Lynch and senior Ryne Giddins. The two might be the best edge rushing tandem in the nation, and senior linebacker DeDe Lattimore (76 tackles, 3.5 sacks, and 4 TFLs) will be sure to help put pressure on the quarterback. On offense, sophomore quarterback Matt Floyd gas won the starting job but had a rough year in 2012. Receiver Andre Davis (534 yards and 6 touchdowns) is the best returner.


Prediction: Taggart was one of the hottest young coaches last season until his Western Kentucky team stumbled late in the season. Instead of landing an SEC gig, Taggart is on a bit of a reclamation project as this team, with the way the schedule lines up, will be fortunate to even marginally improve on their 3-9 record in 2012. With Lynch and Giddins, however, quarterbacks will not want to face the Bulls.


Young offensive guru Justin Fuente was a great hire for the Memphis program, but it will take time to get the Tigers back to being competitive. Both sides of the ball return 8 starters apiece, but few stood out. The best returner is junior defensive end Martin Ifedi who accumulated 46 tackles, 7.5 sacks, and 3.5 TFLs in 2012.


Prediction: Fuente will have the Tigers playing better in 2013, but entrance into the AAC will not make life easier. However, this team may be able to match last season’s four win total against stiffer competition.


Like Memphis and, to a lesser degree, USF, it is tough to imagine Temple making it into even the middle of the pack in the AAC. The top returners for new coach Matt Rhule are sophomore linebackers Tyler Matakevich (101 tackles, 3 TFLs) and Nate Smith (75 tackles, 3.5 sacks, and 3 TFLs). The two should give the Owls a strong defense which will be needed given the lack of returning offensive production.

 

Prediction: The bottom of the AAC (Memphis, Temple, and, to some degree, USF) are just not going to be competitive this year. However, the Owls stand alone in the fact that there is little conceivable path to relevance within The American. Nevetheless, games against Fordham, at Idaho, and against Army could result in wins making for a bearable 2013.


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