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Observations, Opinion & Occasional Silliness by Richard L Gale
2013 American Athletic Conference Preview
Our NCAA football conference previews begin, logically enough, with the American.
The American Athletic Conference deserves scaffolding and a sign bearing the legend 'Under Construction'. After the football schools highjacked the conference and began a wild expansion plan that promised a Big East reaching as far West as Boise State, Idaho, the founding basketball colleges finally revolted, asked for a quickie-divorce and took the conference's moniker away with them. The football schools regrouped, but Boise State never showed and Louisville and Rutgers are headed elsewhere next season. The teams that remain (to be joined by East Carolina, Tulane and Tulsa next season) are hardly stellar and, like the AAC, are very much works in progress, leaving Louisville and Cincinnati to battle for honors.
Before every supernova's dispersal as a corona of spent gas, there is, of course that last bright explosion. Just before the football remnants of the old Big East drift into irrelevance, Louisville may supply that last big bang. Amongst unimpressive competition which make up much of its schedule, and with a non-conference schedule - Ohio, Eastern Kentucky, Kentucky, FIU - that is barely a shade above powder-puff, Louisville should roll to an 11-0 start and make some national noise. Alongside that, and intricately woven into that, will be the Heisman campaign of Teddy Bridgewater, last seen dispatching the vaunted SEC defense of Florida in the Sugar Bowl, 33-23. Last year, Bridgewater threw for over 3700 yards, with 27 touchdown passes to only 8 interceptions, and he could put up some flashy numbers along the way this time.
Of course, one man does not make for an unbeaten season. Bridgewater has not just the right mix of deep and drive-making receivers to light up, but a backfield that combines Senorise Perry (11 TDs in 2012) with Dominique Brown (injured in 2012, but with 533 yards in 2011). If Bridgewater, Perry and Brown can all avoid the injury bug, Louisville's backfield will exploit a returned right side of the line. The defense, which wasn't special against the run or pass last year, may cause less shootouts this time around as nine starters return including the whole defensive line, so even if games are tight late, opposing offenses are going to have difficulty killing the clock and preventing Bridgewater's late heroics. The kicking game is dependable, and the return game may be improved by the arrival of 5-star local kid James Quick - the wide receiver will also be another tool in Bridgewater's arsenal. Had Boise State joined the conference, Louisville might have had to earn their way through the season, with the computer rankings all the happier for that. As it is, the lone serious threat is...
The Bearcats face the Cardinals for a December 5 date in Cincinnati that should be a conference title game in all but name. Opening against Purdue and at Illinois, they have less chance of running the table, but they have the chance to play spoilers come season's end. It's hard to pin a number on returning starters on the defensive side as so many players saw significant action last season. The defensive line will be ironclad in seniors, and after sitting out a year Florida State transfer Jeff Luc could complete an intimidating LB corps that already has senior middle man Greg Blair to guide them. The DBs aren't as good as the front seven, but the defense as a whole will be a cut above the AAC's standard.
At quarterback, Munchie Legeaux made way for scramble-capable fellow 2013 senior Brendon Kay last season, and that's the way things will be entering the season, so depth is no issue. The Bearcats return their entire starting offensive line, with the only significant offensive loss being George Winn, whose replacement is unclear. Watch for freshman tight end Travis Johnson. With former Auburn and Texas Tech coach Tommy Tuberville taking over for Butch Jones, the Bearcats will continue to punch above their weight. Cincinnati looks like the heir apparent in the American Athletic Conference, but not until Louisville gets out of the way. However the early part of the Bearcats' season goes, Cincy will have that December 5 date circled for making a statement about the future of the division.
It bodes well for next year's Dublin game against Penn State that Blake Bortles and JJ Worton are juniors. Bortles' reputation is breaking out after a 25 TD performance last year (with only 7 picks), and he has a stable of receivers in Breshad (son of Brett) Perriman, Worton and Jeff Godfrey that will put up aggressive numbers. RB Storm Johnson put up over 500 yards as a part-timer last season. The defense loses a bunch of people, but the next wave is talented, and game-experienced. Their best year may be next year, but an improved defensive line, some stop-gap leadership from MLB Terrance Plummer and a steep learning curve in a secondary that will nickel and dime with freshman should be enough to let the offense build leads. UCF went 10-4 last year, and it will be hard to match that, but George O'Leary's team must accounted for on October 18 when they visit Louisville.
When quarterback Gary Nova was good (5 TDs vs Arkansas) he was real good. 6'6" WR Brandon Coleman had 700 yards 10 TDs last season off 43 catches, and should be the AAC's 'Megatron' again this year. Although Jawan Jamison left for the NFL, Savon Huggins could put up even better numbers behind most of last year's line. Replacing linebacker Khaseem Green (a steal of a selection in round 4 by the Chicago Bears) on the defensive side is a bigger ask, though the Merrell twins, Jamil and Jamal will be providing the pressure again. The secondary will just have to hang in there best it can. Whether this is a down year, with a slip below .500, or another season contending for a conference title will depend on that secondary and on that offense being consistently productive (ie way better than 104th, which got the last coordinator fired).
Even if you don't follow UConn's personnel, the names Blidi-Wreh Wilson and Sio Moore should ring some NFL Draft bells and hint at the personnel the defense has to replace (not forgetting coordinator Don Brown, now DC at Boston College). Cornerback Byron Jones and DT Shamar Stephen, safety Ty-Meer Brown are examples of returning talent, but the defense won't be where it was last year. The offense could ride running back Lyle McCombs, who posted 860 yards last year, but over 1100 the year before. Chandler Whitmer will continue in the role of starting quarterback, alongside most of the line and the two leading receivers, but may need to produce more scores and less picks. If the trajectory falls below a 6-6 season, redshirt freshman Casey Cochran will be warming up.
Garrett Gilbert was expected to have a glittering career at Texas. Injury forced him onto the field in the January 2010 National Championship Game and, well, he stank. Getting the starting nod for the 2010 season, he won just five games, and early in 2011 he lost the starting role, transferring to SMU. However, thrown into June Jones' run-and-shoot scheme, Gilbert struggled again. One last chance to prove himself then, and if the final few games of the season were a measure of how this year may go, Gilbert may finally make his case. Another former Longhorn, Traylon Shead becomes their lead running back, and the left tackle and center return. With continuity at corner and amongst the linebackers, last year's 7-6 season may be written off as growing pains. The quest for another positive record won't start easily, however, with Texas Tech, Texas A&M and TCU all waiting to put the Mustangs in the in-state shade. They may have to beat UCF in the season finale to secure a bowl.
The challenge for Houston is to put a different product on the field this year than they did last year, because although most the line, near-3000 yard QB David Piland, and 11-score rusher Charles Sims return (and their 32 points per game average flatters the individual stats), the defense simply couldn't keep up. They lost 49-56 to Lousiana Tech, 42-72 to SMU, 41-44 to Marshall. That D is a do-over this year, with many starters gone, a new coordinator in David Gibbs, and barely a senior on the field, though junior middle linebacker Derrick Matthews is an important holdover. Still getting beyond last year's 5-7 record will be difficult. The record could be positive at mid-season, but December's slate - at UCF, at Louisville, Cincinnati and SMU - could be brutal.
The Bulls won three games last year - over Chattanooga, UConn and by one point over Nevada, but on the positive side three mid-season losses were by a combined 7 points. But it's hard to expect improvement after the graduation of quarterback BJ Daniels (now a 49er). RB Marcus Shaw isn't somebody to pin hopes on - he's too snakebit for that - and he's one of few returnees. The most immediate improvement, enough to keep them off the floor of the American, should be on defense where new coordinator Chuck Bresnehan won't put up with the bend-and-break efforts or turnover-free performances of last year. But can he get a senior-heavy roster to buy into a new mindset and produce?
It's hard to fault the Tigers' defense. It's rugged, tackle-hungry, got to the quarterback plenty last season, and has some size that belongs in a bigger conference. It was the best in C-USA last year, and most of the same personnel is back. If the AAC was all about the defense, Memphis would go bowling, but their offense was horrible in the middle of the schedule last season. Late in the season, the running game began to state its case, however, and passing game turned the corner, with senior Jacob Karam stepping in for 14 scores and 2 picks. He'll bring momentum to an intriguing quarterback competition that also includes 6'6" freshman Paxton Lynch and fleet-footed Eric Matthews. If Memphis may not crack .500 this year, but there could be flashes of the next generation of offense. 2014 could be real good.
Considering their four wins last year included one over Villanova, an overtime win against UConn, and a big win over Army that looked like an aberration amongst some late season blow-out losses, opening the season against Notre Dame could be demoralizing start to the season. The offense will be very different to last year's with QB Chris Coyer demoted, and former offensive coordinator Matt Rhule back in town as head coach. The right side of the line and the backfield will be entirely changed. Despite a linebacking corps that returns intact, there's a clutch of good sophomores on the defense. Overall, the scene is set for year one of a multi-year plan.