Divide And Conquer: The AAC Split
By Matt Seidel
Dividing the American Athletic Conference was a necessary move with a trio of Conference USA defectors making their way over and Navy’s conference debut coming in 2015. The conference will be split into East and West divisions starting next year with the two division winners squaring off in the higher ranked team’s house to potentially fight for an at-large playoff berth.
While the conference divisions won’t take shape for another year, the breakdown has been published; and it begs the question:
Which division is stronger?
The Case For The East
Featuring the four Big East holdovers (Cincinnati, Connecticut, South Florida and Temple), the defending conference champion (UCF), one of the nation’s best offenses (East Carolina), the East is stacked. Talented young coaches are prevalent in the East and each school should be competitive in 2014.
Recent triumphs have been sparse for Connecticut and South Florida as the two combined to win just five games in 2013, but the programs have experienced success. USF appeared in six straight bowl games from 2005-2010 and Randy Edsall’s final season in Storrs was capped by a Fiesta Bowl appearance in 2010. Willie Taggart has started repairing Skip Holtz’s damage on the recruiting trail by landing the conference’s top class. Bob Diaco was one of the nation’s best defensive coordinators at Notre Dame and looks to steer the Huskies back on course in his rookie year as head coach.
Temple’s football woes were so egregious in its first Big East run that the school was banished from the conference following the 2004 season. However, the Owls turned it around in the MAC and were brought back in the Big East’s final season in 2012. Led by breakout star candidate PJ Walker, head coach Matt Rhule has one young piece to build around.
East Carolina clearly has the best offense in the AAC and Central Florida’s defense is the conference’s gold standard. Two teams returning top units should provide fits for opponents assuming that competency is reached on the other side of the ball. ECU can and will win shootouts with just about anyone while UCF should lock up offenses and allow its offense to score just enough to secure victory.
Cincinnati has the conference’s most successful head coach in Tommy Tuberville and was the most balanced team in 2013, averaging 32.1 points per game (48th in the nation) and allowing just 21 per game (14th). While a formal announcement has yet to be made, Gunner Kiel is expected to be the starting quarterback for the Bearcats. If his talent matches the hype, the Bearcats could be the team to beat.
The Case For The West
The West will be represented by two schools in Texas (Houston and SMU), one in New Orleans (Tulane), Oklahoma’s third best college football team (Tulsa), a school that’s barely in its home state (Memphis) and Navy because Annapolis apparently moved and is no longer on the East Coast.
SMU has a Run & Shoot pioneer in June Jones leading the squad, but he has not established the Mustangs as a perennial conference title threat as he did in Hawaii. Following a one-win debut in Dallas, the Mustangs have fluctuated between five and eight wins over the last five years under Jones. The Mustangs have put up flashy numbers during Jones’ tenure, but those numbers haven't translated into ten-win seasons.
Tulane and Tulsa are in the American for their first season in 2014 as part of the Conference USA exodus. Tulane has a history of producing highly-picked quarterbacks who quickly burn out of the NFL (Shaun King, JP Losman, Patrick Ramsay). The Green Wave has a solid defense, but faces uncertainty on the other side of the ball as there are question marks at every position. Tulsa has four ten-win seasons in the past seven years, but won only three games in 2013 and figures to struggle once again as its lone playmaker (Trey Watts) is now in the NFL.
Memphis has not finished above .500 since 2007 and has three ten-loss seasons in that time. Besides running back Brandon Hayes, the offense has no play-making ability. The defense finished a respectable 44th in points allowed per game in 2013 (24.6), but that number was bolstered by allowing a combined 23 points to Arkansas State, University of Tennessee-Martin and USF.
Navy is the head scratcher in the West. Joining the AAC hinders its scheduling ability as dates with Air Force, Army and Notre Dame are set in stone. The Midshipmen are one of the nation’s most prolific rushing attack, averaging an absurd 325.4 yards per game on the ground in 2013. Under head coach Ken Niumatalolo’s pass averse offensive scheme, Navy has reached the postseason five times in six years.
Houston is the division’s best team. With a young gunslinger behind center, a dynamic backfield that should be in place in 2015 and one of the nation’s best wide receivers, the Cougars are set for the coming years. John O’Korn threw 28 touchdowns as a freshman and head coach Tony Levine has continued the Houston tradition of throwing as often as possible. With David Gibbs coaching up the defense, the sky is the limit for the Cougars.
The Better Division
By the start of next year, Houston might be the team in the conference, but the East is far deeper than the West. With Cincinnati, UCF and East Carolina all vying for the conference throne in 2014 and Connecticut and South Florida laying down solid foundations for rebuilding, the East is the clear winner. Tulane has just two bowl appearances since 2000. Memphis has not had back-to-back .500 seasons since DeAngelo Williams was in the backfield.
The conference might have been divided along geographical lines, but the East is a battle ground while the West will be Houston’s to lose.