Handing Out The Hardware: American Athletic Conference
What an inaugural season for the American Athletic Conference.
If anything, the AAC has proved that it deserved to be labeled a BCS conference after some of its wins. Here are the best offensive and defensive players and the coach of the year in the AAC.
Offensive Player of the Year: Louisville QB Teddy Bridgewater
Coming out of Northwestern High School in Miami, Teddy Bridgewater was the sixth-best dual-threat quarterback prospect in the nation, according to Rivals.com. But in his three years at Louisville, he only had 164 rushing yards and six touchdowns.
That’s all right though, because as fans and opponents soon learned, Bridgewater showed us his most dangerous weapon is his arm. And each year, he has gotten better and better. This season Bridgewater threw for nearly 4,000 yards and 31 touchdowns, while throwing only four picks.
He’s the motor behind the high-powered Cardinals offense that averaged more than 460 yards of offense per game (314 passing yards). Besides the UCF game this season, Bridgewater was able to make the big play when it mattered most.
And the bigger the stage, the better Bridgewater plays. In his last game as a Louisville Cardinals quarterback, he was 35-for-45 for 447 yards and three touchdowns.
There’s no doubt that Bridgewater is the best quarterback in the 2014 NFL draft class and he's worthy of the first overall pick in early May.
Defensive Player Of The Year: Connecticut Linebacker Yawin Smallwood
The Connecticut Huskies were horrendous this year. But even through thick and thin, Yawin Smallwood has played tremendous for the Huskies this season.
He led the team with 118 tackles on the year, averaging just under 10 tackles per game. Smallwood also had four sacks and one interception to add to his first-team All-AAC season. He posted double-digit tackles in six games this season.
Standing at 6-foot-4 and 235 pounds, Smallwood is the heart and soul of the Connecticut defense. In games that Huskies actually won, he stepped up to make the play when it mattered.
In the Temple win, Smallwood grabbed a pick with 4:20 remaining in the game. That set up the drive for the game-winning touchdown for Connecticut. In the Michigan loss at home, Smallwood stopped Devin Gardner on fourth-and-2, which keep the Huskies in the game, giving them a chance to win.
Smallwood is special player and it’s too bad Connecticut was terrible this year. But at least he’ll have a shot in the NFL and will be one of the top linebackers in this year’s draft.
Coach Of The Year: UCF's George O’Leary
Entering the 2013 campaign, UCF was picked to finish fourth in the American Athletic Conference. But by the time 2014 came rolling in, the Knights had gone 12-1 overall, 8-0 in conference play, and captured the Fiesta Bowl with an upset win over Baylor.
For a team the went 5-7 two years earlier, then improved to 10-4 last year, George O’Leary has proved to Central Florida fans that he’s taking the program to the next level. The BCS bowl win proves his plans are working.
There are two games that proved O’Leary is one of the best coaches in the game. In late September, UCF trailed South Carolina, 28-10, with about 10 minutes to play. Even though it looked like the game was over, O’Leary refused to let his players quit as they rallied to make the score 28-25. A failed onside kicked by the Knights ended the game.
The confidence and momentum built from the South Carolina loss helped the Knights beat Louisville in mid-October. Again, UCF found themselves trailing 28-7 in the third quarter. But O’Leary got his team back in the game and ultimately won the game with a go-ahead touchdown in the final minute.
These two tough games, well-coached by O’Leary, helped UCF win the AAC and eventually the Fiesta Bowl. Now with Louisville leaving the AAC, there’s no doubt that O’Leary can lead the Knights to another conference title next season.