The American Athletic Conference compiled a pretty impressive showing in the 2015 College Football season. The conference boasted 8 teams that would go on to play in bowl games. These accolades kept the conference on the map in the eyes of perspective opponents in 2015 and will feature similar respect in 2016. The top contenders have lost some of their key playmakers to the NFL draft, but, in most cases, their odds of success aren’t decreasing. Let’s take a deeper look into some of the headlines and teams to watch out for in the 2016 season.
Will Anyone Stop Houston?
Houston is coming off one of their most memorable seasons in the history of the program. The Cougars compiled a record of 13-1 last season and a victory over Florida State in the Peach Bowl to cap their remarkable efforts. This season they feature a rather tough schedule, but will be a bear to tackle come conference game time. They begin their season taking a short trip over to NRG Stadium to take on the always dangerous Oklahoma Sooners. This game will test the team early and will mark what we can expect from this team throughout the 2016 season. Winning this game will confirm their strength and losing it will put a chip on their shoulders that will be hard to break down. Their conference schedule remains rather difficult as Houston will travel to play at Navy, Cincinnati and Memphis, with each team posing a potential threat to another near-perfect season. Greg Ward Jr. returns at quarterback and will look to be in top form barring any injuries. Will their leader rearing to go and a tough schedule on the forefront, Houston will have to be mistake free in order to repeat a performance like that of 2015’s campaign. SBNation’s Bill Connelly called them lucky last year, and doesn’t think they are a clear cut favorite.
USF and Temple: Battling for the East?
The Eastern portion of the AAC conference looks to remain solidified as far as the two top contenders are concerned. Temple finished last season 7-1 in conference play while USF finished 6-2 in conference play. Temple loses out on some key players on both sides of the ball to the draft. USF loses some key lineman and offensive protection for quarterback Quinton Flowers. They do get to finish the season against UCF and should be favored heavily. Temple retains some of its offensive threats in quarterback P.J. Walker and running back Jahad Thomas. The Bulls schedule will provide to be a bit more difficult then the Owls as their key road games are against the top talents in the AAC conference. Cincinnati is coming off a rather lackluster season, but are poised for a comeback in 2016. Quarterback Gunner Kiel can be a nightmare if he gets his act together, which could be a scary concept for any team taking on the Bearcats this season. The East remains in the balance as these three teams will provide to be headaches and will provide some exciting matchups during this season.
What about Navy? Memphis? Tulsa? UConn?
As far as the top contenders are concerned, the rest of the division opponents each are put in rather interesting situations. Most of these lower-tier teams are avoiding the conversation due to key loses or from having no significant gains. Much of the same leaves these teams with a question mark following their name. Can Navy bounce back after the loss of field general Keenan Reynolds? Does Tulsa’s rather manageable schedule provide them with the tools they need to reach success in 2016? They are one of Central Florida’s top rivals so I hope not! Does UConn’s defense retain the title of the top in the conference? Will Memphis break out of their divisional slump? All of these questions beg for answers and it will be interesting to see just how these teams respond to their critics. Two of the potential standouts from the teams mentioned here are UConn and Tulsa. Both teams retained much of their core of players on both sides of the ball and if they can improve upon their mishaps, they could be contenders for the title this year.
When all is said and done we know UCF won’t contend unless one of their best players comes back and suits up. I expect Houston to take the Western portion of the conference with Memphis, Tulsa and Navy following in that order respectively. In the East I think we see a surprise from Cincinnati as they top the East followed by USF, UConn and Temple in that order. It will be interesting to see how the conference plays out and I think we’ll notice this positioning rather early in the season.