Let’s take a closer look at my power rankings for the American Athletic Conference, which will look to build off the momentum created by the UCF Knights winning the Fiesta Bowl last season, while some newcomers enter the fold.
1. UCF Knights
The Knights put this conference on the map with a 52-42 victory over the Baylor Bears in the 2014 Tostitos Fiesta Bowl, which helped in signing a solid recruiting class of 17 players. In saying goodbye to NFL draftee Blake Bortles at quarterback, UCF’s success will rely on an experienced defense that returns nine starters.
2. Cincinnati Bearcats
Tommy Tubberville’s second year with the program could be a big one, with 16 starters returning, and former Notre Dame star recruit Gunner Kiel expected to line up under center when the season kicks off on Sept. 12. Keep an eye on multi-purpose back Ralph D. Abernathy IV, as he led the program with 1,046 all-purpose yards in 2013.
3. East Carolina Pirates
Signal-caller Shane Carden will be one of the more exciting players to watch in the AAC, as he was Conference USA’s MVP last season—completing 70.5 percent of his passes for 4,139 yards. The wide receiver position is loaded, with senior Justin Hardy coming off a year that saw him finish with 114 grabs for 1,284 yards.
4. Houston Cougars
College football experts will talk a lot about sophomore quarterback John O’Korn entering the season, but the program’s season will depend heavily on the other side of the football. The Cougars led the nation by creating 43 turnovers last year—a number that’ll be hard to repeat.
5. SMU Mustangs
Seventh-year head coach June Jones must be respected in the power rankings, but he’ll need to be patient with a new quarterback and running back during non-conference play, while also trying to replace two 1,000-yard receivers. Sophomore signal-caller Neal Burcham has made only two starts at the collegiate level, while fifth-year senior Kevin Pope will man the backfield after starting his career as a linebacker.
6. Tulane Green Wave
With a new on-campus stadium, the Green Wave are definitely worth a look as a home underdog this season. Tulane returns six starters from a unit that finished 22nd nationally in total defense and 17th against the run.
7. Tulsa Golden Hurricane
A defense with 10 returning starters should keep this squad competitive in the early going, especially since it doesn’t play Cincinnati this season. Sophomore quarterback Dane Evans must improve on his numbers from a season ago—completed just 84 of 195 passes attempts with four touchdowns and 10 interceptions.
8. UConn Huskies
The Huskies have compiled a disappointing 13-23 record since 2011, which is why the athletic program has decided to move in another direction in hiring former Notre Dame defensive coordinator Bob Diaco. He’ll worth with five returning starters on that side of the ball, while the offense will rely heavily senior tailback Lyle McCombs, who is second all-time in carries since arriving in Storrs.
9. South Florida Bulls
It was a disastrous debut season for Willie Taggert in the Sunshine State, with the offense averaging just 255.5 yards per game. Starting four different quarterbacks is never a good thing, which is why the fan base is hoping that sophomore Mike White can separate himself from the pack, after playing in six games.
10. Memphis Tigers
Nine offensive starters return to campus, but don’t be blinded by that number, as the group scored more than 21 points just three times in 2013. A lot of the Tigers’ games this season will be decided in the fourth quarter, which makes cornerback Bobby McClain a player to watch, as he led the country in interceptions per game last year.
11. Temple Owls
Quarterback P.J. Walker started the last seven games a year ago—ultimately throwing for 20 touchdowns and just eight interceptions. Temple’s offense is capable under offensive coordinator Marcus Satterfield, but the defense must take a big step forward after ranking 108th in 2013.
Which other college football teams are worth betting on in 2014?