College football offseason preview: American Athletic Conference, Part I

Clayton Tune (3) has two big targets in Marquez Stevenson (5) and Keith Corbin (not pictured). But will it be enough to get Dana Holgorsen and the Cougars back above .500? Ken Murray/Icon Sportswire

If we remove UConn from the equation, the AAC would have graded out better than the ACC last year in terms of average SP+ rating. This conference was as deep as it's ever been, boasting two SP+ top-20 teams (UCF and Memphis) and five more ranked 52nd or better. The ACC? One team higher than 30th and only six at 52nd or better.

UConn is now gone, and the AAC is down to 11 teams. Every single one of them has semi-realistic bowl aspirations in 2020, and as you can see below, a logjam in the standings could be immense. We're looking at the bottom six projected teams today, and all six are projected to go 3-5 in AAC play on average. No 0-8 or 1-7 records. Five of these bottom six teams return their respective starting quarterbacks too. There are still a few projected standouts, as we'll discuss next week, but behold, this might be the best bottom half of a conference the Group of 5 has produced.

Jump to: East Carolina | Tulsa | USF
Tulane | Temple| Houston

East Carolina

Head coach: Mike Houston (4-8, second year)
2019: 4-8 (1-7 in AAC), 116th in SP+
2020 projection: 5-7 (3-5), 97th
Five best returning players: QB Holton Ahlers, WR CJ Johnson, CB Ja'Quan McMillian, WR Tyler Snead, DE Chance Purvis

For two weeks in November, we saw proof of concept for Mike Houston's East Carolina.

Against Cincinnati and SMU, teams that finished a combined 21-6, the offense was terrifying. Quarterback Holton Ahlers, one of the most well-touted recruits in school history, completed 64 passes for 1,033 yards, 10 touchdowns and just one interception. He took whatever the defense gave him and produced explosions: CJ Johnson caught 12 passes for 283 yards against Cincinnati, and when he missed the SMU game with injury, Tyler Snead caught 19 balls for 240 against the Mustangs. Wideouts Blake Proehl, Jsi Hatfield and Audie Omotosho combined for 397 yards in the two games, as well. ECU produced prolific yardage (1,282) and point totals (94).

Granted, the defense also gave up 1,123 yards, Ahlers' one interception was a game-turning pick six, and ECU managed to lose both games. But if you watched those two contests and nothing else, you would have thought the Pirates were a bowl-level team with one of the best offenses in the country.

The rest of the season, not so much. The Pirates beat two FCS opponents and survived ODU (125th in SP+) and UConn (126th) by a combined 10 points. They finished 93rd in offensive SP+ and 120th on defense.

Ahlers returns in 2020, as should all the wide receivers mentioned above. Everybody but Omotosho was either a freshman or a sophomore, as were the top three running backs, three of the top four linebackers and half the secondary. Houston went with a Year 1 youth movement, which isn't a surprise for a team that had won nine games in three years.

Ahlers could threaten 4,000 passing yards this year; the goal for coordinator Donnie Kirkpatrick will be to coax more out of a destitute run game. Those three young RBs combined for just 1,004 yards at 3.8 per carry, and Ahlers was constantly asked to pull rabbits out of hats. The line returns 80 career starts, which won't hurt, and two of the three RBs (Demetrius Mauney and Trace Christian) were well-regarded recruits. Maybe there's potential.

On defense, former Kennesaw State coordinator Blake Harrell inherits a deep linebacking corps and, in sophomore Ja'Quan McMillian, one of the best cornerbacks in the AAC. The line has to be completely rebuilt, as end Chance Purvis (12 tackles for loss) is the only one of last year's top five tacklers to return. Some of the seven linemen Houston signed in his 2020 class (including two jucos) will have to contribute.

Houston's résumé is sterling (his last stop included an FCS national title at James Madison), but the goal in Year 2 is simply to threaten 6-6. That would be ECU's best record since 2014, and it's at least a possibility. SP+ projects eight Pirates games within eight points, including seven of the final eight on the schedule. A bowl is probably still a year off -- ECU will be insanely experienced in 2021 -- but if the Pirates win some close games and flash that upside more frequently, that's probably tolerable.

Tulsa

Head coach: Philip Montgomery (25-37, sixth year)
2019: 4-8 (2-6), 73rd in SP+
2020 projection: 5-7 (3-5), 86th
Five best returning players: QB Zach Smith, LB Zaven Collins, WR Keylon Stokes, NG Jaxon Player, CB Allie Green IV

It's rare that you can say that place-kicking truly cost you a bowl bid, but 2019 Tulsa qualifies. Philip Montgomery's Golden Hurricane had a second-quarter PAT blocked, missed three field goals (two in overtime) and fell to SMU in triple overtime. Three weeks later, against Memphis, they again missed three field goals -- including a 29-yarder at the buzzer -- to fall short of Memphis 42-41.

Granted, poor, embattled kicker Jacob Rainey got a moment of redemption when he hit a 23-yarder to complete an upset of UCF later in the year. But with minimal margin for error, Tulsa still finished 4-8.

(Rainey transferred, by the way.)

It was fair to wonder if Montgomery might lose his job over this. After going 10-3 in 2016, Tulsa collapsed to 2-10 the next year and improved by only one win each year since. Either for noble (it was easy to see Tulsa's growth and potential this year) or necessity-based reasons (not sure Tulsa had the money for a buyout), the school elected to retain him for a sixth year. Now he has to repay the faith.

After collapsing to 117th in defensive SP+ in 2017, the Hurricane surged back to 51st thanks to hellacious pursuit. They weren't very disruptive (102nd in havoc rate, 117th in sack rate), but thanks to sturdy linebacker and safety play, they were efficient all the same. Pass-rusher Trevis Gipson and corner Reggie Robinson II, the team's two best playmakers, are gone, but linebacker Zaven Collins and tackle Jaxon Player return and are excellent. And despite losing seven starters, the depth seems decent: Of the 21 players to log at least 80 snaps, 13 are back.

The defense might regress a bit. But in theory, the offense could be poised to make up the difference. Quarterback Zach Smith returns, as does almost his entire skill corps. Few teams can say they return a 3,000-yard passer, a 1,000-yard rusher (Shamari Brooks) and a 1,000-yard receiver (Keylon Stokes). The line was a disaster last year, and when you notice that 44 of 60 combined starts went to freshmen and sophomores, you piece together why. The run game was dreadfully inefficient, which put Smith in a lot of passing downs. Make the run game merely decent and the scoreboard spigot turns on.

It's easy to paint a pretty optimistic picture for this team in 2020: The Hurricane looked very good against good opponents and return a lot of the reasons why. But the turnover on defense combined with the fact that an experienced offensive line might not automatically improve if the talent isn't there provide reasons for pause. So does the schedule. Even if the Hurricane slightly top last year's No. 73 SP+ ranking, they play six teams projected 63rd or better, including four away from home. Even getting back to 6-6 will require a couple of decent-sized upsets. Whether it was patience or prudence that led to Montgomery getting another shot, it might be difficult for him to take full advantage of it.

USF

Head coach: Jeff Scott (first year)
2019: 4-8 (2-6), 103rd in SP+
2020 projection: 5-7 (3-5), 82nd
Five best returning players: LB Dwayne Boyles, NB Bentlee Sanders, FS Nick Roberts, LB Antonio Grier, RB Kelley Joiner Jr.

On the official USF depth chart, they put "BA" designations next to the names of all the players from the Tampa Bay area. By the end of the 2019 season, the starting quarterback (Jordan McCloud), two most efficient receivers (tight end Mitchell Wilcox and slot Bryce Miller), starting left tackle (Donovan Jennings), best overall blocker (William Atterbury), best pass-rusher (Greg Reaves), most active defensive tackle (Blake Green), top two cornerbacks (Mike Hampton and KJ Sails) and top nickelback (Bentlee Sanders) were all BAs.

Lord knows there is plenty of talent in the area, and what amounts to the University of the BA has rarely lacked for potential during its two decades of existence. Occasionally, things come together: The Bulls ranked second in offensive SP+ in 2016, and they have ranked 52nd or better six times in 15 years; on defense, they were top 15 in both 2006 and 2007, and they have been top 45 eight times.

USF's history is reasonably rich considering the short time span. The Bulls have won eight or more games 10 times in 20 FBS seasons; they briefly reached second in the AP poll in 2007 and finished ranked twice. Not bad. But an inability to get the offense and defense peaking at the same time holds them back. The 2016 team was dragged down by a No. 99 defense, allowing 101 points in its two losses. And while the 2019 defense bounced back a bit, the offense was devastatingly young and horrid. USF averaged 9.4 points per game in eight losses.

With Charlie Strong gone, Dabo Swinney disciple Jeff Scott takes over. What Scott's initial recruiting haul lacked in BAs (by my count, only two from the high school ranks), it offered quite a few potential instant-impact guys. Including what Strong had already arranged, Scott, 39, has thus far roped in nine transfers, including two QBs (UNC's Cade Fortin and Alcorn State's Noah Johnson) and two running backs (Oregon's Darrian Felix and South Carolina's Lavonte Valentine).

USF's 2020 season, assuming it happens, will be one of competition. McCloud-Fortin-Johnson could be an interesting QB battle -- Scott signed two well-touted freshmen too -- and there are plenty of options at RB and WR. Plus, a secondary that was both solid and sophomore-heavy last year is now junior-heavy. Scott and coordinators Charlie Weis Jr. (offense) and Glenn Spencer (defense) have tons of warm bodies to pit against each other.

The defense should be solid no matter what. Reaves is gone, but the Bulls have strong overall experience and depth, and players such as Sanders and linebacker Dwayne Boles are among the best in the AAC at their positions. The offense could take a while to sort out, especially without Wilcox and Atterbury. And depending on how said sorting goes, the schedule presents several different possibilities -- a 39% chance of finishing 4-8 or worse and a 14% chance of finishing 7-5 or better. There are lots of relative toss-ups here, and the potential win total is high if the offense overachieves its projections.

Tulane

Head coach: Willie Fritz (23-27, fifth year)
2019: 7-6 (3-5), 41st in SP+
2020 projection: 5-7 (3-5), 73rd
Five best returning players: RB Corey Dauphine, CB Jaylon Monroe, DE Patrick Johnson, RB/SLOT Amare Jones, FS Chase Kuerschen

Few in college football can craft a roster like Willie Fritz. Mind you, I'm not talking specifically about the talent you can attract, but the balance.

When Fritz took over in 2016, the Green Wave had won three or fewer games in six of the previous eight seasons. The roster had neither talent nor balance. But Fritz upgraded the win total in each of his first three seasons, and while the win total remained at seven last fall, the team took a leap on paper. The Wave improved from 90th to 41st in SP+ and were held back from a monster season only by three tight losses to good AAC teams.

They have to replace starting quarterback Justin McMillan, their most heavily used running back and receivers, and three offensive linemen with a combined 76 career starts. They are duly projected to slide a good amount in SP+. But terrific roster balance, plus an incoming recruiting class that might be Tulane's best ever, will give the Wave a chance to buck the projection.

So here's what I mean by balance: basically every unit on the Tulane roster has at least one sturdy senior, one junior, a handful of redshirt freshmen and sophomores, and at least one well-regarded freshman. Fritz has made prime use of transfers -- McMillan was from LSU, other starters began at other schools and four former Power 5 conference players join the roster this year -- and the four-game redshirt rule. By my count, 11 freshmen played but retained their redshirt in 2019, including star recruits in the secondary and running back Tyjae Spears, who in four games amassed 325 rushing and receiving yards.

There might be only one unbalanced position on the roster heading into 2020: quarterback. Tulane returns former Southern Miss first-stringer Keon Howard, and offensive coordinator Will Hall should have quite a bit of fun with him. But Howard is a run-heavy guy, and if he gets hurt, the options for replacing him are either sophomore walk-on Josh Holl or one of two true freshmen (Michael Pratt or Justin Ibieta). Not ideal, but it's only a problem if he misses time.

Otherwise, this team will be blending experienced producers (Howard, RBs Corey Dauphine and Amare Jones, left guard Corey Dublin, rush end Patrick Johnson, D-tackle De'Andre Williams, linebacker Marvin Moody, corner Jaylon Monroe, safety Chase Kuerschen) with the aforementioned redshirts and blue-chip transfers such as Oklahoma receiver Mykel Jones and Florida State defensive back Kyle Meyers.

The biggest obstacle in 2020, besides potential QB injury, is the schedule. Projected 73rd in SP+ -- perfectly solid by Group of 5 standards -- the Wave face eight teams projected higher and play three projected top-50 teams on the road. They also travel to Tulsa and ECU -- lower ranked but tricky teams. SP+ gives the Wave just a 47% chance of reaching bowl eligibility. I think the roster balance makes the odds higher than that, but there's no doubting that even with the job Fritz is doing, the margin for error is slim.

Temple

Head coach: Rod Carey (8-5, second year)
2019: 8-5 (5-3), 52nd in SP+
2020 projection: 6-6 (3-5), 71st
Five best returning players: DT Ifeanyi Maijeh, CB Christian Braswell, S Amir Tyler, RG Vincent Picozzi, QB Anthony Russo

It's almost a full recruit's lifespan since Temple was truly horrible. The Owls averaged 1.9 wins per year from 1991 to 2006, which got them temporarily booted from the Big East, but Al Golden resurrected the program, and after a few rickety years, the Owls have won 43 games over the past five years despite losing head coach Matt Rhule to Baylor, Geoff Collins to Georgia Tech and, after just three weeks, Manny Diaz to Miami. Rod Carey took over last season after Diaz's sudden departure, and Temple just kept Templing.

What is Templing? At this point, it's combining a physical but inconsistent offense with the most sure-thing defense in the Group of 5. The Owls have averaged a 29.7 ranking in defensive SP+ over these five years and came in 29th last season. They beat Maryland, Georgia Tech and Memphis and came within two points of a win at Cincinnati. They went a solid 8-5, reaching bowl eligibility for the sixth straight year.

The bad moments were awfully bad, though. In between the Maryland and Georgia Tech wins came a 16-point loss at Buffalo. After the Memphis upset, they lost to SMU and UCF by a combined 108-42. And after winning three of four to finish 8-4, they went to the Military Bowl and got smoked, 55-13, by North Carolina.

While the quick-passing style of offensive coordinator Mike Uremovich had its moments, quarterback Anthony Russo completed just 54% of his passes at 10.8 yards per completion with a 107.5 passer rating in losses. (In wins: 62%, 12.1 and 140.1, respectively.) And there wasn't much of a run game to lean on if the pass wasn't keeping the Owls on schedule.

Russo and his two leading receivers (Jadan Blue and lone big-play threat Branden Mack) return, a few sophomore pass-catchers could be ready for larger roles, and Carey added transfers at both receiver and tight end. Plus, leading rusher Re'Mahn Davis is no longer a freshman. The interior line gets a makeover -- All-America center Matt Hennessy and all-conference guard Jovahn Fair are both gone, which is scary -- but the tackles return, as does another all-conference guard in Vincent Picozzi.

That whole "sure-thing defense" theory is going to get a test. Coordinator Jeff Knowles has to replace three of the top four tacklers on the line, the top three linebackers, and three of four DBs. There are still some proven veterans -- tackle Ifeanyi Maijeh, corner Christian Braswell, safety Amir Tyler -- plus breakthrough-ready youngsters like end Arnold Ebiketie, tackle Khris Banks and, if eligible, WVU safety transfer Kwantel Raines. But depth is a massive concern when you lose that many stalwarts at once.

SP+ projects Temple to stumble back to 71st, which could make bowling tricky in the AAC. The Owls face trips to UCF, Memphis, Miami, Navy and Tulane and a home game against Cincinnati. There are a few sure wins on the slate, but SP+ gives a seventh straight bowl trip only a 59% chance.

Houston

Head coach: Dana Holgorsen (4-8, second year)
2019: 4-8 (2-6), 82nd in SP+
2020 projection: 6-6 (3-5), 63rd
Five best returning players: WR Marquez Stevenson, WR Keith Corbin, LB/DB Grant Stuard, QB Clayton Tune, LB Donavan Mutin

Football is, like all others, a copycat sport. Once someone finds something that works, others try it. That goes for tactics, formations and individual playcalls ... and I'm curious if it ends up going for the Houston Tank as well.

With the Coogs starting 1-3 in 2019, Dana Holgorsen decided to attempt something both logical and insane: He basically called it quits on the season and started building toward 2020. That meant redshirting star quarterback D'Eriq King, leading receiver Keith Corbin and basically anybody else who still had one to give. By my count, 11 players played either three or four games while redshirting.

The depth-chart churn was incredible. Only two combined RBs and LBs played in more than eight games. Only two offensive linemen played in all 12, and 11 logged at least 170 snaps. Meanwhile, Holgorsen had already brought in a load of transfers, many of whom had to sit in 2019.

King ended up transferring to Miami, but after making liberal use of the redshirt rule and inking double-digit five-year and juco transfers in two years, Holgorsen has a roster that is talented and absurdly experienced -- it's possible that all 22 starters are juniors or seniors. Class balance? None whatsoever. This is Rams-esque, "destroy your cap for years to reach the Super Bowl in 2018" territory. But if you win doing this, and then just keep right on doing it, maybe it keeps working? Especially in an incoming era of transfers not having to sit for a year (and especially with you in Texas, where plenty of potential transfers went to high school)?

Quarterback Clayton Tune returns; in parts of two seasons he's thrown for 2,328 yards, 19 TDs and 11 interceptions, and he has more experience right now than he would have without King's redshirt. Plus, the Coogs boast one of the most explosive receiver duos in the country in Corbin and Marquez Stevenson. Three of four main RBs return, including 2019 leader Kyle Porter, and eight of the 11 linemen mentioned above are back, having combined for 88 starts.

A whopping six FBS transfers join the secondary, including Troy's Marcus Jones, Oklahoma State's Thabo Mwaniki and UCLA's Colin Samuel. Plus, all of last year's contributors are scheduled to return as well; that includes dynamite LB/DB Grant Stuard and active corners Damarion Williams and Shaun Lewis. Coordinator Joe Cauthen is crazy-aggressive, and Houston made more run stuffs than almost anybody, but they got burned spectacularly when the risks didn't pay off. Maybe experience in the front six combined with the transfusion in the secondary tamps down the big plays a bit.

We'll know how well this approach will pay off by the end of September. Houston begins the season by hosting an experienced Rice team, then traveling to face Washington State and Memphis. If the Cougars are 2-1 or better, there's a big season on the way. SP+ projects the Coogs 63rd but doesn't take transfers into account; if they click, the ceiling's much higher.