Sometimes, you just had to be there.
I was momentarily prepared to be annoyed by Central Florida’s antics after being excluded from the College Football Playoff.
Former head coach Scott Frost’s postgame smack-down of the CFP committee following UCF-Auburn on New Year’s Day was great. But then the Knights’ administration awarded itself a National Championship trophy, in a flash of petulance that made Brady Quinn seem like a humble guy in comparison.
However, many of the fans who rolled their eyes were either not fans of the American Athletic Conference, or they were late to the party. Anyone who followed the events of 2016 would understand the big fat chip on the shoulder of everyone who works in the conference.
Led by dual-threat quarterback Greg Ward, the AAC’s Houston Cougars opened that year by crushing the Oklahoma Sooners in a 33-22 result that wasn’t that close. Houston then had a disappointing but still excellent league campaign, losing to Navy, SMU and Paxton Lynch-led Memphis. They dropped like a rock in the rankings despite having been in the top 10 after the hot start.
Okay, fine. But then the Cougars visited a Lamar Jackson-led Louisville team which had beaten Florida State by 43 points. Houston 36, Louisville 10. Yet Ward and his teammates were merely invited to the Las Vegas Bowl after sweeping an OOC schedule that rivaled any in the nation in difficulty.
AAC programs are being punished for losing to each other, while remaining full truck-loads for any Power-5 school to handle on the gridiron.
AAC Preview: One Terrific Defense Could Win This Thing
Ironically the only thing holding the AAC back from greater recognition is that the league too-often resembles a poor man’s Big 12.
Memphis put up 70 points on UConn last year but gave up 31 to Southern Illinois, and 40 to UCF in a loss. Houston’s defense looked to have turned a corner after a 19-16 defeat of Arizona but later gave up a dozen touchdowns to Tulsa and Memphis during a mid-season slump.
UCF rode an up-tempo style to 13-0, choosing to out-score teams rather than worry about stopping them. More possessions in a game benefit the Knights’ athleticism and depth in a method similar to Chip Kelly’s winning formula at Oregon, but it leads to points-against too.
The defense did manage to make plays and force turnovers when it mattered. But the unit was almost helpless in the 2nd half of a dramatic season-capping clash with rival USF.
The fact that Auburn had a more difficult time moving the ball on UCF than USF (or Navy) did only make the CFP committee look more wrong in the end…until the ridiculous fake “championship” award gave back the high ground, anyway.
Navy is another exciting, prolific offensive team that can’t get above average on defense for systemic reasons. SMU scores in bunches before appearing to play with 9 or 10 defenders.
Who’s gonna play Power-5 contender-level defense in the 2018 AAC? The answer that question could also be the most solid win-total pick.
After all – whoever it is they’re welcome to stick with a “Power-6” offense. It’s been working.
UCF Glory: Nature or Nurture?
A really good coach can’t go out and win games for their team. But they can improve the performances of student-athletes up and down the roster, increasing the likelihood that the squad will be in a position to win. Scott Frost recruited for speed in the fertile wetlands of Florida, then trained UCF underclassmen to play a quick and smart brand of football against tough conference opponents.
Tough out-of-conference opponents, too.
Frost saw the Knights through when things got tough against Navy, SMU and Memphis (and Auburn) last season, but that doesn’t mean new skipper Josh Heupel wouldn’t have been able to do it. Heupel has never been a head coach before, so he’s still an unknown quantity.
When a departing coach has built a fortress at a Group of 5 college, ala Chris Petersen at Boise State, it can flourish or fail quickly in his absence.
One handy metric would be the recruiting trail. Has UCF experienced any dip in talented freshmen now that Coach Frost is gone to Nebraska?
There are no big splashes in the class. Heupel signed only 19 incoming freshmen in the 2018 offseason, and he didn’t land a QB or a RB. But if the avalanche – er – flood is coming, it isn’t likely to happen right away. The new class is stocked with terrific wide receivers, and D-lineman Randy Charlton could be a classic 3-star hidden gem of the sort Central Florida loves to suit up.
The coach has also gotten high marks for signing Lamarius Benson, an offensive lineman who played DT in high school but is 330 pounds. He could turn into a road-grader that would give UCF’s already-potent OL corps a new element of brutality.
In other words, the strengths of the UCF Knights should remain strengths…for now.
AAC Team Previews: 2018 Win-Total Lines and Predictions
Central Florida Knights (O/U 9 Total Wins)
Any talk of the UCF Knights being a “fluke” who will fall-away quickly should be laughed off, mostly thanks to exciting junior QB McKenzie Milton who returns with a solid supporting cast. Tre’Quan Smith, Shauem Griffin and a few other key cogs of the unbeaten ’17 squad will be missing. But a good quarterback, good blocking and great RBs usually add up to yards and points.
Adrian Killins Jr. is a name to watch in a loaded offensive backfield.
UCF gave up an awful lot of passing yards last season, not surprising as everyone was constantly trying to catch up to them. But whether the defense improves or regresses under Heupel will spell the difference as to whether the Knights can get back to double-digit wins in 2018.
The team will face a tough OOC stretch that includes 2 ACC foes and FAU, then settle into the meat of its conference schedule. Temple, Navy, Cincinnati, and USF loom at the finish.
Memphis Tigers (O/U 8 ½ Total Wins)
Mike Norvell is 18-8 at Memphis, but having been blessed with Paxton Lynch and Riley Ferguson, he’s never had to deal with this level of rebuild in the passing attack. His QB controversy going into the ’18 season pits sophomore David Moore against ASU transfer Brady White.
To make matters worse, dominant WR Anthony Miller has moved on after recording 18 touchdowns and almost 1500 receiving yards in the Tigers’ 10-win campaign. At least Darrell Henderson will start at tailback again this season.
Memphis has young talent on defense, where DB T.J. Carter wowed by forcing 7 turnovers in his freshman season. Tony Pollard is a special teams star. But it’s hard for any D to adjust to backing up a more restrained, lower-scoring offense.
Tiger defenders are used to giving up 25+ points, winning the game and calling it a good day. Now, they’ll be called upon to carry the squad through a few 21-14 slobber-knockers.
(8 ½) wins is too generous a line, especially considering MyBookie has placed a reduced vig on the under.
South Florida Bulls (O/U 8 ½ Total Wins)
Head coach Charlie Strong enters his 2nd season as the head man for the Bulls after going 10-2 in his debut. It didn’t feel like we’d be reading that sentence at this time last year. Maybe the HC has finally found a campus where the lack of pressure creates a healthier atmosphere.
Make that a relative lack of pressure. USF wants desperately to prove that it is as good as its East division rival and counterpart UCF. The Bulls line up a similar palette of student-athletes – fast, strong and flashy.
Junior Brett Kean and sophomore Chris Oladokun will battle into the fall to replace Quinton Flowers at QB. The Bulls will miss the latter’s rushing yards as much as his passing exploits. Tyree McCants is an unorthodox target who led the team with 19.1 yards-per-catch and 7 TDs in ‘17.
6’2 248 lb. junior LB Greg Reaves will man the middle of the defense after recording 14 tackles-for-loss in 2017. Incoming freshman Dwayne Boyles looks to make an immediate impact next to Reaves in an already-stout run defense.
An OOC opponent like Georgia Tech is not a great fit for USF, which prides itself on its edge rush and not the kind of complex run-blitzes that can bolster a D against the Ramblin’ Wreck.
But the Bulls avoid Memphis and Temple, and the rest of the OOC schedule is made up of front-7s that Strong’s OL should easily push around.
Houston Cougars (O/U 7 ½ Total Wins)
Major Applewhite attempted to coach a more traditional brand of football at Houston until just over halfway through last year, when he threw caution to the wind and converted swift WR D’Eriq King into his starting quarterback.
King’s first start was against USF (gag) and he shined against all odds, hitting 12 of 20 passes and rushing for 80+ yards and 2 touchdowns in a 28-24 victory.
The Cougars finished 3-2 and will stick with the experiment, though using a former wideout at QB means that the roster, in effect, loses a pair of veteran receivers in ‘18 – King and Steven Dunbar. Graduate transfer RB Terence Williams (Baylor) should provide aid and comfort to the wild, talented scrambler taking the snaps, having rushed for 1000 yards for a so-so Baylor team in 2016.
Houston has a few pieces in place defensively. DT Ed Oliver is a monster up front and finished an All-American season with 73 tackles, 16 and ½ tackles-for-loss, and 5 and ½ sacks. Oliver is projected as a potential #1 pick in the 2019 NFL Draft.
Former TCU defensive end Isaiah Chambers has migrated to Applewhite’s program and could combine with Oliver to make the d-line one of the finest in the country.
Houston plays in a deep, wide-open West division and does not play UCF in ‘18. I’m liking the Cougars to stay well-motivated even if there’s a letup against Arizona or TTU early-on. This team can convert 3rd downs into 1st downs while stopping opposing offenses from doing the same.
My only hang-up on an “over” bet is that MyBookie has the line at (-145). That’s a slender payoff on an all-season totals bet.
Navy Midshipmen (O/U 7 Total Wins)
Since Navy is a program that transcends what its roster happens to look like in any given year, it’s important for gamblers to know who the Midshipmen are…and who they aren’t.
When clicking, Ken Niumatalolo’s team is a tough out for any Top 25 opponent. The discipline and drive of his student-athletes is almost unmatched, leading to weird scenarios where Navy is out-gained and out-pursued for 4 quarters but wins by 2 touchdowns anyway.
A northeastern newspaper reporter wrote a column about Navy’s 11-win 2015-16 season that summed-up the appeal of the program. Quoting awestruck coaches whose teams had lost to the Mids, the author finished each paragraph with “Aye, aye, sir.”
Dang nabbit! That Navy’s offense is twice as complicated as mine and only turns it over half as many times! “Aye, aye, sir.” My god, says Coach XYZ. They didn’t take a penalty for the first 50 minutes of the game! You just can’t believe what a machine they are! “Aye, aye, sir.”
Entertaining stuff, but it has to sound terrifying if you’re a fan of Memphis or anyone else in the AAC West division who has been blown out by the Middies.
But Niumatalolo’s Flexbone system isn’t perfect. It might be more efficient than an ordinary playbook, but it depends on immaculate execution. Navy’s defense and special teams are getting more athletic, but there’s still a hard ceiling in recruiting due to the regularity of 4 and 5-star recruits turning down service academies out-of-hand.
When the Midshipmen don’t do absolutely everything right there is no blue-chip athleticism to fall back on. Army has beaten them twice in a row. Malcolm Perry is electric but will get bruised at QB.
This year’s schedule includes few gimmes. A trip to Air Force on October 6th will be tough, and Houston, Notre Dame, and UCF will meet Navy in a 4-game span.
More AAC Win-Total Lines: Team Capsule Previews
Temple Owls (O/U 6 ½ Total Wins)
The Owls were unsettled at QB last year, which disappointed fans who were excited about a pass rush that led the AAC in sacks. Time and again the offense squandered opportunities. Yet the 2nd half of the season brought rays of sunshine, as skipper Geoff Collins settled on QB Frank Nutile just in time for the Owls to win 3 out of 4 to close out the season earning a bowl bid. Temple trounced FIU in the Gasparilla (ahem) Bowl, but concerning such minor bowl games, I’ll reference Stanley Kubrick again. The battles are memorable enough for those who take part.
This season’s success will come down to whether safety Delvon Randall and a host of blitzing OLBs can wreak enough havoc to make up for an average run defense.
SMU Mustangs (O/U 5 ½ Total Wins)
The Sonny Dykes era begins in earnest at Southern Methodist, a program that beat Cincinnati and North Texas before inexplicably losing 51-10 to Louisiana Tech in the postseason. Those turnovers were the mark of an undisciplined program, and Dykes will have the challenging task of coaching Ben Hicks through the loss of crucial WRs Trey Quinn and Courtland Sutton. SMU’s defense is only good enough to carry a team if it gets about 200 times better than it has been lately.
SMU’s schedule is unrelenting and includes TCU, Michigan, and Navy in succession followed by UCF just 2 weeks later.
Tulane Green Wave (O/U 5 ½ Total Wins)
Green Wave skipper Willie Fritz coaches a mean variety of Flexbone offense. A spread version with “A” backs doubling as slot receivers and the QB in the shotgun or the Pistol. Utilizing zone blocking instead of Navy’s mano-a-mano grind, Fritz has confused superior defenses with the playbook.
But there are certain spots where a weakness will always hurt a team, regardless of excellence in execution or in X’s and O’s. Meek production from top ballcarriers, for instance. Dontrell Hilliard is gone after a 1000-yard rushing campaign, and QB Jonathan Banks must produce more consistently to make up for a patchwork defense.
Tulsa Golden Hurricane (O/U 4 ½ Total Wins)
The Tulsa line is inching upward and I see no good reason why. Coaching is played out with Philip Montgomery lucky to last until 2019. There’s no consistent QB to get the ball to Justin Hobbs, and D’Angelo Brewer will no longer be running the rock. The defense has fallen into Okie oblivion. Safety McKinley Whitfield will make a lot of tackles, but that’s not what Montgomery wants.
The Golden Hurricanes travel to play Texas and Arkansas in their OOC schedule.
East Carolina Pirates (O/U 3 Total Wins)
The dregs of the ACC are full of warmed-over Montgomerys. Scottie M. begins his 3rd year at the helm for the Pirates after a dismal 3-9 campaign that leaves him an overall 6-18 at the school.
Gardner Minshew has left the program, and there’s nothing apart from the pass-and-scamper to fall back on. The defense has been horrendous and ranked almost dead-last in the FBS in 2017 against the pass and in QB pressures. There were, admittedly, a few teams who were even worse than ECU at stopping the run, so maybe that’s progress.
Cincinnati Bearcats (O/U 5 Total Wins)
You may have wondered why I mention Cincinnati as if the Bearcats are a tough team to beat. Well, typically, they are – Cincinnati is not a case of a fading once-was, but that of a solid program rebuilding with a new coach.
Not much has gone right for Luke Fickell’s Bearcats so far. But he’s got a senior QB in Hayden Moore, a senior #1 WR in Kahlil Lewis, and a defense that was competent enough a year ago to contain Michigan for most of a road game while slowing-down SMU at home. UCLA lurks on 9/1 but several winnable games will follow.
Connecticut Huskies (O/U 3 ½ Total Wins)
Unlike a lot of fellow underdogs in the AAC, UConn can claim to be settled at QB. David Pindell is a senior with pieces of a solid supporting cast in place, but the defense played so poorly under Randy Edsall last season that some fans are souring on the scheme already. Look for WR Hergy Mayala to make waves, especially if former NFL assistant Frank Giufre can wring better pass-protection out of the OL.
The Huskies open against UCF, then travel to Boise State and Syracuse in September. Ouch.