2017 American Athletic Conference Football Preview: West Division

Ryan Mayer

College football season is almost here. As you prepare to root for your favorite team on Saturday, we’ll bring you previews of each conference, separating the teams into a couple categories: contenders, bowl teams, and rebuilding. The tiers are fairly self-explanatory. Contenders means these teams will push for the division/conference title. Bowl bidders are expected to be in the conversation for a bowl bid. Rebuilding teams are in the process of attempting to get into contention. At the end, we’ll give you our thoughts on the team’s wins based on Bovada’s Win Totals for the season.

Entering last season, Houston was picked by many, including yours truly, as a potential playoffs crasher. Things looked good early, with a win over No. 3 Oklahoma to open the season and a 5-0 start. Then, the faltered twice. First at Navy and two weeks later at SMU. That led to the Midshipmen taking the West division and appearing in the title game. This year, Houston has a new coach, a ton of returning starters and is a definite New Year’s Six bowl contender.

Contenders

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Bryant Shirreffs #4 of the Connecticut Huskies has is pass attempt knocked down by Ed Oliver #10 of the Houston Cougars. Credit: Bob Levey/Getty Images

Houston Cougars

Tom Herman’s 22-5 record over the last two seasons was good enough to get him the Texas job and now, in steps offensive coordinator Major Applewhite. The familiarity Applewhite has with the players should lead to less of a transition than you’d normally expect from a team that has a new coach and the Cougs are loaded all over the field once again.

The offense was good last year (35.8 PPG) but felt disappointing mostly due to the injury bug nagging key guys throughout the year. This season, QB Greg Ward departs, but Texas A&M transfer Kyle Allen steps in ready to take the reigns. Allen is a better passer than Ward which means, with two of the top three receivers and an experienced line (4 starters), this passing game could be even more explosive. Add in the threat of a fully healthy Duke Catalon (145 carries 528 yards 4 TD) and you’ve got a unit that should hover once more around the upper-thirties in points per game. The system stays the same under Applewhite, and that is key.

On defense, new DC Mark D’Onofrio has plenty of talent to work with. The biggest name, that you should probably get to know before he’s tearing up NFL offensive lines in two years, is DT Ed Oliver. Oliver had 66 tackles, 18 for loss, five sacks, and nine pass breakups(!). Oliver was a beast and leads a unit that returns six other starters including top tackler ILB Matt Adams (82 tackles 5.5 TFL 2 sacks). This unit should once again give opponents all kinds of problems in 2017. They do have three big road games at Temple, Tulsa, and USF, but get Navy (revenge game) and Memphis at home. As long as Allen is as good as expected, this team should be close to double-digit wins. Over 8 wins.

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Riley Ferguson #4 of the Memphis Tigers. Credit: Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

Memphis Tigers

The Tigers are Houston’s biggest challenger in this side of the conference. Mike Norvell’s group went 8-5 in his first year and brings back most of an offense that rolled up 38.8 PPG and 464.4 YPG last season.

Senior QB Riley Ferguson is back under center (63.2% 3,698 32 TD 10 INT) and could have an even bigger season with four returning offensive linemen in front of him and his top two receiving targets (Anthony Miller & Paul Mayhue) back. Running back Doroland Dorceus (132 carries 810 yards 9 TD) returns as well, and there’s depth behind him with two other backs that tallied 400+ yards. In the wide open offensive style the Tigers play, this experienced unit is more than capable of lighting up the scoreboard once more.

The defense has a few more holes to fill, especially in the secondary where they lose three starters. But, they get DE Justin Dillon back from a knee injury that forced him to miss all of last year and return all three starting linebackers with stud safety Jonathan Cook (88 tackles 5.5 TFL 8 PBU 1 INT). Overall, this unit is capable of improving on the 28.8 PPG and 454.6 YPG they allowed last year. The biggest problem for the Tigers in terms of winning the division is having to play both Tulsa and Houston on the road. The Tigers are capable of playing with both teams, but they’ll still likely be underdogs on the road. Over 8.5 wins.

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D’Angelo Brewer #4 of the Tulsa Hurricane. Credit: Jamie Sabau/Getty Images

Tulsa Golden Hurricane

Phillip Montgomery has done quite a job turning around this Tulsa program quickly. In 2013-14 the team won five games combined. Since Montgomery took the job in 2015, the Hurricane have gone 6-7 and 10-3. Entering his third year, Montgomery is getting more of his guys in the ranks and they should be in contention for the West this season.

The problem for projecting improvement on the offensive side of the ball is twofold. One, they averaged 42.5 PPG and 527.7 YPG last season, which would be hard to do better than regardless of returning personnel (only six teams averaged more points last year). Secondly, they lose the program’s all-time leading passer (Dane Evans), a 1,600 yard RB (James Flanders), and two 1,000-yard wide receivers (Keevan Lucas and Josh Atkinson). D’Angelo Brewer (264 carries 1,435 yards 7 TD) returns as do four starters on the line. That should help keep the drop-off in production from being too big, but still, they’ll fall back from last year’s numbers.

On defense, they lose two 3rd team AAC LBs and two defensive linemen, but return a veteran secondary and defensive ends Jesse Brubaker and Jeremy Smith (92 tackles 9.5 sacks 12 TFL combined). The loss of the top two tacklers hurts, and will likely drop them a bit in terms of production, but, the pass rush and veteran secondary should help. The reason I have them listed as contenders is because they get all of their big West opponents at home (Navy, Memphis, Houston). That gives the potential for upsets, but on the flip side, could be seen as a bad thing with most of their “winnable” games coming on the road. Overall, I don’t expect them to hit ten wins again but, eight seems reasonable. Over 7.5 wins.

Bowl Teams

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Quarterback Zach Abey #9 of the Navy Midshipmen. Credit: Rob Carr/Getty Images

Navy Midshipmen

Ken Niumatalolo team is to be underestimated at your own peril. They weren’t supposed to win the division last year after losing a four-year starting QB in Keenan Reynolds, but they did so anyway despite having the expected starter be out for the year before Week 1. I’m sure they’ll make me look bad for having them here and not in the top tier and you’re welcome to call me an idiot come December.

The biggest reason I have them here instead of up one tier is the offense. The service academies always lose a bunch of players from year-to-year due to playing mostly juniors and seniors but the offense is particularly hard hit this year with three linemen, a QB, three slot backs and the program’s No. 2 all-time receiver moving on. QB Zach Abey did see time in the AAC title game, Army-Navy game and the bowl game so he got some experience running the offense and should continue to progress with more time in the role. The loss of so many line starters and multiple slot backs lowers the expectations a bit for this triple-option attack however, and I’m not sure they hit the 37.9 PPG and 439.2 YPG from last season.

The defense on the other hand, has eight starters back, including their top three linebackers and three guys in the secondary. The line is the lone area where they lose a couple of guys, but even there, DE Jarvis Polu (53 tackles 3 sacks) is back to anchor a younger group. The schedule isn’t friendly as they draw Tulsa, Memphis, Temple and Houston all on the road. Add in the rivalry game with Notre Dame and the traditional service academy battles and it’s tough to see more than seven wins. But again, Coach Niumatalolo is used to being underrated. Push 7 wins.

Rebuilding

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Courtland Sutton #16 of the Southern Methodist Mustangs. Credit: Tom Pennington/Getty Images

SMU Mustangs

Chad Morris enters his third year with a veteran-laden offense (9 starters) that could be explosive, but on defense there’s a little more of a question. The Mustangs will likely play some high-scoring entertaining games and, with a few upsets falling their way, could make a bowl.

Sophomore QB Ben Hicks (55.5% 2,930 yards 19 TD 15 INT) returns, but he has some major competition in Arkansas transfer Rafe Peavey and Wisconsin transfer DJ Gillins. Whoever holds onto the job has a very talented receiving corps led by junior Courtland Sutton (76 receptions 1,246 yards 10 TD) and an offensive line that has four starters back. In addition, the top three running backs are back from last year led by Braeden West (202 carries 1,036 yards 6 TD). Expect a decent jump in PPG (27 last year) and YPG (427.3) this season.

DC Van Malone has some work to do with a unit that gave up 36.3 PPG and loses six starters. Among those departing are 1st team AAC selections Horace Richardson and Darrion Millines in the the secondary and three starters along the defensive line. They do bring back top tackler Kyran Mitchell (67 tackles 3.5 sacks 2.5 TFL) and DE Justin Lawler (65 tackles 6 sacks 9 TFL), but there are too many questions marks to predict significant improvement in last year’s numbers. The schedule is soft early (outside of @TCU) and they are capable of starting 4-1. Then, it gets rough. In the span of seven weeks they have four road games (Houston, Cincy, Navy, Memphis) and home dates with Tulsa and UCF. If they start 4-1 early and pick off an upset, with Tulane to end the year, they likely hit the over. If that doesn’t happen, they’ll be under here. Push 5 wins.

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Dontrell Hilliard #26 of the Tulane Green Wave. Credit: Stacy Revere/Getty Images

Tulane Green Wave

Willie Fritz engineered a pretty good defense in his first year with a nearly TD improvement going from 36.3 PPG to 27.7 PPG. The offense made strides too, averaging 24.1 PPG over the 19.1 from 2015. Entering the second year, both sides of the ball should continue to improve.

All in all, 16 starters return to this year’s team and on offense, they get Kansas St transfer Jonathan Banks who should be a better fit for the triple-option style. Their top rusher, top two receivers and three starting offensive linemen are back. They averaged 228.3 YPG on the ground last year and I’d expect that number to continue to rise.

On defense, all four starters are back along the defensive line and in the secondary including 2nd team AAC selection CB Parry Nickerson. The question mark is the second level that loses top tackler Nico Marley and nickel corner Richard Allen. The Green Wave play a 4-2-5 so they moved Jarrod Franklin from safety to nickel, but that also takes away from the strength of the secondary slightly.

The biggest problem however, is the schedule. After opening with Grambling State, the Green Wave hit the road for Navy and Oklahoma. Then they return home for Army, and Tulsa. The back half of the schedule features home dates with USF, Houston and Cincinnati and a road game at Memphis. That’s eight games where they will likely be underdogs. Strides will be made, but, the win column may not show it. Under 5 wins.

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