If you ever wondered what a partial amalgamation of the old football-playing portion of the Big East, and Conference USA, might look like (college football fans often dream such obscure things), we give you the American Athletic, now entering its second season.

The nascent league is indeed airborne, yet the recent passing of the BCS era has already impacted the new-kid-on-the-block American, whose 2013 champ, thanks to the previous Big East connection, gained automatic entry to the old BCS. Going out in style, the progeny of the Big East ended its participation in the BCS era in rousing style when UCF shocked Baylor, 52-42, in the Fiesta Bowl. But the American, like the old Big East, had been reduced to mostly a bystander role in the title game pecking order; the last Big East team to gain entry to the BCS championship tilt was Miami in 2002, and within two years the Hurricanes had packed up and moved to the ACC.

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Entering just its second year of existence, the new AAC, however, has already made its mark on the college sports landscape, with member UConn completing a surprise March Madness run and stealing the NCAA basketball title in spring. With the Huskies’ women also recording yet another title, the AAC claimed both men’s and women’s hoops crowns in its first year of existence. Not bad! Making a similar impact on the gridiron, however, looks a rather far-fetched notion, at least into the near future.

Change, which had long been a staple of the old Big East, as well as C-USA from where much of the current AAC spawned, has continued in the American. With the loss of Louisville to the ACC, as well as UCF QB Blake Bortles to the NFL’s Jacksonville Jaguars, the league sits at something of a crossroads entering 2014, especially with automatic entry into the “New Year’s Six” and College Football Playoff, the successors to the BCS, no longer on the table. Instead, the top American rep gets thrown into a pot with Mountain West, C-USA, MAC, and Sun Belt champs to compete for one spot in the featured bowl lineup. That's the best the new bowl system can do for the American, whose champ can technically still gain entry to the new four-team playoff, although that would appear an unlikely development in 2014 or the next few years.

For 2014, the still-evolving league has attempted to make up for its loss of quality (Louisville) with quantity, conducting yet another raid on C-USA and stealing East Carolina, Tulsa, and Tulane for this season. Navy will follow as a football-only member in 2015. Meanwhile, the rumor mill continues to whirr revolving AAC members such as UConn and Cincinnati, each still dreaming of invitations to the Big 12 or ACC, and Sunshine sSate members USF and South Florida, which routinely get mentioned in expansion plans for those loops. No moves involving those schools, however, appear imminent; until further notice, we don’t expect any defections (at least in the next 12 months, an eternity in college conference discussions) from the ranks of the American.

So, at least for now, it appears as if the American is content with a seat at the kids’ table of major college football, willingly aligned with the Mountain West, C-USA and others within the “Group of Five” and hoping its top teams are appealing and competent enough to compete with “Power Five” conference teams in limited bowl opportunities, while also dreaming that any future expansion of the Playoff to eight or more teams in coming years will include a spot for an AAC champ. Until then, however, the American has at least given UConn, Cincy and the rest a viable home, something most of its members were not sure about a few short years ago.

Following is our look at the American, courtesy Chief Analyst Gary Olshan. As always, teams are presented in order of predicted finish, with 2013 straight-up and poinspread records included...Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

by Gary Olshan, Chief Analyst

CINCINNATI (SUR 9-4: PSR 6-8)...With 14 returning starters fully integrating HC Tommy Tuberville’s system and philosophy in Year 2, the Bearcats look ready to capture the AAC crown in 2104. After a 26-20 upset loss at South Florida on Oct. 5, Cincy proceeded to go on six-game conference win skein before a gut-wrenching 31-24 OT loss to Louisville in the regular season finale in Tuberville’s debut. The schedule won’t hurt, either. Last year’s conference champs UCF is not on the Cincy slate. And after being forced to sharpen its skills with tough, high profile non-conference road games at Ohio State and Miami-Florida, the mettle-tested Bearcats will be fully-prepared to capture all of their conference away games vs. far less threatening opposition.

The new Cincy QB Gunner Kiel--the Notre Dame transfer who was rated the nation’s No.1 QB prospect while in high school--takes command of a seasoned arsenal (7 starters back; 32.1 ppg). Former starting QB Munchie Legaux returns for a fifth season after tearing knee ligaments in 2013, and any contribution he can make will be a bonus. There is a boatload of returning talent at the skill positions, with the three leading rushers back, including 5-7 jitterbug RB Ralph Abernathy IV, who amassed 1,046 all-purpose yds. LY. Five of the top six WRs return, including possession guy Shaq Washington (team-high 78 catches), big-play man Chris Moore (45 grabs, 9 TDs) & blazing Mekale McKay (30.3 yds. per catch on 16 receptions & 7 TDs). The veteran OL anchored by first-team All-AAC LT Eric Lefeld, gives the potentially-explosive offense sufficient run/pass support.

Cincy finished ninth nationally in total defense last year. But Tuberville wanted to upgrade recruiting and hire coaches with more regional connections, so he tapped former Connecticut coordinator Hank Hughes to run the defense, which will remain a 4-3 base used LY. Steady pass pressure supplied by forceful jr. DE Silverberry Mouhon (9.5 sacks), while LB remains a strength, with Northwestern transfer soph Eric Wilson joining mainstays Nick Temple (80 tackles) and Jeff Luc, the Florida State transfer, who shifts inside to MLB. Tuberville favors speed over size, and he says the Bearcats have more of it this year.

Veteran PK Tony Miliano (nailed 34 of 47 FGs in his first two seasons) looking for a bounce-back year after slumped to 7 of 17 on FGs a year ago. The punting game needs a kick in the pants after finishing 121st nationally LY.

HOUSTON (SUR 8-5; PSR 10-3)...After making significant improvement in HC Tony Levin’s second term, Houston seems poised to be a serious contender in the AAC this season. For the third season, he has 16 players returning who started at least one game. Remember, the Cougs played Louisville and Cincy right to the wire, losing to those three conference heavyweights by a combined 19 points. And rising UH is excited to play in new Houston Stadium (with its 40,000 capacity), which will be the site of the eagerly-anticipated AAC opener vs. defending conference champ UCF on October 2.

Seven starters return to a dynamic attack (33.2 ppg) hitting stride when soph gunslinger John O’Korn took over in Week Three for injured starter David Piland. Offensive coordinator Doug Meachum left for TCU, but don’t see much change under internally-promoted Travis Bush, who served as the co-offensive coordinator and assistant head coach in 2013. O’Korn became the AAC’s top freshman, throwing for 3,117 yards, while tossing 28 TDs (10 interceptions). In fact, he posted better freshman numbers than past Cougar gunslingers named Keenum, Kolb and Ware. O’Korn executes a quick-striking (32 scoring drives lasted two minutes or fewer!), superbly-balanced attack, while fully exploiting returning RBs Kenneth Farrow & Ryan Jackson, who combined for 1,175 YR and 51 receptions out of the backfield. The aerial assault is likely to be the best in the league, thanks to the fluid WR duo of Deontay Greenberry and Daniel Spencer, who combined for 134 catches, nearly 2,000 yards and 17 TDs a year ago. And with former QB Greg Ward moving to WR and former high-profile USC recruit Markeith Ambles showing late-season flashes, the Cougs can implement four-wide-out sets.

Eight starters are back on the stop unit (21.8 ppg), which marks the program’s lowest output since 1999! That highly-opportunistic unit (nation-leading 43 forced TOs!) thrived under second-year defensive coordinator David Gibbs, who presided over one of the nation’s top turnarounds after finishing 118th in total defense in 2012. The middle line is rock-solid, with sr. OLB Efrem Oliphant (134 tackles LY) and sr. MLB Derrick Matthews, who should be a prime candidate for Defensive Player of the Year in the AAC after registering 348 tackles, 14 sacks and four interceptions in his first three terms. The secondary breaks in two new CBs, but the coaches are not in any state of panic, with 6-1 jr. William Jackson, who has elite speed, sr. Turon Walker and two experienced transfers--Marcus Dillard (juco) and Tyler White (Utah). Jr. FS Trevon Stewart has a nose for the pigskin, coming up with six fumble recoveries and four interceptions a year ago. The Cougs were set to return their top nine defensive linemen before starting DE Eric Braswell tore his ACL in the spring game.

UCF (SUR 12-1; PSR 8-5)...Though defending AAC champ UCF brings back plenty of weapons from a 12-1 Fiesta Bowl winner that averaged 34.6 ppg, there is one major problem. The Knights will be missing the director of that turbo-charged attack, QB Blake Bortles, who opted to declare for the NFL draft, leaving a major hole under center and only inexperienced options to replace him. UCF, however is still considered one of the top contenders in AAC, strongly-supported by an experienced defense that will have the Knights highly-combative in every outing. HC George O’Leary says, “Three of the past four years, we’ve won 11, 10 and 12 games. The key is each year we’ve gotten better. Now the consistency is starting to play off in talent level and recruiting.” The schedule is challenging from the get-go, with a season-opener against Penn State in Dublin, Ireland. Then following an open date, UCF visits the reigning SEC East champ Missouri in hostile Columbia before hosting BYU on Oct. 9. The Knights benefited from a demanding early slate last year, springing a confidence-boosting 34-31 upset at Penn State before a narrow 28-25 defeat at powerful South Carolina two weeks later.

The early frontrunner at QB on an offense returning six starters is soph Justin Holman (only 14 pass attempts as Bortles’ backup) followed by RS frosh Pete DiNovo and true freshman Tyler Harris. Nick Patti will join the mix as an immediately eligible transfer from Boise State. Returning soph 5-11, 221-pound RB William Stanback (443 YR), who has size & speed, will be the featured ball-carrier since star Storm Johnson opted to enter the NFL draft after 1,139 YR and 30 catches. RB depth is needed. There are no worries at WR, with three of the top four pass catchers back, including a terrific trio of Rannel Hall (57 grabs), J.J. Worton (47) and deep threat Breshad Perriman (39 for an avg. 20.8 yds. per catch). Three starters must be replaced on the OL, including some untested options at tackle.

With eight starters back on the defense (21.3 ppg; 122.5 ypg rushing), including first-team All-AAC performers LB Terrance Plummer (team-high 110 tackles) and CB Jacoby Glenn, the Knights have the components to be dominant unit. UCF also welcomes back second-team all-leaguers SS Clayton Geathers, DE Thomas Niles (four sacks in 2013) and FS Brandon Alexander (three picks). And a pair of juco transfers could have a big impact right away. Lance McDowdell, was rated one of the top junior college DTs in America, and Errol Clarke, who began his career at Cincinnati in 2012, is one of the leading ILB prospects. With the influx of big-time talent up front, it’s a good bet the Knights increase their 29 sack total of a year ago, while big-chunk passing plays will be rare, with the entire secondary returning intact.

Special teams could help win a game or two, with returning kicker Shawn Moffitt (converted 21 of 23 FG attempts) and strong-legged punter Caleb Houston (42.2. avg.).

EAST CAROLINA (SUR 10-3; PSR 7-6)...It could be considered a rebuilding year in Greenville with only nine starters back, but we won’t be stunned to see ECU make some real noise in its first year in the AAC after leaving C-USA. The Pirates (10-3), who finished with double-digit victories for just the second time in school history, won six of their final seven games, including a 37-20 victory over Ohio in the Beef ‘O’ Brady Bowl. Sure, ECU is venturing into more treacherous waters in the AAC, but the program has been hugely upgraded under fifth-year HC Ruffin McNeil and a pair of excellent assistants in defensive coordinator Rick Smith and offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley, an offensive passing guru, who was pursued for the same job at some bigger programs.

Six starters return to an offensive juggernaut (40.2 ppg) orchestrated by exceptional QB Shane Carden (C-USA MVP LY; 318.4 ypg passing--8th nationally; 70.5% completions & 33 TDs LY), who displays the precision and pocket awareness to slice up virtually any secondary he sees. And he has a boatload of choices at WR, including talented Justin Hardy, who set school records with 114 catches and 1,284 yards LY, the first Pirate ever with back-to-back 1,000 receiving seasons. With the graduation of highly-potent RB Vintavious Cooper, the heir apparent could be diminutive 5-8 sr. RB Breon Allen (311 YR), who’ll be asked to shoulder a bigger load this fall. The biggest concern is the OL, with three new starters filling in on the interior, at C and both G spots. Pass blocking needs to improve after Carden was sacked 30 times last year.

There is much more work to be done on the defensive side, with only four starters returning to a unit (24.8 ppg; 116.7 ypg rushing) requiring major rebuilding in the back seven, with three starters gone at both LB and in the secondary. The 3-4 alignment took a blow when DE Terrell Stanley, a potential all-conference performer, will probably be forced to miss the entire 2014 season as a result of a February car crash. But instant help for the pass rush could come from highly-touted frosh DE Markel Winters, who has good speed on the edge. Returning ILB Zeek Bigger (77 tackles), who responded well when forced into the lineup by injuries LY, will have a bigger role and be the signal-caller. There are some good pieces to build around athletic boundary CB Detric Allen, including former walk-on Josh Hawkins, who had a spectacular spring, according to the coaches.

Converting long-range field goals is an issue, as kicker Warren Harvey made only 15 of 25 FG attempts a year ago, but he was money inside the 30, nailing 10 of 11.

SMU (SUR 5-7; PSR 6-6)...Though SMU is coming off a disappointing 5-7 campaign, keep in mind resourceful HC June Jones has delivered a winning season immediately following his last three losing years. Last year was the first time the Mustangs missed the postseason in the previous five terms. But it’s likely to be a bit more difficult for SMU to follow that pattern as a result of a more daunting preconference slate. The Mustangs open up at Baylor’s new stadium and then host other former SWC rivals Texas A&M and TCU in the month of September.

Six starters return to an offense (26.8 ppg; 341.4 ypg passing--8th nationally) that was rewired last season to fit QB Garrett Gilbert by switching to a no-huddle and designed running plays for the mobile triggerman. Now the playbook will undergo significant revision for new pilot Neal Burcham (started final two games for an injured Gilbert), who lacks Gilbert’s strong arm and running skills. The Mustangs seriously lacked a complementary running threat last year, with soph Prescott Lane (only 3.7 ypc) still a work in progress. Coaches are counting on converted fifth-year sr. LB Kevin Pope (No. 2 tackler LY; granted another year of eligibility due to medical hardship) to add some punch to the infantry after finishing as the top RB in the spring. True frosh Daniel Gresham (de-committed from Louisville), a powerful runner who was rated as the nation’s No.1 fullback, could make an immediate impact. SMU lost two 1,000 yd. receivers, but watch out for RS frosh WR Cedric Lancaster, “who may be the fastest player we’ve ever had,” says Jones.

Six returning starters are back on a porous defense (33.3 ppg) that routinely gave up too many big plays last year. The DL struggled early last season but exhibited positive signs as the year progressed, aided by the maturation of former walk-on, sr. DE Beau Barnes, who finished as one of the best defensive players (45 tackles, 13 TFL, five sacks). The Mustangs will feel the loss of LB (leading tackler) Randall Joyner, who was the vocal leader, but they have plenty of skill and athleticism at the four LB positions, including head-hunting Stephon Sanders (86 stops). Three new starters must fill holes in the secondary, which was mostly an open invitation LY, allowing a whopping 271.8 ypg passing (113th nationally), but a trio of sophs named Richardson (unrelated) displayed upside potential in the spring. And at 6-5, jr. Shakiel Randolph has the tools to be among the league’s best safeties. That unit needs to do a better job of forcing miscues after finishing -7 in TO margin a year ago (105th nationally).

MEMPHIS (SUR 3-9; PSR 6-6)...Though Memphis finished 3-9 last season, it appears all the elements are in place for the Tigers to make a move in the AAC. At the least, Memphis could make a run for the postseason after a five-year drought. The Tigers are 12-48 during that stretch, but third-year mentor Justin Fuente is gradually changing the culture, while the ascending defense should be even saltier in 2014. The Memphis attack should demonstrate more spark under soph QB Paxton Lynch, who started all 12 games as a freshman last year. Plus, the Tigers will welcome the navigable conference road slate after being steeled by by challenging trips to UCLA and Ole Miss in the preconference.

Nine starters are back on an offense (19.5 ppg) that surpassed 21 points only three times last season. But 6-6 soph Paxton Lynch (9 TDs, 10 ints. LY), who showed noticeable growth in the spring, should be much more comfortable and productive this fall in the faster-paced attack. Lynch, who has reportedly worked on being more vocal and appears to have a firm grasp of the offense, must stay upright since there is no QB on the roster with FBS experience. Good news is that the NCAA granted greybeard RB Brandon Hayes (860 YR & 5 TDs LY), the team’s top rusher in the past two seasons, a sixth year of eligibility due to early career injuries. The WR corps is eager to make a more positive impact after suffering from a lingering case of the “dropsies” a year ago. Speedy sr. wide-out Keiwone Malone, a former Alabama player, and sr. Joe Craig, an ex-Clemson player, can stretch opposing defenses.

Eight starters are back on a stiffening stop unit (24.6 ppg; only 116.3 ypg rushing) that has risen from the depths three years ago (117th in total defense) to 39th last fall under defensive coordinator Barry Odom, who has been pursued by major programs the past two years. A steady pass rush will be supplied by the aggressive DE duo of Ricky Hunter & All-AAC Martin Ifedi (11.5 sacks). The entire front figures to benefit from the hiring of new, energetic DL coach Ricky Hunley (former NFL player/assistant). The Tiger front seven is equipped to bottle up the run once again (permitting just 3.3 ypc), thanks to the stout LB duo of Charles Harris (top tackler LY) & fellow sr. Ryan Coleman. And while two new safeties must be uncovered, CB is well-set with ball-snatching sr. Bobby McCain (six interceptions LY) & sr. Andrew Gaines.

The top weapon entering the 2014 campaign is probably soph kicker Jake Elliott, who made 16 of 18 FGs, including a school-record 56-yarder in the 23-10 win over South Florida LY.

TULANE (SUR 7-6; PSR 9-4)...A year ago, Tulane went 7-6 and made its first bowl appearance since 2002 by ending a 10-year string of losing seasons. But the Green Wave will need to show more offensive prowess to duplicate that success in the more competitive AAC after enjoying its breakthrough season in the C-USA. Tulane will be geeked to play on an on-campus stadium (Yulman Stadium) for the first time in 40 years! But unfortunately, the Wave has more road games (6) than home affairs (5) this season. Recruiting heavily in South Louisiana, charismatic third-year HC Curtis Johnson and his staff have upgraded the talent level significantly. The program is clearly on the upswing.

Five starters return to an offense (24.8 ppg; 311.9 ypg--115th) that suffered from subpar QBing for most of the campaign. Sr. QB Nick Montana (only 53.4% completions), who played most of the season with an injured shoulder, was never mistaken for his legendary father Joe in 11 starts last season. Soph triggerman Devin Powell did shine at times when he replaced Montana. And while Tulane finished 115th in total offense and lost leading RB Orleans Darkwa (863 YR) along with top WR Ryan Grant (1,039 yds.), the offense could make a sizeable jump behind top-passing RS frosh QB Tanner Lee, who emerged as the frontrunner in the spring. Lee has a quicker release and more arm strength than Montana and better accuracy than Powell. Moreover, RS frosh RB Sherman Badie, who provides the breakaway threat Tulane lacked in Johnson’s first two seasons, teams up with sr. Rob Kelly (420 YR), a power back who sat out spring drills due for academic reasons.

Year ago, Tulane had one of the best defenses in school history, ranking 22nd nationally in yards allowed (352.1 ypg), sixth in yards per carry (3.2) and tied for second in turnovers forced (35). It was an amazing leap from 2012, when the Wave finished 114th in total defense. And though six of the nine top tacklers are gone, there is still plenty of talent on a stiffening defense (21. 4 ppg LY; 38.4 in 2012) that returns five starters. The strength is the secondary, highlighted by the return of big-play CB Lorenzo Doss (seven interceptions), a first-team all-conference selection, and sr. FS Sam Scofield (team-high 104 tackles; 9.5 TFL). LB Nico Marley (reggae legend Bob’s grandson had 67 tackles and 10 TFL) was C-USA’s co-Freshman of the Year, while jr. DE Royce LaFrance is primed for a big year after posting 6.5 sacks in his first season as a starter.

Special teams is a major concern, with frosh Andrew DiRocco being asked to fill the big shoes of 2012 Lou Groza Award winner Cairo Santos, who nailed a combined 37 of 44 FGs in the previous two campaigns.

SOUTH FLORIDA (SUR 2-10; PSR 5-7)...Second-year HC Willie Taggart’s mantra is “Do Something!” But there wasn’t much of anything done on the offensive side in 2013, with that impotent attack mustering an NCAA-low 11 TDs. In retrospect, Taggart, who rapidly revived the Western Kentucky program in his two years (2011 & 2012), was mostly coaching players he didn’t recruit. But Taggart has promised vast improvement in Year Two. The Bulls do remain in the warm climate of Tampa until late September, playing their first four games at friendly Raymond James Stadium, including Big Ten opponent Maryland and ACC foe North Carolina State.

USF started four different QBs last year on that putrid attack (13.8 ppg) that returns eight starters. But 6-4 soph QB Mike White (1,083 YP), who started the final five games as a newcomer, showed enough flashes to make Taggart believe White can morph into a steady field general in 2014. White will be pressed by jr. Steven Bench, who sparkled in the spring game, completing 19 of 24 for 317 yards. With five starters back on a beefier OL ( bigger by an average 13 lbs. per man), the run attack should be stronger, though it’s still unknown whether USF possesses a go-to back. Sr. RB Michael Pierre (114 YR) came out ahead in the spring, but it might end up a position-by-committee in Taggart’s bruising, run-first attack. Dangerous sr. WR Andre Davis (49 catches for a school-record 735 yds.) secured twice as many catches as No. 2 guy, TE Mike McFarland. So, some other WR needs to surface in a hurry to take some pressure off Mr. Davis.

Four starters are back on a defense (28.6 ppg; 350.8 ypg--21st nationally) that was making headway by the end of the season. Some adjustment time was needed for the defense to learn the system of defensive coordinator Chuck Bresnahan, who had his unit swarming to the ball and creating turnovers by November. However, the lack of depth in the interior had coaches experimenting with the 3-4 look in the spring, though the standard 4-3 figures to remain the base defense. Soph Derrick Calloway, the prize of Taggart’s first recruiting class, is a budding star in the interior, while sr. OLB Reshard Cliett (second leading tackler) is expected to fill the leadership chasm created by the loss of MLB DeDe Lattimore, a four-year starter. The secondary should tighten its coverage after a quartet of freshmen saw extended playing time in 2014. But the biggest impact might come from highly-regarded juco transfer SS Jamie Byrd.

The kicking game is a big plus, with sr. PK Marvin Kloss (hit 18 of 23 FGs), who ended last season as one of three finalists for the Lou Groza Award, and punter Mattias Ciabatti (40.2 avg.;14 of 50 yds. or more).

TULSA (SUR 3-9; PSR 3-9)...Tulsa was certainly one of the nation’s most disappointing teams in 2013. In 2012, the Golden Hurricane captured the C-USA championship and 31-17 Liberty Bowl victory over Iowa State, surpassing 30 points eight times. In 2013, Tulsa took a terrible tumble, scoring more than 30 points twice en route to a 3-9 season (worst mark since 2002), dropping five of its last six games. The defense didn’t provide much help either, yielding 30 points or more eight times. The Hurricane will try to regroup in its inaugural season in the AAC. “We have to be more physical and simply get more production on offense,” HC Bill Blankenship says. Tulsa, which had been a perennial contender in C-USA, will be seeking to avoid back-to-back losing seasons for the first time since 2001-2002.

Four starters are back on an offense (21.1 ppg) undergoing only minor changes under promoted o.c. Denver Johnson, who’ll also remain as the offensive line coach. “We’re not going to throw everything in the trash and start over,” says Johnson. “Schematically, you’ll some change. Hopefully, the most effective change you’ll see is in the passing game. But the style of offense won’t change drastically.” Blankenship will still call the plays for the tweaked offense seeking needed stability at QB after soph Dane Evans completed only 84 of 195 attempts and had only four TD tosses along with 10 interceptions in his five starts a year ago. If Evans can’t step it up, jr. Joseph Calcagni or true frosh Jabe Burgess are waiting in the wings. Promising soph RB James Flanders and highly-touted juco Tavarreon Dickerson (8.5 ypc LY!) must collectively try to replace Trey Watts, who finished with 3,515 career yards. There is more experience at WR, with 6-4 jr. Keyarris Garrett (67 catches & 9 TDs in 2012), who is expected back after a leg injury prematurely ended his 2013 season, and Keevan Lucas (32 grabs). After exhibiting an explosive aerial assault on a regular basis in C-USA, Blankenship is hoping that LY’s drop to 191.4 ypg passing ( 99th nationally) was just an aberration.

After a young and overworked defense (33.9 ppg) took its lumps a year ago, the coaches are banking on a sea change from a maturing unit returning 10 starters, despite the departure of C-USA Defensive Player of the Year Shawn Jackson. “He is one of the greatest players we’ve had here, but we have 10 other spots where we are returning depth and not just individual starters,” Blankenship says. The secondary will be the team’s strength, bolstered by the return of FS Demarco Nelson (239 career tackles & eight interceptions), a veteran who started his career as a Freshman A-A, but missed last year due to academic issues. And with fearless jr. SS Michael Mudoh (C-USA leading 133 tackles) and CB Darnell Walker (four interceptions) working alongside Nelson, Blankenship beams, “The secondary has a chance to be special.” The DL is as seasoned and deep as the secondary, anchored by DE Derrick Alexander (6.5 sacks). PK Carl Salazar connected on 16 of 19 FGs LY.

TEMPLE (SUR 2-10; PSR 8-4)...Though Temple finished 2-10 in HC Matt Rhule’s debut, the season was far from a disaster. The Owls were no pushover, as the offense began to find its groove after switching from predecessor Steve Addazio’s run-first philosophy to Rhule’s more wide-open approach. Temple finished with its worst record since 2006, but 7 of the 10 losses were by10 points or fewer and four by three or fewer. Remember, Rhule was on the staff when Temple won 26 games while in the MAC from 2009-11. He’s confident that it can happen again, perhaps even soon. Continued improvement should continue on a fast-developing attack, while the defense figures to show some sort of climb upward after finishing a ghastly 108th in total yards allowed a year ago.

Five starters return to an offense (24.9 ppg) that began to percolate under dual-threat QB P.J. Walker (2,084 YP, 20 TDs; 332 YR), who started the final seven games, winding up with nine TDs and only three interceptions in the last three tilts. The Owls have a competent stable of RBs, including their top two rushers from last year, Kenneth Harper and Zaire Williams, who combined for 1,146 YR and 12 TDs. Big-play WR Robbie Anderson (team-high nine TD catches) and second-leading WR John Christopher are gone, but sure-handed Jalen Fitzpatrick (33 catches) and soph Khalif Herbin, who redshirted last year after playing as a true frosh in 2012, are ready to roll. But for the smooth-functioning offense to pick up where it left off in 2014, the coaches must quickly reassemble an OL replacing four starters.

The coaching staff has plenty of work to do on a leaky defense (29.8 ppg; 298.6 ypg passing--19th nationally) bringing back seven starters. The most glaring needs are developing a pass rush (only 19 sacks LY) and greatly improving pass coverage. Playmakers are desperately needed along the back line after the much-maligned secondary managed a meager three interceptions last year. Though the DL has decent starting experience, there are seven frosh & soph listed among the two-deep. The coaching staff believes the move of soph LB Sharif Finch to DE coupled with highly-touted frosh DE Michael Dogbe (6-3, 235) can instantly help the pass rush. The LB corps should continue to run well to the ball, with NFL prospect soph Tyler Matakevich (nation-leading 106 solo tackles) and Nate D. Smith (81 stops).

Temple might be able to turn some of those close losses into victories if it can find someone who can kick a three-pointer goal after finishing a woeful 3 of 9 on FGs last year. Owls went a sizzling 8-1 as an underdog last year!

CONNECTICUT (SUR 3-9; PSR 5-7)...Paul Pasqualoni was clearly unable to maintain the winning tradition instilled by the beloved HC Randy Edsall, who had a successful 12-year run in Storrs. Pasqualoni went a miserable 10-23 in his nearly three forgettable terms ; UConn finished 3-0 under interim HC T.J. Weist last season. Husky Nation hopes that new head man Bob Diaco, who built his reputation as a defensive coordinator at Cincinnati and Notre Dame, can rapidly bring back a winning culture. The detail-oriented, no-nonsense coach will change the attitude, but he inherits a team that will probably finish the lower-tier of the AAC. It’s not a one-year job, that is why Diaco--who hopes to build off the brand created by the men’s and women’s national championship basketball teams--was awarded a five-year contract worth $8 million. Early toughies at home vs. BYU and Boise State should help ramp up the honing process for Diaco’s troops.

Paramount to the new-look attack (20.6 ppg LY; five starters back) is finding a reliable passer to take full advantage of a topnotch WR duo of Geremy Davis and Deshon Foxx, who combined for 114 catches last season. Casey Cochran, who led the team to victories in the last three games, Chandler Whitmer (started the first four games LY) and Tim Boyle (four starts at midseason; he had the best spring) will enter preseason battling it out for the No. 1 spot. The infantry took a hit with the dismissal of leading RB Lyle McCombs in June, but coaches are raving about gifted frosh RB Arkeel Newsome, who’ll have an chance to share the load with 2013 backup RB Max DeLorenzo (367 YR, 5 TDs). And even with McCombs, the Huskies limped to only 84.4 ypg rushing (119th). Diaco, who wants to have his TEs heavily involved in the offense, must also quickly renovate an OL returning only one starter.

Five starters will be back on a restructured defense (30.3 ppg) probably switching between a 3-4 and a 4-3 scheme under defensive guru Diaco. There is sufficient upside potential on a proud stop unit, which slipped to 51st in total defense in 2013 after sporting a lofty 9th ranking nationally in 2012. Despite leading tackler Yawin Smallwood leaving after his junior year for the NFL, the LB corps looks fine. Jefferson Ashiru (58 tackles) is the vocal leader of that unit, former Florida transfer Graham Stewart is eager to make a big impact as a starter after spot duty last year, while hard-hitting Marquis Vann is healthy after missing the final third of 2013 with an injury. Some pass rushers need to be found after compiling only 16 sacks last season. But the veteran, deep secondary appears well-set, with rangy 6-3 soph SS Obi Melifonwu (70 tackles) and the CB tandem of sr. Byron Jones (three interceptions, 60 stops) & rising soph Jhavon Williams.

The kicking game could be an adventure with unproven underclassmen taking over punting and placekicking duties. The Huskies are an eye-popping 19-4 as a home dog since 2005


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