by Gary Olshan, Chief Analyst

Following is a look at the American, previewing the East half of the loop; we'll cover the West in our next update.  As usual, teams are listed in order of predicted finish, with 2016 staight-up and spread records included.

SOUTH FLORIDA (2016 SUR 11-2 PSR 7-5-1)—Our clear No. 1 choice in the East are the loaded, opportunistic Bulls (+9 TO margin), who finished in the Top 25, amassed a school-record 11 victories and shared the East Division title with Temple last year. New HC Charlie Strong, who was fired from Texas, is thrilled to take over for predecessor Willie Taggart who bolted for Oregon. Strong says, “The major part of it is that last year they had so much success. What we’ve done is come in and build on last season. It’s a message that we have sent as a coaching staff.” The schedule is highly-favorable, since the home battle vs. Temple on Sept. 21 is the only matchup that USF has vs. a team with a winning record from last year in the first nine games! Strong exclaims, “The big thing is we didn’t win the title outright last year, so we have something to shoot for. That carrot is dangling in front of us, and that’s why we work the way that we work.”

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Seven starters return to a highly-explosive attack (43.8 ppg) that produced a school-record 77 TDs last year. Fleet-footed, sr. QB Quinton Flowers (62.5%; 2,812 YP, 24 TDP, 7 ints.)—who was the AAC Offensive Player of the Year in 2016, rushed for 1,530 yds., the fourth highest total ever by an FBS QB and 18 TDs. Though star RB Marlon Mack skipped his senior season for the NFL draft, Strong expressed confidence in his returning RBs, especially do-everything sr. D’Ernest Johnson, who compiled 543 YR and had 28 receptions while being the team’s premier return man and scoring 14 total TDs. Additionally, Flowers should fully exploit a deep, fast WR corps, featuring jr. Tyre McCants & sr. Marquez Valdes-Scantling, who combined for 47 grabs. Three starters return to an OL that permitted only 15 sacks LY.

Nine starters are back on a defense (31.6 ppg;482 ypg; 120th nationally) that needs to make rapid strides under new d.c. Brian Jean-Mary, who’s seeking much better tackling in 2017. Strong is known for his 3-3-5 defensive scheme, but that unit used its familiar 4-2-5 look about half the time during the spring. All four starters return on the DL, anchored by All-AAC 2nd-teamer DT Deadrin Senat. Plus, the seasoned secondary (boasts 99 career starts) should be tighter with the healthy return of SS Devin Abraham (missed 5 games due to a broken thumb; 120 career tackles & 4 ints.), who’ll team up with lock-down CB Deatrick Nichols (8 ints. L2Ys). The centerpiece of the LB corps is ubiquitous vocal leader MLB Auggie Sanchez— ranks second nationally in career tackles among active players—will be adjusting to his fourth d.c. in as many seasons.

Note USF recorded 9-3-1 “overs” last year.

UCF (2016 SUR 6-7; PSR 8-5)—Second-year HC Scott Frost did a marvelous job in his debut in Orlando by transforming his highly coachable, redemptive bunch from a winless season in 2015 into a bowl team that finished a respectable 6-7 last year. Frost, who recruited well in the Sunshine State, knows that continued growth will be more difficult, but he seems cautiously optimistic. Frost says, “ I think that the jump from 0-12 to 6-7 will be easier than the jump from 6-7 to 10-2. I want our players to understand the challenge in front of them and I think our players are motivated to continue on this trajectory that we are on.” The key to the Knights’ success will be offensive improvement after finishing 113thh in total offense LY. The “UCFast” offense was largely a work in progress a year ago, but the good news is that virtually every key player on that side returns. And UCF must be ready to roll early due to a challenging slate in the month of September that includes a Week 2 home date with Memphis and non-conference clashes vs. Georgia Tech and Maryland.

Nine starters return to the attack (28.2 ppg LY) probably directed by soph QB McKenzie Milton (1,983 YP, who displayed quickness and agililty, but questions still linger about his overall arm strength. True frosh Darriel Mack Jr. Could challenge Milton for starter status, depending on how quickly he can pick up the nuances of the system. UCF has a bevy of skill position talent, notably go-to jr. WR Tre’Quan Smith, the team leader in receptions and yards the past two seasons.

Knight coaches hope that the ground game can display more pop (only 3.7 ypc LY) behind the 1-2 punch of sophs Jawon Hamilton and Adrian Killins, who averaged 6.5 ypc in a reserve role LY. The OL (3 starters back) should be strengthened with the healthy return of top blocker Tyler Hudanick, who was sidelined in mid-October with a season-ending injury.

Only four starters are back on a defense (24.6 ppg LY) that has some serious rebuilding at LB and in the secondary (all 4 starters gone) where only one starter returns. The heart and soul of the stop unit is sr. LB Shaquem Griffin (reigning AAC Defensive Player of the Year), who finished with 92 tackles while leading the league with 11.5 sacks and finishing third with 20.0 TFL. Sr. NT Jamiyus Pittman is considered the leader of the defense, while there are high expectations for soph FS Shawn Burgess-Becker, a highly touted transfer from Alabama.

Mac Loudermilk has been solid in his first two seasons as the FG kicker, nailing 17 of 22 in 2016.

TEMPLE (2016 SUR 10-4; PSR 12-2)—Will Temple be reloading or rebuilding in 2017? That’s the No. 1 question as new HC and former Florida d.c. Geoff Collins takes over a defending AAC championship program that lost many players from LY’s roster under the guidance of predecessor Matt Rhule, who took over at Baylor. But no doubt a winning culture has been developed in the City of Brotherly Love after back-to-back 10 win seasons and bowl appearances for the first time in school history. Schedule-makers didn’t do Collins any favors with the Owls having an early litmus test at Notre Dame on Sept. 2. Moreover, Houston, Navy and Tulsa are the cross-division games, and Temple has to visit East favorite South Florida in its AAC opener. Another double-digit win total is probably asking too much, but another bowl game is well within reach.

Four starters return to an offense (32.4 ppg LY), guided by first-year o.c. Dave Patenaude (spend last five years at Coastal Carolina), who must replace four-year starting QB Philip Walker. There are a quartet of candidates, including 6-4 frosh Anthony Russo & soph Logan Marchi (2 of 6 LY; only returning triggerman with any attempts in 2016), who’re listed as projected starters in early two-deeps. But whoever wins the job will benefit from a topflight supporting cast, spearheaded by the fluid WR trio of jr. Ventell Bryant, sr. Keith Kirkwood & sr. Adonis Jennings, who combined for 123 catches and 12 TDs LY. RB Ryquell Armstead (919 YR, 5.9 ypc) will be the primary infantry threat in what is reported to be a more uptempo attack. There’s a good chance Temple will be going with more 3-WR sets instead of employing a TE. Three starters are back on an OL, which allowed 29 sacks LY.

Like the offense, four starters are back on a hard-hitting defense (18.4 ppg), which lost four of its top five tacklers. The obvious strength of that youthful unit will be its experienced secondary, featuring the topflight safety tandem of Sr. Sean Chandler & jr. Delvon Randall, who had 65 tackles & four picks LY. Plus, Mike Jones, a graduate transfer from North Carolina Central, is projected to take over at the one vacated CB spot.

New d.c. Taver Johnson (DB coach at Purdue L3Ys), who must quickly reload on the front seven (only one starter back), does have a plethora of players with at least some meaningful playing time. Vet DT Michael Dogbe will be the kingpin of the DL, which acccounted for 27 of the unit’s 41 sacks last season. Sr. DE Jacob Martin had 2.5 sacks as a reserve LY.

CINCINNATI (2016 SUR 4-8; PSR 3-9)—Controversial Tommy Tuberville lost his fans last year and resigned shortly after the season and ended with a ho-hum 29-22 record at UC. Tuberville started pretty strong going 9-4 in each of his first two season. The Bearcats slipped to 7-6 in 2015 and 4-8 LY, missing a bowl game for the first time since 2010. Enter 43-year-old Luke Fickell, who was interim HC for one season at Ohio State after Jim Tressel was fired in 2011. The Buckeyes finished 6-7 that year, but it provided valuable head coaching experience for the longtime assistant, who brings an entirely new staff, including former Notre Dame associate head coach Mike Denbrock as the o.c./QB coach. Optimism runs high under energetic Fickell who says, “We don’t talk about goals, For us, they’re long term. We want to be the best and be the class of the league, the most fundamentally sound team in America. I haven’t sat down and said how many wins or what is a successful season. I don’t want to sell ourselves short, or oversell us.” Tough early trips to Michigan and Navy could make it difficult to build early momentum.

Five starters are back on an attack (19.3 ppg; 123rd nationally; 3.5 ypc) that mightily struggled LY. At QB, Gunner Kiel is gone after playing sparingly as a senior. Soph Ross Trail and jr. Hayden Moore (146 of 255; 11 TDP, 7 ints. LY) started multiple games, while the wild card is Ohio State transfer Torrance Gibson, a former five-star QB recruit who was moved to WR with the Buckeyes. Fickell wants his offense to be more physical and run the football after mustering a meager 8 rushing TDs last year (tied for last nationally with Rutgers!). To help achieve that goal will be sr. RB Mike Boone (749 YR in 2015), who ran for only 388 yds. LY & 2 TDs as he battled turf toe.

Bearcats will run a power spread, and the tempo was much faster during spring practice, with more passes thrown to the TE and RBs. Cincy aerial attack, which fell off dramatically a year ago, could bounce back behind the vet WR duo of Kahlil Lewis (5 TDC LY) and Devin Gray, who combined for 106 grabs LY.

Five starters return on a defense (26.9 ppg) under the tutelage of first-year d.c. Marcus Freeman, a former Ohio State standout LB, who served as a Purdue assistant the past four campaigns. The DL should be stout in the interior, with the return of jr. DTs Cortez Broughton, a second-team All-AAC pick LY and Marquise Copeland, who didn’t start last year but led the Bearcat linemen in tackles with 59. CB Alex Thomas (4 ints. LY) is the top cover guy on the back end, but a serious loss is MLB Bryce Jenkinson, who started as a true freshman in 2015, but will be unable to return in 2017 due to season-ending knee surgery after two games LY.

Big plus for the special teams is the return of PK Andrew Gantz, who set a UC season record for kicking points (112) in 2015 after missing most of LY due to a leg injury.

CONNECTICUT (2016 SUR 3-9; PSR 2-8-2)—Randy Edsall, who was the UConn head man from 1999 to 2010, has returned to the sidelines in Storrs after a stint at Maryland (2011-15) and LY’s assignment as a director of football research with the Detroit Lions. After its snail-paced attack mustered a paltry 14.8 ppg LY (dead last nationally LY) under former HC Bob Diaco, Edsall is wisely installing a fast-paced attack installed by new o.c. Rhett Lashlee, who took a pay cut to come to Storrs from Auburn, where he ran Gus Malzahn’s no-huddle offense to increasing success over the course of last season. Sure, it will be a highly challenging task for Edsall, who must uncover some playmakers that can make chunk plays on the attack end. And the early league schedule is rough, facing South Florida, Memphis and Temple by mid-October. Not to mention a non-conference tilt at Virginia in mid-September.

Seven starters return to an anemic offense (14.8 ppg LY), which managed a putrid 10 ppg during its season-ending 6-game losing skein. Though the muddled QB position is still up for grabs going into the fall, we believe sr. Bryant Shirreffs (started first 9 games LY; 2,010 YP, 7 TDP, 6 ints. LY) will begin the season at the top of the depth chart, though soph triggerman Donovan Williams (starter at the end of LY) & juco transfer David Pindell can’t be ruled out going into fall camp. Smallish but durable 5-7, 180-pound sr. RB Arkeel Newsome (715 YR & 25 catches LY ) is a versatile weapon, while Lashlee looks to incorporate capable WRs Hergy Mayala and Tyraiq Beals more into the no-huddle offense. OL returns 3 starters.

Although it did not need as much of a facelift as the offense did, the defense (6 starters back; 28.1 ppg LY) is nonetheless getting a wholesale change in scheme as well, with new d.c. Billy Crocker, whose Villanova team gave up an FCS-low 15 ppg last season. The Huskies are going from a more traditional 4-3 look to a 3-3-5, which tends to be better suited to defend the type of high-powered spread offenses that are so common nowadays.

There is plenty of experience up front, anchored by the hard-charging, sr. bookend DE duo of Luke Carrezola (team-leading 11 TFL) and Cole Ormsby (team-high 4 sacks). Additionally, the head-hunting sr. LB duo of Vontae Diggs (84 tackles & 8 TFL LY) & Junior Joseph (81 stops LY) , who finished second & third on the team in tackles, packs some real punch. The secondary will miss NFL Combine stud Obi Melifonwu, last year’s leading tackler at safety, but that unit is ably lead by ball-hawking sr. CB Jamar Summers, who has 11 career ints.

Despite having to replace both kickers, re-energized UConn figures to improve on its lowly 2-8-2 spread mark last season, especially if it can improve on its costly -8 TO margin.

EAST CAROLINA (2016 SUR 3-9; PSR 3-8-1)—Though ECU should now be on the same page with second-year HC Scottie Montgomery right out of the chute, the Pirates will still not easily escape the cellar in the East Division. ECU, which is coming off its worst campaign in 12 years, was plagued by untimely TOs, special teams snafus, and a porous defense.

Pirates won their first two games, nearly upset South Carolina and then the ship sank. The coaching staff also attributed some of the issues to an overall lack of depth, as ECU lost 7 of its final 8 games by an avg. 27.1 points!

The Pirates certainly have a chance to be a much more competitive with some new defensive coaches and schemes along with a more efficient and better balanced offense. But it will difficult to build needed confidence early. ECU opens up with FCS champ James Madison, and then faces three consecutive Top 25 programs—at West Virginia, Virginia Tech and South Florida.

Six starters return to an offense (27.0 ppg LY) that figures to be more effective, thanks to new, projected QB Thomas Sirk, the skillful Duke transfer. In 24 games with the Blue Devils, multi-talented Sirk completed 59% for 2,692 yds., with 19 TDs, & 8 ints. Sirk, who should eventually win the job over incumbent Gardner Minshew (2 career starts; 52%, 13,47 YP, 8 TDs, 4 ints. LY.), also rushed for 1,041 yds. & 16 TDs on 210 carries in Durham.

Sirk and Tennessee transfer RB Derrell Scott should immediately help a sagging ground assault that finished 110th nationally (only 132 ypg rushing LY). Despite losing record-breaking WR Zay Jones, there is plenty of veteran talent at WR, led by sr. Quay Johnson (58 grabs LY). & Jimmy Williams (18.2 yds. per catch; 8 TDs). OL returns 3 starters, including both OTs. Regardless of the playmakers, ball security is a must after the Pirates had an alarming 24 TOs LY.

Four starters are back on a defense (36.1 ppg; yielding a whopping 5.5 ypc LY) transitioning from a three-man front to a 4-2-5 scheme, which should aid in stopping the run. The defensive front is bolstered with the addition of West Virginia transfer DT Tyree Owens, while the fast secondary is significantly strengthened by Auburn transfer Tim Irvin, who was spectacular in the spring. ILB Jordan Williams, the team leader in tackles (81) is back, and the hope is that the new scheme frees him and LB Ray Tillman to make more plays. And that’s crucial, since the defense ranked last nationally in sacks (8.0) and TOs forced (8).

Sizeable improvement is needed in special teams after finishing near the bottom of the league in both KO and punt coverage. Soph kicker Jake Verity still unproven after hitting 1 of 2 FGs LY.


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