by Gary Olshan, Chief Analyst

Following is our prevew of the Eastern half of the American; the West will appear in our next update.  As always, teams are presented in order of predicted finish, with 2017 straight-up, spread, and "over/under" (O/U) records included.

1. CENTRAL FLORIDA (2017 SUR 13-0, PSR 7-4-1-, O-U 7-5)—It’s understandable why new HC Josh Heupel (Missouri o.c. previous 2 years) believes UCF is a great starting point for a first-year head coach. “Everyone in the country understands the success this place has had over the last decade.” Heupel says. “Six 10-win seasons over the past 10 years, five conference titles, two New Year’s Six bowl wins in the last five years. We’re right in the middle of a state that has as much talent as anywhere in the country. I’m excited about it.” The Knights, odds on favorite to repeat as conference champs, carry a 13-game win streak into 2018, which is the longest in the FBS.

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Operating at even a faster pace will be dynamic, dual-threat Heisman hopeful jr. QB McKenzie Milton (4,037 YP, 37 TDP & 613 YR LY), who returns his top rusher Adrian Killins Jr. (790 YR) and a solid stable of WR—featuring Dredrick Snelson with 46 grabs—despite losing No. 1 target Tre’Quan Smith, who left early for the NFL. A happy Heupel, who returns six starters to the O, thinks the high-octane attack (48.2 ppg; 1st nationally LY) can be ultra-explosive again, and beams, “The running backs are as fast as any group I’ve been around, and we have a combination of some power backs as well.”

Six starters return to an opportunisitic defense (25.3 ppg; +17 TO margin)—spearheaded by first-team All-AAC sr. SS Kyle Gibson (4 ints. 64 tackles), 2nd-teamer jr. DT Trysten Hill & relentless sr. LB Pat Jasinski (team-leading 104 tackles)—which switches to a 4-3 alignment under 1st-year d.c. Randy Shannon (former Miami HC), who comes over from Florida.

Favorable early slate allows the transitioning Knights to build up a head of steam before their showdown at West Division favorite Memphis on Oct. 13th.

2. TEMPLE (2017 SUR 7-6, 7-6, O-U 6-7)—Under astute 2nd-year mentor Geoff Collins, the Owls figure to be in the league race all the way in 2018. Hey, Temple has 18 conference wins in the L3Ys, second most in the AAC! The youthful Owls displayed noticeable improvement in 2017 once then-jr. QB Frank Nutile took over the attack, completing 122 of 199 passes for 1,600 yards, with 12 TDs & 7 ints. Additionally, Nutile is blessed with dynamic playmakers in RBs Ryquell Armstead (604 YR LY; 1,714 career yds.; slowed by injuries in 2017) David Hood (638 YR) & big-play WR Isaiah Wright (46 grabs, 4 TDs). Note, Wright produced a TD in five different ways (including passing for a TD), Collins also loves his depth at QB when he beams, “We have four really good QBs. There’s not a lot of programs who have four guys you’re comfortable leading your program.” OL is solid in the interior, led by soph C Matt Hennessy, a Rimington Award finalist, while RG Juwahn Fair returns after missing 7 games with a shoulder injury.

Six starters return to a defense (25.8 ppg) under new, promoted d.c. Andrew Thacker boasting key performers at every level. Freakish 6-3, 280-pound DT Michael Dogbe is a disruptor up front, while MLB Shaun Bradley (team-high 85 stops; 10.5 TFL) and sr. S Delvon Randall (83 tackles & team-best 4 ints.) are key difference-makers. Collins’ stop unit needs to do a better job containing the run (yielding 4.7 ypc L2Ys) and in critical TO margin after finishing minus 4 (tied for 90th) a year ago.

Temple must prove it can perform at a high level away from Philly, with challenging crossover away games at Navy & Houston plus a crucial trip to UCF on Nov.l.

After an 0-4 spread start, the Owls began to hoot loudly from late September on, posting 7-2 spread mark, including a decisive 28-3 victory over Florida International in the Gasparilla Bowl.

3. SOUTH FLORIDA (2017 SUR 10-2, PSR 6-6, O-U 5-7)The Bulls, who came very close to an undefeated season last year, have won 21 of 25 games over the past two years and have been ranked in the Top 25 for 20 consecutive polls. And there’s stability, as the entire coaching staff—headed by second-year Charlie Strong—returns for the first time since 2011. So, even though USF must replace superstar QB Quinton Flowers—who graduated with a whopping 42 school records—along with six defenders who were either 1st or 2nd team All-AAC, the bustling Bulls figure to be in the hunt all the way.

As mentioned, there are enormous shoes to fill at QB. But Strong is confident there will be an adequate solution with either soph Chris Oladokun or jr. Brett Kean. “Quinton was very special, a different kind of player.” Strong says. “But Chris and Brett have been in the system for two years. They will do the job, and we’ll do whatever we can to help them progress.” The USF lost its top 3 rushers from a year ago, but the infantry welcomes incoming Florida transfer RB Jordan Cronkite, who had a sparkling spring and played in 24 games at the SEC school in 2015-16. WR is solid, with 3 of the top 4 returning, including all-league TE Mitchell Wilcox.

USF does have big holes to fill in the defense (23.5 ppg; 3.4ypc), which was the AAC’s best in 2017. That reloading unit is anchored by jr. DE Greg Reaves (team-high 14 TFL) and jr. LB Nico Sawtelle (56 tackles), who looks to move over to MLB. On the plus side, three starters return to a ball-hawking secondary that was ranked 2nd nationally with 20 interceptions. Newcomers will fill both kicking jobs.

Scheduling-wise, the Bulls have a chance to pick up big nonconference wins for the AAC, facing two Power Five foes when it welcomes Georgia Tech to Tampa and battles Illinois in Chicago in September.

4. CINCINNATI (2017 SUR 4-8, PSR 4-6-1, O-U 4-7)—After finishing 8-16 over the past two years and HC Luke Fickell in the 2nd year of his rebuilding project, a .500 record might be the best the Bearcats can hope for this campaign. Note, 7 of its 8 losses LY were by DDs, while its 3 victories vs. FBS foes came by a combined 6 points. A positive sign, however, for the near future is Cincy’s sparkling 2018 recruiting class which was ranked No.1 in the AAC by several scouting services. In the present, the Bearcats look to improve on offense after generating a meager 20.9 ppg and 351.8 ypg, both of which ranked last in the American Athletic Conference.

New QB coach Gino Guidugli, who holds several UC passing records, will work with sr. QB Hayden Moore, a streaky passer, who completed 239 of 424 passes (58.4%) with 20 TDs & 9 ints. in 2017. There is no experienced depth behind Moore after Ross Trail, slated to be the backup, announced in the spring he would transfer, leaving RS frosh Desmond Ridder No. 2 on the depth chart. Soph RB Gerrid Doaks (513 YR, 5.9 ypc) appears to be the featured ball-carrier, while go-to WR Kahlil Lewis (team-high 61 grabs) is seeking support since no other returning WR caught more than 29 passes. The OL is a concern, with only two starters back and a shortage of upperclassmen.

A middle-of-the-pack defense (31.8 ppg) in the AAC returns six starters, having to replace both CBs and its MLB. Cincy, which does possess two studs at DT in srs. Marquise Copeland (honorable mention All-AAC) and Cortez Broughton (2nd-team All-AAC), but the “D” needs to be more effective on crucial 3rd down after allowing opponents to convert 43.3% in 2017. Moreover, coaches desperately seeking a more forceful pass rush after mustering only 12 sacks LY and greater ball-hawking coverage in the secondary after picking off just 5 passes LY.

5. CONNECTICUT (2017, SUR 3-9, PSR 5-7, O-U 6-6)—Huskies’ 2nd-year mentor Randy Edsall understands Connecticut football is still going through growing pains. “You would like the second season to be a year of growth, but we will be a very young team, which is not an excuse,” Edsall told the Hartford Courant. “We will get them to the level we want to compete and win. But when you have between 72% and 75% of your team redshirt freshmen or sophs, guys are going to have to grow up quickly. But we see the will and the want to, which is what you want.” We believe Edsall, in his second stint, will probably need another season to capture a winning season in Storrs for the first time since 2010.

The Huskies will have an experienced QB directing what was an anemic offense in 2017 (23.6 ppg; 103nd) in 6-0 sr. David Pindell (84 of 159 for 937 yards), who’s looking to improve his TD-to-TO ratio (4-to-6). In the spring, Pindell reportedly meshed well with new o.c. John Dunn, most recently an assistant for the Chicago Bears, who becomes the fifth coach in five years to spend at least part of a season as coordinator. The premier weapon is WR Hergy Mayala (43 catches, 7 TDs), but there are questions on a young, remolded OL and at RB, where soph Kevin Mensah (561 YR) returns as the leading rusher.

Only two starters are back on a woeful 3-3-5 defense (37.9 ppg; 122nd), which allowed 333.9 ypg passing LY, dead last in the FBS. On the nation’s least experienced stop unit, a plethora of new players must fill holes in the front seven, with Miami grad transfer NT Ryan Fines expected to bolster the DL right away. Needed on-field leadership will be supplied by soph DB Tyler Coyle (team-leading 67 tackles; 2 ints.).

Schedule-makers did young Huskies no favors with the first two games out of the gate vs. Central Florida and at Boise State. Ouch!  Huskies started 0-5 vs. the spread last year, but managed to cover 5 of their final 7 games, including Ws vs. UCF & South Florida as an avg. 31-point underdog.

6 . EAST CAROLINA (2017 SUR 3-9, PSR 3-9, 0-U 8-4)—After finishing in the basement in 2017, the Pirates will have trouble moving up with only 9 starters back on a team ranked 94th in scoring (24.9 ppg) and was ranked at the bottom nationally in scoring (45.0 ppg) and total defense (541.7 ypg). Embroiled, third-year HC Scottie Montgomery brought in five new coaches to try to right the Pirates’ ship. The downturn in football fortunes has already cost athletic director Jeff Compher his job, so it could be a make-or-break year for Mr. Montgomery.

New 6-3 soph QB Reid Herring impressed in the spring with his command of the offense, while fleet-footed hometown hero 6-3 Holton Ahlers (top rated QB in the state of North Carolina in 2017) seems to have the “it factor.” The ground game, featuring smurf-like 5-9 Hussein Howe, must get off the ground after mustering a skimpy 107.7 ypg LY (119th). Actually, WR Trevon Brown (80 catches, 7 TDs) is the only proven factor in the offense, but RS frosh Duce Fuller grabbed attention in the spring. Both Gs must be replaced on the OL.

First-year d.c. David Blackwell (ECU alum), a finalist for FCS Defensive Coordinator of the Year with Jacksonville State in 2015 & 2016 will certainly earn his paycheck in an attempt to improve a pathetic defense that couldn’t stop the wind last year, yielding Blackwell known for his intensity immediately implemented a mindset of “keep it simple, just attack.” The Pirates were also dead last in the FBS in tackles for loss (39), so that unit remains a huge question mark. We feel Blackwell, however, has a chance to make a real positive impact right away. Hey, it can’t get any worse.

ECU has been a poor investment since mid-2015, going a bankroll-bustin’ 7-22-1 vs. the spread.

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