American Athletic Conference East Preview

1. University of South Florida Bulls: South Florida ended last season with a 7-1 record in conference play which was good enough to give them a share of a first place tie with Temple. With Willie Taggart heading to the west coast to coach Oregon, the Bulls hired Charlie Strong to replace Taggart as the head coach. With 15 total returning starters from last years squad, including the reigning AAC Offensive Player of the Year Quinton Flowers, the Bulls will look to make another run at first place in the AAC East division and their first conference championship. Flowers led the offense in passing yards (2,812) and rushing yards (1,530) while totaling 42 touchdowns (24 passing, 18 rushing). Flowers will have three returning offensive linemen to keep him protected, and a good target in Marquez Valdes-Scantling (22 catches, 415 yards, 5 TDs). The Bulls’ defense returns 10 starters from last season, which look to shut opposing offenses down. Senior linebacker, Augie Sanchez led all South Florida defenders last year with 116 tackles and also had 8 tackles for loss and 6 sacks. The Bulls have a strong secondary which is headlined by senior cornerback Deatrick Nicholas who had four interceptions and is joined by fellow senior Tajee Fullwood (S) was fourth on the team with 65 tackles a year ago. With all the experience coming back for the Bulls, the east division is theirs to lose.

2. University of Central Floirda Knights: UCF was an inexperienced team last year both on the field and on the sidelines, with true freshman quarterback McKenzie Milton running the offense, and a new coaching staff (Scott Frost Head Coach, Troy Walters Offensive Coordinator, Erik Chinander Defensive Coordinator) the Knights still managed to win six games and a trip to a bowl game, after going win-less in 2015. The Knights also return 15 starters from last years team. The Knights defense returns its front seven, with the AAC Defensive Player of the Year Shaquem Griffin, returns for his senior season after a year where he had 11.5 sacks, 20 tackles for loss, and 92 tackles headlines the pack. Backing Griffin is senior end Tony Guerad (45 tackles, 10 for loss, 3.5 sacks) and senior tackle Jamalyus Pitman. The offense certainly has some question marks for UCF, but with Milton (1,983 passing yards, 18 TDs) returning at quarterback, sophomore Jawon Hamilton (495 yards rushing, 4 TD) returning at tailback and three players returning on the o-line, the Knights will have hopes of besting their 350.6 yards a game in total offense, which was 113th nationally. UCF has a far shot at winning the east, but with South Florida standing in their way, the Knights will have a hard time finishing above second.

3. Temple Owls: Temple the defending AAC champions after going 7-1 in conference play last year. The Owls will have a new man in charge on the sidelines this year, hiring former Florida defensive coordinator Geoff Collins. Collins brings with him Dave Patenaude and Taver Johnson. Patenaude will calling the shots for the offense and Johnson the defense. Collins first and probably most toughest task will be filling the quarterback position after four-starter Philip Walker graduated. Freshman Anthony Russo looks to be the front-runner for the starting job. On the plus side, Collins and Patenaude will have the Owls leading rusher from a year ago returning in Ryquell Armstead (919 yards, 14 TD) and three wide outs, Ventell Bryant, Keith Kirkwood, and Adonis Jennings all of witch had over 450 yards of receiving. Johnson will have four returning starters for his defense, including one of the best safety tandems in Sean Chandler and Delvon Randall. With the new coaching staff and inexperience on both sides of the ball, the Owls will have tough time repeating as champions. Third place is the best spot to put Collins’ squad without seeing them perform yet.

4. Connecticut Huskies: Connecticut re-hired former head coach Randy Edsall, who coached the Huskies from 199-2010 before leaving the program to take the head coaching job at Maryland. Edsall brings Rhett Lashlee who will be the new offensive coordinator and Billy Crocker as the defensive coordinator. Lashlee will get Bryant Shirreffs back at quarterback and Arkeel Newsome at running back. Shirreffs passed for over 2,000 yards (2,010) last year and seven touchdowns and Newsome rushed for 715 yards. Senior linebackers Vontae Diggs (84 tackles) and Junior Joseph (81) lead a defense that will only have one other returning starter from last season. With first year coordinators and lack of experience on defense, the Huskies will have at best a 6-6 season but will probably be in the three to five win total.

5. Cincinnati Bearcats: Luke Fickell enters his first year at the head coaching job for a Bearcat team that had a total of three wins last year. Mike Denbrook (OC) and Marcus Freeman (DC) join Fickell with hopes to rebuild a struggling Cincinnati squad. Denbrook will have to turn around an offense that ranked 123rd out of 128 teams in points per game last season with a dismal 19.3. Junior quarterback Hayden Moore returns after throwing 11 touchdowns and averaging 249.1 passing yards per game a year ago. Defense will be key for the Bearcats this season. Returning on the defensive line is Marquise Copeland and Kevin Mouhon. Copeland led all defenders last year with 59 tackles and Mouhon ended the season with 50. With four interceptions last year, junior cornerback Alex Thomas returns as one of the best pass defenders in the Bearcats’ secondary. If the offense can get points on the board and the defense does their part, the Bearcats will have a shot at playing spoiler come late October and November when they are slated to play at South Florida for their last game in October and play home against Temple the second week in November. If things start to click for Cincinnati, the Bearcats may have a shot at finishing fourth, but for now fifth is a good spot for the Bearcats.

6. East Carolina Pirates: There is not much to talk about with the Pirates. ECU had a 3-9 record last year and went 1-7 in conference play. Second year head coach, Scottie Montgomery will need to find a solid quarterback,to get the ball to a receiving core that is led by junior Quay Johnson (second on team with 58 receptions last year) and senior Jimmy Williams who caught 8 touchdowns last year. Junior Gardner Minshew will more than likely be the starter for game one against 2016 FCS national champs, James Madison at home on September 2. A lot questions surround this team and with that said, anything above a sixth place finish will be a bonus for the Pirates.

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