American Athletic Conference West Preview

1. Navy Midshipmen: Ken Niumatalolo led Navy to a first place finish a year ago with a team that went 7-1 in conference play. The Midshipmen are entering their third season as a member of the American and have certainly gave them a target on their back after they shared a portion of the AAC West title with Houston in 2015 and won the west last year before losing to Temple in the championship game. With experience on both sides of the ball, including linebacker Micah Thomas who led the team in tackles last year with 107, also returning on the defensive side is team captain,  D.J. Palmore, Palmore had a team high in sacks and tackles for loss with 6 and 11.5 respectively. On offense, Navy will have an experienced offensive line, which will provided needed protection for junior quarterback Zach Abey, who started just two games last year. Joining Abey will be fullback Chris High, who leads all returners with  546 yards rushing and had a team seven rushing touchdowns. With veterans on both sides of the ball and with Niumatalolo entering his tenth year as head coach, Navy has all the parts needed for a successful season and a second AAC West title.

2. Houston Cougars: A new coaching staff seems to be a theme for schools in the American. Major Applewhite replaces Tom Herman, who left to take the head coaching job at Texas. Applewhite brings with him offensive coordinator Brian Johnson and defensive coordinators Mark D’Onorfio and Clay Jennings. Jennings and D’Onorfio will have quite an outstanding group returning this season. Sophomore Ed Oliver was selected a first team All-American by seven different publications last season. Oliver had 23 tackles for loss and led all defensive linemen with nine pass breakups. Linebacker Matthew Adams led Houston with 82 tackles and compiling 7.5 tackles for loss. Junior safeties Garret Davis and Khalil Williams will be key attributes in defending the pass offense of opposing AAC teams like Memphis, SMU, and South Florida. Texas A&M transfer, Kyle Allen will take over the quarterback position. Allen threw for over 2,00 yards (2,210) and 17 touchdowns with the Aggies in 2015. Senior wide-out Linell Bonner will be Allen’s probable primary target in 2017. Bonner had 98 receptions and 1,118 yards receiving. The running back spot will likely be manned by Texas transfer, Duke Catalon. Catalon dealt with concussions last year but will be a good fit in the starting role. Houston has a culture of winning and won’t have too much trouble making it to a bowl game. With Navy slated to be the final game of the season for the Cougars, this game may decide who wins the west division.

3. Memphis Tigers: The performance of Riley Ferguson at quarterback will be huge for the Tigers this season. Coming off of a season where Ferguson threw for 3,698 yards and a program-best 32 touchdowns. With Anthony Miller’s decision to stay for his senior season will help the Tigers pass game. Miller caught 95 passes for 1,434 yards and 14 touchdowns, all of which were school records. The trio of running backs returning for Memphis is highlighted by senior Doroland Dorceus. Dorceus rushed for 810 yards and nine touchdowns. The only questions surrounding the Tigers is the play of their defense. Memphis’ defense ranked in the lower portion of the NCAA in sacks and tackles for loss. Top Tiger defenders, Johnathan Cook (Safety) had 88 tackles and linebacker Genard Avery (81 tackles) lead a defense that is going to need some serious help in the secondary this season. Memphis has a strong solid program and a finish in the top two of the west isn’t out of the reach. With Memphis heading to Houston to play the Cougars in October could determine if the Tigers finish second or third given that the Midshipmen live up to the hype and win the west.

4. Tulsa Golden Hurricane: Tulsa has experience the defensive side. Anchoring the defense will be linebacker Craig Suits. Defensive ends Jesse Brubaker (team high 13.5 tackles for loss) and Jeremy Smith (4 sacks) will try to contain opponents rushing game while safety Jordan Mitchell (61 tackles) and cornerback Kerwin Thomas (58) highlight the secondary.  The Golden Hurricane need to replace the programs all-time leading passer Dane Evans. Redshirt freshman Luke Skipper looks to be in the lead to replace Evans at the quarterback spot, but sophomore Chad President is still a candidate to replace Evans as well.  D’Angelo Brewer will more than likely take over the starting running back spot after Brewer ran for 1,435 yards last year. The Golden Hurricane will need to get things clicking on offense if they want to finish anywhere higher than fourth.

5. SMU Mustangs: The Mustangs’ uptempo offense led them to a 5-7 record. SMU showed a lot of improvement last year after they only put together a total of three wins in the previous two years. Behind third year head coach Chad Morris, the Mustangs return one of the nations top receivers, junior Courtland Sutton. Sophomore quarterback Ben Hicks averaged 244.2 passing yards per game last year, is the likely candidate to be the starting QB, but Arkansas transfer Rafe Peavey is very capable of being the starter week one. The rushing attack of SMU looks very promising with the one-two punch of Braeden West (202 carries, 1,046 yards, 6 TDs) and Ke’Mon Freeman (154 carries, 651 yards, 4 TDs) returning. SMU’s defense gave up a horrific 36.3 points per game. All-AAC first team, Justin Lawler highlights the defense after year where he totaled 15 tackles for loss and six sacks. Cornerback Jordan Wyatt had a league-best four forced fumbles and tallied four interceptions last year. The fate lies with the defense if the Mustangs want to make a push at a top three finish in the AAC west and making a bowl game.

 

6. Tulane Green Wave: With one winning season in the past 14 years, second year head coach Willie Fritz looks to coach the Green Wave to a winning season. Fritz will have 15 returning starters from last years squad (8 on offense, 7 on defense) for the 2017 season. Tulane’s option attack is led by junior quaterback Glen Cuilette who started 10 games last year. Senior Dontrelle Hillard returns to the back field after rushing for a team leading 759 yards and nine touchdowns. An experienced offensive line will give solid protection for Cuilette and open holes up for Hillard. The defense of Tulane ranked third among the AAC in total offense. Cornerback Parry Nickerson is a ball-hawk totaling 10 interceptions in his career and is backed by fellow seniors Ade Aruna (DE) and Jarrod Franklin (S). Aruna had five sacks last year and Franklin led all Green Wave defenders with 79 tackles. Having a winning record will be tough this year as they open up conference play week two at Navy and head to Norman, Oklahoma to square off against Heisman candidate Baker Mayfield and the Sooners week three. Tulane will have make a lot of improvements on both sides of the ball to not finish last in the west.

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