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Fall forecast in May: AAC football preseason rankings

Two-time 1,000-yard rusher Marlon Mack is part of a strong stable of skill players returning for USF in 2016.

OCTAVIO JONES | Times

Two-time 1,000-yard rusher Marlon Mack is part of a strong stable of skill players returning for USF in 2016.

Now that we've had a few weeks to assess roster fallout, process what we saw in the spring, and generally harness a little perspective, we offer our annual early-bird special (complete with free grains of salt). Sixteen weeks before the 2016 season formally kicks off, here's our American Athletic Conference divisional predictions.

West
1. Houston
To warn his team against complacency, second-year coach Tom Herman reportedly cleared his locker room of all attire and memorabilia from last season's Peach Bowl win against FSU. Could the Cougars fry even bigger fish in '16? You betcha, starting with the season opener against Oklahoma at Houston's NRG Stadium. Senior QB Greg Ward Jr., engineer of an offense that averaged 40.4 points last season, returns. So does a speedster or two on the flank, and five defensive players who have started at least 14 games. And the recruiting class? It was ranked the conference's best by no fewer than three national services.

2. Memphis
We see the Tigers taking a dip, but certainly not a tumble. To be sure, the departure of QB Paxton Lynch will sting, but Memphis essentially replaced an innovative young coach (Justin Fuente) with another (former Arizona State offensive coordinator Mike Norvell). Tennessee transfer Riley Ferguson, the heir apparent to Lynch, had a solid spring game (15-for-20, 162 yards, three TDs) and could flourish in Norvell's breakneck scheme. Elsewhere, Fuente hardly left a barren depth chart behind.

3. Tulsa
If the Golden Hurricane can register a pulse defensively, they'll be the quintessential team nobody wants to face. QB Dane Evans, who returns to oversee a Baylor-style attack that averaged more than 500 yards a game, will have ample options at the skill spots. But Tulsa surrendered 536.6 yards a contest (125th in Division I). That must improve (How can it not?).

4. Navy
Many Midshipmen fans were so busy bemoaning the departure of Keenan Reynolds -- arguably college football's greatest modern-day option quarterback -- that they may not have realized the rest of the offense departed with him. One offensive starter (WR Jamir Tillman) from Navy's win against USF last Halloween returns. Fortunately for Navy, it has a paragon of patience and meticulousness in Coach Ken Niumatalolo, who spurned BYU (he's a Mormon, and his son plays for the Cougars) in the offseason to remain in Annapolis. 

5. Tulane
If new coach Willie Fritz's career course remains on trajectory, the Green Wave will be the league's surprise team. Fritz has resuscitated four previously-moribund programs, the latest being Georgia Southern. He'll play to his strengths initially at Tulane, which means the Green Wave likely will run a lot out of a spread set. The defense, meantime, may not be as bad as you think.

6. SMU
The gradual progression of Mustangs football -- which improved from one victory in 2014 to two last season -- should continue. The offense is rife with guys who have played a lot (including QB Matt Davis), but it likely will have to outscore people if SMU has any chance of winning. Give second-year coach Chad Morris time. He has recruited well in his native Texas -- and some of those recruits actually play defense.

East
1. USF
The offensive line needs refurbishing, and new defensive coordinator Raymond Woodie has some sizable cleats to fill (there's a reason Tom Allen's in the Power Five), but you're not likely to find a better set of offensive skill players in this league. Spring drills were the crispest of the Willie Taggart era, with no major casualties, and the Bulls could add another big name or two this summer (see Calloway, Derrick). The conference slate is difficult (trips to Cincinnati, Memphis and Temple) but not daunting.

2. Temple
Winning 10 games at a place like Temple is a noble feat. Maintaining such success would be even nobl-er. Plenty remains on offense, including QB P.J. Walker, 1,200-yard rusher Jahad Thomas and three linemen; but seven defensive starters must be replaced. Fortunately for Temple, it signed Coach Matt Rhule to a new six-year deal in December, and the dude has some defensive chops.

3. Connecticut
Many signs point to a breakthrough season for the Huskies, but the schedule isn't one of them. If not for trips to Navy, Houston and USF, we'd give UConn a bona fide shot in the East. As it stands, we're pegging them for a second consecutive bowl game. UConn's seemingly perpetual quarterback derby is over (Bryant Shirreffs is the guy), and the offensive line has some depth. Defensively, FSU transfer EJ Levenberry should have a profound impact at linebacker. 

4. Cincinnati
Few teams enter 2016 with less momentum. The Bearcats' embarrassing 42-7 loss to San Diego State in the Hawaii Bowl did nothing for Tommy Tuberville's job security, nor did the loss of the top seven receivers. There's experience at quarterback with Gunner Kiel and Hayden Moore, but no stability. Still, the schedule's manageable -- if the Bearcats can manage themselves. They ranked 124th nationally last season in turnover margin (minus-19) and 121st in penalty yards (948).

5. East Carolina
Candidly, we still believe the dismissal of Ruffin McNeill, widely beloved by his players, was a mistake. His replacement, former Duke offensive coordinator Scottie Montgomery, is more than capable of re-establishing the Pirates as a conference force given time. There's a vacancy at quarterback, and some glaring holes on the offensive line and at linebacker. Moreover, the first half of the schedule (games at South Carolina, Virginia Tech and USF) is beastly.

6. UCF
Can new coach Scott Frost flourish with the Knights? Absolutely. Can he flourish in 2016? Don't count on it. Replenishing a roster takes time, plain and simple (ask Willie Taggart). The Knights will make considerable offensive strides (How couldn't they?) in Frost's Oregon-style attack, but probably not enough to challenge in the East right away.

[Last modified: Thursday, May 12, 2016 9:16pm]

    

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