Two-a-days: AAC football team previews
Over the next couple of weeks, we offer a summer glimpse of every American Athletic Conference football team except USF, on whom we keep an eye 24/7. Today: Cincinnati and East Carolina
Coach: Tommy Tuberville (second season at Cincinnati, 9-4; 20th season overall, 140-81)
2013 record: 9-4 (6-2 in AAC; lost to North Carolina in Belk Bowl, 39-17)
Starters returning/lost: 13/9 (Seven starters return on offense, six on defense)
Schedule's toughest stretch: The first month. The Bearcats have a dangerous opener against Toledo, and later travel to Ohio State and Miami (Fla.) in a three-weekend span.
Top priority in August: Getting new QB Gunner Kiel in sync with the other offensive components. Kiel, who reneged on verbal commitments to Indiana and LSU before spending one redshirt year at Notre Dame, emerged as the projected starter following spring drills. He had a sparkling spring game (17-for-22, 300 yards), and will have myriad proven targets including former Jefferson High star Chris Moore.
One name likely to roll off Mel Kiper's tongue: LT Eric Lefeld. With a third consecutive all-conference season, Lefeld (6-foot-6, 309 pounds) could be the first AAC player picked in next spring's NFL Draft. He'll be one of three seniors projected to start on the Bearcats o-line.
If the Bearcats were a classic WWE wrestler, they would be: Greg "The Hammer" Valentine, a former Intercontinental champion who performed at a high level for years, but rarely reached main-event status. With Tuberville, a renovated stadium (ready by 2015) and fertile recruiting soil all around, Cincinnati annually can aspire to double-digit victories. But New Year's Day appearances will be sporadic at best.
Off the rack (what the magazines are saying): A huge reason to like Cincinnati as the (AAC) preseason favorite is the schedule. The Bearcats host East Carolina and Houston and won’t have to play UCF this year. - Athlon
Audible: “We want to get the ball down the field. We have enough speed now and enough receivers that we can stretch the field." -- Tuberville
December plans: Behind a potentially detonative offense, the Bearcats could finish as the highest-ranked champion of the Group of 5 conferences and earn a New Year's Day bowl berth. Far less likely -- but plausible -- is a perfect regular season that would include an upset of Ohio State in Columbus and a win at Miami. Would that be enough to propel the Bearcats into the four-team playoff?
Coach: Ruffin McNeill (fifth season at East Carolina, 29-22; fifth full season overall, 30-22)
2013 record: 10-3 (6-2 in C-USA; defeated Ohio in Beef 'O' Brady's Bowl, 37-20)
Starters returning/lost: 12/16 (Nine position players and three special-teamers are back)
Schedule's toughest stretch: On three consecutive Saturdays in September, the Pirates travel to South Carolina and Virginia Tech and host North Carolina.
Top priority in August: Replacing eight defensive starters from a unit that ranked first in Conference USA against the run. Among those leaving a void is relentless DE Terrell Stanley (seven sacks in 2013), who will miss the entire season after being seriously injured in a February automobile accident. The linebackers, led by defensive QB Zeek Bigger (77 tackles, six pass deflections in '13), should be the strength.
One name likely to roll off Mel Kiper's tongue: WR Justin Hardy. Some may argue Hardy was NFL-ready after his junior season, when he set Pirates records for receptions (114) and yards (1,284). QB Shane Carden, virtually a consensus first-team all-conference preseason pick (4,139 yards, 33 TDs last fall), returns to throw to him.
If the Pirates were a classic WWE wrestler, they would be: Paul Orndorff. Like "Mr. Wonderful," who arrived at the WWE as a polished product, the Pirates come aboard the AAC as an instant league title contender. McNeill, an ECU alumnus, has led the program to three bowl appearances in four years. If Carden gets help from a re-tooled offensive line, ECU will have a shot to win it all.
Off the rack (what the magazines are saying): East Carolina already got a big offseason win, hanging on to offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley, who was pursued for the same job at some bigger programs. With the swashbuckling Carden at quarterback and the NFL-ready Hardy on the other end of his passes, the Pirates are primed for another big season. -- Athlon
Audible: “I’ve always felt strongly about our university, our fan base, and our program. I thought and do think this (AAC) is a great marriage and fit for our university and I’m looking forward to the challenge.” -- McNeill
December plans: A bowl trip, for sure. The unforgiving non-conference slate probably will keep the Pirates out of the top 25, but an attractive December getaway is more than feasible. Don't be shocked if ECU makes a return trip to the St. Petersburg Bowl against an ACC foe.