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: Houston and Memphis
Coach: Tony Levine (third season, 14-12)
2013 record: 8-5 (5-3 in AAC; lost to Vanderbilt 41-24 in BBVA Compass Bowl)
Starters returning/lost: 17 (eight offense, nine defense). Houston returns 26 total position players (14 offense, 12 defense) with starting experience.
Schedule's toughest stretch: There isn't one, really. The Cougars host UCF (following a bye week) and avoid East Carolina altogether. Their only consecutive road games are at SMU and Cincinnati to end the season. The only non-conference game of merit is a trip to BYU.
Top priority in August: The Cougars must find replacements for LT Zach Johnson and DE Eric Braswell, both of whom sustained ACL injuries in the spring. Levine seems high on 6-foot-6 sophomore DE Cameron Malveaux, a project of sorts who has inflated from 211 to 272 pounds since arriving on campus. Additionally, new offensive coordinator Travis Bush, an in-house promotion after Doug Meacham left for TCU, must continue to acclimate himself to his new gig.
One name likely to roll off Mel Kiper's tongue: WR Deontay Greenberry. As a sophomore in 2013, Greenberry ranked third in the conference with 82 catches (for 1,202 yards), and led the league with 100.2 receiving yards a game. Because Houston is brimming with quality receivers, Greenberry isn't likely to see many double- or triple-teams. Having one of the league's most promising passers (sophomore John O'Korn) doesn't hurt either.
If the Cougars were a classic WWE wrestler, they would be: Jimmy "Superfly" Snuka, a high-flying crowd pleaser who nonetheless failed to win a major WWE title. All the components -- experience, favorable schedule, a new 40,000-seat on-campus stadium -- appear in place for Houston to soar, but the Cougars need to notch a quality win or two. They had none last season.
Off the rack (what the magazines are saying): This team always seems to thrive off quarterback play, so the question is whether O’Korn has peaked or is just lifting off. The latter appears to be the case. Playmaking is there on both sides of the ball. Houston should be in the conversation as preseason American favorites along with Cincinnati, East Carolina and UCF. - Athlon
Audible: "I think we definitely have to expand our runing game from what we've done in years past. We've got great confidence not only in our offensive line but certainly in our running backs." - Levine, who could feature no fewer than three backs including '13 rushing leader Ryan Jackson (661 yards, six TDs)
December plans: At the very least, a mid-tier bowl. If O'Korn keeps progressing and the defense replicates its opportunism of 2013 (nation-best 43 turnovers), Houston has a shot at the league title. The Dec. 6 season finale at Cincinnati could determine the AAC champ.
Coach: Justin Fuente (third season, 7-17)
2013 record: 3-9 (1-7 AAC)
Starters returning/lost: 17/5 (Nine offensive and eight defensive starters are back.)
Schedule's toughest stretch: Three of the Tigers' first five games are trips to UCLA (Sept. 6), Ole Miss (Sept. 27) and Cincinnati (Oct. 4). The Cincy game is followed a week later by a home contest against Houston.
Top priority in August: Refining the high-tempo offense installed in the spring. With nine starters back including 6-foot-7 sophomore QB Paxton Lynch (2,056 passing yards, nine TDs, 10 INTs), Tigers coaches believe the unit is ready for a more brisk pace. Lynch's top four targets return.
One name likely to roll off Mel Kiper's tongue: DE Martin Ifedi. A 6-5, 265-pound fifth-year senior, Ifedi needs one more sack to tie Tremont Lawless' school career record (21). A 4.0 student, Ifedi registered 11.5 sacks in 2013, when he was presented the Zach Curlin Award as Memphis' top male student-athlete.
If the Tigers were a classic WWE wrestler, they would be: S.D. "Special Delivery" Jones. The consummate jobber, Jones had a handful of upsets in his lengthy WWE career, but mostly served as a sympathetic prop for the prominent heels of the day. Similarly, the Tigers possess upset capability, but will be decisive underdogs against the heavyweights on their schedule.
Off the rack (what the magazines are saying): The Tigers appear ready to make a run at the postseason after a five-year drought. Memphis is 12-48 during that stretch, but Fuente is gradually changing the culture and may have the quarterback to end the futility. - Lindy's
Audible: "We're as deep as we've been since we've been here. ... I feel like just our overall health of our attitude and our mind and body was really good this spring." - Fuente
December plans: Bowl eligibility is conceivable if the defense doesn't regress the way it did at the end of 2013. The Tigers surrendered 86 total points to Temple and UConn in their last two games, but four of their other defeats -- including losses to UCF and Louisville -- were by a touchdown or less.