NEWPORT, R.I. — Cincinnati, which returns 16 starters and appears stocked at the offensive skill spots, has been picked to win the American Athletic Conference title by the league's media.
The preseason poll was released Tuesday morning before the start of the AAC's media day. Cincinnati received 17 of 30 first-place votes, with UCF (seven) and Houston (six) the only other teams to appear first on a ballot.
USF, which returns 16 starters from a 2-10 team, was picked sixth.
Cincinnati, 9-4 last season, returns myriad proven targets for whoever emerges at quarterback. Notre Dame transfer Gunner Kiel, who had a sparkling spring, will be pushed by veteran Munchie Legaux, coming off a grotesque knee injury that coach Tommy Tuberville called the worst he ever has seen. The offensive line will be anchored by three-time all-conference LT Eric Lefeld.
"It will be a challenge for me," Tuberville said. "I've really in 19 years of being a head coach never been predicted to win a conference championship. That's one piece of experience I'll have to go through."
SEIZING 'POWER': Citing Lincoln, Churchill and Michelangelo, commissioner Mike Aresco opened the media gathering with an assertive, defiant speech insisting his league is every bit the "power" conference as those five seeking legislative autonomy.
As evidence, Aresco cited UCF's Fiesta Bowl win against Baylor, the national titles won by the Connecticut men's and women's basketball teams, and Houston's appearance in the College World Series.
"We're not going to take a back seat to anyone," Aresco said. "We see the landscape as five-plus-one and we're knocking on the door. Our goal is to be in the conversation as the sixth power conference. I believe by virtue of our performance that we already are."
The 65 schools in the five most prestigious conferences — ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 and SEC — are asking the NCAA's Division I board of directors to approve legislation next month that would grant them "autonomy," essentially the right to make some of their own rules. Creating a new division for those schools — Division IV — also has gained traction.
"I will admit I do not care for the 'Power Five' designation," Aresco said. "We do not accept the notion that we're not a power conference or this 'have-not' tag that some people use. We have resources. We have enormous potential. Make no mistake, we'll remain an integral part of the … college football fabric."
GOOD TO GO: With the exception of WR Tommy Eveld (torn ACL), USF coach Willie Taggart said everyone has been physically cleared for Monday's opening day of practice. Even LB Reshard Cliett, who missed spring drills due to shoulder surgery, said Tuesday that he's "stronger than I've ever been."
ODDS AND ENDS: Taggart said he intends to name a starting quarterback — sophomore incumbent Mike White or junior Steven Bench — after two weeks of preseason camp. … Tuberville said Bearcats TE Travis Johnson, a former Jesuit High two-sport standout, has left the program. … Cincinnati doesn't open its season until Sept. 12. By contrast, Houston will have played three games — in a 14-day span — by then. "Somebody dropped the ball," Tuberville said of the Bearcats' slate.
AUDIBLE: "I actually thought that was an alphabetical listing when I first saw it." — Tulsa coach Bill Blankenship, on his team being picked to finish last in the conference.