American Athletic Conference 2023 preview
Several conferences in college football got a makeover this offseason, and the American Athletic Conference is one of them. The AAC lost UCF, Houston, and Cincinnati to the Big 12 but picked up UTSA, North Texas, Florida Atlantic, UAB, Rice, and Charlotte from Conference USA. The facelift absolutely weakens the AAC, as two perennial Group of Five New Year’s Six bowl teams left to become Power Five programs, and the C-USA additions are a real mixed bag.
Along with the incoming and outgoing teams, the AAC did away with divisions, so the top two teams in the standings will square off on December 2 at the host site of the regular season conference champion.
The new members are hardly the only changes for the conference. The AAC also features seven new head coaches out of the 14 programs, as FAU, Navy, North Texas, UAB, Charlotte, USF, and Tulsa all welcomed in fresh hires.
Not surprisingly, Tulane (+205) is the favorite to run it back as conference champion after finishing No. 9 in the AP Top 25 after beating USC in a thrilling Cotton Bowl Classic with a 46-45 win. Stiff competition will undoubtedly come from UTSA (+450), a program that went 18-3 straight up on Jeff Traylor’s watch in Conference USA. The Roadrunners were No. 27 in the AP poll at season’s end.
AAC holdovers SMU (+400) and Memphis (+600) are also considered to be top contenders, with newcomer FAU (+650) as the fifth choice before a huge drop-off to the rest of the conference. The mash-up of the AAC and Conference USA will make for a really interesting season.
UTSA has gone into the last two bowl seasons as a Top 25 team, only to be knocked out of the rankings with losses to San Diego State in the Frisco Bowl and Troy in the Cure Bowl. With a nonconference schedule that features road trips to former AAC member Houston and Tennessee and one in conference against Tulane, a third straight double-digit season is a big ask, but the win total line is only 7.5.
Fortunately for the Roadrunners, QB Frank Harris is back with 74 career touchdown passes in his three seasons as the starter. Top receiver Zakhari Franklin is gone, taking 15 of the team’s 33 receiving touchdowns with him, but Joshua Cephus was a catch or two away from 1,000 yards, and De’Corian Clark returns from a season-ending injury suffered when he led the team in yards.
UTSA scored 36.8 points per game last season and racked up 6.37 yards per play, which ranked 26th nationally. They were one of 12 teams with over 4,000 passing yards, so having Harris and his cavalcade of wideouts back should mean big things for this offense, especially because UCF and Cincinnati had two of the better defenses in the AAC, and they have both moved on to the Big 12.
Harris is a mobile guy with 602 rushing yards on 129 carries, while RB Kevorian Barnes averaged 6.3 yards per pop while in a timeshare, which could be the case again with JUCO transfer Robert Henry and Vanderbilt transfer Rocko Griffin.
The UTSA defense finished 65th in yards per play allowed, but they forced 22 takeaways in 14 games. The defense also returns eight starters, including leading tackler Jamal Ligon at the LB position, but three of the four top tacklers are gone. Defensive backs Clifford Chattman and Corey Mayfield combined for 26 pass breakups and eight interceptions. Defensive coordinator Jess Loepp’s specialty is in the secondary, so he should be able to fashion a good unit, especially with some recruiting success as one of the premier Group of Five programs in the Lone Star State.
Top pass rusher Trey Moore is among the guys who are back and will be expected to shoulder more of the load. Moore had eight of the team’s 25 sacks and led the way with nine tackles for loss. Along with the takeaways, UTSA succeeded in the red zone, holding the opposition to a 55.1% TD%, which ranked 37th in the nation.
UTSA seems well-equipped to move up to the AAC, especially with the teams that left. The Roadrunners have those aforementioned road games and also play FAU on the road, but they avoid Memphis and SMU, so this should be a top contender to play in the AAC Championship Game and go Over 7.5 wins. My projections have UTSA down for 8.95 wins, so I really like this team.
Pick: Over 7.5
The SMU Mustangs actually beat two of the three teams that moved on to the Big 12 and nearly beat Cincinnati as well in a 29-27 loss to the Bearcats. What makes that nugget more interesting is that SMU was only 5-3 in conference play last season. The new-look AAC should help teams like the Mustangs, but that is no sure thing with some roster turnover and a second-year head coach with a lot of questions.
Preston Stone takes over for Tanner Mordecai, as head coach Rhett Lashlee’s offense will have a different look with a less proven QB. In two seasons with the program, Stone only has 55 pass attempts, while Mordecai left as the third-leading passer in program history. The QB position isn’t the only one with turnover, as WR Rashee Rice left for the NFL after having 96 catches for 1,355 yards last season. No other receiver caught more than 37 balls or had more than 588 yards.
The Mustangs were 12th in red zone TD% last season, a number sure to go down with the inexperience and drop-off from Mordecai to Stone. The running game might get a boost from Jaylan Knighton, who was at Miami (FL) when Lashlee was the offensive coordinator from 2020-21. Second-year OC Casey Woods is also emerging as a play-caller, and Lashlee has plenty of OC experience, so the Mustangs could wind up with another solid offense.
Any drop-off on offense is sure to hurt the defense. This unit allowed 33.8 points and six yards per play, including 4.9 yards per carry. The Mustangs were tied for the eighth-most plays of 20+ yards allowed, so they gave up gains in chunks and lost last season’s top four tacklers. Of course, with a bad defense and an active offseason in the transfer portal, maybe that’s a good thing.
SMU gained 467 yards per game in AAC play, yet they got outgained on a per-game basis. The Mustangs also gave up nearly 40 points per game but gave up 41 to UCF and 63 to Houston, who are both in the Big 12 now. Second-year DC Scott Symons got a huge effort against a depleted BYU team in the New Mexico Bowl, so maybe that was something to build on over the spring and summer.
The schedule is rather kind to SMU, as they’ll avoid UTSA and Tulane, which makes them an interesting potential No. 2 seed in the conference. It will be all about how the transfers come together, especially the ones from Power Five schools looking for a chance. Most of the transfers came in on defense, which could help Stone and the offense from a field position standpoint. My projections have SMU for 8.06 wins, so I’m close to the market, which is heavily juiced on Over 8. That means a little value on the Under to me.
Pick: Under 8
Tulane Green Wave
It was a magical year in New Orleans for the Tulane Green Wave. Not only did they finish the season ranked in the Top 10 of the AP Poll, but the win over USC in the Cotton Bowl Classic was the biggest victory in program history. They were down 45-30 with 4:30 left to cap off the nation’s most impressive turnaround from 2-10 to 12-2. With success comes expectations, and Tulane now has those in the new-look AAC.
Star running back Tyjae Spears ran for 1,581 and 19 touchdowns last season, and he headlines a group of departures that also includes last season’s top two wide receivers. “Top two receivers” is factually correct, but those two guys had 35 catches for 692 yards and 33 catches for 657 yards. Holdovers Jha’Quan Jackson and Lawrence Keys were each in the 30-reception club, just without the same amount of yardage.
The straw that stirred the historic drink is back in QB Michael Pratt, who amassed just shy of 3,500 total yards through the air and on the ground, along with 37 total touchdowns. Pratt was the team’s second-leading rusher with 478 yards, so the Green Wave will need a feature back to emerge. Four offensive line starters return, plus the Green Wave plucked Cameron Wire from nearby LSU, who started 11 games last season.
The offense did a lot of special things, but it was the defense that allowed Tulane to soar to new heights. Last year’s group only allowed 22.2 points per game and just five yards per play. Eight starters are back, but Shiel Wood will serve as the new defensive coordinator after coming over from Troy.
Troy was eighth in yards per play allowed last season, so the Tulane defense may not drop off much, if at all. The Green Wave defense held AAC teams to under 400 yards per game and just 24 points per game. We’ll see if the scheme changes make a difference, but the Green Wave allowed the 10th-fewest plays of 20+ yards, which is a huge attribute in the pass-happy AAC, and the conference got easier with the departures.
Tulane draws a solid South Alabama team and a quality Ole Miss squad in consecutive home games to open the season. The AAC schedule isn’t bad, as the game against UTSA comes at home to end the regular season and may very well be a conference championship game preview. That could be an interesting swing game for season win total bets if one team is already locked into the title game. My numbers are a little lower on Tulane, with a projection of 8.64 wins, so I lean Under, but it’s hard to bet against Willie Fritz.
Pick: Under 9.5
This feels like a big year for head coach Ryan Silverfield. The Memphis Tigers won 57 games from 2014-19, but they have only gone 13-12 over the last two seasons. Silverfield had a solid 8-3 season during the COVID year, but his teams have underwhelmed in 2021 and 2022. For a program that set some new expectations under Justin Fuente and Mike Norvell, mediocrity is unacceptable.
This year’s Tigers team will have a mostly rebuilt offense. QB Seth Henigan is back after throwing for over 3,500 yards last season, but Memphis’s top four pass-catchers moved on, and the running game averaged fewer than four yards per carry for the second straight season. Second-year OC Tim Cramsey elevated the team from 30.1 to 35.3 points per game, but the Tigers went down 0.3 yards per play.
The running game may get a huge boost from Old Dominion transfer Blake Watson, who had over 2,100 yards in four seasons with the Monarchs. Memphis hasn’t had a game-changer at that position since Darrell Henderson left in 2018, so that should be a point of emphasis this season to restore some balance.
The Tigers were also -16 in sack margin last season, so they’ll need to protect Henigan better.
While the Tigers' defense only mustered 21 sacks, they had 22 takeaways and held opponents to just 5.3 yards per play. That was the stoutest bunch against the run that Memphis has had in a while, but top tacklers Xavier Cullens and Quindell Johnson are both gone, taking 11 tackles for loss and 188 total tackles with them.
Like most teams, Memphis was active in the transfer portal, both at the FBS and JUCO ranks. Second-year defensive coordinator Matt Barnes will need to mature as a play-caller, as Memphis was in the lower half of the nation in third-down defense and just barely inside the top 100 in red zone TD%. The Tigers were also -3 in TO margin in AAC play after being +7 in nonconference play.
My projections have Memphis for 8.25 wins, as they have a pretty friendly schedule. They play a lot of teams moving up from Conference USA and don’t face UTSA. They also get Tulane at home, and my home-field advantage numbers give Memphis a 3.5-point HFA, though that is largely thanks to what happened late in the Norvell years because I take a five-year sample. I actually think, despite my projections, I like the Under more than the Over, but the schedule is pretty soft in league play.
Pick: Under 7.5
Florida Atlantic Owls
This is a season of new beginnings in Boca Raton. The Florida Atlantic Owls are now members of the AAC and have a new head coach in Tom Herman. Herman is back in the AAC after two years with Houston in 2015-16 and back as the head coach for the first time since 2020, when he was fired from his Texas gig. The Owls had two 11-win seasons under Lane Kiffin in 2017 and 2019 and have only gone 15-18 since Kiffin moved on to Ole Miss.
To revamp the offense, Herman went to an old friend and got Casey Thompson to transfer in from Nebraska. Thompson was a Herman recruit to Austin, and he comes in with 20 starts worth of experience to replace former Miami (FL) QB N’Kosi Perry. Former Akron Zips and Cleveland Browns QB Charlie Frye is the new offensive coordinator, and he has a lot to work with.
Not only is Thompson a good starting point, but FAU had a 1,000-yard rusher in Larry McCammon last season, and backup RB Zuberi Mobley had 534 yards. With leading receiver LaJohntay Wester, this has the makings of a really good offense. The Owls had 4.9, 5.7, and 5.7 yards per play under Willie Taggart, but I’d bet they get back over six yards per play for the first time since Kiffin’s final season in 2019.
From a scoring standpoint, the FAU defense has been pretty good the last three seasons, holding opponents to 17.4, 25.8, and 26.6 points per game, but the yards-per-play metrics and the sack rates were very low. Ten starters are back from last year’s defense, so hopes are high that FAU can build off of an experienced unit with Herman and new defensive coordinator Roc Bellantoni.
The Owls were 64th in scoring defense but 108th in yards per play allowed. In the more explosive AAC, even without Cincinnati, UCF, and Houston, the defense will need to limit big plays and get more of a pass rush. FAU had 34 total sacks over the last two seasons. There were 31 FBS teams with more than 34 sacks last season alone.
My projection for FAU is 7.44 wins, so pretty close to the market number. I don’t think the step up in conference hurts them too much. The schedule is somewhat kind to the Owls, as they host UTSA and Tulane. There is a lot of talent on this roster that could be better maximized by Herman and his assistants than what Taggart got out of them. Herman will get a good idea of what he has to work with in road games at Clemson and Illinois before a well-timed bye prior to the start of AAC play in early October.
Pick: Over 7.5
East Carolina Pirates
Head coach Mike Houston has officially put his stamp on the East Carolina program as the Pirates ride back-to-back bowl game appearances into the 2023 season. Well, sort of. The 2021 Military Bowl was canceled, but the Pirates went to the 2022 Birmingham Bowl and rocked a shorthanded Coastal Carolina team for the program’s first bowl win since 2013. This may be Houston's last year in Greenville, especially if he excels with a tall task.
For seemingly the first time in a decade, Holton Ahlers will not be the QB at ECU. Ahlers left as the program’s all-time leading passer after five seasons of games in purple and gold. Redshirt sophomore Mason Garcia looks to get the first crack after throwing 12 passes last season, but three-star freshman Raheim Jeter could be knocking on the door very quickly. Nothing is really set in stone at the position.
It isn’t just the loss of Ahlers and his 28/5 TD/INT ratio that looms large. The Pirates also have to replace 1,452 rushing yards and 14 scores from Keaton Mitchell, along with replacing two 1,000-yard receivers in Isaiah Winstead and CJ Johnson. With only four starters back from an offense that averaged 5.3 yards per carry and 6.6 yards per play, OC Donnie Kirkpatrick and Houston have a lot to figure out.
ECU was stout against the run last season, holding opponents to just 3.4 yards per carry and 112 yards per contest, but the Pirates were shredded through the air. They did force 15 interceptions with a high-risk, high-reward strategy from DC Blake Harrell. The Pirates finished +13 in turnover margin, but they gave up over 290 passing yards per game and the 10th-highest completion rate in the nation.
Between injuries and the style of play, the Pirates rotated in a lot of guys, as nobody had more than 87 tackles, and sack leader Jeremy Lewis had 4.5 sacks. Nobody had more than six pass breakups, and that player (Malik Fleming) is gone, along with co-leader Jireh Wilson in interceptions. ECU did have 29 sacks, the program’s most since 2018, but still hasn’t held an opponent under six yards per play in a decade.
This is a huge test for Houston and his staff with only 10 returning starters, a bunch of transfers, and the major loss of production on offense. The 51-year-old FCS National Champion with James Madison in 2016 will be highly sought-after, and you wonder how that will impact the roster as the season goes along. The nonconference schedule is tricky, and the conference slate is also rather tough. My projections call for 5.74 wins, but if anybody can overachieve, it is a coach like Houston. I’d still lean toward a more pessimistic outlook with all the turnover.
Pick: Under 5.5
For the first time since 2001, Ken Niumatalolo will not be on the Navy sideline. After serving as head coach for 15 seasons from 2007-22 and the offensive coordinator and assistant head coach from 2002-07 under Paul Johnson, Niumatalolo was relieved of his duties at the end of last season. Defensive coordinator Brian Newberry takes over a program that has fallen on hard times with four or fewer wins in four of the last five seasons.
Kennesaw State will join the FBS ranks next season, but the Owls’ former offensive coordinator Grant Chesnut is already there in the same role with Navy. Chesnut was the OC when Newberry was the DC at KSU from 2015-18, so those two have a lot of familiarity working together. It will be a run-heavy offense once again, as Chesnut brings in a successful spread-option concept that regularly gave FCS defenses problems.
The first item of business will be to find a quarterback. Xavier Arline and Tai Lavatai are both holdovers, but neither was all that effective last season when the Middies averaged just 4.1 yards per carry. That was a step up from 3.9 yards per carry in 2021 and 3.7 yards per carry in 2020, but nowhere near good enough. It may come down to the best passer, as Chesnut’s spread-option does have more passing concepts than the classic triple-option.
Navy’s defensive numbers aren’t always the best barometer of success. Despite a rather ineffective running game, Navy was still second in the nation in time of possession, so the Midshipmen's defense wasn’t out there a lot. They allowed 5.8 yards per play and got beaten badly through the air for 250 yards per game and a 63.2% completion rate, despite racking up 34 sacks.
Navy was 10th in red zone TD% against, which helped the numbers tremendously given that they were 87th in yards per play allowed. The defense will largely stay the same with Newberry as the head coach and PJ Volker promoted to defensive coordinator. Plus, Navy does return nine starters on defense, although top tackler and top sack man John Marshall is not one of them. He had over one-third of the team’s sacks with 11.5 and led the team in pass breakups.
Navy’s struggles shouldn’t come as a surprise. AAC teams are way more prepared for the option than opponents were when Navy played as an Independent. It took some time for AAC teams to script against it, but they have, and the overall increase in opposing offensive production has hurt the Middies' defense. They return a lot of production from a bad team and also have to adapt to the modified option offense. My projection is for 5.54 wins, well below the 6.5 in the market. Navy does play four Conference USA defenses that haven’t seen the option as much as AAC teams, so that could allow them to overachieve.
Pick: Under 6.5
North Texas Mean Green
The North Texas Mean Green made three straight bowl game appearances under Seth Littrell, but the administration felt that things had gotten a bit stale and that it was time for a change. The Mean Green have experienced just two winning seasons since 2013, and the move from Conference USA to the AAC requires a bit more upside. Enter Eric Morris and a new era of football in Denton.
Morris, who went 24-18 in 42 games at UIW from 2018-21, was the offensive coordinator at Washington State last season. With Austin Aune gone, ULM transfer Chandler Rogers will probably get the first crack at running the new offense. Morris is an Air Raid disciple, having played under Mike Leach at Texas Tech. While Wazzu had a good season overall last year, the Cougars only finished 86th in yards per play with 5.41.
North Texas really spread the ball around last season. Three different running backs had at least 100 carries, and all of them are back, while the receiver corps lost 11 touchdowns from Jyaire Shorter and three of the top four in yardage. RB Ayo Adeyi is only 5-7, but he had 7.2 yards per carry last season working in concert with Ikaika Ragsdale (5.3 YPC) and Oscar Adaway (4.9 YPC). In the era of the transfer portal, it surprises me that all three backs stayed, leading me to believe that maybe Morris isn’t going to abandon the run, given that it fits his current personnel.
In looking at the defense, I would hope that UNT is willing to run the rock. The Mean Green defense was objectively bad, allowing 6.1 yards per play and 31.7 points per game. While those numbers don’t seem all that awful, UNLV racked up 576 yards of offense, and all but one Conference USA team (FIU) had well over 400 yards against them. Even without Cincinnati, Houston, and UCF, the AAC is a much deeper, more explosive offensive conference than C-USA.
Three of the top four tacklers are gone on defense, including KD Davis and Larry Nixon, who each eclipsed 100 stops. Top sack man Mazin Richards (7.5) and top defensive back Ridge Texada (15 pass breakups) are the anchors of Matt Caponi’s unit, as he takes the DC role for the first time after coaching defensive backs at Iowa State. It sure looks like the UNT defense would welcome some ball control.
The Mean Green have an early bye week and a rough month of November with UTSA, SMU on a short week, Tulsa with a first-year head coach who could have a much-improved team by then, and UAB. If things come together quickly for Morris’s bunch, the first part of the schedule features winnable games, but if not, this looks like a number that they’ll chase most of the season. The win total is 6.5 with Under juice, and my projection is 6.32, with that weak schedule doing some heavy lifting.
Pick: Under 6.5
The Temple Owls finished with the same 3-9 record that they had in 2021, but the team showed clear signs of improvement and fell on the wrong side of luck, losing all four one-score games that they played. With more points per game, more yards per play, fewer points allowed per game, and more than double the number of sacks, this just might be a team that you want to bet on early in the season.
Stan Drayton was primarily brought in as head coach because of his ability to recruit the tri-state area in major markets like Philadelphia and the New York/New Jersey metro area after years of being a successful running backs coach. It turns out that he might not be a bad head coach either. Temple scored 5.6 more points per game with a way more robust passing attack. The Owls still couldn’t run the ball worth a lick with 3.1 yards per carry, but that’s something that Drayton should be able to fix over time.
EJ Warner (Kurt’s son) started 10 games as a true freshman and finished with an 18/12 TD/INT ratio, but the Owls only allowed 10 sacks, so quick decision-making and in-season adjustments really helped the Temple offense. If Warner surpasses 3,000 yards again, he’ll knock on the door of third all-time in passing yards in just two seasons. He has to replace top target Jose Barbon, who had 72 catches for 918 yards, but Colorado State transfer Dante Wright and 6-6 QB-turned-WR D’Wan Mathis stand to get a lot of targets.
Not only did the Owls improve on offense, but they shaved over eight points per game off of their defensive numbers. The Owls still struggled a bit with the run and allowed 5.6 yards per play, but they went from 17 sacks to 38. Of course, the numbers are a tad misleading because of stout performances against Lafayette, Rutgers, and UMass, but the Owls brought in a bunch of Power Five transfers for this season.
New DC Everett Withers is familiar with many parts of the country from his time as a coordinator and a head coach, plus he could be a welcomed asset next to a second-year head coach in Drayton. Five of the top six tacklers are back, plus sack leader Layton Jordan. Despite the sacks and the QB hurries, Temple only had six interceptions and finished -11 in turnover margin. Positive regression in that department is another arrow pointing up.
Expectations are quite a bit higher here, as Temple’s win total is five with heavy Over juice. The team only has six wins over the last two seasons and seven if you include a 1-6 showing during the COVID year. The talent level is much higher here, and this is a really solid coaching staff with a young QB to build around, and the conference is weaker overall with the departures. Temple also has a chance to get 60% of the way to at least a push with Akron, Rutgers, and Norfolk State in the first three weeks. My projection is for 5.03 wins, but this team has a lot of positive indicators.
Pick: Over 5
Hooter is no longer the only Owl mascot in the AAC. He has been joined by Sammy, who is the mascot of the Rice Owls. Temple actually has a live mascot named Stella, but Rice only has a student dressed up in costume. In any event, Rice moves from Conference USA to the AAC and does so with a very interesting name at the quarterback position.
Former Stanford OC Mike Bloomgren hasn’t had a lot to work with at QB in his five years with Rice, but he might this season with JT Daniels. Daniels has never really found a home in college football, bouncing from USC to Georgia to West Virginia and now Rice. The sixth-year senior came out of Mater Dei High School as a five-star recruit and has not lived up to the billing, but this is about as low-stress of an environment as possible.
Daniels has a career 45/25 TD/INT ratio with 6,947 passing yards. That would rank second all-time at Rice, so this has never really been a school with a lot of upside at the QB position. It has been a long, slow rebuild at Rice, as Bloomgren is just 16-39 overall, but the offense surpassed 25 points per game for the first time in his tenure, and 5.6 yards per play represented a team-best during this tenure. Leading rusher Cameron Montgomery is gone, but the top two receivers are back, and Bloomgren has options at RB.
While the offense showed signs of life, the defense continued to play poorly. Bloomgren took over in 2018, and the defense has allowed at least six yards per play in four of those five seasons and all four non-COVID seasons. Defensive coordinator Brian Smith still has his job, but one would think that seat is getting a little warmer by the day. Rice just doesn’t generate enough of a pass rush and finished -13 in turnover margin last season.
This has also been one of the worst special teams units in the nation the last two seasons, putting even more pressure on the defense to perform. The special teams coordinator position was filled by a new hire in Pete Alamar, who comes from Stanford. The step up in class to the AAC profiles to be a problem for Rice, as they’ve had major issues stopping the run the last two seasons.
Rice will only leave the state of Texas once in the first five weeks of the season, with the conference opener against USF. They draw former AAC member Houston in nonconference action, along with Texas and Texas Southern. The worst part about the schedule for Rice is that the home games are Houston, Texas Southern, East Carolina, UConn, Tulane, SMU, and FAU, so I only have them down for 4.34 wins and only favored in four games, with one by a half-point.
Pick: Under 4.5
Between the transfer portal and the coaching carousel, it is not hard to find teams that look nothing like their previous iterations in college football. But UAB may take it to another level. After stumbling through a 7-6 season under Bryant Vincent when Bill Clark retired for medical reasons, former NFL QB and analyst Trent Dilfer has taken over the program. Despite pleas from the players to hire Vincent full-time, a new era of UAB football has arrived.
Dilfer coming in is far from the only shake-up. There are only seven returning starters on this roster, and a Group of Five powerhouse may be no more. DeWayne McBride was second in the nation in rushing yards and first in yards per game while also racking up 19 touchdowns. He was taken in the seventh round of the NFL Draft. Starting QB Dylan Hopkins transferred out, leaving behind Jacob Zeno, who made two starts. Louisiana Tech transfer Landry Lyddy made four starts as a true freshman, and his hat is in the mix as well.
But this offense will take a huge step back without McBride. Top wide receiver Trea Shropshire also left after averaging 22.5 yards per reception. Dilfer makes the leap from Lipscomb Academy in Tennessee, where he won back-to-back high school state titles. ESPN NFL analyst Chris Mortenson’s son, Alex, is a first-time offensive coordinator. It would appear that skepticism is quite high for this group.
Meanwhile, the UAB defense under Sione Ta’ufo’ou is also in question. Ta’ufo’ou was also at Lipscomb Academy, and he only has four returning starters to work with. The top four tacklers and eight of the top 10 from last season are all gone, including top CB Starling Thomas, who had 15 pass breakups. Last year’s group had its worst season stopping the run since 2017, so maybe the losses aren’t as big of a deal, but this is still a rebuild with new systems, schemes, and coaching staff.
It may help that all-name-team member DT Fish McWilliams decided to stick around as the unquestioned leader of the defense. It may also help to see something different and innovative from Ta’ufo’ou, whose defense allowed 5.5 points per game last season, and he’s also an Elite 11 QB Coach, so he should be able to pick up on some film tendencies of the AAC QBs.
It might be beneficial that UAB only has seven returning starters. This program had deep bonds to Clark and Vincent, especially Clark, who oversaw the return to FBS in 2017 and showed his loyalty with words and actions. Dilfer and his staff have more of a blank slate to work with here and players that have been blocked by entrenched veterans. On the other hand, the leap to college football is a big one, especially with limited playing experience on the roster. I only have UAB down for 4.12 wins with a step up in conference, class, and limited returning production.
Pick: Under 5
The Charlotte 49ers joined the FBS ranks in 2015 and have one winning season and one bowl game appearance in that span. After making what felt like a promising hire in Will Healy, who had a 7-6 debut during the 2019 season, the 49ers have shifted gears and brought in a football lifer in hopes of setting some new standards. With 10 wins in the last 30 games, the job now falls on the shoulders of 63-year-old Biff Poggi, who most recently was the assistant head coach at Michigan.
This will be virtually a brand-new offense in the Queen City. Only a few returning starters are back, as the 49ers bid adieu to all-time leading passer Chris Reynolds, who amassed over 10,000 yards in five seasons with the program, and also the team’s top four receivers. True freshman RB Durell Robinson may usurp Shadrick Byrd, so the 49ers' offense might as well have three returning starters. This is basically a completely rebuilt line as well.
Starting from scratch may work out, as the 49ers managed only 24.4 points per game, though they were a very respectable 52nd in yards per play. Charlotte even scored a touchdown on 29 of 37 red-zone trips. Turnovers hurt, as the 49ers were -8 in TO margin, but their 21 giveaways only tied for 95th nationally. This should have been a more productive offense than it was, but it is now Mike Miller’s problem after serving as Maryland’s co-OC last season.
This defense was beyond awful last season, and a step up to the AAC probably won’t help. The 49ers were one of three teams to allow more than seven yards per play. They gave up over five yards per carry, and opponents completed 70% of their passes. Only conference foe South Florida was worse in that department. Four starters are back, but based on last season’s production, that may be a good thing.
Hiring defensive coaches from the Baltimore Ravens or Michigan Wolverines seems like a sound strategy as defensive coordinator Ryan Osborn takes over. There is nowhere to go but up for this defense, but it will have to go up a long way with a new scheme for the holdovers and a brand new team for the transfers, of which there are several in hopes of improving in a lot of areas.
At 63, Poggi probably isn’t looking for a long-term rebuild, but he may not have much of a choice. He was hired in mid-November, as the team was finishing last season, and he brings a businesslike mentality to the job as a former hedge fund manager. We’ve seen that strategy work in the pro ranks, at least in terms of front-office executives, and it worked for Jamey Chadwell at Coastal Carolina. We’ll see if it works at Charlotte, but expectations are low, with a win total of 2.5. My projection is for 2.65 victories, and the 49ers will only be favored once this season in all likelihood.
Pick: Under 2.5
South Florida Bulls
The worst defense in college football resided in Tampa last season. The South Florida Bulls were the only FBS team to give up over 40 points per game. Head coach Jeff Scott didn’t last the season, as USF comes into 2023 with four wins in the last three seasons. This is a massive rebuilding job for first-time head coach Alex Golesh, who looks to play fast on offense and score enough to overcome the defense.
So, that doesn’t sound like a great plan, does it? The Bulls did score 28 points per game last season with 6.1 yards per play. Baylor transfer Gerry Bohanon wasn’t a huge part of the equation, as he only started the first seven games due to injury. Bohanon’s job is not safe this season with redshirt freshman Byrum Brown and a couple of transfers in the QB room, but whoever wins the job will run the Tennessee offense that Golesh ran under Josh Heupel, first at UCF and then in Knoxville.
Through it all last season, USF nearly had a 1,200-yard rusher in Brian Battie, but he’s gone. Four of the top five receivers, including Battie, are also gone. This will be a fast-paced but inefficient offense. Golesh will call his own plays and probably go with the veteran Bohanon to start, especially for his running ability, but the keys to the car have to go to a younger player at some point.
The idea of playing fast with this defense is terrifying. USF does return nine starters, but the Bulls gave up 41.2 points per game and 7.4 yards per play. They were the worst pass defense in the nation, and Louisiana Tech barely edged them out for the worst run defense. Longtime defensive coordinator Todd Orlando is tasked with converting this unit into something more than a bunch of traffic cones.
Considering that USF has had 30 sacks total over the last 33 games, a little more pressure on the QB would go a long way. Three of the AAC’s stronger rosters are gone, but I’m not sure how much the Conference USA squads will help with a defense this bad. USF’s defensive numbers could look really awful for a long time going up against Austin Reed and Western Kentucky in Week 1 followed by a home game against Alabama in Week 3.
Not all rebuilding jobs are created equal. Some are like making renovations to a home with good bones. This is like trying to reconstruct something blown apart by an EF-5 tornado. It feels like an eternity ago that Willie Taggart and Charlie Strong had back-to-back double-digit winning seasons in 2016 and ‘17. USF has eight wins in the last four seasons combined. If this offense shows any shred of competence at a fast tempo, sportsbooks won’t be able to set totals high enough on this team. Incredibly, the win total here is 4, but my projections are for 3.41 wins, with USF favored only twice.
Pick: Under 4
Tulsa Golden Hurricane
Even though he resigned from his post at Indiana because of investigations into the mistreatment of players, new Tulsa head coach Kevin Wilson will get a second shot. His final year at Indiana in 2016 was marred by the whispers and the scandals, which came as a shock given the big six-year extension he signed the previous offseason. He more than landed on his feet as Ohio State’s offensive coordinator about six weeks later and now gets a team to call his own.
Wilson won’t have the embarrassment of riches he had at Ohio State from a talent standpoint, but Tulsa has a longstanding history of finding good players, especially at quarterback and wide receiver. Braylon Braxton played extremely well last season during an injury-prone campaign for Davis Brin that saw inconsistent work for each guy. Braxton was in the transfer portal after Philip Montgomery’s dismissal, but Wilson convinced him to stay, and he’ll be the unquestioned starter with no experience behind him.
Braxton had a 10/2 TD/INT ratio, but he’ll work with a rebuilt receiving corps. All-time program leader Keylon Stokes took 76 catches and 1,224 yards with him on the way out, and second-leading receiver JuanCarlos Santana had nearly 400 more yards than the next guy on the list. Along with the loss of top running back Deneric Prince, Wilson has his work cut out for him to find skill guys.
As is often the case in the AAC, Tulsa’s defensive numbers were bad. What’s crazy is that this was actually a really good defense in 2020 and 2021 by conference standards, but it all fell apart last season with 33.1 points per game allowed and 5.9 yards per play. Tulsa was destroyed in the trenches and gave up 4.9 yards per carry and over 200 yards per game for the first time since 2018.
Six of the seven leading tacklers are gone, but this was a defense that only mustered 16 sacks. Tulsa was actually -29 in sack margin, as the offensive line and a hampered Brin struggled together, putting the defense in some tough spots. Tulsa was also a terrible group on special teams. Chris Polizzi was the defensive coordinator for UT-Martin the last three seasons and wasn’t hired until May, so he got a late start and basically no time to recruit.
Tulsa rosters generally have something to fall back on, especially in terms of skill-position guys. They don’t have that for this season. Braxton might be a star in the making, but with a bad offensive line and nobody to throw to, it looks like a true rebuilding year for the 61-year-old Wilson. However, the schedule is super friendly, as the Golden Hurricane avoid UTSA and have some winnable home games speckled throughout the slate. As lackluster as this roster is, my projections are for 5.09 wins, and their market win total is 4.5.
Pick: Over 4.5