AAC Media Day preview: Five questions (with five answers) and team previews _lowres

Cincinnati quarterback Gunner Kiel (11) looks to pass against Virginia Tech during the first half of the Military Bowl NCAA college football game, Saturday, Dec. 27, 2014, in Annapolis, Md. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)

FIVE QUESTIONS, FIVE ANSWERS 1. How big a deal is the AAC title game?

Championship games have become necessary for conferences’ visibility.

The Big 12 was skewered for not declaring an official champion last year after Baylor and TCU tied for first. The AAC had no clear winner, either, with a three-way logjam at the top among Memphis, Cincinnati and UCF.

Adding Navy as the 12th team allowed the AAC to stage its first championship game and eliminate any confusion about its winner. Even though TV ratings figure to be minuscule for the 4 p.m. kickoff Dec. 5 — fans won’t be tuning out the SEC title matchup to watch, say, Houston at Cincinnati — this was a good move. Eight of the 10 leagues have championship games, so the AAC is keeping up with the times.

2. Will Navy increase the AAC’s profile?

Absolutely.

Service academics draw attention automatically, and Navy is even more desirable because of its sustained success. The Midshipmen have been to five bowl games in the past six years, tied for the most among AAC teams along with East Carolina and UCF.

Coach Ken Niumatalolo has been at Navy for seven years, one more than the combined tenure of the other five AAC West coaches. It would be interesting if Navy wins the division and plays in the championship game the week before its annual clash with Army.

3. Will Cincinnati put it all together?

With all due respect to 2013 Fiesta Bowl winner UCF, if there is a marquee program in the AAC, it’s Cincinnati, which won 10 or more games five times from 2007 to 2012.

When former Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville left Texas Tech to coach the Bearcats, his goals presumably were higher than the Belk and Military bowls, his postseason destinations in his first two years.

Last season, Cincinnati tied for the AAC title, but its one conference loss was a 41-14 home defeat to Memphis. That’s not good enough.

With heralded quarterback Gunner Kiel returning for his second year as a starter, the conference needs Cincinnati to live up to lofty expectations this time.

4. Can Tulsa, SMU and USF rise again?

Not this year.

Losing Louisville to the ACC before 2014 was a body slam to the AAC, but the league took another blow when three recently strong programs hit rock bottom.

South Florida, ranked No. 2 in the Associated Press poll in 2007 as a member of the Big East, has won nine games total in the past three years.

Tulsa, the Conference USA champion in 2012, went 2-10 in its debut AAC season.

SMU, which routed opponents in in 2009, 2011 and 2012 bowl games as a C-USA member, got outscored 496-133 last season.

It will take new coaches at SMU and Tulsa time to clean up the mess, while third-year USF coach Willie Taggart already is on the hot seat.

5. Can Memphis and ECU survive?

The AAC attracted offensive coordinators from three big-time schools (Clemson, Baylor and Ohio State) to become coaches at Tulsa, SMU and Houston, but East Carolina lost offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley to Oklahoma, and Memphis lost defensive coordinator Barry Odom to Missouri.

The Pirates averaged more than 30 points in four of Riley’s five seasons, while Odom turned the Tigers into a defensive force last season. Expect a significant drop-off for both units, particularly since both lost significant personnel.

Don’t envy new ECU offensive coordinator Dave Nichol, formerly receivers coach at Arizona, and new Memphis defensive coordinator Galen Scott, promoted from linebackers coach.

TEAM PREVIEWS

Central Florida

COACH: George O’Leary

PLAYERS: WR Jordan Akins, DL Thomas Niles

EASY TO ANSWER: The Knights won’t be as fortunate as they were a year ago, when they beat Houston 17-12 (after Cougars QB Greg Ward fumbled at the goal line in the final minute) and beat East Carolina on a Hail Mary (after the Pirates inexplicably failed to run out the clock).

TOUGH TO SAY: UCF is 22-3 in conference play the past three years, but that record and O’Leary’s name may be the only reasons the Knights are considered prime contenders in the AAC. They lost a league-high 13 starters.

FOLLOW ALONG ON TWITTER: @UCF_Football

Cincinnati

COACH: Tommy Tuberville

PLAYERS: OL Parker Ehinger, QB Gunner Kiel, DE Silverberry Mouhon, CB Adrian Witty

EASY TO ANSWER: Kiel is the marquee player in a league low in star power. The former five-star, Notre Dame transfer and one-time LSU commitment threw 31 TD passes.

TOUGH TO SAY: The Bearcats are the most talented team in the AAC, but they caught no breaks with the schedule, facing fellow AAC powers Houston and Memphis on the road. Tuberville won’t have it easy winning the East.

FOLLOW ALONG ON TWITTER: @GoBearcats

Connecticut

COACH: Bob Diaco

PLAYERS: S Andrew Adams, OT Andreas Knappe

EASY TO ANSWER: The Huskies need help. They finished fourth-to-last nationally in scoring, had no RB gain 500 yards, are breaking in a new starting QB and have no WR who caught 30 passes.

TOUGH TO SAY: Can the defense carry this team? Eight starters return, but UConn’s only win against an FBS opponent last year came against AAC co-champ UCF. That was a fluke.

FOLLOW ALONG ON TWITTER: @UConnFootball

East Carolina

COACH: Ruffin McNeill

PLAYERS: LB Zeek Bigger, WR Isaiah Jones

EASY TO ANSWER: The Pirates will be productive offensively because they always are under McNeill, but they won’t be as prolific as the past two years. That’s reality after losing quarterback Shane Carden and record-setting receiver Justin Hardy.

TOUGH TO SAY: East Carolina will be hard-pressed to knock off “Power Five” opponents after winning at Virginia Tech last season and wiping out North Carolina by the combined score of 125-72 the past two years. The Pirates play at Florida and host Virginia Tech in September.

FOLLOW ALONG ON TWITTER: @ECUPiratesFB

Houston

COACH: Tom Herman

PLAYERS: RB Kenneth Farrow, DE Cameron Malveaux, DB Adrian McDonald

EASY TO ANSWER: Houston’s administration is not content with being pretty good: The Cougars axed Tony Levine after back-to-back bowl seasons. They expect Herman, Ohio State’s former offensive coordinator, to win titles.

HARD TO SAY: Can Herman reach that goal in his first year? A quarterback guru, he inherits plenty of talent but will have to coach up holdover Greg Ward, a converted wide receiver, and other starting candidates Adam Schultz and Kyle Postma.

FOLLOW ALONG ON TWITTER: @UHCougarFB

Memphis

COACH: Justin Fuente

PLAYERS: TE Alan Cross, LB Wynton McManis

EASY TO ANSWER: Fuente knows what he is doing. He inherited a mess from Larry Porter (3-21 in two seasons) and needed only three years to produce an AAC championship outfit.

HARD TO SAY: Equaling Memphis’ first 10-win season since 1938 will be a challenge. The Tigers lost eight starters from the AAC’s No. 2 scoring defense.

FOLLOW ALONG ON TWITTER: @TigersAthletics

Navy

COACH: Ken Niumatalolo

PLAYERS: QB Keenan Reynolds, NG Bernard Sarra

EASY TO ANSWER: Reynolds will be nearly impossible to stop. He rushed for 1,191 yards last season despite missing two games and is the NCAA career record-holder for rushing TDs by a quarterback with 64.

HARD TO SAY: This AAC newbie has a lot of question marks. The Midshipmen return 10 starters, their fewest since 2011, when they had their only losing record in Niumatalolo’s eight years.

FOLLOW ALONG ON TWITTER: @NavyFB

South Florida

COACH: Willie Taggart

PLAYERS: S Jamie Byrd, P Matias Ciabatti, RB Marlon Mack, TE Sean Price

EASY TO ANSWER: Recruiting rankings don’t mean everything. Rivals has rated USF’s classes first or second among current AAC teams the past four years, but the Bulls are expected to finish near the bottom of the East again after going 6-18 combined in 2013 and 2014.

HARD TO SAY: How much can USF count on Mack? He rushed for 275 yards against Western Carolina in last year’s opener but had only three 100-yard games vs. FBS competition.

FOLLOW ALONG ON TWITTER: @USFFootball

SMU

COACH: Chad Morris

PLAYERS: QB Matt Davis, DE Zach Wood

EASY TO ANSWER: Morris, formerly Clemson’s offensive coordinator, faces a massive rebuilding project. No one gave the Mustangs the death penalty last year, but they were moribund, losing their first seven games by at least 21 before finishing 1-11.

HARD TO SAY: What happened? SMU finished last nationally in scoring last year after going to bowl games from 2009-12 under run-and-shoot guru June Jones. He resigned after two games.

FOLLOW ALONG ON TWITTER: @SMU_Football

Temple

COACH: Matt Rhule

PLAYERS: C Kyle Friend, DE Matt Ioannidis, LB Tyler Matakevich, CB Tavon Young

EASY TO ANSWER: The Owls boast a championship-caliber defense. Their top 11 tacklers return, including Matakevich, a two-time first-team All-AAC selection.

HARD TO SAY: Will the offense improve enough to give them a shot at the title? Nine starters return, but QB P.J. Walker followed a promising freshman season by completing only 53.3 percent of his passes and throwing more interceptions (15) than TDs (13).

FOLLOW ALONG ON TWITTER: @Temple_FB

Tulane

COACH: Curtis Johnson

PLAYERS: QB Tanner Lee, S Darion Monroe, LB Nico Marley, OT Arturo Uzdavinis

EASY TO ANSWER: The Green Wave defense looks strong, with Monroe entering his fourth year as a starter, Marley back for his third season, CB Parry Nickerson coming off a stellar year and DT Tanzel Smart boasting all-conference potential.

HARD TO SAY: To crack the upper reaches of the AAC West, Tulane needs better blocking for a talented group of running backs and a steadier year from Lee.

FOLLOW ALONG ON TWITTER: @GreenWaveFB

Tulsa

COACH: Philip Montgomery

PLAYERS: DE Derrick Alexander, WR Keyarris Garrett

EASY TO ANSWER: Bill Blankenship earned his firing. Tulsa won 10 or more games four times from 2007-12 but went 5-19 in the final two years of his four-season tenure.

HARD TO SAY: It’s unclear whether Montgomery can return Tulsa to a perennial championship contender in the tougher AAC. After he worked wonders with Baylor’s prolific offense, his first task will be turning erratic QB Dane Evans into a consistent performer.

FOLLOW ALONG ON TWITTER: @TulsaFootball