The American Athletic Conference does not have a marquee team this year. Its 12 schools combined for two votes in the coaches’ preseason Top 25 poll even though six of the league’s coaches are on the panel.
The AAC does not have a marquee player. Of the 108 names on Athlon Sports’ four preseason All-America squads, only one is from the AAC: fourth-team linebacker Tyler Matakevich of Temple.
Long gone is Central Florida quarterback Blake Bortles, who led the Knights to a Fiesta Bowl win against Baylor in 2013 before Jacksonville took him with the third pick of the NFL draft. Also gone is East Carolina wide receiver Justin Hardy, who broke the Football Bowl Subdivision record for career receptions last year.
Still, despite its anonymity, the league represents a monumental challenge for Tulane. The massive upgrade from Conference USA, where the Wave finished 5-3 in 2013, quickly became apparent as Tulane went 2-6 in its AAC debut last season, getting outscored 82-16 in its final three games.
“We really felt good about playing in Conference USA, and then you get to the American, and it’s a bigger, more physical, athletic conference,” coach Curtis Johnson said. “You look at Cincinnati last year. They were so much bigger than us. You look at the body of work and the teams they have beaten, and it’s a whole different level.”
Tulane started out fine, never trailing Tulsa in regulation of a heartbreaking 38-31 double-overtime loss, beating Connecticut 12-3 in its first conference game at Yulman Stadium and hanging with eventual league co-champion Central Florida on the road before falling 20-13 the next week.
Aside from a 31-24 upset of Houston as a 17-point underdog — a result that proved to be an anomaly — the Wave did little right the rest of the way.
Cincinnati jumped out to a 24-0 halftime lead on Halloween night at Yulman Stadium en route to a comfortable 38-14 victory. Memphis led 31-0 at the end of the third quarter two weeks later on the way to a 38-7 win in New Orleans. East Carolina led 20-3 at the end of the third quarter and tacked on two touchdowns in the fourth to win going away at home 34-6. Temple extended Tulane’s streak of failing to score a touchdown to eight quarters in an ugly season-ending 10-3 win at Yulman Stadium.
Recent series history indicates how hard Johnson’s task is.
Tulane is 1-4 against UCF, with its lone victory coming 10-9 in 2006. ... The Wave has lost eight in a row to Memphis. ... It snapped a 10-game skid against Houston last season. ... Even the two former C-USA members who joined the AAC last year along with Tulane have owned the Wave. East Carolina has won six of the past seven meetings. And Tulsa has taken nine of 10.
Tulane has to hope last year’s issues were more about its own lack of experience than the level of competition. With redshirt freshmen and true freshmen dominating all of the offensive skill positions, the Wave might have struggled in any conference.
AAC commissioner Mike Aresco, for one, has not soured on the Wave’s prospects.
“I think Tulane is going to surprise people,” he said. “C.J. has built a good program, and people have not realized they have built a good infrastructure. They’ll be fine.
“The Duke (season opener at home) is going to be very interesting. It’s a showcase game for them and (quarterback) Tanner Lee with another year under his belt. It should be a lot of fun, and the stadium on campus makes all the difference.”
Tulane’s biggest concern may be staying afloat in October, when it likely will be an underdog to all five conference opponents it plays. First up is UCF, which is 15-1 in two years of AAC play. Temple is next, and the Owls return 19 starters from a six-win team. Then comes Houston, which will be looking to avenge last season’s shocker under new coach Tom Herman. A trip to league newcomer Navy and its disciplined triple-option offense follows. The Midshipmen boast senior quarterback Keenan Reynolds, the NCAA career record-holder for rushing touchdowns. The Wave ends the month at Memphis, which tied for the AAC title a year ago and returns quarterback Paxton Lynch, who had 35 passing and rushing touchdowns combined.
November shapes up much nicer with games against predicted cellar dwellers Connecticut, SMU and Tulsa, but for those results to be meaningful, the Wave must find a way to win earlier in the season.
Johnson knows he has a better chance this year than last.
“Our athleticism has reallyincreased,” he said. “I don’t know if we’re ready to win every game, but with the experience from last year with everybody having 12 games under their belt, I’m just excited about playing the games.
“We’ll definitely be able to compete in this league and hopefully sometime soon win this thing.”
THREE STORYLINES TO KNOW
1. Marquee games
After a year in which AAC teams outside the “Power Five” conferences accomplished next to nothing in crossover games (best victories: East Carolina over 7-6 Virginia Tech; Colorado State over 7-6 BostonCollege), the AAC will get plenty of chances to make a statement this season. In September, Temple hosts Penn State, East Carolina travels to Florida, Houston plays at Louisville, Tulane faces Duke and Georgia Tech and Central Florida play at Stanford and South Carolina. In October, Cincinnati gets Miami at home, and Memphis hosts Ole Miss. To earn any attention, the AAC needs to knock off some of those foes.
2. Quarterback experience
Most of the teams in the AAC had first-year starting quarterbacks in 2014, leading to growing pains. The payoff could come this season, when those guys apply what they learned. All six starting quarterbacks return in the West Division, including 1,000-yard rusher Keenan Reynolds of newcomer Navy. Tulane, Houston, Tulsa, Central Florida and Cincinnati are expecting bigger and better things from their signal callers. In the case of the Bearcats, Gunner Kiel threw for 31 touchdowns as a sophomore transfer from Notre Dame. If he improves, the Bearcats could crack the Top 25.
3. Anchors aweigh
Navy joined a conference for the first time, and it will be interesting to see how the Midshipmen perform against a tougher schedule. Navy has to replace several key starters on both sides of the ball, but coach Ken Niumatalolo has guided this team to five bowl appearances in the past six seasons. If everything goes right, Navy could become the first team to play in a championship game before its regular season ends: The AAC’s inaugural title matchup is Dec. 5, and Navy faces rival Army on Dec. 12.
PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH
1. HOUSTON: New coach Tom Herman, Ohio State’s offensive coordinator last year, will win the close games former coach Tony Levine lost.
2. MEMPHIS: The defending conference co-champion loses eight starters on defense but returns nifty quarterback Paxton Lynch.
3. NAVY: The Mids may have the AAC’s best player in quarterback Keenan Reynolds, but they have plenty of holes to fill in their first season of league play.
4. TULANE: The Wave should be significantly better than last year but has too many question marks for an upper-division finish.
5. TULSA: Since winning Conference USA in 2012, Tulsa has gone 5-19. New coach Philip Montgomery has a heck of a reclamation project.
6. SMU: The Mustangs hit rock bottom last year, prompting June Jones’ early-season resignation. New coach Chad Morris inherits a mess.
1. CINCINNATI: The Bearcats are the most talented team in the AAC but need to fix a leaky defense that gave up 40 or more points four times last year.
2. TEMPLE: The Owls return almost everyone, including all-everything linebacker Tyler Matakevich, and coach Matt Rhule has recruited well.
3. EAST CAROLINA: The Pirates could match last year’s 5-3 record despite the absence of NCAA record-setting receiver Justin Hardy and quarterback Shane Carden.
4. CENTRAL FLORIDA: The Knights never looked right a year ago despite tying for the league title and won’t be as fortunate this time.
5. SOUTH FLORIDA: The Bulls have finished under .500 in conference play for seven consecutive seasons. Third-year coach Willie Taggart is on the hot seat.
6. CONNECTICUT: The horrendous decision to hire retread Paul Pasqualoni in 2011 still haunts the Huskies, who struggled last year under Bob Diaco.