NEWPORT, RI — New South Florida coach Charlie Strong has been in the position of preseason favorite in the American Athletic Conference before.
In the league’s first year in 2013 when Strong was coach at Louisville, the Cardinals were cast as favorites in the AAC preseason poll.
Although the Cards went 12-1 and finished at No. 15 in the Associated Press and USA Today polls with a 36-9 win over Miami of Florida in the Russell Athletic Bowl, Louisville’s 38-35 loss at home on a Friday night to Central Florida dropped the Cards to 6-1.
Ironically, Louisville got back on the winning track with a 34-3 win the following week at USF, Strong’s present program, in Willie Taggart’s first season in Tampa.
Taggart set the table for Strong this year before moving to Oregon. The Bulls are coming off an 11-2 season and have 17 starters back. Quarterback Quinton Flowers returns after running for 1,530 yards as a junior and passing for 2,812. Flowers accounted for 42 touchdowns as a junior.
Football analyst and publisher Phil Steele rates Flowers as a Heisman Trophy contender, which is a notch below his Heisman favorites category.
East Carolina will be coming off an open date when the Pirates host the Bulls in ECU’s conference opener on Sept. 30. It will be the third league game for USF, which travels to Connecticut for a Sept. 9 matchup and hosts Temple on Thursday, Sept. 21. The Owls dealt the Bulls their lone league loss last season, 46-30, in Philadelphia and went on to win the AAC title.
Strong emphasized the need to stay in the moment.
“We’ve got to win today,” said the former Texas coach. “It’s important for the players to realize they haven’t won anything this year.”
The Bulls received 26 of 30 votes to win the AAC championship in the media poll at the league’s preseason kickoff event this week. USF was named on all 30 ballots to win the East Division. Central Florida was picked second, followed by Temple, Cincinnati, ECU and Connecticut.
Memphis was picked first in the West, followed by Houston, Navy, Tulsa, Southern Methodist and Tulane.
Commissioner Mike Aresco and the AAC are branding the league as a Power Six conference, seeking the level of the ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Southeastern and Pac-12.
“We want to be accepted eventually as an autonomy P6 Conference because we believe we are already a P6 conference, and correspondingly we want and need a TV/media deal that recognizes what we have achieved and affords us the resources to continue to build the conference and continue to compete successfully with the other P6 conferences in the ever-competitive college football environment,” Aresco said in his opening remarks at media day on Tuesday.
The Bulls have the opportunity to help the AAC in its perception as a P6 league. USF will likely open the season as a nationally-ranked team. The nonconference schedule is a double-edged sword. The Bulls face San Jose State, Stony Brook, Illinois and Massachusetts, which were a combined 14-33 last year. The dearth of out-of conference challenges increases the potential for an unbeaten season but it will be a liability when strength of schedule is factored into the playoff standings.
If USF could get into the playoffs, it would certainly legitimize the various banners, lapel pins and gear that the AAC was distributing at media day with the P6 logo. The six has the league’s logo star within the numeral’s loop.
History not on Bulls’ side
Houston was coming off a 13-1 season and had its quarterback, Greg Ward, returning last year when the Cougars were installed as preseason AAC favorites. Houston started 5-0, which included a season-opening 33-23 win over Oklahoma, but the Cougars lost 46-40 at Navy and went 4-4 over their last eight games.
Just once has the preseason pick emerged with the league title and that was only a share — in 2014 when preseason favorite Cincinnati finished tied at the top of the standings with UCF and Memphis. In 2015, the Bearcats were picked to repeat and Houston won the first league championship game, 24-13, over Temple.
There are plenty of potential pitfalls along the way for USF in the AAC, including the date at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium. The Bulls topped the Pirates 38-22 last year but ECU was within 24-22 at Raymond James Stadium with just under seven minutes to go after a 3-yard scoring run by James Summers. Running back Marlon Mack had 152 yards rushing that afternoon but USF must replace his production. The Pirates led 24-23 in first downs in that Oct. 8 matchup.
ECU took a 7-0 lead in its AAC opener last year in Greenville but Adrian Killins of UCF returned the ensuing kickoff 100 yards for a score to swing the momentum. The Knights surged to a 23-7 advantage and won, 47-29, although the Pirates held a 521-373 command in total yardage and had a 30-16 lead in first downs. ECU regrouped to a degree after a 54-17 loss at Virginia Tech the previous week but ECU had five turnovers to two for UCF.
Taking care of the football will receive a high priority in the evaluation of Gardner Minshew and Thomas Sirk at the quarterback position. Coach Scottie Montgomery also will utilize better depth and talent on special teams coverage units in 2017.
The Pirates also have addressed the lack of pressure on opposing quarterbacks that accounted for only eight sacks during a 3-9 season in 2016. ECU went 1-7 in the AAC, finishing tied for fourth in the East Division standings with Cincinnati and Connecticut. A four-front base defense plus more and better talent should keep opposing quarterbacks from having too much time to look for receivers.
Memphis coach Mike Norvell summed up his thoughts on being picked as the favorite in the West Division. The Tigers return Riley Ferguson, who passed for 3,698 yards and a school-record 32 touchdowns in 2016.
“It’s a great compliment, but being the preseason favorite really doesn’t get you anything,” Norvell said. “Our guys, the biggest focus that we’ve had is trying to maximize the opportunities that we have in our preparation so that when we get to the season we’re in the best position to be successful. I guarantee in this league that every game we play can come down to one point. You can just throw every preseason pick in our conference and every conference. I know the team that was picked in our division last year was not the one that was holding the trophy at the end of the season. This is a phenomenal league that we play in. . . . Like I said, we take it as a great compliment but we know there’s a lot of work that’s got to go into it.”
Navy has rotated off the ECU schedule as a West Division foe. The Pirates play at Houston on Oct. 28, host Tulane on Nov. 11 and travel to Memphis on Nov. 25 outside the East Division.
Ken Niumatolo, coach of the Midshipmen, easily has seniority among AAC coaches. He’s been at the Naval Academy since 2002. This will be his 10th season as head coach.
Niumatolo is a grandfather.
“I’m pleased to still be able to coach,” he said. “I love this profession. We not only have good football coaches in this conference. We have good people. I enjoy being around these guys.”
There are five first-year coaches in the American, including four in the East Division — Strong, Geoff Collins at Temple, Luke Fickell at Cincinnati and Randy Edsall at UConn. Edsall has started his second stint with the Huskies, having coached UConn from 1999 to 2010.
Major Applewhite was promoted from offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach at Houston after Tom Herman was hired at Texas.
Chad Morris of SMU ranks as a veteran in terms of tenure although this is only his third year with the Mustangs. He matched up with ECU the last two years before the Pirates acquired a new set of teams on the schedule from the West Division.
ECU topped SMU 49-23 in Dallas in 2015 after the Mustangs jumped out to a 23-7 lead. SMU capitalized on five turnovers by the Pirates in a 55-31 win in Greenville last year.
“We went up there last year,” Morris said. “It was definitely a challenge for us, going on the road. They’ve got a great fan base, great fan following. Coach [Montgomery] has done a great job his first year there, building that program up. One of the things we noticed going in was how explosive they were offensively. The wide receiver, Zay Jones, was just as good as they get, and obviously proved that where he was drafted (second round, Buffalo).
“The program’s talent base, being on the East coast, up there, recruiting that area. In North Carolina, that’s one of the premier jobs up there and you’ve got such a huge fan base. We played them the first year and jumped out to an early lead. They came back and beat us. Last year, we were fortunate enough to hold on and win. It’s just a program that’s won big, won big in this conference. . . . They’ve got it going in the right direction.”
ECU had a 27-25 lead in first downs last season against SMU, which was turnover free. The Mustangs had interception returns of 70 and 80 yards for scores by Horace Richardson.
Discussion moderator Verne Lundquist asked the West Division coaches what changes they would like to see in the game.
“Is Terry McAulay here?” one coach responded.
Good one. McAulay is coordinator of officiating for the AAC.
East Carolina athletic director Jeff Compher is usually on hand for the AAC kickoff, taking part in the golf event and clambake, but this year he was involved in NCAA baseball rules committee meetings in Indianapolis. Compher’s term on the committee runs to August of 2020.
Lee Workman, associate AD/administration, attended. Workman said football season ticket sales are proceeding at a normal pace.
The Pirates have a record seven home games in 2017. ECU also played seven home games in 2009. The last of those was a 38-32 win over Houston for the Conference USA championship.
The AAC championship gives the Pirates the possibility of playing eight home games this year.
Workman said it appears that ECU also will have seven home games in the regular season next year. The Pirates host North Carolina A&T to start 2018 on Saturday, Sept. 1. North Carolina comes to Greenville on Sept. 8 and ECU hosts Old Dominion on Sept. 29.
The Pirates will play their eight AAC opponents at the opposite site from this year’s matchups, including four home games.
UCF offensive lineman Aaron Evans ate 10 lobsters to break the previous clambake record of eight. Evans is listed at 6 feet, 5 inches and 319 pounds but probably weighed a little more after his meal Monday night.
Aresco said one table consumed 10 percent of the lobsters.
“I believe that we set another record for lobster tonnage consumed,” said the commissioner.
Not everybody ate lobster.
“Too much work,” said ECU assistant AD for communication Tom McClellan of the shell breaking necessary to access the lobster meat. McClellan is the primary contact for ECU football media.
Premier senior receiver Jimmy Williams said he doesn’t eat seafood even though he’s from coastal Washington, NC.
“My mother tells me she doesn’t know if I’m her son, but I’ve never eaten seafood,” Williams said.
Steaks, chicken and a sausage casserole were main course options.
Realignment talk diminishes
Aresco spoke about realignment as an issue in Newport last year as the Big 12 indicated a number of AAC schools might be offered membership.
That possibility was withdrawn shortly thereafter as television interests apparently were not on board with renegotiating additional revenue for more schools into existing contracts.
Still, there has been talk of Cincinnati going into the Big Ten.
Appalachian State supposedly would welcome a move to the AAC from the Sun Belt.
Coach Montgomery was asked about goals for 2017 and indicated the Pirates are aiming for a return to postseason play.
That would mean an improvement of three wins from last year in order to achieve bowl eligibility.
The AAC’s affiliations include the Cure Bowl on Dec. 16 in Orlando, the Boca Raton Bowl at Florida Atlantic on Dec. 19, the Frisco Bowl in Frisco, TX, on Dec. 20, the St. Petersburg Bowl on Dec. 21, the Birmingham Bowl on Dec. 23, the Hawaii Bowl on Dec. 24 and the Military Bowl in Annapolis on Dec. 28.
If the AAC champion is the highest-rated team among champions from Conference USA, Mid-American Conference, Mountain West and Sun Belt, it would play in a bowl from the group that includes the Cotton Bowl on Dec. 29 in Arlington, TX, the Fiesta Bowl on Dec. 30, in Glendale, AZ, or the Peach Bowl in Atlanta on Jan. 1.
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