Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo said at the American Athletic Conference football media days in Newport, RI, that his interest in other AAC teams changed significantly as the Midshipmen made the transition from longtime independents in 2015.
Niumatalolo won’t have to wait long for a matchup with significant rooting consequences for the AAC as preseason league favorite Houston meets Oklahoma on Sept. 3.
The Sooners, coming off an 11-2 season and an appearance in the College Football Playoff, are ranked No. 3 in the preseason coaches poll.
Houston is ranked No. 8 by the Associated Press and No. 13 by the coaches.
Oklahoma, which features former East Carolina offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley in his second season in the same post for the Sooners, will take on the Cougars at high noon at NRG Stadium, home of the Houston Texans, on the first Saturday of the college football season.
Houston has six starters back on offense, including quarterback Greg Ward Jr., from a 13-1 team that topped Temple 24-13 in the first AAC championship game before defeating Florida State 38-24 in the Peach Bowl.
Ward completed over 67 percent of his passes as a junior, accumulating 2,828 yards through the air with 17 touchdowns. A dual threat, Ward ran for 1,108 yards with 21 scores.
The Oklahoma game has the potential to springboard the Cougars into the 2016 CFP playoff picture, which for the moment at least, has considerable significance for the AAC.
It’s no secret that Houston is among the AAC teams interested in joining the Big 12 but for now their accomplishments will be under the AAC banner.
The Cougars’ schedule also includes a Thursday night home game with Louisville on Nov. 17. The Cardinals open the season No. 18 in the coaches rankings.
If Houston can take care of business in league games and some lesser nonconference contests and if Louisville were to stage upsets in ACC battles with Florida State and Clemson, then the Thursday nighter could impact the CFP bracket.
Those are big ifs. Houston was 10-0 last season and on the cusp of CFP consideration when the Cougars were edged 20-17 at Connecticut.
Cincinnati coach Tommy Tuberville says the AAC has become increasingly balanced as the league enters its fourth season overall and second with a division format.
“Anybody can beat anybody,” Tuberville said.
UConn was picked sixth and last in the East Division in 2015, which indicates the degree of parity that has developed in the AAC.
The Bearcats were the preseason favorites a year ago before going through some significant injuries, finishing 7-6 overall and 4-4 in the league for third in the East Division.
Cincinnati capped the career of Ruffin McNeill as coach at East Carolina with a 19-16 win at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium that kept the Pirates from reaching the six-win plateau for bowl eligibility.
The Bearcats will have an early opportunity to define the league race and the AAC’s potential in the national picture when Cincinnati hosts Houston on Thursday, Sept. 15.
AAC commissioner Mike Aresco noted in Newport that his league posted 10 wins over teams from Power Five Conferences in 2015. Those leagues include the ACC, the Big 12, Big Ten, Pac-12 and SEC.
Here is a look at the AAC teams and their Power Five matchups in 2016.
(13-1 overall in 2015, 7-1 AAC)
Cougars coach Tom Herman went through a national championship run in 2014 as offensive coordinator at Ohio State and brought a winning mentality to the Cougars last year. Houston has five starters back from a defense that led the nation with 35 turnovers in 2015. The Cougars have Texas connections that include former Longhorns quarterback Major Applewhite serving as offensive coordinator and Texas transfer Duke Catalon, who is expected to emerge as a productive running back.
Power Five games: Oklahoma, Sept. 3; Louisville, Nov. 17.
ECU date: The Pirates wouldn’t play Houston unless the two win their respective divisions and meet for the AAC championship.
(8-5 overall in 2015, 6-2 AAC)
The Bulls went to a postseason game for the first time in five years, falling 45-35 to Western Kentucky in the Miami Beach Bowl. Quinton Flowers hit Rodney Adams on a 67-yard touchdown pass with 4:40 left to play to give USF a 22-17 win at ECU last season. The Bulls were 5-0 against East Division teams. Flowers and Adams return from a club that won seven of its last eight regular season games. Running back Marlon Mack is also back after running for 1,381 yards. USF is picked to win the East Division.
Power Five games: at Syracuse, Sept. 17; Florida State, Sept. 24.
ECU date: Oct. 8, in Tampa.
(10-4 overall in 2015, 7-1 AAC)
Senior quarterback P.J. Walker returns for his fourth year as a starter after amassing 2,972 yards passing and 19 touchdowns in 2015. Leading rusher Jahad Thomas, who gained 1,262 yards with 17 scores, also returns. The Owls’ win total tied a school record last season as a season-opening 27-10 win at home over Penn State sparked a 7-0 start. Temple is picked second in the East with six starters returning on each side of the ball. The Owls outscored their foes 257-108 in the second half in 2015.
Power Five game: at Penn State, Sept. 17.
ECU date: Nov. 26 in Philadelphia.
(7-6 overall in 2015, 4-4 AAC)
The Bearcats have a new offensive coordinator, Zac Taylor, who finished last season as interim offensive coordinator of the Miami Dolphins. Returning quarterback Gunner Kiel threw for 2,777 yards and 19 touchdowns but his career has been limited by injuries and he missed a 42-7 loss to San Diego State in the Hawaii Bowl. Kiel’s performance level in 2016 will depend on the development of an inexperienced group of receivers. The Bearcats, 5-1 at home last year, are picked third in the East.
Power Five game: at Purdue, Sept. 10. Note: On Nov. 5, the Bearcats host Brigham Young, which has been under strong consideration for Big 12 membership, as has Cincinnati.
ECU date: Oct. 22 in Cincinnati.
(6-7 overall in 2015, 4-4 AAC)
Bob Diaco’s program improved from 2-10 in 2014 and has 10 starters back on offense. The Huskies went to a bowl game for the first time since 2010 with wins in three of their last four games starting with a 31-13 triumph over turnover-prone East Carolina. Marshall topped UConn 16-10 in the St. Petersburg Bowl. N.C. State transfer Bryant Shirreffs passed for 2,078 yards last year with nine TDs. The Huskies are picked fourth in the East.
Power Five games: Virginia, Sept. 17; Syracuse, Sept. 24; at Boston College, Nov. 19.
ECU date: Oct. 29 in Greenville.
(5-7 overall in 2015, 3-5 AAC)
Scottie Montgomery is a first-year head coach but has experience as an NFL assistant and as a coordinator at Duke. The former Blue Devil receiver helped his alma mater to its first bowl win since 1961 before joining ECU full time. Montgomery has put together a capable staff that has installed new systems. Quarterback Philip Nelson has starting experience from Minnesota. The Pirates, picked fifth in the East, will look for more run production. ECU had three more turnovers than takeaways last year, which needs to change.
Power Five games: N.C. State, Sept. 10; at South Carolina, Sept. 17; at Virginia Tech, Sept. 24.
(0-11 overall in 2015, 0-8 AAC)
The Knights hope to transform quickly under new coach Scott Frost, former offensive coordinator at Oregon. After a winless 2015 campaign, UCF will resemble the Ducks with an up-tempo, no-huddle style. The Knights were 15-1 in their first two seasons in the AAC. UCF has nine starters back on offense, including quarterback Justin Holman, and seven starters return on defense. UCF is picked sixth in the East division.
Power Five games: at Michigan, Sept. 10; Maryland, Sept. 17.
ECU date: Oct. 1 in Greenville.
(11-2 overall in 2015, 7-1 AAC)
Wide receiver Jamir Tilman is the lone returning starter on offense. There are seven starters back from a defense which held 10 opponents to 21 points or less in 2015. Quarterback Keenan Reynolds ran for 1,373 yards as Navy ranked second nationally with an average of 326.7 yards on the ground last year. The Midshipmen, picked second in the West, have been to bowls in 12 of the last 13 seasons, topping Pittsburgh 44-28 in the Military Bowl to cap Reynolds’ college career.
Power Five games: Notre Dame, Nov. 5.
ECU date: Oct. 13 in Greenville.
(9-4 overall in 2015, 5-3 AAC)
Mike Norvell took over the Tigers after serving as offensive coordinator at Arizona State when Justin Fuente went to Virginia Tech. Former Tennessee signee and junior college transfer Riley Ferguson takes over for productive quarterback Paxton Lynch, who threw for 3,778 yards and 28 touchdowns last year. There are four starters back on the offensive line as Memphis looks to operate at a fast pace. Three starters are back in the secondary and seven overall on defense for the Tigers, picked third in the West.
Power Five games: Kansas, Sept. 17; at Ole Miss, Oct. 1.
ECU date: Possible AAC championship pairing.
(6-7 overall in 2015, 3-5 AAC)
Philip Montgomery’s first season as Golden Hurricane coach produced a four-win improvement as returning quarterback Dane Evans threw for 4,332 yards with 25 touchdowns. Leading rusher D’Angelo Brewer (837 yards, 5.2 per carry) is also among six offensive starters who are back. Tulsa has seven returning starters on defense but ranked 120th in the FBS in average points allowed (39.8). The Golden Hurricane is slotted fourth in the West.
Power Five game: at Ohio State, Sept. 10.
ECU date: Nov. 5 in Tulsa.
(2-10 overall in 2015, 1-7 AAC)
Eight starters are back on an offense that scored 333 points in 2015, an increase from 133 points in 2014. Returning quarterback Matt Davis threw for 2,259 yards and ran for 761 in the first season for Chad Morris as head coach. SMU will be looking for its first bowl trip since 2012. Five starters are back from a defense that yielded 45.7 points per game. The Mustangs are picked fifth in the West division.
Power Five games; at Baylor, Sept. 10; Texas Christian, Sept. 23.
ECU date: Nov. 12 in Greenville.
(3-9 overall in 2015, 1-7 AAC)
Willie Fritz was a successful coach at Georgia Southern with a run-oriented offense that averaged just 10 tosses per game in 2015. Fritz likes the Green Wave’s depth at running back, which includes returning starter Dontrell Hilliard, Sherman Badie, Lazedrick Thompson and Josh Rounds. The ground attack could shorten games for a defense that allowed 36.3 points per contest last season. Tulane is picked sixth in the West.
Power Five game: at Wake Forest, Sept. 1.
ECU date: Only if each team wins its division.