The American Athletic Conference will release its preseason football poll at the league’s media kickoff around 8:30 on Tuesday morning in Newport, RI.
South Florida likely will be the preseason favorite and deservingly so. The Bulls are coming off an 11-2 season and have run-throw quarterback Quinton Flowers returning to lead the offense.
East Carolina, coming off a 3-9 season, will be operating beneath the radar of lofty preseason expectations, except from within and immediately around the Pirates program.
I picked ECU to finish second in the East Division behind the Bulls in the preseason poll I submitted to the AAC on Thursday. The Pirates are well ahead of last year in terms of organization and personnel.
Four other schools in the East Division have been through coaching transitions as ECU did last year.
If USF does go off as the team to beat, they will have to overcome some recent history of misfortune for programs in that role. Houston was the preseason favorite in football in 2016 and the Cougars wound up tied for third in the West Division with Memphis, which topped Houston 48-44 in their head-to-head meeting.
Cincinnati was picked to win in basketball last season but Southern Methodist won the regular season and tournament titles.
In baseball, as ECU fans are well aware, the Pirates were cast in the role of preseason favorites in the AAC and finished on the bottom of the regular season standings. ECU did regroup from an injury-plagued season to make a run to the final game in the AAC Tournament before falling to Houston.
The Pirates can expect to be listed among the also-rans in the East Division when the preseason poll comes out on Tuesday, not that that is a bad thing.
Here is last year’s AAC preseason poll, followed by the actual 2016 standings.
After that is a look at the teams for the upcoming season in the order of my ballot from Bonesville.
2016 AAC Preseason Football Media Poll
1. South Florida
5. East Carolina
6. Central Florida
5. Southern Methodist
Preseason pick for AAC championship: Houston
2016 AAC Final Standings
Temple 7-1 10-4
South Florida 7-1 11-2
Central Florida 4-4 6-7
Cincinnati 1-7 4-8
East Carolina 1-7 3-9
Connecticut 1-7 3-9
Navy 7-1 9-5
Tulsa 6-2 10-3
Memphis 5-3 8-5
Houston 5-3 9-4
Southern Methodist 3-5 5-7
Tulane 1-7 3-9
1. South Florida
Coach: Charlie Strong (first year at USF)
Star power: Quarterback Quinton Flowers was AAC Offensive Player of the Year in 2016.
Nonconference game to watch: Sept. 15 vs. Illinois
Date/site vs. ECU: Sept. 30/Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium (50,000), Greenville
2016 result vs. Pirates: USF 38, ECU 22
Bulls capsule: There are 16 starters returning from a team that took a 46-39 bowl win over South Carolina. Strong and the new staff haven’t tried to impose new systems but refine those that produced an 11-2 record. Flowers is a run/throw threat who is getting some Heisman attention. Running back Marlon Mack is gone. The defensive has experience and talent. The schedule is light in terms of out-of-league opposition. The biggest name, Illinois, was 3-9 last year.
2. East Carolina
Coach: Scottie Montgomery (3-9, second year at ECU)
Star power: Receiver Jimmy Williams is heir to the tradition that produced NCAA record setters Justin Hardy and Zay Jones.
Nonconference games to watch: All of them have their intriguing aspects — James Madison (Sept. 2) is the defending FCS champion, West Virginia on the road (Sept. 9) is a huge challenge, Virginia Tech (Sept. 16) will have Dowdy-Ficklen rocking and Brigham Young (Oct. 21 for Homecoming) returns a visit that produced a 45-38 Pirates loss in 2015.
Pirates capsule: Aspirations for improvement are founded on better depth and talent. The Pirates redshirted some promising players last year and have created excitement with graduate transfers. The defense has converted from a 3-4 base to a 4-2-5 and has assembled personnel accordingly. There will be a higher commitment to special teams with all hands on deck for coverage units. Duke transfer quarterback Thomas Sirk, Clemson running back Tyshon Dye and Eastern Michigan punter Austin Barnes appear to have potential for immediate impact among the incoming graduate stundents. Generating more sacks and turnovers are priorities for the defense. The offense needs greater red zone efficiency. A general determination to be better pervades the program.
3. Central Florida
Coach: Scott Frost (6-7, second year at UCF)
Star power: Linebacker Shaquem Griffin was AAC Defensive Player of the Year in 2016.
Nonconference games to watch: The Knights host Georgia Tech (Sept. 16) and travel to Maryland (Sept. 23) in back-to-back games.
Date/site vs. ECU: Oct. 14/Bright House Networks Stadium (44,206), Orlando
2016 result vs. Pirates: UCF 47, ECU 29
Knights capsule: UCF went from 0-12 in 2015 to 6-7 last season with a 31-13 bowl loss to Arkansas State. There are nine starters returning on an offense that averaged 351 yards and 28.8 points. Quarterback McKenzie Milton took the job as a true freshman last season. Four of the Knights’ first five games are at home, including an early league meeting with Memphis on Sept. 9. The major question marks are on the defensive side where just four starters are back.
Coach: Geoff Collins (first year at Temple)
Star power: Running back Ryquell Armstead rushed for 919 yards and scored 14 touchdowns for the 2016 AAC champions.
Nonconference game to watch: The Owls open the season Sept. 2 at Notre Dame.
Date/site vs. ECU: Oct. 7, Greenville
2016 result vs. Pirates: Temple 37, ECU 10
Owls capsule: There are a lot of important elements missing from the group that surged to the AAC championship last season with an impressive 34-10 win at Navy. Coach Matt Rhule was snatched up by Baylor after directing back-to-back 10-win seasons in Philadelphia. P.J. Walker, a four-year starter at quarterback, was instrumental in the program’s rise from a 2-10 mark in 2013. Former Florida defensive coordinator Geoff Collins has taken over for Rhule with only six starters back on offense and four on defense. Redshirt freshman Anthony Russo may emerge from the four-man competition to replace Walker. The Owls have a tough West Division schedule as Houston, Navy and Tulsa combined for 28 wins last year.
Coach: Luke Fickell (first year at Cincinnati)
Star Power: Junior quarterback Hayden Moore threw for 1,744 yards and 11 touchdowns last year.
Nonconference game to watch: The Bearcats visit Michigan on Sept. 9.
Date/site vs. ECU: Nov. 18, Greenville
2016 result vs. Pirates: Cincinnati 31, ECU 19
Bearcats capsule: Cincinnati ended 2016 with losses in its last five games after topping ECU at its homecoming. The program looks to regain momentum with just five starters back on offense and six returning on defense. Fickell is a career Ohio State guy, playing for the Buckeyes, guiding the program to a 6-7 record as interim head coach in 2011 and serving as co-defensive coordinator during the national championship season in 2014. OSU transfer Torrance Gibson may eventually run the power spread offense that Fickell has installed. Cincinnati averaged just 19.3 points per game last year.
Coach: Randy Edsall (13th year at UConn, 74-70 from 1999 to 2010)
Star Power: Quarterback Bryant Shirreffs threw for 2,010 yards and seven touchdowns last year.
Nonconference games to watch: The Huskies travel to Virginia on Sept. 16 and host Missouri on Oct. 28.
Date/site vs. ECU: Nov. 4 at Rentschler Field (40,642), East Hartford
2016 result vs. Pirates: ECU 41, UConn 3
Huskies capsule: Edsall returns to the program he coached from 1999 to 2010, guiding the Huskies to their last winning season in 2010 before heading to Maryland. Cranking up an offense that produced just 14.8 points per game will be a challenge for former Auburn offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee, who will serve in that capacity at UConn. There are seven starters returning on each side of the ball. Linebacker Vontae Diggs will have to be accounted for by opposing OCs.
Coach: Philip Montgomery (Third year at Tulsa, 16-10)
Star power: D’Angelo Brewer ran for 1,435 yards in 2016.
Nonconference games to watch: The Golden Hurricane starts the season at Oklahoma State on Sept. 2.
Date/site vs. ECU: Tulsa has rotated off the Pirates’ schedule as a regular season opponent from the West Division.
2016 result vs. Pirates: Host Tulsa topped ECU, 45-24.
Golden Hurricane capsule: Tulsa must replace Dane Evans at quarterback with aptly-named candidates Chad President and Luke Skipper among the candidates for offensive leadership. Brewer’s running behind a veteran offensive line has the potential to buy time for the development of the passing game. The schedule brings division contenders Navy (Sept. 30), Houston (Oct. 14) and Memphis (Nov. 3) to Tulsa.
Coach: Ken Miumatalolo (10th year at Navy, 77-42)
Star Power: Outside linebacker D.J. Palmore had 56 tackles and six sacks last season.
Nonconference games to watch: The Midshipmen match up against Air Force at home on Oct. 7, visit Notre Dame on Nov. 18 and take on Army in Philadelphia on Dec. 9.
Date/site vs. ECU: Navy has rotated off the Pirates’ schedule as a regular season opponent from the West Division.
2016 result vs. Pirates: Navy won 66-31 in Greenville in a contest rescheduled to Nov. 19 last season due to rain from Hurricane Matthew.
Midshipmen capsule: Navy has some unique factors at work. Coaching continuity is one and its option offense is another. Quarterback Zach Abbey made two starts last season in an injury-plagued season for the Midshipmen, directing losses to arch rival Army (21-17) and Louisiana Tech (48-45) in a bowl contest. Abbey came in when Will Worth was hurt in a 34-10 loss to Temple in the AAC championship game. Eight starters return on defense but just four are back on offense.
Coach: Major Applewhite (First full year at Houston, 0-1 in Las Vegas Bowl in 2016)
Star Power: Defensive tackle Ed Oliver had 23 tackles for loss as a freshman in 2016.
Nonconference games to watch: The Cougars visit Arizona on Sept. 9 and host Texas Tech on Sept. 23.
Date/site vs. ECU: Oct. 28 (Homecoming), TDECU Stadium (40,000), Houston
2016 result vs. Pirates: Teams did not play.
Cougars capsule: Coach Tom Herman and quarterback Greg Ward are gone. Applewhite was promoted from offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach. Kyle Allen, a transfer from Texas A&M, threw for 3,532 yards in 14 starts for the Aggies. There are 15 returning starters, including eight on offense, as Houston looks to bounce back from a 34-10 bowl loss to San Diego State.
Coach: Mike Norvell (Second year at Memphis, 8-5)
Star Power: Quarterback Riley Ferguson passed for 3,698 yards and 32 touchdowns last season.
Nonconference game to watch: The Tigers host UCLA on Sept. 16.
Date/site vs. ECU: Nov. 25, Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium (59,308), Memphis
2016 result vs. Pirates: Teams did not play.
Tigers capsule: Returning skill personnel abound. Receiver Anthony Miller had 95 catches for 1,434 yards and 14 touchdowns last year. Doroland Dorceus ran for 810 yards and nine scores in 2016. There are nine returning starters on offense although offensive coordinator Chip Long left for Notre Dame and was replaced by running backs coach Darrell Dickey, a former head coach at North Texas. Six starters are back for a defensive unit that yielded 455 yards per game last year. Memphis was outscored 51-31 in its bowl matchup with Western Kentucky.
5. Southern Methodist
Coach: Chad Morris (Third year at SMU, 7-17)
Star Power: Courtland Sutton caught 76 passes for 1,246 yards with 10 touchdowns last year as a sophomore.
Nonconference games to watch: The Mustangs travel to Texas Christian on Sept. 16.
Date/site vs. ECU: SMU has rotated off the Pirates’ schedule as a regular season opponent from the West Division.
2016 result vs. Pirates: SMU won, 55-31, in Greenville.
Mustangs capsule: Morris has SMU moving in the right direction after the previous two seasons produced just three wins. Ben Hicks threw for 2,930 yards as a redshirt freshman last year but Arkansas transfer Rafe Peavey and D.J. Gillins, who came in from Wisconsin, give SMU offensive coordinator Joe Craddock options. Braeden West ran for 1,036 yards last year with capable back-up from Ke’Mon Freeman (651 yards). Nine starters are back on offense. Five return from a defensive unit that yielded 36.3 points and 453 yards per game.
Coach: Willie Fritz (Second year at Tulane, 4-8)
Star Power: Cornerback Perry Nickerson has made 34 starts for the Green Wave and has 10 career interceptions.
Nonconference game to watch: Tulane goes to Oklahoma on Sept. 16.
Date/site vs. ECU: Nov. 11, Greenville
2016 result vs. Pirates: Teams did not play.
Green Wave capsule: There are eight starters returning on both sides of the ball from a team that ended the season on a high note with a 38-13 win at Connecticut. Tulane’s option-based offense, which Fritz brought from Georgia Southern, will feature Glen Cuiellette at quarterback and senior back Dontrell Hilliard, who ran for 759 yards and nine touchdowns last year. The defense allowed just 365 yards per game in 2016.
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