Every conference has their share of questions for the football season. The American Athletic Conference is no exception as a new season is gearing up with some new coaches in key spots and some programs ready to prove they are ready to compete for the conference crown. Here are five questions facing the conference in 2017 that should be followed on a weekly basis in the fall.
1. Which new head coach will be the most successful in 2017?
The American Athletic Conference has become a bit of a stepping stone conference for a growing number of head coaches heading to bigger jobs in power conferences. This past year has seen Tom Herman leave Houston for Texas, Matt Rhule leave Temple for Baylor, and Willie Taggart leave USF for Oregon. All three leave behind programs that are in better standing today than when they arrive don the scene, while Cincinnati has reason to be hopeful with Luke Fickell as head coach. In fact, from December 2015 through December 16, all but three schools in the AAC changed their coaches, with Navy, SMU and Tulsa being the only outliers.
AAC Coaching Changes last 12 months:
— Kevin McGuire (@KevinOnCFB) December 26, 2016
So which new head coach will have the most successful 2017 season? Defending conference champion Temple has a first-time head coach in Geoff Collins from Florida. Houston sees Major Applewhite jump in the head coaching saddle for the first time as well, although a roster likely loaded with potential. Luke Fickell should be on his way to doing some good things with the Bearcats, but the coach that could be lining up the best 2017 may be Charlie Strong at USF. Not only does he take over a program on the verge of making a push to a conference crown, but he also has the top quarterback in the conference. Just like his time at Louisville with Teddy Bridgewater and unlike his stint with the Texas Longhorns, Strong having a player like Quinton Flowers could be a real difference-maker. This could be just what Strong needs to prove to his doubters he still knows what he is doing on the sidelines.
2. Can Kyle Allen thrive at Houston?
When Kyle Allen made the decision to transfer to Houston, he may have been hoping to get to work with Tom Herman. Instead, he will hope to re-energize his college career with Major Applewhite at the helm. Time will tell just how different the Houston offense looks or remains familiar for the Cougars, but it stands to reason Allen could potentially do some damage in the AAC. The question will be if he can remain productive throughout the season, an issue that came into play during his time at Texas A&M.
3. Would you rather have Ed Oliver or Quinton Flowers?
The top two players in the AAC are arguably (not-so-arguably) Houston’s monster defensive lineman Ed Oliver and USF quarterback Quinton Flowers. If all goes according to plan and these two terrific players stay healthy, we will see them go head-to-head on November 4 in Tampa, when USF hosts Houston in what could be a pivotal conference game and even a conference championship game preview. But would you rather have an All-American caliber defensive lineman or the top quarterback in the conference? Oliver is pretty tough to pass up in my book. Give me that beast in this conference and I’ll figure everything else out.
4. Is this the year Tulsa leaves their mark in the AAC?
Tulsa was generally a solid program when playing in Conference USA bu has yet to really make much noise since joining the AAC three years ago. Phillip Montgomery has done well in his first two seasons on the job with back-to-back bowl trips and a 10-win season last fall. For the Golden Hurricane to take that next step, playing for their first AAC championship would be the goal, and it looks to be an attainable one this season. In conference play, Tulsa gets no shortcuts to the title game despite getting both Houston and Navy at home. The Golden Hurricane also plays at USF and hosts Temple in November to close out the regular season. But if all goes according to plan, Tulsa could be the team to watch in the conference most likely to fly under the national radar in the Group of Five conversations.
5. Is the AAC the conference to beat for the Group of Five’s automatic spot in the New Years Six?
It was essentially assumed last season that Houston would be the top pick to return to the New Years Six bowl lineup after a phenomenal 2015 season that ended with a victory over Florida State in the Peach Bowl. An offseason of hype and experts actually pondering if Houston could jump in the playoff discussion was ultimately left unfulfilled as Houston stumbled in conference play. Once Houston slipped, the door was left wide open for Western Michigan of the MAC to take advantage.
So now we enter the fourth year of the College Football Playoff, and the AAC is looking to make its second trip to the New Years Six lineup. The AAC champion likely will have a good case to be made at the end of the season, but the margin for error is incredibly slim, especially if a Mountain West Conference team picks up 10 or 11 wins. A MAC team still likely has to go undefeated to stand in the way. From top to bottom, the AAC is probably the best of the Group of Five conferences in terms of overall depth and talent, followed closely by the Mountain West Conference.
The AAC is probably the conference to beat for the New Year Six, but getting by the AAC is clearly not impossible. This conference is very likely to stand in its own way at some point.