*Draft prospects and grades provided by Draft Analyst's Tony Pauline
Memphis (9-3; 6-2 in conference)
Houston (7-5; 6-2 in conference)
Tulane (7-5; 5-3 in conference)
SMU (6-6; 5-3 in conference)
Navy (5-7; 2-6 in conference)
Tulsa (2-10; 1-7 in conference)
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NFL Draft prospect to watch: S Austin Hall (Round 5)
How should I think of this team? It's like last year's Memphis team, except with an added dose of uncertainty. Should be fun!
The case for: There are a few givens in the Group of 5. Boise State’s going to nip at the fringe of the national conversation. Appalachian State and Troy are going to be really good. And Memphis will be all kinds of fun on offense. The Tigers say so long to Rotoworld Draft section crush Riley Ferguson at quarterback, but they’re at least on paper well-equipped to keep things going. Backing up Ferguson last year was David Moore, who now enters his redshirt sophomore year in a battle with graduate transfer Brady White to start. White signed on with Arizona State as Rivals’ No. 68 overall prospect in the 2015 class, but failed to seriously jostle Manny Wilkins -- who has shrugged off challenges from high-star recruits White and Blake Barnett -- before seeing the light further fade due to a lingering foot injury. He's resurfaced at Memphis via transfer. Our money in this competition might actually be Moore, who is well-versed in the system and brings a running aspect to the game which OC Kenny Dillingham referred to as the “X-factor.”
Moore, White, whomever wins the starting job will have no excuses not to put up numbers. The skill-position stable is ready to rock ‘n’ roll. Receiver Damonte Coxie is the name to know, here, as he’s expected to step into the big shoes vacated by Anthony Johnson over the winter. The 6-foot-3, 175-pounder -- who had committed himself to a collegiate life of drudgery in LSU’s offense as a recruit before he saw the light to later sign with Memphis -- plays with a physical veracity and already has an alpha personality. He’s a traditional downfield target, but the Tigers are loaded with a-symmetrical options, too, with running backs Darrell Henderson and Patrick Taylor both expected to take on active roles as pass-catchers. We could also see heavier offensive contributions from tight ends Joey Magnifico and Sean Dykes, who add to what’s going to be a varied assortment of talent.
We’re also hyped for Memphis’ defense, at least as hyped as you can get for a defense which ranked near the bottom of the conference in a number of defensive categories a year ago. Bill Connelly’s S&P+ metric saw them in as the 102nd defense in the country, for instance, while more traditionally, a symmetrical 102nd in scoring defense (they surrendered 32.5 points per game on average). The hype part, here, comes in what the unit was doing giant squid-style deep beneath that choppy statistical surface. Like maybe Memphis should request that Miami order an extra-long turnover chain so that the two teams can share, seeing as how those outfits tied for third in the country in forcing 31 turnovers. And Memphis achieved that with one of the youngest starting defenses in all the FBS.
The case against: If the Memphis ship is going to shudder off course this year, it’ll probably happen for one of two reasons. The most obvious would come with quarterbacking confusion. This is an ever-present danger for a team looking to replace an established performer like outgoing QB Riley Ferguson. Neither the aforementioned Moore nor White has any sort of real experience, and we’re well-accustomed to being let down by the former after his many trevails at Arizona State. All of the team’s skill-position talent can only do so much good if the Tigers they don’t have a quarterback.
The other way they might hit a snag in the AAC West? Well, we talked up the aggressive, ball magnet nature of this defense and likewise the probable step forward that a young unit would take in terms of development. For all the charm in their takeover tendencies, it’s still a team which was among the worst in the country in terms of points allowed, and it might not be realistic to expect a definitive step forward in this aspect. A step back is actually conceivable, as even if Memphis’ baby Tigers do benefit from their early trial by fire from a year ago, it’s very much possible -- if not probable -- that the variance of turnovers will see them fall short of the 31 they forced a year ago. If they fall significantly short of that mark, that could prove potentially crippling.
Bovada win total over/under: 8.5
Projected record: 9-3 (6-2 in AAC)
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NFL Draft prospect to watch: DT Ed Oliver (possible top-five pick)
How should I think of this team? Like eating a gallon of ice cream, and then chugging a bottle of sprinkles.
The case for: There’s no other team in the AAC that offers the kind of intrigue that Houston does. Not even UCF, which is coming off an undefeated season. Nice. The Cougars boast the potential No. 1 pick in the spring draft -- Ed Oliver has already declared -- an athletic force of nature who recorded has recorded an inhuman 38.5 tackles at defensive tackle in just two seasons. Even if Houston barely blips on your radar, you may recall Oliver ripping through Louisville for two sacks as a true freshman during Lamar Jackson’s Heisman campaign.
Oliver is the headliner in H-Town, but you won’t want to flip away when the Cougs are on offense, either. Not with wide receiver-turned-quarterback D’Eriq King -- who started the final four games of the 2017 campaign at the latter position -- flashing his all-around magic. Houston HC Major Applewhite is readily familiar with guiding a player with King’s style of play. Think Greg Ward Jr., who blossomed under Applewhite’s offensive-coordinating tutelage before Tom Herman fled to Austin. This built-in experience gives new Houston OC Kendal Briles an informational heads up and there’s every reason to believe that everything will be moving in the same direction by the end of August camp.
We’re also intrigued by their running backs room, which should be all the more consistent for its newfound lack of Duke Catalon. Holding out hope for the Texas transfer to produce proved a loser’s game, and Catalon failed to top 640 yards rushing or 4.5 carries in either of his two active years at Houston. He struggled with both injury and inconsistency, a perfect storm of failure which resulted in dashed expectations. With Catalon no more, Briles will focus his attentions on Mulbah Car -- who offered a steady game with little explosivity a year ago -- and former Baylor pupil Terence Williams, who transferred over from Waco this spring. Williams did not make his debut until late September last season due to an injury sustained in spring practice, one which kept him on the sideline for the start of the campaign. He finished the year rushing for just 255 yards and one touchdown. In a healthy 2016 season, though, Williams rushed for 1,048 yards (5.7 YPC) and 11 touchdowns. That’s the back that Applewhite, Briles and staff are hoping for.
The case against: There are a few different hurdles which Houston must jump before they should be seriously weighed in the AAC title conversation. We’ll start on offense. We’re always nervous about quarterbacks who spring up in the middle of the season to immediate success, because coaches have no film on them. That’s even more the case with King, whose main collegiate position prior to halftime of last autumn’s USF game was wide receiver. Hey, speaking of receiver, you know who doesn’t have any? Houston! At least none that are particularly experienced. The lovely-named Courtney Lark and the more punchy Keith Corbin are expected for heavy work, but they combined for all of 23 catches last year. That’s fewer than D’Eriq King put up by himself prior to his full-time position switch. It’s also leaning on a very tenuous load-supporting beam to project a healthy Williams to return to his productive form of two years ago, or for Mulbah Car to suddenly gain an extra gear on his run. Our more positive alter-ego making the “case for” above might be into magical thinking, but we are not.
Also, consider just for a second that Oliver is acting as the magician’s attractive assistant, drawing the stadium’s eye even while the actual trick is being performed. The trick in this case? Last year’s Houston run defense was just kind of OK. It ranked 45th in the country on a rushing yardage per-game average, nestled snuggly between BYU and South Alabama in allowing a shade under 148 yards rushing. S&P+ saw them in at a similarly-whatever No. 35 against the run. Nothing wrong with that, exactly, it’s just that you do have a supernova talent at defensive tackle who serves as a gravitational well every time he steps onto the field. What we read into these stats is that without Oliver, the numbers would look considerably worse. What happens if Oliver gets injured? Or Oliver, who is clearly already looking toward his professional future, takes things a step slower this year (if that’s possible)?
Bovada win total over/under: 8
Projected record: 7-5 (6-2 in AAC)
Tulane Green Wave
NFL Draft prospect to watch: CB Donald Lewis (UDFA)
How should I think of this team? As the up-and-comer of the AAC West.
The case for: We view Memphis as the clear favorite to win the division, and if they’re not the favorite, we’d probably install Houston in that position. If, however, at the end of the season, neither of those teams is reigning supreme, we’re guessing it’s because Tulane’s finally arrived. Willie Fritz is one of our favorite coaches in the Group of 5 -- Rotoworld colleague Thor Nystrom has many a-time argued that Kansas should target him as a David Beaty replacement -- and we’re excited for the possibility that his offense finally clicks this year.
It didn’t last year, at least not to the degree we were hoping. On a raw data standpoint, the Green Wave ranked respectively enough as the 20th-best rushing offense in the country on average, but as SB Nation’s Bill Connelly points out when diving into the deep statistics, the raw numbers were somewhat misleading -- the team ranked 90th in rushing success rate a year ago, meaning that there was a lot of inefficiency going into putting up their average rush total of 231.50 yards.
We’re comfortable that this running game will improve this season, likewise their overall offensive thrust. And perhaps dramatically. Three factors that should go a ways toward helping that -- QB Jonathan Banks should feel at home after taking his early lumps after transferring over from the JUCO ranks prior to the past campaign, Fritz is bringing back an experienced offensive line, and there’s a wealth of talent at both running back (Darius Bradwell and Texas Tech transfer Corey Dauphine leading the way) and receiver (Terren Encalade and Darnell Mooney leading a deep cast).
The case against: Tulane was porous by both traditional stats (29.2 points per game allowed on average) and advanced metrics (S&P+ defensive rank of 108th) and the worrisome part of the equation, here, is that matters aren’t necessarily due for an immediate improvement during the coming campaign. If anything, we might be seeing an additional downturn from this defense. Fritz lost productive members across the board -- the team’s essentially going to be replacing half of its starters -- and while he’s recruited well to potentially help fill in those gaps, you begin to play a dangerous game when you must rely on true freshmen to keep you afloat.
Complicating any potential push for the division crown, Fritz and crew are facing a dreadful opening schedule. Before September’s out, they’ll have already played Wake Forest, UAB, Ohio State and Memphis. They’ll likely be favored in none of those contests -- maybe the UAB one -- after which the schedule softens for a month before ramping up once more in a November which will include contests against USF, Houston and Navy. Those former two contests will be played on the road.
Bovada win total over/under: 5.5
Projected record: 7-5 (5-3 in AAC)
Southern Methodist Mustangs
NFL Draft prospect to watch: S Rodney Clemons (Round 5)
How should I think of this team? An experiment worthy of Doc Frankenstein on offense.
The case for: SMU’s taken one heck of an interesting path through the offseason, one which could end up looking either like brilliance or madness by the end of the year. After Chad Morris took his power spread attack to Fayetteville this winter, SMU assessed its options before landing on a surprising option: Former Cal HC Sonny Dykes, who worked in the role of offensive analyst at TCU in 2017. Dykes then hired UConn OC Rhett Lashlee, of Auburn fame, an outwardly confusing hire seeing as how Lashlee shares more in common on the level of offensive philosophy with Morris than he does Air Raid maestro Dykes.
We’ll be honest -- the hires just confused us at first. Not that either Dykes or Lashlee is inflexible, just that both probably could have found more comfortable marriage. The more we thought on it, though, we start to see some of the potential logic that’s working, here. Mustangs QB Ben Hicks was groomed in Morris’ system, which would make an immediate jump into the waters of the Air Raid frigid. Consider Lashlee a warm rock on which Hicks can ease off into the world of Hal Mumme and Mike Leach.
Lashlee and Dykes were methodical about the installation of the offense in the spring and it’ll be revealing in August to see the pace of that installation. If Hicks takes to it, look out. He’s coming off a season in which he threw for 3,569 yards with a 33/12 TD/INT ratio and the idea of punching up those numbers is a fun one. Dykes and staff are also working with a strong running game (Xavier Jones rushed for 1,075 yards in 2017 and he’s leading a deep group) and a fine-for-the-conference line He’ll have to hit it perfectly and that’s difficult to do, but it helps to have much of the offense already determined.
The case against: SMU hired TCU’s offensive analyst to serve as head coach and UConn’s offensive coordinator. That’s interesting, but we don’t necessarily know if it’s good. There are many moving pieces just schematically that this staff still needs to address. There are also serious questions about the talent on hand at certain positions, most notably perhaps at wide receiver, where the Mustangs lost Courtland Sutton and Trey Quinn to the draft. That pair posted a combined 182-2321-25 receiving line a year ago. James Proche (40-816-6) will almost certainly put up numbers, but we’re not going to sugarcoat. Those are significant losses, ones which put that much more pressure on Hicks. We don’t know what Hicks looks like without Sutton. We’ve never seen it before. All we know is that Sutton was a borderline first-round receiver who is now gone.
In our preview of Troy, we noted that HC Neal Brown has openly acknowledged that his defense will be ahead of the offense to begin the season. That’s not a luxury that SMU has. If the offense is not ready, the defense won’t allow them to tread water. Instead they’ll just lose. This was one of the worst units in the country on multiple fronts last year, allowing more than 476 yards on average. That was seven yards better than UCLA, if you want a relative marker for how horrid they were in 2017. SMU was bad on the macro level, and likewise bad on the micro level, allowing 6.59 yards per play. And they gave up big plays. Lots of big plays. On average, a whopping 20.1 plays went for more than 10 yards against SMU on average. That’s simply absurd. Which brings us back around to the offense. If this experiment doesn’t work to at least some degree early, the season could become an ugly one in relatively short order.
Bovada win total over/under: 5.5
Projected record: 6-6 (5-3 in conference)
NFL Draft prospect to watch: N/A
How should I think of this team? Malcolm Perry.
The case for: Pac-12 Media Day sparked renewed interest in the never-been relationship between Navy HC Ken Niumatalolo and Arizona QB Khalil Tate, who took to Twitter to write that he had not signed on with the Wildcats to run the triple-option when it was rumored that Niumatalolo had drawn the program’s interest as they searched about for a new head coach post-Rich Rod. They filled that vacancy with Kevin Sumlin, who does not run the triple-option, and all was right in the world. We’ll just say it -- we really wish we had the opportunity to see Niumatalolo (an incredibly creative, flexible football mind) take his crack at Tate. We think he would have blown up the universe with him.
He’ll just have to blow up the universe with Malcolm Perry, instead. The former slotback, current quarterback is a brilliant athlete, inarguably one of the best -- on a pure athletic level -- to ever take snaps at signal-caller for the program. Tangibly, Perry rushed for 1,182 yards (8.6 YPC) and 11 touchdowns a year ago. We’re honestly a little afraid to see what he has in store now that he’s had a full offseason to prepare as starting quarterback. One he starts to get the little nuances in running Niumatalolo’s particular brand of triple-option fun this offense has the potential to take off.
Helping this equation even more, we’re here for Navy’s offensive line, which we viewed as a soft spot two years ago and has made remarkable strides in toughening up in the interim. What we’re looking at, now is a line which returns starting experience -- T Andrew Wood, who has started 25 consecutive games, is the dude, here -- and it’s hard not to feel optimistic about how this offense might shape up if Perry really runs with his new role. The Midshipmen ranked 48th in the country in terms of average scoring offense last year, putting up 30.5 points per game. Don’t be surprised if they land in the mid-30’s this season. We don’t think it’s outside of the realm of possibility that Perry drags the Midshipmen to national prominence.
The case against: It feels silly to harp on the passing of an option team, but that’s absolutely fair game, here. Perry attempted just two passes last year. The difference between Navy as a thorny offensive problem that can be solved by opposing defenses and Navy as a thorny, largely unsolvable problem is going to be just how honest Perry and crew can keep opposing defenses. Part of Navy’s appeal is that their offense is a wave that simply goes, play-after-play. That is fantastic, up until the point when it has to coalesce for a passing play or two.
We’re nervous about the makeup of the defense, too, as a fantastic unit against the run -- on S&P+, Navy ranked 27th -- is replacing key depth at linebacker. We’re more comfortable with the front seven, but a step back would not surprise. The secondary might not be able to handle a step back. Not only are they dealing with losses in their own right -- active corners Elijah Merchant and Tyris Wooten are no longer on roster -- they weren’t playing from a position of strength to begin with. From a scheduling point of view, Navy faces a pretty gnarly four-of-five midseason stretch in which they’ll play Temple, Houston, Notre Dame and UCF.
Bovada win total over/under: 7
Projected record: 5-7 (2-6 in AAC)
Tulsa Golden Hurricane
NFL Draft prospect to watch: T Waahid Muhammad (Round 5)
How should I think of this team? A watermelon which was just dropped off a skyscraper.
The case for: It has to get better, it just has to. Difficult for it to devolve any further. Tulsa bottomed out at a horrific 2-10 last season, the exact reverse of their record from the previous campaign. If they’re to rediscover the mojo which brought them to double-digit wins two years ago, that’ll likely be because they’re leaning hard on one of the better running back groups in the conference, headlined by Shamari Brooks, who rushed for 687 yards and 10 touchdowns as a true freshman before his campaign was cut short by a broken collarbone.
Brooks won’t be running the ball alone, and we like both Corey Taylor and Ramadi Warren to chip in with significant contributions on top of the (presumably awesome) production which he should be offering on a game-in, game-out basis. Our faith in this running game is bolstered all the more by an impressive offensive line which is not only experienced, but deeply experienced, with multiple starters returning with multiple years of experience. Tulsa ranked as S&P+’s No. 56 rushing offense last year in large part due to those offensive linemen. They’re going to have a chance to look really good if Brooks can stay on the field.
Not only are we keen on Tulsa’s running game and the offensive line that will be blocking for it, the team boasts a pair of potentially top-tier receivers for the conference in Justin Hobbs and Keenen Johnson so long as the Golden Hurricane can coax water from the quarterbacking stone of one of Luke Skipper, Chad President (recovering from a torn ACL) and Seth Boomer. The 6-foot-4, 218-pound Hobbs, in particular, is a receiver whom we think has a year of blossoming in him after he posted a 55-830-3 receiving line last season. We just feel somewhat unsettled on the quarterback, here.
The case against: Let’s talk quarterback. Specifically, let’s talk about the combined disappointment of Skipper and President from 2017. Neither quarterback was particularly accurate (55.9% completions and 52.9% completions, respectively), and the pair combined for just a 6/6 TD/INT ratio for the campaign as a whole. If we had to pick a favorite from this pair, well, it might take a little time for us to get back to you. Tulsa averaged just 173.1 passing yards per game last year, placing them 110th in the country. That mark dovetails almost identically with the S&P+ passing offense rank of 115th which they scraped in with a year ago. For all of the other promising offensive pieces on this team, from running game to receivers to offensive line, quarterback may well remain the team’s Achilles heel.
Even if the Skipper/President/Boomer combination does somehow manage to start to produce in the passing game, it might not matter on the scoreboard. Or perhaps more accurately, the defense will make sure that it does not matter. It was a bad defense a year ago -- allowing 37.5 points per game on average -- and while there was a fair bit of injury attrition, there, we’re mostly concerned about an overt lack of talent. The team’s going to try its luck with a considerable haul of JUCO transfers and perhaps they hit on one or two, but that would be less a case of a forward defensive build and more a case of throwing options at the wall hoping a few stick. It’s hard to see significant defensive improvements not only this year, but also down the road.
Bovada win total over/under: 4
Projected record: 2-10 (1-7 in AAC)