Cincinnati gets slight nod in contentious AAC

Cincinnati gets slight nod in contentious AAC

<p>UCF was the clear-cut American Athletic Conference champion last year as the Knights finished the season with a perfect 8-0 mark.</p>

Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) - UCF was the clear-cut American Athletic Conference champion last year as the Knights finished the season with a perfect 8-0 mark.

However, the conference formerly known as the Big East usually winds up with three or more teams atop the standings at the end of the regular season. Between the years 2010 and 2012, 10 teams (all with two losses) were tied for first - four clubs in 2012 and three each the prior two seasons.

Look for three squads - UCF, Cincinnati and Houston - to finish the 2014 campaign tied for first place with two defeats each, but with the Bearcats being the team ranked highest at the end of the season by the College Football Playoff Committee.

When wagering on AAC games this season, keep in mind how poorly conference home favorites fared in 2013. The league betting choice at home was a dismal 7-18 last year, good for just a 28 percent winning percentage. It also is important to note that not one of last year's 10 league teams finished with a winning ATS record as a conference home favorite.

With Louisville and Rutgers in other leagues, along with the additions of East Carolina, Tulsa and Tulane, the overall dynamics of the AAC might change, but don't forget to wager against conference home favorites, especially if the trend continues early in the season.

Time now to take a deeper look into the league, along with predicted straight- up (overall and conference) records for those wagering on over/unders for total team victories.

11) TULANE - The Green Wave are 8-2 as home underdogs the last two years. They won seven games in 2013 after garnering just two victories in 2012. However, there are a few statistics that will not be repeated this year. First, the team finished second nationally in turnovers gained (35). Second, the Green Wave's defensive red zone touchdown percentage ranked 11th nationally after finishing 68th two years ago. Finally, they moved from 99th all the way up to a tie for 12th in sacks. With expected reversals in those key areas, expect a sharp decline in wins.

Final thought - Tulane ranked next-to-last in total offense in 2013 and the leading rusher and receiver are both gone. Predicted overall and conference records - 2-10, 1-7.

10) CONNECTICUT - The Huskies are an amazing 19-3 as home underdogs the last nine years. They averaged 4.8 yards per play inside the AAC last year, just 0.2 higher than in 2012. Nevertheless, they scored over a touchdown more per game due to a rise from last place (versus other conference squads) in red zone touchdown percentage to the second spot. The defense also forced nine more turnovers in just one more conference game than it did in 2012. Those statistical numbers will not remain the same in 2014

Final thought - New coach and new schemes will have Connecticut on the verge of its worst conference record since 2006 when the club won just one of seven games. Predicted overall and conference records - 4-8, 2-6.

9) SOUTH FLORIDA - The Bulls are 14-6 as road underdogs but 5-14 as road favorites the last seven years. Their overall scoring average has dropped every year since 2011, with last season's 14 points per game topping just three other FBS teams. Expect more points this season as it is doubtful they will duplicate last year's 37 percent red zone touchdown percentage with the return of 10 offensive starters.

Final thought - Unfortunately, the defense loses players responsible for 85 percent of the team's sacks. Predicted overall and conference records - 4-8, 3-5.

8) SMU - The Mustangs are 8-2 as home underdogs the last five years. They just missed being bowl eligible in 2013 with a four-point loss to UCF in the last game. Garrett Gilbert had a career year in his final season so the offensive production should drop in 2014, especially since the team managed just 26 points in the 10 quarters he missed while injured. Don't forget, SMU will be without receivers Jeremy Johnson and Keenan Holman, who accounted for 2,149 yards and 15 touchdowns, and the ground game is nothing to write home about.

Final thought - The defense, which ranked 13 nationally in tackles for loss adds former Rice linebacker Cameron Nwosu. Look for improved numbers on this side of the ball. Predicted overall and conference records - 4-8, 3-5.

7) MEMPHIS - The Tigers are 9-14 as home underdogs the last five years. As expected, the team struggled in its first AAC season, winning just one game and ranking ninth in total offense and seventh in total defense. Nine starters are back on offense and 11 of the top 14 tacklers return on defense, so the numbers should improve on both sides of the ball. In addition, Tulane and Tulsa replace Louisville and UCF on the schedule.

Final thought - Memphis, 1-9 in its last 10 games decided by a touchdown or less, was 0-4 in that department a season ago. If the club finally learns how to finish, the overall and league numbers will improve. Predicted overall and conference records - 6-6, 4-4.

6) TULSA - The Golden Hurricane's 3-9 ATS mark was their worst since going 1-9 back in 2001. They came into last year with just two returning defensive starters and it showed as the club allowed over 10 more points per game. This year, 17 of the top 19 tacklers return, along with safety Demarco Nelson, who missed last season, so look for a large decrease in points allowed. Offensively, the running game won't be as explosive as it has been in recent years, but the passing game should improve with the return of 2012's leading receiver, Keyarris Garrett, who comes back after suffering a leg injury in their second game last year.

Final thought - The last three times the Golden Hurricane finished with a losing record, they rebounded the following season with a winning one: 1-11 to 8-4, 4-8 to 8-4 and 5-7 to 9-3. Predicted overall and conference records - 7-5, 4-4.

5) TEMPLE - The Owls are 12-4 as road underdogs the last five years. They changed their offensive philosophy with Coach Matt Rhule at the helm last season, passing the ball 50 percent of the time after running it 68 percent in 2012. The results were fantastic as the offense improved by eight points and over 100 yards per game inside the AAC. The Owls lose four offensive line starters, but that position was weak anyway last year. Defensively, four of the top five tacklers (and 12 of top 15) are back after losing three of their top five in 2013.

Final thought - Temple trailed over 78 percent of the time in its first six games last year but led (or were tied) 85 percent of the time in the final six. The Owls also lost five games by a combined 16 points. Expect a massive turnaround in 2014. Predicted overall and conference records - 6-6, 4-4.

4) EAST CAROLINA - The Pirates are 7-0 ATS in games following a straight-up defeat the last two years. They lost three games last season but two came by a total of eight points. Last year's club was a veteran unit with 17 returning starters. This season, East Carolina loses its 1,000-yard rusher, half of its starting offensive line and eight of its top 12 tacklers. On the positive side, the Pirates return one of the top quarterback-wide receiver combos in the country and many defensive backups saw quality time last year.

Final thought - The move from C-USA to the AAC, along with a brutal non- conference schedule, will keep the Pirates on the fence for bowl eligibility. Predicted overall and conference records - 6-6, 5-3.

3) UCF - The Knights are 3-8 as road favorites the last three years. They had an unbelievable season in 2013 - winning 12 games - but come into 2014 without Blake Bortles, Storm Johnson and three-fifths of their starting offensive line. Furthermore, six of their wins came by an average of four points. UCF will be one of the better defensive teams in the country with the return of 16 of its top 18 tacklers, but the lack of star power on offense will limit the team's quest for a third straight double-digit win season.

Final thought - UCF will have trouble outscoring high-powered offenses this season, but thankfully for the folks in Orlando, there appears to be just four of them on this year's schedule. Predicted overall and conference records - 8-4, 6-2.

2) HOUSTON - The Cougars are 27-11 ATS the last three odd years but 13-22 ATS the last three even years. They led the country in turnover margin last year at plus-25. The last time they had a high ratio (plus-16 in 2011), they dropped to minus-4 the following season. Houston also moved from 101st nationally to 23rd in defensive third-down efficiency, and finished 18th nationally in defensive red zone touchdown percentage after ranking 88th in 2012. Given the fact it is almost impossible to match those numbers, one has to wonder how the Cougars will fare in 2014. Nonetheless, 14 of their top 16 tacklers return, and they will be joined by former Texas A&M defensive end Gavin Stansbury and former BYU defensive back Lee Hightower.

Final thought - One other nugget that doesn't bode well for the Cougars. They were outgained by an average of seven yards per game in league play last year but outscored their opponents by 10 points per game. On the other hand, it is difficult to find more than four losses on what looks like an easy schedule. Predicted overall and conference records - 8-4, 6-2.

1) CINCINNATI - The Bearcats are 4-0 in their last four games as road underdogs. The 2014 season comes down to how well Gunner Kiel fares in his first season under center. This year's offense isn't much different from last season's when Cincinnati ranked second in conference play in scoring and first in total offense. Remember, Brendon Kay had just a 9-8 touchdown-interception ratio over the final six games, so it is not as if Kiel is replacing a superstar. Six of the top nine tacklers return to a defense that ranked ninth nationally in total defense and 14th in scoring. The Bearcats also should be the beneficiary of more breaks as they were minus-16 in turnover differential compared to 2012. The only negative is that Cincinnati has to play four conference opponents that have byes the week before taking on the Bearcats.

Final thought - Cincinnati has won nine regular season games each of the last three years. This season should be no different. Predicted overall and conference records - 9-3, 6-2.

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