The CBS Sports college football staff is laying it all on the line ahead of the season, calling out each of our most overrated and underrated teams, picking a champion, making a bold prediction and predicting the order of finish for the AAC.
Let’s take a look.
Most overrated team
Navy: AAC media members picked Navy to finish second in the West. Despite how much I respect the job Ken Niumatalolo has done, second place may be asking too much in 2016. The Midshipmen lose four-year starting quarterback Keenan Reynolds, who was the trigger man in their option offense, and return just eight starters (second fewest in the country). — Jon Solomon (In agreement: Robby Kalland)
Temple: I’m all in for my dude Jahad Thomas, aka the 5 God, star of the best hype video from 2015. He’s one of the most explosive backs in the conference and one missed tackle from a touchdown anytime he’s in the open field. This Temple defense, though, might be poised for a step back after losing three players to the NFL Draft. Temple is still a division title contender, but I’ve got South Florida knocking the Owls from their perch in the East. — Chip Patterson (In agreement: Tom Fornelli)
Cincinnati: The Bearcats have been pleasantly consistent over the year despite different coaches stopping through. That consistency took a mild hit last season, due in part to some injuries, with a 7-6 finish. There are a lot of veteran players coming back, but there’s a new quarterback (Hayden Moore) and Cincinnati has yet to resolve its egregious turnover issues that plagued it in 2015. The schedule has some breaks with teams like Memphis and South Florida coming to Cincinnati, but there’s also a game against heavy favorite Houston. — Ben Kercheval (In agreement: Dennis Dodd)
East Carolina: Despite an off year last season, East Carolina is one of the more consistently successful programs in the American conference. However, the Pirates will likely struggle to rebound this season. There are new faces everywhere, starting with new head coach Scottie Montgomery. Montgomery is installing a new style of offense and will do so with several new starters on that side of the ball. It’s the start of a new era in Greenville, one that may take some time to get rolling. — Jerry Palm
Most underrated team
Navy: Losing a player like Reynolds is no small item. Reynolds was not only a perfect fit for the triple option, he was the unquestioned, respected face of the program. Tago Smith is a senior who’s been through the program, but this is a tall task. The good news for him is the Midshipmen have plenty of veteran players around him. Navy has been the model of consistency under Niumatatolo and the triple option is a tough offense to prepare for in a week’s time. The Midshipmen will give plenty of teams hell again. — Ben Kercheval (In agreement: Dennis Dodd, Chip Patterson)
South Florida: It took Willie Taggart a couple of seasons to get the ball rolling at South Florida, but in the middle of 2015, everything seemed to click. The Bulls won seven of their last nine games, finishing 8-5 and a game back of Temple in the East division. USF returns most of its key players on both sides of the ball, including quarterback Quinton Flowers and running back Marlon Mack. The Gulf Coast Offense could be poised to lead the Bulls to the top of the division this year. — Jerry Palm (In agreement: Jon Solomon)
SMU: It’s not so much that I believe SMU isn’t getting enough respect in the preseason. The truth is its getting as much as it’s earned. I just have a feeling that, of all the teams in this conference we don’t expect too much from, SMU has the best shot to exceed the expectations. — Tom Fornelli
Temple: The Owls won their division last season and still have one of the nation’s most underrated running backs in Thomas. The leader of Temple’s defense from last year, Tyler Matakevich, is gone, but they return six of their top 10 tacklers from a top 20 scoring defense. I don’t expect too much slippage from the Owls in 2016; they will compete for the division title once again. — Robby Kalland
Houston: There’s no surprise here, Houston is the best and most talented team in the conference. Tom Herman has done a great job with the Cougars since his arrival, and he has a quarterback in Greg Ward Jr. that is dynamic with his arm and legs. This is a team that’s not just the heavy favorite in the AAC but has aspirations of being the first Group of Five team to crash the College Football Playoff party. That would require them running the table, including a win over Oklahoma in the opener. — Robby Kalland (In agreement: Everyone, unanimous pick)
Bold AAC prediction
Dennis Dodd: Houston will finish the regular season undefeated and break through into the CFP.
Jon Solomon: Despite the playoff hype given its nonconference schedule, Houston will not go undefeated in the American.
Jerry Palm: Houston will not only repeat as conference champs but play in a New Year’s Six bowl.
Tom Fornelli: Houston will win the West division by at least two games.
Chip Patterson: South Florida and Florida State will be tied in the fourth quarter on Sept. 24 in Tampa.
Robby Kalland: Temple will win its second straight East division title.
Ben Kercheval: Houston will win the AAC but go 0-2 against Oklahoma and Louisville, not coming close to a CFP bid.
Greg Ward Jr., QB, Houston: The most impactful quarterback in the American started his college career also playing wide receiver and returning punts. Ward’s journey and development at Houston has given him all the skills needed to be the most potent offensive weapon on the field, and that’s exactly what he was in 2015 with 38 total touchdowns (17 passing, 21 rushing), over 1,000 rushing yards and 67 percent passing. As long as Ward’s healthy, the Cougars have a shot against anyone. That includes Oklahoma, Navy, Louisville and whoever comes out the East in the AAC title game. — Chip Patterson (In agreement: Everyone, unanimous pick)
Tom Herman, Houston: Despite everything favorable written and said about Herman, the truth is he’s still learning as a head coach. He’s not perfect, but he has the ingredients to potentially be a future star and one day win a national championship. Within one year, he took the Cougars from 8-5 to 13-1 with a Peach Bowl win over Florida State — Jon Solomon (In agreement: Dennis Dodd, Jerry Palm, Tom Fornelli, Robby Kalland, Ben Kercheval)
Willie Taggart, South Florida: After losing three of its first four games in 2015, USF looked to be in trouble. Taggart brought a hometown flavor and youthful enthusiasm to Tampa, but the buzz wasn’t translating to the success fans were expecting. The breakthrough came in the form a 7-1 run to close the regular season, claiming second place in the AAC’s East division and earning the program’s first bowl bid since 2010. The exciting brand of offense we had been expecting from Taggart’s group appeared as the Bulls put up 45 points on Syracuse, 44 against Temple (then No. 21 in the country) and 65 against Cincinnati during that run. In 2016 we’ll see a continuation of that trajectory and conference title contention. — Chip Patterson
Predicted order of finish
Source: CBS Sports / 2016 AAC Expert Picks: Overrated, underrated, predicted order of finish