Part I of our conference preview starts with the American and the ACC.
Last year’s champion: Central Florida
Scott Frost led the Knights to a remarkable 13-0 record including defeating SEC runner-up Auburn in the Peach Bowl to cap the year. HC Scott Frost is now coaching Nebraska, while reigning AAC Offensive Player of the Year QB McKenzie Milton returns for his senior year and has a new head coach in Air Raid enthusiast Josh Heupel.
Predicted champion: Houston
With all-world DT Ed Oliver returning for his last season at Houston (Already declared for the NFL draft in 2019), and a full season under HC Major Applewhite’s belt, I expect Houston to make their move in the west division and win the conference (mostly due to Oliver’s continued growth, and due to the amount of roster attrition at last year’s contending schools like Memphis and SMU). Look out for Tulane and that triple option attack they have.
Player(s) to Watch: Houston’s Ed Oliver (DT) – After two full seasons as a starter at nose tackle, the athletic Oliver has 39.5 tackles for loss over 25 career games. He has already eliminated any drama about returning for another season since he has declared that this will be his final year at Houston before entering the draft. He is viewed as a top defensive prospect.
Teams with Question Marks: SMU and UCF have new coaches who are big subscribers to the air raid offense. SMU’s new HC Sonny Dykes has deep Texas roots and has assembled a staff that is quite impressive considering SMU’s history over the past 25 years. Dykes brought in former long-time assistant of Gus Malzahn, Rhett Lashlee, to be his offensive coordinator. Lashlee is expected to bring in a bit more of a running element to Dykes’ typical aerial assault offense. He has a QB to mold in Ben Hicks, who had a spectacular year last year, throwing for 3,569 yards and 33 TDs.
UCF also has a returning QB, McKenzie Milton, and has a new coach in former Missouri OC Josh Heupel. Can Heupel keep the UCF winning train moving or will they miss a beat or two under a new regime?
Last year’s champion: Clemson
Clemson had no problem winning the ACC last year, although Miami seemed to be the only real threat in-conference for the Tigers.
Predicted champion: Clemson
Clemson’s defensive line consists of all first-round talents to be selected in next year’s NFL draft. The QB situation seems to be in an interesting spot – last year’s starter Kelly Bryant is being pushed, and may be replaced by freshman phenom QB Trevor Lawrence. Pound for pound, I don’t see anyone being able to compete with Clemson this year, based on Florida State’s coaching change, Miami still building, and other schools not being able to recruit on the level that Clemson has for years now. The ACC is there for Clemson to take.
Player(s) to Watch: NC State QB Ryan Finley ranked second in passing yards in the ACC last year behind Louisville’s Lama Jackson. Finley also has his two leading receivers returning to Raleigh in Jakobi Meyers and Kelvin Harmon. Look for Finley to have another breakout year for the Wolfpack.
Boston College HB AJ Dillon finished second in the ACC in rushing and finished extremely hot last year, averaging 179 yards per game in his last seven games for the Eagles.
Teams with Question Marks: Florida State – How does new HC Willie Taggart right the Seminole ship in Tallahassee after a rocky and disappointing 2017? Taggart will have experience in his backfield with the returns of Deondre Francois (from injury), James Blackman, who filled in for Francois last year, and HB Cam Akers, who led the team in rushing last year. Florida State’s schedule also doesn’t stack up well for a return to glory with road games at a revived Miami and against a strong NC State team, along with a November road game at Notre Dame.
Hope you’ve enjoyed Part I of our conference previews. Next week we have the Big XII and the BigTen — see you then!