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Monday, March 30, 2020

Football

State of the AAC: American teams to face tough opponents


Both sides of the American Athletic Conference will play tough games against big opponents this weekend. | Jiselle Santos/The Cougar

Both sides of the American Athletic Conference will play tough games against big opponents this weekend. | Jiselle Santos/The Cougar

August is winding down, and that means American Athletic Conference football is officially back.

Save for two meetings over the past weekend, the FBS season is upon the sports world and with its opening weekend. Several AAC teams find themselves in marquee matchups with perennial powers nationwide.

Few, if any, Houston fans are unaware of the Cougars’ Sept. 1 matchup with the No. 4 Oklahoma Sooners in Norman. However, UH is not the only AAC team that will open the season with a top-25 foe.

South Florida, a preseason favorite to finish in the top half of the conference’s East division, begin the 2019 campaign as hosts to No. 19 Wisconsin Friday. The Bulls, who ended last season on a   six-game losing streak, will face the offensive capabilities of the Badgers.

Jonathan Taylor, Wisconsin’s junior running back, has had a prolific career already, including 16 touchdowns and nearly 2,200 yards on 307 touches last year on his way to winning the Doak Walker Award. This season, Taylor opens up as a preseason All-American.

The high point for USF against this greater foe is senior quarterback Blake Barnett. Last season, Barnett completed 61.1 percent of his passes for 12 touchdowns and a QB rating of 131.1. Perhaps a strong outing from the Bulls’ slinger can spur another seven-game win streak like last season.

Like the Bulls, the Golden Hurricanes of Tulsa will open the season with a top-25 opponent from the Big Ten conference. Friday will pit Tulsa away against No. 18 Michigan St. in East Lansing.

The Golden Hurricanes won just five games over the past two seasons. MSU, led by senior quarterback Brian Lewerke and junior receiver Cody White, will have quite the uphill task to open the season.

In his sophomore season, White hauled in 42 passes for 555 yards, the most on the team, and two touchdowns. A regular for the Spartans since his redshirt freshman year in 2016, Lewerke has completed 55.9% of his career attempts and 5,214 yards for a total of 30 touchdowns.

Tulsa in 2018 found itself in the bottom of FBS in receiving yards allowed per game, with 233.1, No. 119 out of 130.

To open up its slate, Cincinnati takes on UCLA at home on Thursday. The Bearcats had a breakthrough season in 2018, finishing 11-2 and No. 23 and 24 in the Coaches and AP polls, respectively.

UC’s dramatic improvement came a year after head coach Luke Fickell led the Bearcats to a measly 4-8 record in his debut season.

Cincinnati, led by sophomore quarterback Desmond Ridder, is expected to vie for the East division’s top spot, along with Central Florida. Ridder appeared in all 13 games last season, including the Bearcat’s 26-17 victory over the Bruins, totaling 2,445 yards, 62.4 percent passing with 20 touchdowns and just five interceptions.

To round out the top-tier meetings, Memphis will open the season as hosts to 70-mile rival Ole Miss on Saturday. The game is a near 50-50 prediction, with Ole Miss a slight favorite at 51.6 percent.

The Tigers had one of the most prolific running duos in college football last season in Darrell Henderson and Patrick Taylor Jr. While Henderson is now in the NFL with the Los Angeles Rams, Taylor returns for his senior season looking to lead the program himself.

The duo accounted for more than 3,000 yards last season, with Taylor recording 1,122 of those on 208 carries. In three seasons at Memphis, Taylor has 31 touchdowns, with more than half coming in 2018.

With an exciting and competitive regular season ahead between several solid teams, the AAC will kick off the season with several competitive opponents to truly set the tone for what could result in a New Year’s Six Bowl from the American for the fourth time in five years.

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