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AAC Review: Did the American Win League of the Year?

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The American Athletic Conference thrived with its new 12-team lineup.

Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

2015 has been a bit of bland year. The mighty SEC experienced a major downturn, the Pac-12 refused to grab the the mantle, and Iowa nearly made the playoffs.

Don't laugh because years from now we may look back on this season and remember it as the Year of the AAC. Let's review how things shook out for this hodgepodge of a league in just its 2nd season since morphing from the Big East.

East Division

Temple (10-3, 7-1)

Only the 7th most points scored in the league even with the additional 13th championship game on Saturday but it was the Owls swarming defense that led them to their finest season since at least 1979. They beat Penn State for the first time in 300 years and took Notre Dame to the wire in a credibility-building loss.

For now, Matt Rhule is sticking around which is a bold decision with Temple losing 6 starters on defense, being gutted on both lines, and replacing all-world linebacker Tyler Matakevich.

Stock: Down

They could still lose Rhule before next season and they'll certainly lose more games next year. Three easy non-league games will make 8 or 9 wins realistic in 2016.

USF (8-4, 6-2)

Willie Taggart was on the hot seat this year and just signed a 5-year extension after a scorching hot finish that saw the Bulls win 7 out of their last 8 games. Over their last 3 games of the regular season USF averaged 51 points. Probably would have liked their Maryland loss back (that says a lot about the Terps, though) but the Bulls won just about every game they weren't underdogs in this year.

Stock: Up

Florida talent readily on hand? Young offensive playmakers? Head coach finally hitting his groove? National breakout might be tough next year (NIU, Syracuse, Florida State in September) yet USF is going to be one of the favorites within the conference.

Cincinnati (7-5, 4-4)

Just never got anything going this season--winning two straight just once, and besides a win over Miami, losing all of their big games. Irish transfer Gunner Kiel went from potential top quarterback draft selection to often injury and throwing 6 interceptions down the stretch.

Gave up way too many points (87th nationally) to stay competitive in the league, as evidenced by the 65-27 loss to USF a few weeks ago.

Stock: Neutral

Dantonio, Kelly, and Jones. Now with Tuberville it's been a heck of a 10-year run for the Bearcats. I'd be worried if the program is running out of steam but with Kiel coming back the offense can out-score a lot of teams next year.

UConn (6-6, 4-4)

Bob Diaco gains 4 extra wins from his inaugural season in Storrs and is officially Doing Good Things. Thanks to the FEI No. 17 defense the Huskies get bowl eligible for the first time since 2010. Looking back, that loss at Missouri is a game UConn really should have won for a chance to win 8 games after bowl season.

Stock: Up

Can UConn be this year's Temple for next year? A young very good defense comes back and they just need to improve over a dreadful (112th FEI) offense to move up within the conference. League scheduling does them no favors as they play Navy & Houston--unlike Temple who missed both this year.

East Carolina (5-7, 3-5)

The Pirates famously defeated Virginia Tech for the second straight year but quietly experienced a hard downturn in 2015 with zero wins over teams with winning records. As a result, Ruffin McNeill was awarded an unceremonious firing which has been the extremely unpopular in most circles.

Losing 5 out of their last 7 games brought a promising season to a screeching halt. Now, the program is at a crossroads this off-season.

Stock: Neutral

The ECU AD made it clear after firing McNeill that he considers this a top job in the AAC and they weren't happy with all the losses against the good teams on their schedule. Problem is the Pirates consistently schedule so tough (NC State, South Carolina, Va Tech next year) that there's little room for error in league play. Lots of potential as a program, but adding a lot of risk this off-season.

UCF (0-12, 0-8)

How does a rotten culture ruin a team's season? Just pop in the tape of 2015 UCF! Only 23 months removed from a Fiesta Bowl win (and a respectable 9 wins last year) head coach George O'Leary was embroiled in some sort of weird political battle for the AD position then up and quit the team in late October.

It's like they didn't even practice on offense, finishing with 13.9 points per game. The defense gave up at least 30 in 10 games and gave up at least 40 in the last 5 games.

Stock: Up

Perhaps the best buy low stock in recent college football history. Scott Frost comes over from the Oregon OC position and should immediately put 2015 to bed while launching the Ducks' offense on the AAC. The talent and recent tradition is there to have a nice 2016.

West Division

Houston (12-1, 7-1)

The new group of 5 king will be playing in the Peach Bowl to tie the school record of 13 wins set in Kevin Sumlin's last season back in 2011. The explosive Cougars scored 40.6 points per game and their only loss came to UConn when quarterback Greg Ward, Jr. had very limited snaps due to injury.

Houston needed to beat Navy two weeks ago to clinch the division and came through with an impressive 52-31 win. They followed it up with a methodical victory over Temple in the league title game.

Stock: Up

Head coach Tom Herman is perhaps the hottest commodity in college football but is sticking around Houston for at least another year. They've got the league's best recruiting class and most of the offense back next year. They do open against Oklahoma so matching last year's wins might be tough. But they're easily the AAC favorites for 2016 and it's not even close.

Navy (9-2, 7-1)

Navy may have found their groove in their first year in a football conference. They are seeking their 14th straight win against Army this weekend and will be poised to win 11 games for the first time in school history if they can win the Military Bowl against Pittsburgh.

Keenan Reynolds capped off a fantastic career with the all-time rushing touchdown record and had the Middies offense scoring 55 points in their two losses. If the defense could have held on in the second half who knows what this year could have been for Navy.

Stock: Neutral

Reynolds leaving could be a big blow to Navy but they are more than capable of averaging 8 or 9 wins per year in the AAC. The Middies have been battled tested against numerous Power 5 teams through the years and have set themselves up to play Notre Dame only out of conference and then terrorize the rest of their conference.

Memphis (9-3, 5-3)

The league's highest scoring team raced out as the best Group of 5 program with a 8-0 record including a victory over Ole Miss in mid-October. Then the Tigers came crashing back to earth losing 3 out of their last 4 games culminating with head coach Justin Fuente bolting for the open Virginia Tech job.

That stretch of beating Cincinnati, USF, and Ole Miss in consecutive weeks was the pinnacle, yet it's sobering to know Memphis lost to the 3 best teams in the league. This season looked like it was going to be so much more.

Stock: Down

Hiring Mike Norvell from Arizona State (he's been with Todd Graham for years) is a good hire that should keep the Tigers dangerous on offense. Quarterback Paxton Lynch is surely leaving for the NFL which could make next year tough to keep up with a road trip to Ole Miss and one of the tougher AAC schedules to deal with.

Tulsa (6-6, 3-5)

The Golden Hurricane went from 2005 to 2012 averaging 9 wins per season then quietly fell off the map with just 5 wins from 2013-14. Enter former Baylor OC Phillip Montgomery who engineered a nice turn around at Tulsa this season.

Tulsa gave Oklahoma a big scare early in the season and just couldn't keep up with all the high scoring within league play. I'd expect the run game (3.76 YPC) to be a big off-season improvement as Montgomery builds the program in Baylor's image.

Stock: Neutral

Montgomery made good progress in year one but I don't know if they'll have enough firepower to steadily climb up the division in 2016. The passing game was the anchor of the offense and losing Keyarris Garrett (1,451 yards) is going to be tough. If they get to 8 wins Montgomery (43 years old) will be a hot name in the coaching search department.

SMU (2-10, 1-7)

Chad Morris' first season started out with them trading blows with Baylor in the opener. Everything was looking up for a program that was a dismal 1-11 the year before. Then Baylor ran away in the second half and SMU spent the rest of the season allowing opposing offenses to knife through them like butter.

The Mustangs gave up 45.7 points per game, second worst nationally only to Kansas, and that just couldn't off-set Morris ability to get 17 more points per game out of the offense.

Stock: Up

It's been mostly depressing for SMU in football but they did go 30-23 from 2009-12. Most thought Clemson would dearly miss Chad Morris but now they're undefeated and in the playoffs. He vastly improved the offense which was to be expected but it remains to be seen if Morris is more than just a OC trying to be a head coach. Nowhere to go but up next year.

Tulane (3-9, 1-7)

Curtis Johnson won 7 games in 2013--the most for the Green Wave since 2002--but slid backwards to 6-18 over the last years before being fired not long ago. The school now has a new athletic director and is searching for someone to raise the profile of a program that has won 4 or fewer games in 12 out of the last 13 seasons.

Tulane was severely offensively challenged (19.7 PPG) and didn't have the defense like UConn to make up for it. The Huskies and UCF (the league's lowest scoring team) are on trajectories with coaches to improve and it's a huge question mark that the Green Wave can do the same.

Stock: Neutral

Tulane's only league win in 2015 came against UCF and that's probably not being replicated next year. Like most poor teams they are really young so there is some hope for improvement. Still, a win-less season in the AAC could happen with a bad head coaching hire.