Philadelphia, PA – Although all the teams that will play in the inaugural season of the recently named American Athletic Conference are in a new league, the majority of those programs are just holdovers from the old Big East.
Four programs will really be the news kids on the block this season, as UCF, Houston, Memphis and SMU are all set to make the transition from Conference USA to the league that is already referred to as "The American."
Perhaps the most intriguing of the incoming squads is UCF. The Knights made some big news Monday when they won their appeal of a postseason ban levied against them before the start of the 2012 season. In an era where the NCAA has been punishing schools frequently, it is rare to see a school actually win an appeal like UCF did. It's a good thing too as UCF is a team that looks to be on the rise.
Though the ban was supposed to set in for the 2012 season originally the appeal was able to push back that punishment and give UCF a chance to play past the regular season. They made the most of that chance, led by All- Conference USA running back Latavius Murray, as the Knights got to the conference title game, where they lost to Tulsa, before a win in the Beef O- Brady's Bowl over Ball State.
Murray and his 1,106 rushing yards and 15 touchdowns are gone but the Knights have another strong back to fill his shoes in redshirt junior Storm Johnson. Johnson was solid as Murray's backup last season, amassing 507 yards and four scores and his effort in the spring game (14 carries, 67 yards, TD) is certainly encouraging.
"I think they're both big backs," head coach George O'Leary said while also discussing Cedric Thompson. "(They) can get the three or four yards you're looking for and then later in the fourth quarter, they become eight, nine yard gains."
One area O'Leary seemed worried about following the recent spring game was the pass coverage on defense. That's kind of surprising for a coach that was at the helm of Conference USA's top passing defense (217.7 ypg) a year ago.
However, much of that unit has departed, including All-Conference USA first- team defensive back D.J. Kemal Ishmael and second-team selection A.J. Bouye.
"That first day out there, we were young and you could tell, especially in the secondary," linebacker Terrance Plummer said during spring practice.
SMU can certainly commiserate with UCF on losing talent, especially in the rushing department. Zach Line was the Conference USA Offensive Player of the Year in 2012 for the Mustangs but the bruising running back won't be back in Dallas come the fall. Line was the definition of a workhorse, responsible for 277 of 304 total carries.
The backfield this year is one that is unseasoned and untested. As spring practices have come to a close it looks as if junior Rishaad Wimbley will be taking over the starting role. Wimbley had just 10 carries a year ago and 50 total in his two-year career.
Wimbley may just be a placeholder though for Prescott Line, the freshman and younger brother of Zach Line.
Regardless of who has been toting the ball for the Mustangs, head coach June Jones has turned the team into a consistent, if not overly successful program in his five seasons. The Mustangs have made four straight bowl games and had at least seven wins in each of those campaigns, though they have never had more than eight victories. Whether that type of modest success will continue in a new conference remains to be seen.
Staying in the Lone Star State, the Houston Cougars are not exactly rolling into their new conference after a 5-7 season under first-year head coach Tony Levine. That came on the heels of a 13-1 campaign by the Cougars who have become notorious in the college ranks for their fast and loose style of play.
Levine didn't see the need to mess with a good thing in 2012 as the Cougars were again among the top teams in the nation in passing offense (328.4 ypg). The key this season will be turning those big yardage totals into more wins.
Bearing the brunt of that responsibility is quarterback David Piland. The senior was the starter last season after waiting behind Case Keenum who shred the record books at Houston. Piland did get a chance to show his stuff in 2010 when Keenum was lost for the season early on with an ACL tear, but in 2011 Piland didn't see a single snap.
If the Cougars hope to have success they need Piland to be more like he was in 2010 when he threw for 24 touchdowns. Last season Piland's struggles came in his accuracy and ball security. He threw for 16 touchdowns and 12 interceptions, while completing just 57.1 percent of his pass attempts. That just isn't good enough in an offense that relies so heavily on moving the ball through the air.
Piland looked strong in the Cougars' spring game when he threw for 141 yards and four touchdowns, but he was facing a Houston secondary that is coming off a season when it ranked last in the conference in passing yards allowed (290.3 ypg).
Of the four new members, it is Memphis that has the most work to do to avoid getting off on the wrong foot. The Tigers were just 4-8 a year ago and were one of three teams in the league not to get a player on the first unit of the All-Conference team.
"We have to forget about last year. This is a new year, new season, new beginnings," defensive back Andrew Gaines said.
It wasn't because of the defense that Memphis struggled so much and that doesn't look to change this season. The Tigers were the third best team in Conference USA in total defense (383.6 ypg) and are bringing back both of their dominating interior defensive linemen in Johnnie Farms and Martin Ifedi. The pair combined for 20.5 tackles for loss and 10 sacks a year ago and will now look to make a jump from second-team All-Conference selections to first- team honors.
Offense has been a completely different story for Memphis which a year ago was second to last in Conference USA in total yards (318.3 ypg). If the showing in the spring game was any indication big improvements in that regard aren't likely. The Tigers did not score a touchdown during the intrasquad scrimmage and got within 25 yards of the end zone only four times.
Still second year head coach Justin Fuente was pleased with the overall progress of his team during the spring.
"Today we came out and obviously tried to just run our very base, rudimentary, Day One installations on offense," Fuente said. "As for the entire spring, we have taken a step forward. We have gotten better."
With spring preparations coming to an end and summer camps on the horizon, UCF, SMU, Memphis and Houston all hope that a clean slate in a new conference inspires a positive change.