Josh Heupel has either the most difficult job of any head coach in the country taking over a new team or the easiest. Maybe it’s both.
Hired to replace Scott Frost at Central Florida, Heupel takes over a team that went unbeaten last season and declared itself the national champion. Most of the playmakers return for one of the best offenses in the country, including Mililani High graduate and gifted quarterback McKenzie Milton.
Sure, it’s great to inherit a loaded roster, but anything less than another American Athletic Conference championship might not be enough to satisfy Knights fans this year. Frost, who went home to coach Nebraska after two seasons in Orlando, will be tough to follow in every way.
“My job is to continue to develop those relationships and continuity,” Heupel said.
Also working against Heupel and UCF is the five-year history of the AAC: The preseason favorite has not been able to close the deal with a title. Last year, USF was much-hyped, but UCF rose up and won the East Division. The year before Houston was coming off a 13-1 season and New Year’s Six bowl victory and the Cougars did not even win the West Division.
And when Houston won the conference in 2015 it was Cincinnati that came into the season as a heavy favorite — and didn’t even win its division.
USF and Temple are likely to be UCF’s biggest challengers in the East. In the West, Memphis, which lost the AAC championship in overtime to UCF, is the favorite — for whatever that’s worth in a conference that has proven unpredictable.
“Last year we were the hunters,” Milton said. “We had a hunter’s mentality. Playing with nothing to lose. Honestly this year we’ve got to have that same mentality. We’re going to get everybody’s best shot, but at the same time we go from the hunter to the hunted but we still have to have a hunter’s mentality.”
UCF has cranked up a Heisman campaign for Milton, playing off his Hawaii roots. The school is touting McKenzie for HIsman and sending out black leis to media members. But the best player in all of college football could be another AAC star.
Houston defensive tackle Ed Oliver has already announced he will enter the NFL draft after his junior season. He has a chance to be the top pick next April, but for now he is focused on getting the Cougars an AAC title. As good as Oliver has been in his first two seasons, he believes there is room for improvement. Most of last year he played with a problematic knee.
“I think I can be a, I don’t know, 18-sack guy. Something crazy,” Oliver said.
Other players to watch include Navy quarterback Malcolm Perry, Temple safety Delvon Randall and SMU quarterback Ben Hicks.
The AAC has become a launching pad for its successful coaches. Justin Fuente from Memphis to Virginia Tech. Tom Herman from Houston to Texas. Willie Taggart from USF to Oregon (though not for long). Matt Rhule from Temple to Baylor. And last year, Frost to the Cornhuskers and Chad Morris from SMU to Arkansas.
The turnover contributes to the volatility. Expect it to continue this season.
Memphis coach Mike Norvell, 36, drew interest last season, his second with the Tigers. Another big season and the suitors will come calling again.
UCF went from 0-12 to 6-6 to 12-0 over the last three seasons. That was an unprecedented turnaround in college football, unlikely to be repeated, but it does show the AAC is a place where teams can make big jumps.
Looking for a surprise team or two this year?
East Carolina has won just six games in its first two seasons under coach Scottie Montgomery, but the Pirates have traditionally been a strong program. The foundation seems to be set for a turnaround. Quarterback Reid Herring gives ECU a potentially dynamic playmaker and linebacker Bruce Bivens returns from injury to lead the defense. If a breakout doesn’t come for the Pirates, Montgomery could be in trouble.
In the West, Tulane has taken steps forward in each of its first two seasons under coach Willie Fritz, and now could be ready to become a real headache for its rivals. Quarterback Jonathan Banks directs an option offense that can also air it out.
Predicted order of finish:
1. Temple; 2. UCF; 3. USF; 4. East Carolina; 5. Cincinnati; 6. UConn.
1. Memphis; 2. Houston; 3. Navy; 4. Tulane; 5. Tulsa; 6. SMU.