Reigning co-conference champions Louisville, Cincinnati and Rutgers dominate the best American Athletic games in the league’s inaugural season. Newcomer UCF is coming off a 10-win campaign and returns an outstanding quarterback. The Golden Knights appear in several of the American’s top 2013 contests.
10. UCF at Memphis, Oct. 5
Memphis and UCF begin life in their conference by facing…each other. The two were C-USA East counterparts and played every year since 2005.
Memphis was the dregs of college football a few years ago, but first-year head coach Justin Fuente did an admirable job in leading the Tigers to 4-8. Among their losses was a 35-17 defeat to UCF, which Memphis trailed just 14-10 at halftime. Turnovers doomed a Tiger bunch that matched UCF statistically (361 total yards, 240 rushing, 121 passing, 19 first downs for Memphis; 351 total yards, 229 rushing, 122 passing, 17 first downs for UCF).
9. UCF at Temple, Nov. 16
The Golden Knights could be on a championship pace at this juncture in their debut American season. UCF avoids Cincinnati and doesn’t see Rutgers or Louisville until the home stretch, thus should be undefeated in league play when it visits Temple.
The Owls are interesting. Last year’s return to the Big East was hardly the triumphant arrival of a program with three straight winning seasons. Rather, it was just like old times when the Owls were regular Big East bottom feeders. The conference’s realignment and a coaching change bring uncertainty. That could be a good thing.
8. Louisville at Connecticut, Nov. 8
The oranges, golds and reds of the New England autumn are beginning to give way to frigid grays in November. Cold temperatures and Connecticut’s grinding defensive style combine to bring a real, late season challenge to Teddy Bridgewater and the Cardinal offense.
7. Cincinnati at USF, Oct. 5
Head coaches Willie Taggart and Tommy Tuberville are both newcomers to the American. They inherit two programs in much different conditions; Cincinnati has won at least a share of four of the last five conference championships, while USF limped to a 3-9, rock bottom in the season-by-season decline under Skip Holtz.
The Bearcats’ visit to Tampa provides a measuring stick for what each accomplished in his first month on the job, as well as a foundation for the conference season to come. It’s the American opener for both.
6. SMU at Houston, Nov. 29
Proponents of old school, defensive football might want to avoid this one. Neither program is at the level it was in 2011 when ESPN College Gameday aired from Houston’s campus yet even last year, with both struggling through mediocre campaigns, the Cougars and Mustangs combined for 114 points.
5. Rutgers at UCF, November 21
It’s Scarlet Knights vs. Golden Knights in a key, late season showdown. Which will be turned into the proverbial Black Knight of the American Athletic race?
WARNING: Gratuitous Monty Python clip upcoming.
These programs last met in the 2009 St. Petersburg Bowl, which Rutgers dominated, 45-24.
4. Rutgers at Louisville, Oct. 10
The final Big East football championship was decided in a Thursday night tilt pitting Rutgers against Louisville, broadcast nationally via ESPN. The Scarlet Knights and Cardinals return to the Worldwide Leaders’ airwaves for another Thursday night affair.
Rutgers has consistently been one of the toughest defenses teams in the league. Last year, they held Louisville to just 20 points. The Scarlet Knights’ inability to muster more than 17 was their undoing. With what should be an improved offense though, RU could again pose a serious threat to the Cardinals’ presumed march to another conference title.
3. Cincinnati at Rutgers, Nov. 16
The Bearcats and Scarlet Knights each staked a claim to the Big East championship in 2012, though there was a decided pecking order. Louisville swept the two, while Rutgers stole a road win from Cincinnati in their installment of the round robin. That 0-2 mark is a decided blemish on the Bearcats’ fourth league title in five years. Their visit to Piscataway is the first opportunity to rectify that.
2. UCF at Louisville, Oct. 18
Quarterbacks Teddy Bridgewater and Blake Bortles rank one and two in our preseason projection of the American’s play callers. The two could light up the scoreboard in their head-to-head match-up, and the winner’s team gets an important, early leg up in the conference championship race.
1. Louisville at Cincinnati, Dec. 5
More than just the Keg of Nails Trophy could be at stake when Louisville hops the 71 for this regular season finale. Should things play out as many anticipate, the Cardinals will be 11-0 entering the final week. Cincinnati has proven to be a stalwart atop this conference though, and precedent suggests it will be playing for its own share of the league crown — and thus, the program’s third BCS bid since 2008.
Last year’s installment of the 52-game, 84-year rivalry was among the season’s most exciting games. Bridgewater was dealing in the fourth quarter, unleashing strikes of 30 and 64 yards. The second gave UL a lead with under two minutes remaining.
Somehow, a struggling Munchie Legaux answered with a 26-yard strike just 55 seconds later to force overtime. Terell Floyd’s interception of Legaux in the extra frame brought the Keg of Nails back to Louisville for the first time since 2007. Recent history has proven that UC is a high hurdle for UL.
Recent history also speaks to the importance of the elements in key league tilts. The rain-slicked turf at Papa Johns Stadium last October certainly played a part. Maybe Mother Nature has something in store for this year’s edition? The conference’s last undefeated champion were the 2009 Bearcats, who needed to rally to top another rival, Pitt, on a snowy Saturday exactly four years to the day that these two teams lock up.