There are plenty of unknowns in the inaugural season of the American Athletic Conference, but the league’s overall defensive prowess is not one of them. Four American defenses — Rutgers (4), Cincinnati (14), Connecticut (19) and UCF (27) — finished in the top 30 nationally last year in points allowed per game. A fifth, newcomer SMU, was one of the best turnover-creating defenses in college football.
1. Cincinnati Bearcats
John Jancek followed Butch Jones to Tennessee after coordinating the Bearcat defense through a stingy 2012. UC allowed opponents just 18.5 points per game en route to the program’s fourth share of a conference title in five years. The key to a fifth lies in the defense.
Art Kaufman takes over for Jancek, coming to Cincinnati with Tommy Tuberville. Kaufman’s Texas Tech defense was one of the stories of the 2012 season’s first half, but the explosive offenses of the Big 12 eventually took their toll. He won’t see the same caliber of offense on a weekly basis, and he also has an outstanding linebacker corps around which to build his defense.
Greg Blair is an All-Conference selection and future NFL draft pick. Joining him are Jff Luc and Nick Temple to key a unit that held opposing carries to just 3.8 yards per rush.
2. Louisville Cardinals
Head coach Charlie Strong is a defensive mastermind, and Vance Bedford followed him from Florida to oversee the Cardinal defense. Last year’s version was actually the worst of the three since Strong and Co. arrived in 2010, allowing a still respectable 23.8 points per game.
The secondary is the conference’s best, featuring standouts Calvin Pryor and Hakeem Smith. Linebacker Preston Brown is also among the American’s best defensive talents.
3. Rutgers Scarlet Knights
Two of the three teams that allowed fewer points per game last season than Rutgers played for the BCS championship. Indeed, the Scarlet Knights were among elite company with their paltry 14.2 point per game yield, and remarkably stingy 2.8 yards per carry rush defense.
The bad news for RU is that graduation hit its defense hard. All-American linebacker Khaseem Greene is gone for the NFL, making him one of seven 2012 Scarlet Knight starters no longer on the roster. Nevertheless, the Scarlet Knights still boast a formidable front seven.
Ballyhooed 2012 recruit Darius Hamilton mans the interior of the line, with Marcus Thompson and twins Jamil and Jamal Merrell bringing blitzes on either side.
4. Connecticut Huskies
Connecticut’s defenses are routinely outstanding, and 2012 was no exception as Husky opponents averaged under 20 points per game. Coordinator Don Brown is gone for Boston College, and excellent linebacker Sio Moore went to NFL. Still, new coordinator Hank Hughes is well-tenured in the program and inherits some solid play makers. Yawin Smallwood has breakout star potential at linebacker, and cornerback Byron Jones is solid in coverage.
5. UCF Knights
Ted Roof was very briefly tabbed to lead this group, but Jim Fleming did just fine in the coordinator role. Last year’s Knight defense was outstanding, routinely holding high-powered offenses below their season averages. To wit: East Carolina (20, 11.5 points below its average); Tulsa (23, 11.7 fewer); Ball State (17, 16.2 fewer) and the coup de grace, Marshall (17, 23.9 fewer).
UCF also faces considerable turnover, losing over half its starters from 2012. Among those back are linebacker Terrance Plummer, and a talented secondary that includes Brandon Alexander. He broke up nine passes a season ago.
6. USF Bulls
One of the most talented lines in the nation anchors a defense that could be enough to get USF back to the postseason. The Bull teams of the late 2000s had a foundation Jason Pierre-Paul and George Selvie setting the tempo. In 2013, ends Ryne Giddins and Notre Dame transfer Aaron Lynch will make life difficult for opposing quarterbacks.
With those two bringing pressure off the edges, Luke Sager and Todd Chandler will hold down the interior. The rest of the Bull defense must feed off the play in the trenches. The secondary in particular must capitalize on pressure up front. Last year, the Bulls gave up over 3000 passing yards.
7. SMU Mustangs
A defense that ranked third in the nation in turnovers created checking in at No. 7 is a testament to how deep the defensive talent is in the American this season. The Mustangs could be hard pressed to replicate that kind of turnover production in 2013.
Defensive end Margus Hunt had one of the best individual performances of the 2012 bowl season, terrorizing Fresno State’s outstanding duo of Derek Carr and Robbie Rouse. Hunt is gone for the NFL, leaving a sizable void.
The Mustangs have a talented secondary however, including All Conference-USA honoree Kenneth Acker. June Jones reportedly toyed with the idea of using Acker at wide receiver as well as cornerback. Operating with him is Chris Parks.
8. Memphis Tigers
Dontari Poe catapulted from relative obscurity to NFL draft first rounder in 2012. Ready to follow in his footsteps is tackle Johnnie Farms, a big, athletic and nimble presence on the interior. He keys a Tiger rush defense that held opponents to an impressive 3.9 yards per carry.
Secondary play is a decided question mark for Memphis though, coming off a season in which Tiger opponents went for almost 3000 yards and connected on 62 percent of pass attempts.
9. Houston Cougars
The Cougars surrendered more than five touchdowns and five PATs per game last season, at an even 36. Houston loses over half its starting unit, including do-everything linebacker Phillip Steward. Play making cornerback Trevon Stewart is back, however. He’ll need to have a stellar year to help a secondary that was part of a defense that gave up nearly 3500 yards through the air.
10. Temple Owls
Punctuating Temple’s historic 2011 campaign was a defense that ranked in company with such notables as Alabama and LSU. In its return to the Big East, the Owls nosedived to No. 86 in the nation at 31.2 points per game allowed. Linebacker Taylor Matakevich is a building block for a defense that is far more veteran in 2013 than it was in 2012. The Owls return more starters than any group in the American.
New defensive coordinator Phil Snow’s most recent stint was alongside Ron English at Eastern Michigan.