1.UCF (Ranked #17 Nationally)
UCF returns a lot of pieces from their national championship winning team in 2017, but head coach Scott Frost is not one of those pieces. Frost is off to take his dream job as the head man in Lincoln, and UCF’s replacement for Frost is a hire in a similar vein. The new man to lead the Knights, former Missouri OC Josh Heupel, runs a similar scheme and loves the tempo that Frost popularized in his time in Orlando. This Knights offense should not miss a beat as QB McKenzie Milton returns after contending for the Heisman trophy after 4,037 yards passing (67.1% completion rate, 37-9 touchdown-interception ratio) and 613 yards rushing. After the team had the #1 scoring offense in the nation last year, they should still be one of the best in the country as not only do they return Milton but also their top four rushers and four of the top six receivers from last year’s group that racked up accolades.
The big question comes on defense as Mike Hughes and Shaq Griffin, arguably the two top players on that half of the field, are both off to the NFL. Losing your top two players from a defense that was already outside of the top 50 in opponent ppg really sucks, but it does even more so when you will have to start multiple underclassmen and install an entirely new defensive coordinator. I expect some struggles on this side of the ball. UCF may be favored in every game they play this year, but with two power-five opponents (Pitt, UNC) and FAU in the non-conference, as well as drawing Memphis and USF on the road, I do not expect another undefeated season, although making a New Year’s Six bowl is not out of the question.
Projected Regular Season Record: 10-2 (7-1 American)
After a 10-2 season including a Birmingham Bowl victory over a power five opponent (Texas Tech), USF loses a lot of pieces. First on that list is QB Quinton Flowers. Flowers racked up 112 touchdowns and close to 12,000 yards (both stats rushing and passing combined) in his three years leading the Bulls. Also gone are their top two running backs and two all-conference caliber players on the offensive line. However, with Charlie Strong (and Willie Taggart) recruiting at an insanely high level for a group of five team over the past four years, USF has reloaded. The Bulls ranked #3 among group of five teams in recruiting for 2018, #10 in 2017 (coaching change), #6 in 2016, and #3 in 2015. Flowers’ likely replacement is Alabama transfer Blake Barnett, a very highly touted recruit who struggled to earn playing time with the Tide, although sophomore Chris Oladokun could start as he has had more experience in the system. Whoever the starter is, they will have a great group of receivers to throw to. The Bulls return two of their top three from last year’s top-50 passing attack, both of whom had over 500 yards last year. While they do still have a lot of talent and speed, losing one of the best players in program history will always be a blow.
NFL Draft selection Deadrin Senat is obviously gone, but other starters on the defensive line in Bruce Hector and Mike Love also depart, and this group will take a hit. Power five transfers will try to stop the bleeding with the additions of Brandon Boyce and Marquies Price to try and plug those holes, but I still expect some regression in their run defense stats. Two first team all-conference players depart in the linebacking core, and this defense will take almost as big of a hit as the offense, as only five starters return in total. A ten win season is probably out of reach, but so is missing a bowl, so I will expect the Bulls to be right in the middle of those two, with UCF at home making a big upset to end the year one of their main goals.
Projected Regular Season Record: 8-4 (5-3 American)
A 7-6 record in year one for Geoff Collins was a step down after back-to-back ten win seasons, but it can be expected when you lose your coach and the top passer in school history. It really was a tale of two seasons for Collins and the Owls, as they started 3-5 (with the wins being against Villanova, UMass, and ECU)). They turned it around in the second half, finishing the year on a tear (4-1), with the only loss to eventual national champion UCF. QB Frank Nutile is back after he did well when thrown into the fire and replacing one of the best players in school history, passing for 1,600 yards and 12 touchdowns in six starts and a couple appearances. Every rusher with over 100 yards last season is back, and the Owls should also benefit from a healthy offensive line after they were saddled with injuries in 2017. The bright side of those injuries is they get back five guys with starting experience due to the many opportunities their backups got last year and should improve in the run game.
The defense, on the other hand, will almost assuredly take a step back. Just one starter is back on the defensive line (Dan Archibong), as well as just one in the secondary (Delvon Randall, a first team all-conference player), although corner Linwood Crump played tremendously in a backup role as a sophomore. Rodney Williams transfers in from Syracuse, and the pass defense probably won’t take as much of a hit as the run defense. The incredible ending to last year’s season certainly will not hurt Temple in 2018, and I expect that momentum to carry them to a bowl.
Projected Regular Season Record: 6-6 (4-4 American)
Earlier I mentioned how well USF has recruited, well, since the arrival of head coach Luke Fickell on campus, the Bearcats have recruited even better (#4 in his first year, #1 in his second, most recent year among ). Because of that, expect a lot of underclassmen in the two-deep, especially on offense. This may hurt Cincy if/when they get hit with injuries, but by the time these recruiting classes get a few years to develop with playing time, they should be near the top of the AAC, making it all worth it. Hayden Moore is back at quarterback (2,562 passing yards, 20-9 touchdown to interception ratio last year), but Fickell may want to start his guy, a very highly touted recruit in redshirt freshman Desmond Ridder. Last year’s leading rusher is back in RB Gerrid Doaks (513) but last year’s #3 is also back and Fickell brings on another big recruit in Tavion Thomas. However, the offensive line is losing a ton, so it may be hard for the Bearcats to break the #100 mark that they were at last year in rushing yards per game.
The pass rush loses just one starter, returns big man Cortez Broughton (34 tackles) and adds a power five transfer (Ethan Tucky, Boston College), as well as a big get in true freshman Malik Vann. The linebacking core also loses one starter but adds Bryan Wright (DE last year). The real questions start to arise in the secondary, as the Bearcats will have to start two sophomores at corner and rely on two veteran safeties that were less than reliable last year. The offense and pass rush should make a bowl bid a reasonable goal.
Projected Regular Season Record: 6-6 (4-4 American)
When East Carolina made a coaching change back in late 2015, I was floored. Ruffin McNeill had one 5-7 year after winning a combined 26 games in the previous three years, and the Pirates decided to make the change. McNeill is now the assistant head coach at perennial playoff threat Oklahoma, and his replacement, Scottie Montgomery, has a 6-18 record in his two years at the helm and finds himself squarely on the hot seat. A new quarterback will lead the charge in Greenville. That man is likely to be sophomore Reid Herring, who threw just one pass attempt last year (to be fair that is more than anybody else on the team and it was a touchdown). The receiving core will also be retooled as the Pirates lose three of four, but the one returning is last year’s #1, Trevon Brown (1,069 yards, seven touchdowns).
Montgomery brought in a new defensive coordinator to try to save his job in former Jacksonville State DC (and former ECU player) David Blackwell. The Pirates ranked dead last in both opponent ppg and opponent ypg last season, so there quite literally is nowhere to go but up. If he wants to retool this D, the unit to watch will be the secondary as they will be playing a lot of young guys with potential. I’m not sure what it will take for Montgomery to save his job, but I am actually quite high on the Blackwell hire and I see him putting in a massive improvement on defense and East Carolina actually improving a game up to 4-8 as the nonconference schedule gets easier (North Carolina A&T and Old Dominion compared to FCS champ James Madison and BYU).
Projected Regular Season: 4-8 (2-6 American)
The Randy Edsall experiment went about as expected in year one for the Huskies as they went 3-9 again. Edsall may be the winningest coach in program history, but he can’t turn it all around in one season, especially with the incredible amounts of youth and inexperience that he inherits, as there is a chance that close to half of their starters and more than half of the two-deep will be underclassmen. It should be mentioned that there is a new offensive coordinator in former Chicago Bears assistant John Dunn. Dunn will oversee the development of a new quarterback in David Pindell, who is quite a project (4-6 touchdown to interception ratio last season).
The youth I mentioned is even more prevalent on the defensive side where UConn returns just 2 (!) starters from last year’s team that was already one of the worst in the country. The line returns zero starters but does get back Philippe Okounam from injury and adds talented freshman Caleb Thomas. The linebacking group will also lose all three starters, including their top tackler from last season, but sophomore Darrian Beavers is a name to watch after he flashed as a freshman. The secondary is where both of the returning starters lie, and even this group won’t be great, but Tyler Coyle is the top returning tackler on the team after he had 67 as a freshman. We may see some slight improvement in the numbers for UConn, but much more than three wins seems unlikely.
Projected Regular Season Record: 3-9 (1-7 American)