Memphis was one of the most split teams in the country last season, ranking #2 in ppg and in the 100s for opponent ppg. Despite the poor defense, the Tigers were consistently ranked in the top 25 during the back half of the year and won ten games for the first time in forever. NFL talent Anthony Miller is gone, as is quarterback Riley Ferguson, but Memphis has two great options to replace Ferguson in last year’s mobile backup David Moore and Arizona State transfer Brady White. The top two backs return from last year’s group in juniors Darrell Henderson and Tony Pollard, maybe the best one-two punch in the conference (over 2,000 combined yards last year!). While Miller is gone, eight of the top ten return in total as far as the receiving core goes and they add a JuCo transfer in Antonio Gibson.
The defense started a boatload of freshmen last year and really struggled, but with added experience and practically everybody returning, they should be improved. The attacking system is very high-risk and high reward, but I would expect them to dial it back as they should be more talented and won’t have to rely on the system as much. Despite the fact that I see Memphis taking a step back, a pretty easy schedule means ten wins (when you include the bowl) is certainly not out of the question. Three wins in the non-conference should be the minimum, and in conference they get UCF at home and avoid Temple, Cincinnati, and USF altogether.
Projected Regular Season Record: 9-3 (6-2 American)
After Houston President Renu Khator said, “We’ll fire coaches at 8 and 4” in December 2016, the pressure was on Major Applewhite in his first year with the Cougars. Applewhite didn’t go 8-4, he actually went 7-5 and now finds himself squarely on the hot seat. Trying to save his job, Applewhite has brought on a new, controversial Offensive Coordinator in Kendal Briles, who helped Lane Kiffin transform the Florida Atlantic offense practically overnight. Converted wide receiver D’Eriq King will get the start at quarterback after 1,260 yards in four starts last year (seven to two touchdown to interception ratio). The offense loses a lot around him though, including their top rusher and the top two receivers who will especially hurt.
Houston’s defensive line might be the nastiest in the entirety of the group of five. They get back Jared Carter from injury and bring in TCU transfer Isaiah Chamber at the ends, and in the middle, the Cougars will start potential #1 overall draft pick Ed Oliver (73 tackles, 5.5 sacks last season). The pass defense will need to improve after ranking 120th in opponent passing yards per game last year, but they bring back two starters and add in a former four-star recruit, Ole Miss transfer Deontay Anderson. Because UH has Arizona and Texas Tech in the nonconference and will get the rest of the top four in their division on the road, a season better than 8-4 is almost impossible, but I do expect the offense to improve.
Projected Regular Season Record: 7-5 (5-3 American)
Chad Morris is now the head coach at Arkansas, but SMU brought in a solid replacement in former California head coach Sonny Dykes. Dykes has deep ties in Texas and will continue Morris’ high tempo spread offense system. Dykes brought in two new coordinators along with him in Former Arkansas State, Connecticut, and Auburn OC Rhett Lashlee and former Northern Illinois DC Kevin Kane will take the same role here, although I do not envy him as he will inherit the #118 scoring defense in the country (opponents averaged 36.7 ppg). Dykes will step into the job on day one right into a situation where he has an excellent starting quarterback in Ben Hicks (3,569 yards passing, 33-12 touchdown to interception ratio) and I expect the offense to improve.
The defense played the high-risk high reward style last season and did not find a lot of rewards. Kevin Kane did an excellent job turning around Northern Illinois on the defensive side, and with a lot of young talent, I have confidence that he will do the same here even with the added level of competition. In 2019 this team could compete for a conference title (very few seniors this year) but in 2018 a bowl should be the goal. The out of conference schedule is tough with TCU, @ Michigan, and @ North Texas, but the Mustangs get guaranteed wins against Tulane and Tulsa on the road, meaning that they will be at home for a lot of their more competitive games and should be right around the .500 mark.
Projected Regular Season Record: 5-7 (4-4 American)
Navy went 7-6 last year, including a drubbing of Virginia in their bowl game. The Midshipmen were probably even better than that record indicates, as they faced a tough schedule including Florida Atlantic, Memphis, UCF, Notre Dame, Houston, and Army. Zach Abey and Malcolm Perry will compete for the starting quarterback job after they split time last year, although Perry will be an overwhelming favorite after exploding in the back half. The loser of the competition will probably still see time as either a running back or receiver, and both will fit right in to the Navy rushing style. The only returning receiver is Malcolm Perry, but assuming he starts at quarterback, the receiving group will need to rebuild, likely with Zach Abey at the helm.
The defense was pretty average last year but kept the Midshipmen from shooting themselves in the foot for the most part. However, with most of their starters departing, I think that any improvement on the status quo (26.3 ppg) would be surprising. The schedule in 2018 certainly isn’t as tough as it was last season (they avoid FAU) but Navy still gets Notre Dame and Army in the non conference and draws three of the top four from the East, including UCF on the road. A bowl game should be the expectation, and computer ratings tend to underrate the service academies for obvious reasons, but I am a lot lower on Navy than the public as a whole, and have them at 7-6.
Projected Regular Season Record: 7-6 (3-5 American)
Phillip Montgomery has had a weird tenure as head coach at Tulsa. He won six games in his first year, ten in his second year, and then fill off a cliff in 2017, going 2-10. Runningback Shamari Brooks was one of the few bright spots in what was a dreary year for the Golden Hurricane. Brooks didn’t start very much, but right when he was stepping into high gear, he got injured, and finished with 687 yards and ten touchdowns on the ground, helping to lead a Tulsa run game that ranked 14th in the country. The passing game should improve as well. Another sophomore is projected to start at quarterback in Luke Skipper, who threw for 1,141 yards last year before going down with an injury. His 3-4 touchdown to interception ratio will need to be improved on though, and with four of the top five back in the receiving group, that seems likely.
The defense was quite awful last season, ranking #121 in opponent ppg and even worse in opponent ypg (#128), but Montgomery has brought in some JUCO transfers to try and turn it around, and I would expect some regression to the mean and improvement from this D. Tulsa really should have never gone 2-10 last season, and I am expecting some massive improvement in 2018. There are a ton of toss-up games on this schedule, and while I would not expect a bowl this year, it is certainly possible. However, with a sophomore leading at both skill positions, this team has some crazy potential for 2019 and 2020, and could be a conference title contender.
Projected Regular Season Record: 5-7 (3-5 American)
Tulane was so close to a bowl bid last season, as they lost four games by one possession in a 5-7 season. Head coach Willie Fritz enters his third year (9-15 combined in first two) and has recruited incredibly well thanks to the program’s location in New Orleans’ emerging recruiting hotbed. The offense will almost definitely improve from last season, as they get back dual threat quarterback Jonathan Banks (1,797 yards passing, 592 yards rushing, 19 combined touchdowns) and will add a four-star Texas Tech transfer at running back in Corey Dauphine. Most of the offensive line returns too, as well as their top three receivers and this offense might crack 30 ppg this year (27.5 last season).
The defense is an entirely different story, as the Green Wave returns pretty much nobody on that side of the ball. Tulane may have to start three underclassmen on the defensive line, including a true freshman in former Alabama commit Jeffery Johnson. They do lose an NFL caliber player in the secondary, but return two starters there and should probably stay around where they were last season in opponent passing ypg. The schedule isn’t that bad, and games @ UAB, @ Cincinnati, and vs Navy seem like the tipping points for a bowl bid. The Green Wave do avoid UCF from the East, but will get USF on the road. I think that this team will improve on offense and take a step back on defense, probably missing out on a bowl, but just barely.
Projected Regular Season Record: 5-7 (3-5 American)