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Countdown to college football: Picking every team’s win total, part 3

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ASSOCIATED PRESS

Navy running back Malcolm Perry (10) rushes past Air Force defenders in the first half of an NCAA college football game in Annapolis, Md., Saturday, Oct. 7, 2017.

The advent of the College Football Playoff four years ago consolidated the non-power conferences into a “group of five” designation.

The prevailing thought at the time was that the Mountain West, Mid-American, American Athletic, Conference USA and Sun Belt would prove roughly equal in terms of competitiveness. So far, it hasn’t turned out that way.

The AAC has easily emerged as the best of the bunch, becoming not only the first of the leagues to earn a pair of New Year’s Six bowl berths last year but also improve to 2-0 in the contests. Central Florida’s 34-27 win over Auburn as 10.5-point underdogs in January pairs with Houston’s own Peach Bowl win, 38-24 over Florida State in 2015, to give the AAC ultimate bragging rights amongst the so-called mid-majors.

And the gap between the AAC and its four contemporaries appears wider than ever heading into this season. The conference is loaded with talented teams at the top, which could make the race one of the most fun to follow in college football.

Check below for picks on every American Athletic team separated into three confidence categories — plays, leans and guesses — and read the first two parts of the series here.

Central Florida

over/under: 9.5 (Even, minus-120)

Last Year: 13-0 straight-up, 8-4-1 against the spread

Despite UCF bringing back a decent chunk of last year’s team — including quarterback McKenzie Milton, leading rusher Adrian Killins and leading tackler Pat Jasinski — it feels like a mistake that so many are expecting the Knights to pick up right where they left off. New coach Josh Heupel and defensive coordinator Randy Shannon were great hires, but are implementing changes that might make for growing pains in year one.

Guess: Under 9.5 wins at minus-120

Cincinnati

over/under: 5 (minus-125, minus-105)

Last Year: 4-8 straight-up, 4-8 against the spread

Luke Fickell might quietly be one of the best coaches in the American, and he’s brought in the conference’s combined top recruiting class in the last two years. It wouldn’t be a surprise, therefore, if the Bearcats made a leap a year faster than expected. They’ve also got a weak schedule working in their favor.

Play: Over 5 wins at minus-125

Connecticut

over/under: 3 (minus-135, plus-105)

Last Year: 3-9 straight-up, 5-7 against the spread

The Huskies’ offense could take a step forward this year, but not enough of one to make up for quite possibly the least experienced defense in the country. UConn only shapes up as a favorite in one game — at home against Football Championship Subdivision opponent Rhode Island —but even that is no guaranteed victory. It took a massive comeback effort, with three touchdowns in the final 16 minutes, to put away Holy Cross last year.

Lean: Under 3 wins at plus-105

East Carolina

over/under: 3.5 (plus-125, minus-155)

Last Year: 3-9 straight-up, 3-8-1 against the spread

Well, the Pirates get the Huskies at home late in the season, so there’s one likely conference win. That’s about the only thing looking up for East Carolina. It gave up 7.5 yards per play against Football Bowl Subdivision opposition last year, which comfortably ranked as the worst in the nation. There’s not enough talent on the roster to call for a breakthrough.

Lean: Under 3.5 wins at minus-155

South Florida

over/under: 8.5 (plus-125, minus-145)

Last Year: 10-2 straight-up, 6-6 against the spread

South Florida was even better than its 10-2 record last year, considering their losses to UCF and Houston were both heartbreakers in the final seconds. But almost all of the key players from last year are gone, leaving a young core with the onus of keeping the program at the same high level of the last three seasons. Eight wins seems like the most likely result, but with money pouring in on the under to make the over an attractive price, it’s worth a gamble that coach Charlie Strong’s highly regarded recruiting classes deliver immediately.

Guess: Over 8.5 wins at plus-125

Temple

over/under: 6.5 (minus-130, plus-100)

Last Year: 7-6 straight-up, 7-6 against the spread

Let’s not forget Temple is only two years removed from an American Athletic Conference title, and played just as well over the second half of last season. The Owls’ only non-cover in their final six games came in a blowout loss to UCF. Frank Nutile was a revelation at quarterback, and could improve in his senior season. On defense, Temple brings back a pair of outstanding edge rushers in Quincy Roche and Sam Franklin.

Play: Over 6.5 wins at minus-130

Houston

over/under: 8 (minus-105, minus-125)

Last Year: 7-5 straight-up, 6-6 against the spread

The Cougars arguably have the most exciting pair of offensive/defensive players in the nation — electric receiver-turned-quarterback D’Eriq King and potential top NFL Draft Pick defensive end Ed Oliver —but that doesn’t guarantee success. Coach Major Applewhite looked overwhelmed at times in his first season, which is alarming going into a second year where seven of Houston’s games project to have a spread of less than a touchdown.

Guess: Under 8 wins at minus-125

Memphis

over/under: 8.5 (minus-120, minus-110)

Last Year: 10-3 straight-up, 7-5-1 against the spread

From a roster standpoint, Memphis appears likely to take a step back solely based on the loss of four-year starting quarterback Riley Ferguson. From a scheduling standpoint, Memphis should stay right in line to repeat as AAC West division champions. The Tigers’ pair of difficult league games — against Houston and UCF — both come at home.

Play: Over 8.5 wins at minus-120

Navy

over/under: 7 (minus-135, plus-105)

Last Year: 7-6 straight-up, 6-5-2 against the spread

Navy almost always exceeds expectations, as the odds don’t seem to reflect how well coach Ken Niumatalolo has mastered overcoming an annual exodus of senior starters. The Midshipmen’s most important player, however, returns this year. Junior quarterback Malcolm Perry broke out when given the opportunity last year, averaging nearly 9 yards per carry and forcing solid two-year starting signal caller Zach Abey to move to receiver this year.

Lean: Over 7 wins at minus-135

Southern Methodist

over/under: 5.5 (plus-120, minus-150)

Last Year: 7-6 straight-up, 6-7 against the spread

With a plethora of skill players back including quarterback Ben Hicks and running back Xavier Jones, SMU is virtually guaranteed to have a high-powered offense in coach Sonny Dykes’ first season. They’re equally assured to struggle on defense, however, after ranking in the nation’s bottom 10 in giving up 6.6 yards per play to FBS teams last year.

Guess: Under 5.5 wins at minus-150

Tulane

over/under: 5.5 (plus-110, minus-140)

Last Year: 5-7 straight-up, 7-4-1 against the spread

The Golden Wave have improved by one win in each season, under third-year coach Willie Fritz, who’s also gone 14-9-1 against the spread since taking over in New Orleans. Fritz has been an overachiever at every stop of his career, and he’s at least on pace to lead his team to 6-6 this year.

Guess: Over 5.5 wins at plus-110

Tulsa

over/under: 4.5 (minus-105, minus-125)

Last Year: 2-10 straight-up, 5-7 against the spread

Tulsa went from 10-2 in 2016 to 2-10 in 2017, so any result this year would seem believable. That being said, the Golden Hurricane only project as favorites in a pair of games — against Connecticut and Central Arkansas. They’ll need to make major strides on both sides of the ball to combat a schedule that difficult.

Guess: Under 4.5 wins at minus-125

Case Keefer can be reached at 702-948-2790 or [email protected]. Follow Case on Twitter at twitter.com/casekeefer.

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