NEWPORT, R.I. - With 19 starters returning from a team that went 11-2 and won the Allstate Sugar Bowl, the University of Louisville was tabbed as the overwhelming favorite to win the first American Athletic Conference football title in the league’s first preseason media poll, announced Tuesday morning.
The Cardinals, who were picked to win their conference for the second-straight season, received 28 of a possible 30 first-place votes and had 298 points in the preseason voting of media representatives. Cincinnati received the other two first-place votes and had 257 points. The top five teams in the preseason poll either won or shared their league’s regular-season championship last season.
Louisville claimed a share of its second straight BIG EAST title last season on its way to an 11-win campaign that was capped by a 33-23 win against fourth-ranked Florida in the Sugar Bowl. Two-time BIG EAST Coach of the Year Charlie Strong’s Cardinals return 19 players, who made at least one start last year, including quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, who was named the Sugar Bowl MVP. Bridgewater was the 2012 BIG EAST Offensive Player of the Year after he registered six games with at least 300 passing yards and two 400-yard games in 2012. Louisville was ranked No. 13 in both major national polls to close the 2012 season.
The Cardinals, who open the season on Sept. 1 at home against Ohio, return three of their four defensive all-conference selections in Preston Brown, Calvin Pryor, and Hakeem Smith, and offensive all-conference picks DeVante Parker and Bridgewater.
Cincinnati went 10-3 last year, won a share of the BIG EAST title with a 5-2 conference record, and rallied past Duke to win the Belk Bowl. The Bearcats, led by new head coach Tommy Tuberville, have won four conference titles in the past five years and finished last season ranked No. 22 in the final USA Today Coaches’ Poll. The Bearcats have an anchor on defense with the return of linebacker Greg Blair, who had a BIG EAST-leading 138 tackles last season, and return two quarterbacks who started at least five games in 2012.
Rutgers was third in the preseason poll with 240 points. The Scarlet Knights made history in coach Kyle Flood’s first year, claiming a share of their first conference title with a 5-2 finish in BIG EAST play and a 9-4 overall mark. Flood will look to replace the production of 11 players who were either drafted or signed by NFL clubs last year, but is armed with depth on the offensive line, a big-play wide receiver in Brandon Coleman (10 touchdown receptions in 2012) and veteran quarterback Gary Nova, who threw for 2,695 yards and 22 touchdowns last year.
UCF was fourth in the preseason poll with 210 points. The Knights went 10-4 overall, 7-1 in Conference USA last year, winning the league’s East Division title. UCF defeated Ball State in the Beef `O’ Brady’s Bowl to cap the season. George O’Leary and the Knights have hit double-digit wins three times in the last four seasons and are positioned to do so again with the return of quarterback Blake Bortles. He was named to the preseason watch list for the Maxwell Award as the nation’s top player, threw for 3,059 yards and 25 touchdowns last season.
USF was picked fifth in the preseason poll. The Bulls are led by new head coach Willie Taggart, who comes to Tampa after orchestrating a remarkable turnaround at Western Kentucky. Taggart takes over a USF squad that went 3-9 last season, but returns a solid defense. DeDe Lattimore is a preseason candidate for the Butkus Award as the nation’s top linebacker, while defensive end Aaron Lynch moves into the lineup after earning Freshman All-America honors at Notre Dame in 2011.
Houston was tabbed sixth in the preseason poll. The Cougars won at least 10 games in 2009 and 2011, but look to bounce back from a 5-7 2012 campaign. Head coach Tony Levine has 10 offensive starters returning from a unit that averaged 32.4 points and 480 yards per game and will look to veteran linebacker Derrick Mathews (126 tackles, six sacks) to lead a young defense.
Connecticut was seventh in the preseason poll. Paul Pasqualoni’s Huskies return their starting quarterback and running back, their top receiver and four of their five starters on the offensive line from last year, but lost six starters from a defensive unit that led the BIG EAST in total defense a year ago. Linebacker Yawin Smallwood registered 120 tackles to rank third in the BIG EAST last year on his way to first team all-conference honors.
SMU was eighth in the poll. The Mustangs went 7-6 overall and 5-3 in Conference USA last year, winning three of their last four games. SMU closed the season with a 43-10 win against Fresno State in the Hawaii Bowl, marking its fourth consecutive postseason appearance. Coach June Jones has 11 starters returning, including QB Garrett Gilbert, who threw for 2,932 yards and 15 touchdowns in 2012.
Temple was picked ninth in the preseason poll. The Owls went 4-7 overall as they returned to BIG EAST play in 2012. First-year head coach Matt Rhule will find 14 returning starters in the fold for 2013, including linebacker Tyler Matakevich. Matakevich was the BIG EAST Rookie of the Year last season after he made 101 tackles as a true freshman.
Memphis was tabbed for 10th in the preseason poll. The Tigers bring a three-game winning streak into the 2013 season as Justin Fuente’s squad went 4-8 overall. Memphis has 17 starters returning, including eight from a defensive unit that was the Conference USA leader in total defense in conference games.