Every matchup is crucial in a season with only 12 regular season games, but some are more intriguing than others. Here are five games to watch in the upcoming season in the American Athletic Conference.
Saturday, Aug. 31 at 3:30 p.m. in South Bend, Ind.
This is the first game of the season for two teams in completely different stages. Temple is rebuilding with a new head coach, Matt Rhule, and does not seem likely to sniff the top 25 this season. Notre Dame (No. 14/11) is coming off an appearance in the national championship game last season and is hoping to return to a BCS bowl.
The Fighting Irish are led by senior quarterback Tommy Rees. Rees received significant playing time in 2011, throwing for 2,871 yards, 20 touchdowns and 14 interceptions with a 65.5 completion percentage. His role was usurped by Everett Golson last season, but Golson has since been suspended for academic reasons, and Rees is starting again.
“I look back to just watching TV and seeing [Rees] going and how many guys can go in there… in the last drive and replacing somebody and go in and win the game, and that’s what he’s done.” Rhule said. “He’s a competitor, he’s a gamer, he’s got a tremendous arm and he’s got weapons around him. He’s a tremendous quarterback.”
Rhule also gave credit to Notre Dame’s star defensive tackles: senior Louis Nix III and junior Stephon Tuitt. The duo combined for 20.5 tackles for loss and 14.0 sacks in 2012. At a combined weight of 629 pounds, they are both excellent run stoppers as well.
This will likely be Temple’s toughest matchup of the season. It may be difficult for Connor Reilly to win his first game as a starter.
Saturday, Sept. 7 at 12:00 p.m. at Lincoln Financial Field.
The Owls’ home opener will come against a team that had the 11th best passing offense and 15th best total offense in the nation last year. Redshirt-junior quarterback David Piland returns after a solid year, throwing for 2,929 yards and 16 touchdowns with a completion percentage of 57.1. While he led a high-octane offense, he was prone to turnovers, throwing 12 interceptions.
Houston, which was picked to finish sixth in the American Athletic Conference, also boasts two young wide receivers in junior Daniel Spencer and sophomore Deontay Greenberry. The duo combined for 88 receptions, 1,148 receiving yards and six touchdowns last season. Houston’s running backs, led by redshirt sophomore running back Kenneth Farrow, are fairly unproven, so the key to stopping the Cougars’ offense is to shut down the passing game by forcing Piland to make poor decisions.
Saturday, Oct. 5, time TBA, at Lincoln Financial Field.
Along with Notre Dame, Louisville (No. 9/9) is one of the toughest opponents Temple will face all year. The Cardinals, widely picked to win the conference, are coming off a Sugar Bowl victory and are led by a Heisman Trophy candidate in junior quarterback Teddy Bridgewater. Bridgewater threw for 3,452 yards, 25 touchdowns and seven interceptions with a completion percentage of 68.5. He threw for 324 yards and five touchdowns against the Owls last season, leading the Cardinals to a 45-17 win.
Louisville’s defense is led by senior middle linebacker Preston Brown. Brown led the team in tackles last season with 109. It was Brown’s first season as middle linebacker and he has been mentioned by head coach Charlie Strong as a team leader. Brown will be looked to anchor a defense that finished 23rd in the nation last season.
Louisville is a team without a lot of holes, so Temple’s best hope for a win is likely that Bridgewater has an off game – which seems unlikely for the potential top pick in the 2014 NFL draft.
Friday, Oct. 11, 8:30 p.m., in Cincinnati, Ohio.
The Bearcats are coming off back-to-back 10-3 seasons and were the only team other than Louisville to garner first place votes in The American preseason poll.
Despite the high expectations, coach Tommy Tuberville has not yet picked a definitive starting quarterback. Redshirt senior Brendon Kay will likely start, but senior Munchie Legaux will also get playing time. Legaux got more playing time last season, but Kay put up better numbers, throwing for a higher completion percentage and a much better touchdown-to-interception ratio.
Senior linebacker Greg Blair will lead the defense. Last year, Blair led the Big East Conference and finished 12th in the nation in tackles with 138. 2012 was the first season where he got much playing time, and he’s advanced so much that he was named to both the Bronko Nagurski Trophy and the Bednarik Award, watch lists this preseason.
Cincinnati’s defense is good, but beatable, so if Temple manages to stop the Bearcats’ running game, they can put pressure on the quarterback, whoever it is, to beat them.
Saturday, Nov. 16, time TBA, at Lincoln Financial Field.
The Knights, like Cincinnati, want to match or surpass the success of 2012. UCF went 10-4, won the Conference USA regular season title and defeated Ball State 38-17 in the Beef ‘O’ Brady’s Bowl. They are picked to finish fourth in a conference that should be more challenging than C-USA.
UCF has a strong passing offense led by junior quarterback Blake Bortles, who threw for 3,059 yards, 25 touchdowns and seven interceptions while adding eight rushing touchdowns. Both of his top receivers are returning: juniors Rannell Hall and J.J. Worton combined for 79 receptions, 1,225 receiving yards and nine touchdowns. With all the main pieces from last year’s 68th ranked passing offense, the Knights should improve and be tough to stop through the air.
The Knights have lost some key defensive pieces from last season’s team, including safety Kemal Ishmael, the 2012 C-USA defensive player of the year. Redshirt-junior safety Clinton Geathers, who finished with 117 tackles last season, will look to step up and lead the defense.
Much like Houston, Temple’s best hope is to stop UCF’s passing attack.
Evan Cross can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @EvanCross