If sportswriters who cover the American Athletic Conference are correct, first-year coach Philip Montgomery and the Tulsa Golden Hurricane have nowhere to go but up.
At the recent AAC media days, a poll of sportswriters picked Tulsa to finish last in the West Division of the conference.
“We have got a lot of work ahead of us,” Montgomery said during a coaches panel discussion.
Montgomery said TU has one of the toughest conference slates because the teams they play in the East Division are Cincinnati, Central Florida and East Carolina.
“We will play it game by game,” Montgomery said. “Our guys will be prepared.
“Our job is to put an exciting brand of football on the field to give our fans something to cheer about.”
Even though TU has 10 starters back on offense, Montgomery said his staff had to move some players to different positions.
“We have one offensive lineman playing in the same spot that he did,” Montgomery said.
He said every position was up for grabs and would have to be earned. Montgomery hasn’t named a starting quarterback partly because he likes the idea of healthy competition for that spot in fall drills.
“We are going to play fast. We are going to be up tempo,” Montgomery said. “Our coaches will help players find one-on-one matchups and take advantage of those.
“Obviously, if you want to play fast, you better pick up first downs. You play fast and in 45 seconds, you punt the ball – that’s not a whole lot of fun. With tempo, you have to be precise about what you are doing. Our guys have really bought into that system. They see the advantages of it.”
Montgomery, formerly the offensive coordinator at Baylor, went to the media event with wide receiver Keevan Lucas, who was second in The American in receptions (101) and receiving yards (1,219) last season.
The Cincinnati Bearcats were selected as the favorite to hold the trophy following the inaugural American Athletic Conference Football Championship, which will cap the conference’s first season with 12 teams and two divisions.
The Bearcats received 22 of a possible 30 votes to win the league title in the preseason balloting of media representatives. Cincinnati was a near-unanimous selection to win the East Division as the Bearcats earned all but one first-place vote in the divisional poll.
A tighter race is projected for the West Division as Memphis edged Houston and Navy as the favorite to reach the championship game. The Tigers received 13 first-place votes and were just four points ahead of Houston and five points ahead of Navy in the balloting.
Cincinnati has won at least nine games seven times in the last eight years and has reached double digits in wins five times in that stretch. The Bearcats have finished 9-4 in each of Tommy Tuberville’s first two seasons on the Cincinnati sideline and won a share of the American Athletic Conference title last year with a 7-1 league mark.
Cincinnati returns 15 starters from last year, including quarterback Gunner Kiel, who threw a league-leading 31 touchdown passes in 2014. Kiel has his top seven receivers back from last season and will be protected by an offensive line that has 76 career starts to its credit.
Kiel was one of the top quarterbacks in the country out of high school.
The Bearcats also expect a boost from their return to Nippert Stadium, which underwent an $86 million renovation last season.
UCF earned the lone first-place vote from the East Division that did not go to Cincinnati. UCF went 9-4 overall and won a share of its second straight American Athletic Conference crown with a 7-1 conference finish. The Knights are a combined 15-1 in two seasons of American Athletic Conference play and bring a 10-game winning streak at Bright House Networks Stadium into 2015.
Coach George O’Leary will look to replace the production of 14 starters lost, but will have two-time all-conference running back William Stanback to help lead the way.
Temple was tabbed for third in the East Division with 116 points. The Owls could be poised for a breakout season under third-year head coach Matt Rhule, who has 19 returning starters, including 10 from a defense that ranked fourth nationally in scoring last season (17.5 ppg). LB Tyler Matakevich enters his senior year with 355 career tackles and could become just the seventh player in FBS history to register 100 tackles in a season four times.
Temple finished 6-6 last season, improving by four wins from the previous year.
East Carolina was fourth in the East Division poll with 105 points. The Pirates have made eight bowl appearances in the last nine years and will turn to some new faces at the skill positions in their bid for a ninth postseason bid in 10 years.
Coach Ruffin McNeill has a proven deep threat with wide receiver Isaiah Jones, who had 81 receptions for 830 yards and five touchdowns last season.
USF was picked fifth in the East Division. coach Willie Taggart has new coordinators on offense and defense and will have The American’s leading rusher from last season back in the fold. Marlon Mack rushed for 1,041 yards and nine touchdowns last season as a true freshman.
UConn was sixth in the East Division. The Huskies and coach Bob Diaco have seven defensive starters returning, led by outstanding linebackers Marquis Vann and Graham Stewart.
Memphis emerged as the favorite in the West Division as the Tigers enter 2015 on the heels of their best season in more than 40 years. The Tigers went 10-3 overall, won a share of the American Athletic Conference title at 7-1 in league play and capped the year with a win against Brigham Young in the Miami Beach Bowl.
Coach Justin Fuente, a Tulsa native who played two years at Oklahoma, has 13 starters returning from last season, including quarterback Paxton Lynch, who accounted for 35 touchdowns in 2014 (22 passing, 13 rushing).
Houston received 10 first-place votes in the West Division as first-year head coach Tom Herman, the offensive coordinator for Ohio State’s national championship team in 2014, finds a talented roster in place. The Cougars were 8-5 last year, including a win against Pittsburgh in the Armed Forces Bowl. Running back Kenneth Farrow registered a league-leading seven 100-yard games last season, while safety Adrian McDonald had a hand in eight turnovers to lead the defense.
Navy, which competed as an independent in football for its first 134 seasons, joins a conference for the first time and was the pick of seven media members to win the West Division.
The Midshipmen were 8-5 last year, marking the 11th time in 12 years that Navy won at least eight games. Coach Ken Niumatalolo has the luxury of one of one the nation’s top quarterbacks on his roster, as Keenan Reynolds enters his senior year with a chance to break Montee Ball’s NCAA record of 77 career rushing touchdowns. Reynolds has 64 career rushing TDs, which is already the NCAA record for a quarterback.
Tulane was picked for fourth in West Division. Head coach Curtis Johnson fielded one of the youngest teams in the nation last year, but has 18 returning starters for 2015. The Green Wave had freshmen finish as the team leaders in rushing, passing, receiving and interceptions last season. Running back Sherman Badie is poised for a big season after he rushed for a team-high 688 yards as a true freshman.
SMU was fifth in the West Division balloting. The Mustangs look to return to the postseason after a two-year absence as coach Chad Morris makes his debut on the SMU sideline.
Morris had been the offensive coordinator at Clemson and enjoyed a highly successful career as a high school coach in Texas. Quarterback Matt Davis emerged as the Mustangs’ starter last season and finished as the team’s leading rusher and passer.
The first American Athletic Conference Football Championship will be played Dec. 5 at the home site of the division champion with the best conference record.