The American Athletic Conference will lose the step it took on the road to toward college football respectability this year. The conference was only 2-5 in bowl games last year. Houston is expected to lead the way again. One preseason poll has the Cougars ranked No. 6. The question is can Temple keep up?

Some contenders

UConn (6-7, 4-4) might be the biggest surprise in the conference. The offense returns 10 starters including Arkeel Newsome the conference leader in all-purpose yards in 2015 (129.7 ypg). Bryant Shirreffs completed 60 percent of his passes for 2,000 yards in 2015, but needs to cut down on his interception rate.

The Huskies defense gave up just a little more than the offense gained last year. It returns six starters, but the addition of former Florida State linebacker E.J. Levenberry is expected to be a game changer.

Cincinnati (7-6, 4-4) only returns four starters, including the interior of the o-line, but the Bearcats are deep. Gunner Kiel, 19 TD passes, 2,777 yards, returns behind center and running backs Mike Boone and Tion Green combined to rush for 1,478 yards and 17 touchdowns. Cortez Broughton is expected to anchor the Bearcat defensive line and Cincinnati returns its top three tackle leaders from 2015, including LB Eric Wilson, who was eighth in the American with 8.2 tackles per game.

The University of South Florida (8-5, 6-2) had one of the worst defenses of any team to win eight games in a season.

It bent but didn’t break. USF gave up 380 yards per game, but the Bulls only yielded 19.6 ppg in the conference to lead the AAC. The Bulls return seven starters, including all four backs They won 8 games because of a high-powered offense that returns Marlon Mack, 1,381 yards rushing, Quinton Flowers, 2,296 yards passing with 22 scores and 991 rushing with 12 TDs, and Rodney Adams, 9 TD receptions.

Expect a two-way race to the top

Given the Owl’s schedule and starters returning, Temple (10-4, 7-1) could duplicate last season’s success. The Owl’s thrive on defense. It held four opponents without a touchdown in 2015. Six starters come back. Four starting offensive linemen return along with Jahad Thomas, who ran for 1,262 yards and 17 touchdowns, and Phillip Walker, who passed for 212.3 ypg and 19 TDs, last year.

Houston (13-1, 7-1) brings back half of its starters on both sides of the ball. The Cougars attack starts with Greg Ward, Jr. He passed for 2,828 yards, ran for 1,108, scored 21 TDs and threw for 17 more. The defense is porous at times, giving up more than 400 yards six times in 2015, but only allowed 36 TDs. Houston pressures opposing quarterbacks and forces turnovers. Like USF, the Cougars dee is as good as it needs to be for the AAC.

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