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Louisville headlines 2013 American conference preview

Photo: Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Teddy Bridgewater and Louisville will look to reach a second consecutive BCS bowl in the 2013 season.

Can Louisville make it through league play unscathed? Will Rutgers make a run before it departs to the Big Ten? What will new Cincinnati coach Tommy Tuberville bring to the Bearcats, other than his awesome golf cart? How many wins will get on the bus with Willie Taggart and USF? Martin Rickman attempts to answer these questions and more in his 2013 American Athletic Conference preview. For more coverage, visit SI.com's 2013 college football preview content archive.

Note: The projected standings reflect the author's opinion, not SI.com's.

American Athletic Conference Report
 
How They'll Finish
 
  Conference Overall
Louisville 7-1 11-1
Cincinnati 6-2 9-3
Rutgers 5-3 8-4
UCF 5-3 7-5
Houston 4-4 6-6
 
  Conference Overall
SMU 4-4 5-7
USF 3-5 6-6
Connecticut 3-5 4-8
Memphis 2-6 4-8
Temple 1-7 3-9
 
Offensive MVP
 
QB
Teddy Bridgewater
2012 stats: 287-of-419, 3,718 passing yards, 27 TD, 8 INT
2013 projection: 270-of-400, 3,612 passing YDS, 26 TD, 7 INT
Expectations are almost too high for Bridgewater, who has been dubbed the anti-Johnny Manziel by far too many people seeking a clear-cut hero versus antihero dynamic in college football. Bridgewater is an elite quarterback who may suffer a slight statistical drop-off due to teams scheming against him more, but he should still thrive in 2013. With a more balanced rushing attack and a veteran receiving corps, Bridgewater just needs to make smart decisions and minimize mistakes for the Cards' offense to succeed.
 
Defensive MVP
 
LB
Greg Blair
2012 stats: 138 tackles, 2.5 sacks, 9 TFL, 2 INT, 2 forced fumbles
2013 projection: 130 tackles, 5 sacks, 10 TFL, 1 INT, 3 forced fumbles
Slightly edging out another talented linebacker in UConn's Yawin Smallwood, Blair is the type of player people who vote for postseason awards love. He received an extra year of eligibility due to a medical hardship waiver from 2011, and he was constantly around the football last season, ranking 12th in the NCAA in tackles. Under first-year coach Tuberville, Blair has the potential to be a defensive anchor for what appears to be the AAC's second-best team.
Blair headlines SI.com's preseason All-AAC Team
 
Breakout Star
 
WR
Brandon Coleman
2012 stats: 43 catches, 718 receiving yards, 10 TD
2013 projection: 70 catches, 1,100 receiving yards, 12 TD
USF's Aaron Lynch, a transfer from Notre Dame, is another good candidate here, but the association between Coleman and the word breakout is too strong to pass up. He went from an all-or-nothing deep threat in 2011 to a reliable receiver in '12, and he still hasn't reached his ceiling: He had eight games with three or fewer catches last fall. At 6-foot-6 with plenty of speed, Coleman could develop into more than one of the best receivers in the AAC; he could emerge as one of the top receivers in college football.
 
Impact Freshman
 
WR
James Quick
2012 stats (high school): 85 catches, 1,413 yards, 16 TD
2013 projection: 22 catches, 283 receiving yards, 517 return yards, 5 TD
A four-star recruit, according to Rivals.com, Quick turned down offers from Ohio State, Alabama, LSU, Michigan and Oklahoma, among others, to stay close to home. Now his explosiveness should help him see the field for Louisville right away. Quick won't be the top option in an experienced Cards' receiving corps, but he should return kicks and see some offensive snaps each week. If his skills translate to the college game quickly, however, it'll be impossible to keep him out of the mix.
 
Coach On The Hot Seat
 
Paul Pasqualoni
Last season: 5-7 (2-5 Big East)
Career at Connecticut: 10-14 (5-9 Big East)
The defense has improved, but the Huskies still haven't reached the level of play they maintained before Randy Edsall left for Maryland. The offense is the biggest culprit, and former Cincinnati receivers coach T.J. Weist was hired to fix a unit that ranked 110th in the FBS in total offense in 2012. A bowl berth would give UConn fans hope and probably protect Pasqualoni's job, but it won't come easy. A tough nonconference slate that includes games against Maryland, Michigan and Buffalo should reveal a lot about this team before it gets into American play.
 
American Athletic Conference Video Preview
 
Three Key Nonconference Games
 
Texas Tech at SMU
Friday, Aug. 30
8 p.m. ET, ESPN
Come for the points, stay for the possible upset by the Mustangs.
 
Cincinnati at Purdue
Saturday, Aug. 31
Noon ET, ESPNU
A battle between two first-year head coaches, this matchup should offer a nice glimpse into just how far along the Bearcats and Boilermakers actually are.
 
Michigan at Connecticut
Saturday, Sept. 21
TBD
This is a big game for a couple of reasons. UConn will host to a premier out-of-conference opponent, and the Huskies need to make strides in Pasqualoni's third season at the helm. This matchup with the young Wolverines should be a good measuring stick.
 
Three Key Conference Games
 
USF at Houston
Thursday, Oct. 31
7 p.m. ET, ESPN
Both the Bulls and Cougars could win anywhere between four and eight games in 2013. This Thursday night game could feature possible bowl implications.
 
Rutgers at UCF
Thursday, Nov. 21
7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN
This game might not determine the conference's ultimate champion, but it certainly has the potential to be one of the better league contests this fall. Gary Nova against Blake Bortles is a fun matchup between two quarterbacks who could take the next steps in their respective maturation processes in 2013.
 
Louisville at Cincinnati
Thursday, Dec. 5
7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN
The last week of the regular season, featuring what should be the league's top two teams (possibly) playing for a BCS berth. There's no doubt this will be a key game.
 
Five Key Questions
 
Just how good is Louisville? Charlie Strong's team heads into 2013 with lofty goals on the heels of last season's Sugar Bowl victory, but fans might have to wait until late in the year to find out how dangerous the Cardinals really are. Their nonconference slate is extremely favorable, and their only real road tests come at USF on Oct. 26 and at Cincinnati in the finale. If Louisville somehow loses to Ohio or drops a winnable game early, its response will be extremely important. Winning the American is the expectation; anything less will be considered a disappointment for a program that has risen to prominence extremely quickly.
ELLIS: Louisville ranks No. 7 in Sports Illustrated's preseason Top 25
Is it time to get on the bus with Willie Taggart? Taggart comes to USF from Western Kentucky, and there's no doubt he's charismatic. But just how successful he'll be with the Bulls depends on the viability of the program and the willingness of fans and recruits to buy in. Potential was a word that was tossed around frequently during Skip Holtz's tenure at USF, but nothing really ever came of it. Taggart wants to change that, so hopefully the school will give coach T time to drive this bus.
Is UCF's Blake Bortles ready to be a premier college quarterback? Some people, including Matt Murschel of the Orlando Sentinel, seem convinced Bortles is primed for a big year. And it's hard to completely disagree; Bortles stands at 6-5 and threw for more than 3,000 yards with a 25-to-7 touchdown-to-interception ratio in 2012. As Bortles goes, the Knights will go in their first season in the AAC. Making the jump to a new conference is always easier with an experienced leader under center.
Did Louisville make the right move by bringing in Michael Dyer? Chemistry in college sports is hard to quantify, but it does matter, whether shrouded by lucky bounces or late-game outcomes. Louisville had plenty of chemistry a year ago and brings back the vast majority of its starters, so taking a chance on Dyer -- who was suspended at Auburn, transferred to Arkansas State and was dismissed after video of a traffic stop was made public -- may seem iffy. Still, college kids get second (and third) chances for a reason. If Dyer learned from his experiences and buys into coach Strong's vision, the former BCS title game MVP will provide a big boost to the Cardinals' offense.
What's next for the American Athletic Conference? With all the recent talk surrounding the College Football Playoff and rumors of super divisions, it's hard not to think of the former Big East conference, once granted a seat at the power-players table and now struggling to understand its identity. Commissioner Mike Aresco may think the American deserves to be held in the same regard as the leagues in the Power Five, but only time will tell.
 

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