Louisville and UCF represented the American well all season long. Photo: USA Today Sports
The college football world say good bye to the Big East in 2013 and welcomed in The American. The conference underwent a face lift with a new name, new members and a new logo, but changes will continue to come in the coming year. The conference often picked on for less than adequate play had its share of poor play but the top performers and teams proved worthy of playing on the same field as any when all was said and done.
American at a Glance
A brand new year meant a brand new conference. The leftovers from the Big East rubble during the realignment craziness formed a new conference with some members from Conference USA. Louisville returned for one more season after becoming a trendy pick since beating Florida in the Sugar Bowl. Central Florida joined the party after a respectable season in Conference USA. Cincinnati was also a team to keep an eye on even after losing their starting quarterback early in the season. The conference, in truth, was top heavy. While Louisville, UCF and Cincinnati took the conference title race down to the final weeks, Temple, Memphis and South Florida all struggled to find wins. the Three combined for four wins and only two came out of conference against FBS competition. The conference also got off to a poor start with three losses to FCS programs (UConn to Towson, USF to McNeese State and Temple to Fordham).
Biggest Surprise: Central Florida
UCF having a successful season certainly was not to be considered a surprise, but few would have expected the Knights to go 12-1, win the conference and end the year with a BCS bowl victory. The Knights weren't exactly an afterthought after playing for the Conference USA championship last season, and they proved to be a team not intimidated by anyone. A win at Penn State opened eyes on the program and a hard fought loss against South Carolina earned more respect. A win at Louisville made them the team to beat in the conference and when few gave them a shot against the high-flying offense of Baylor, it was UCF who took control of the game and handled it like a top-flight program.
Biggest Disappointment: South Florida
Maybe South Florida did not have the talent on the roster to do anything worth noting this season, but the expectations for new head coach Willie Taggart were certainly higher than the end result. The Coach T Bus movement made for a fun little promo but the bus had a bad engine and blew a few tires on the way to a dismal 2-10 season. It is far too early to suggest Taggart will fail in Tampa, but there is clearly a bunch of work to be done to get the bus back in good condition.
Best Game: UCF edges Louisville in prime time showdown
Louisville was undefeated at the time and ranked in the top ten. A shot to play for a BCS championship was still considered slim for the Cardinals but an undefeated record may have gotten them there. Leading 14-7 at the half against UCF, things may have looked optimistic but the Knights took control in the second half with a 31-point second half. UCF took their first lead of the game midway through the fourth quarter with a field goal before Teddy Bridgewater led the Cardinals down field for a touchdown and a 35-31 lead with three minutes to play, but that was more than enough time for Blake Bortles and Storm Johnson led an efficient and well-executed 11-play touchdown drive leaving just 23 seconds left on the clock. Bortles completed a short pass to Jeff Godfrey out of a timeout and the defense managed to not give up a big play from midfield on the final play of the game for the win that would ultimately send UCF to the Fiesta Bowl as conference champions.
The American went 2-3 in postseason play, with UCF scoring the cherry on top with a Fiesta Bowl victory over Big 12 champion Baylor. In addition to UCF's big BCS bowl victory, the third straight BCS bowl victory by the conference dating back to the Big East, Louisville scored a big win over the ACC's Miami Hurricanes. The three losses were turned in by Cincinnati (vs. UNC), Rutgers (vs. Notre Dame) and Houston (vs. Vanderbilt). Future American members fared well in the postseason, with East Carolina and Navy each winning bowl games, although Tulane took a loss.
American Offensive Player of the Year: QB Teddy Bridgewater
Once viewed as a Heisman Trophy favorite, Louisville's Teddy Bridgewater never really did anything to play out of the mix for top player in the conference. Bridgewater ended the season with 3,970 passing yards and 31 touchdowns with just four interceptions while completing 71 percent of his passes for an average of 9.3 yards per attempt and a 171.14 passer rating.
Honorable Mention: QB Blake Bortles, UCF
American Defensive Player of the Year: DL Marcus Smith, Louisville
Louisville's offensive stars received plenty of attention, but Marcus Smith led the conference with 18.5 tackles for a loss, including a conference-leading 14.5 sacks. Smith was one of the conference's most dominant players on the line all year.
Honorable Mention: DL Martin Ifedi, Memphis
American Freshman of the Year: QB John O'Korn, Houston
Houston's John O'Korn flew under a bit of a radar, but will be well known in 2014. Photo: USA Today Sports
While Teddy Bridgewater and Blake Bortles stole the show this season, Houston's freshman John O'Korn put up some very respectable numbers this season. O'Korn put together 3,117 passing yards and 28 touchdowns while leading Houston to a 7-1 start before the Cougars hit a bit of a wall. With Bortles and Bridgewater moving on, O'Korn will be the top quarterback returning in 2014.
Coach of the Year: George O'Leary, UCF
The George O'Leary narrative was an interesting one to watch unfold this past season. The story of redemption may have been overdone at times but UCF managed to win games on the road at Penn State and Louisville and they took South Carolina down to the wire and topped the Big 12 champions, a Baylor team once in a driver's seat for a spot in the BCS championship game, in the Fiesta Bowl.
Honorable Mention: Charlie Strong, Louisville
The 2014 season will see more change for the new conference. Louisville will leave for the ACC and Rutgers will join the Big Ten. In their place will step in East Carolina, Tulane and Tulsa from Conference USA. Navy is scheduled to join in 2015 as well. The American also now sits in the same boat as the Mountain West Conference, Conference USA, the Sun Belt and MAC when it comes to the new bowl structure and College Football Playoff. No more automatic bids are guaranteed for the conference champion, so the pressure is on to stay ahead of the other conferences in the standings. Some years this may be easier than others. The conference would have been set up to be UCF's to lose in 2014 but losing Blake Bortles and Storm Johnson will mean new faces have to break in to key roles. Cincinnati should be set up well for the future in the conference but it is clear the overall profile of the conference has nowhere to go but up at this point.