Jan 1, 2014; Glendale, AZ, USA; UCF Knights quarterback Blake Bortles celebrates after beating Baylor 52-42 in the Fiesta Bowl at University of Phoenix Stadium. (Photo Credit: Matt Kartozian-USATSI)
For teams outside the five power conferences — the SEC, Big 12, Pac-12, ACC and Big Ten — building a consistent winner requires a different strategy, an ability to find and woo recruiting gems when the nation’s highest rated prospects aren’t beating down your door. In the first installment of a series of how so-called “mid-major” programs did on National Signing Day we take a look at the American Athletic Conference.
The fledgling American Athletic conference has seemingly been in a constant state of upheaval since the private and public school of the Big East split, resulting in the formation of the AAC. The American will suffer the loss of Louisville and Rutgers next season, but in some ways that combined with the abolition of the BCS, the conference can finally settle in and find its own identity.
With that the AAC had a solid, if not spectacular year on the recruiting trail with several teams lumped together in the bottom half of the Top 100 according to most recruiting services. But as each team — and the conference itself — tries to establish depth some quality players are entering the league, which should continue to improve.
On the surface these are dire times for Temple, which has seen a lot of coaching turnover in recent years and suffered through a two-win season in 2013. But Matt Rhule has the program heading in the right direction.
The Owls were competitive in every game during the second half of the season after moving freshman quarterback P.J. Walker into the starting lineup and finished on a high note with a destruction of Memphis.
Despite the poor record, Temple hauled in Rivals.com’s No. 58 recruiting class, and the biggest prize, both in terms of size and ranking, is local Philly product Aaron Ruff, a 6-4, 300-pound 4-star offensive lineman who could be key in future efforts to protect Walker.
“People recognize and respect Temple as a whole,” Rhule said. “The feedback that came to us was outstanding. That’s when you know things are going the right way. That should be a source of pride. It’s not a good place, it’s a great place.”
Tommy Tuberville arrived at Cincinnati with big shoes to fill,
and put together a class that could help keep the Bearcats near the top of the conference.
Four-star linebacker Kevin Mouhon could make an immediate impact after choosing Cincy over the likes of Florida State, Ohio State, Notre Dame and dozens of others.
Coming off a BCS bowl win, Central Florida may not have gotten quite the recruiting boost it may have hoped for, but the Knights have turned into a winning program thanks in large part to George O’Leary’s ability to find diamonds in the rough and high quality transfers. UCF adds a couple of JUCO studs, including Garden City (Kan.) linebacker Errol Clarke. The Knights also scored a big recruiting win over in-state rivals with 4-star cornerback Kyle Gibson choosing UCF over scholarship offers from Florida State, Miami and South Florida.
Speaking of South Florida, the Bulls pulled in a heck of a class despite a down year in 2013. Rivals.com ranks USF’s group No. 37 with 28 new signees. Four-star athlete Jimmy Bayes was a high school All-American who could play either tight end or linebacker/defensive end at the college level.
“As coaches, you go out and set a vision of what you want and to go out and accomplish those things is really gratifying,” New USF coach Willie Taggart said. “We filled a lot of needs in this class. We have a very talented recruiting class and each one of those guys is going to have an opportunity to compete for a starting job.”
East Carolina picked up a pair of JUCO offensive lineman, 3-stars Dontea Levingston and Quincy McKinney, who can fill a need in the Pirates’ spread offense. Houston took advantage of its location, signing a 26-man class, all from Texas. Tulane added a 3-star quarterback in prolific passing Glen Cuiellette, as did SMU with dual threat Darrell Colbert and Tulsa with Jabe Burgess. UConn’s class ranked just No. 114 by Rivals, but Huskies scored 15 recruits from all across the country, including highly regarded Illinois linebacker Vontae Diggs. Memphis added seven JUCO prospects, including Fort Scott Community College QB Jason Stewart.
Shane Mettlen is a veteran sports writer whose work has appeared on ESPN.com, AOL Sports and in several major newspapers. He also contributes to Washingtonian and Cavalier Corner magazines. Follow him on Twitter:@ShaneMettlen