AAC Football: Most Important Non-Conference Games in 2017

The complete 2017 AAC football schedule has been released by the conference. Here are the most important non-conference games for each AAC school.

The American Athletic Conference — the conference that provided the college football world with another acronym to confuse with the ACC — enters its fifth season of play after rebranding out of the split of the Big East.

Last year’s champion Temple failed to land the Access Bowl bid, but five AAC different teams finished with at least nine wins. It will be interesting to see whether any of the AAC contenders can take charge of the league and emerge atop the Group of Five hierarchy this season.

For teams vying for that mid-major bid into a New Year’s Six game, a statement win over a Power Five school can pay huge dividends. Winning a conference championship is but the first of several criteria that must be met. A win over any Power Five school is good, a win over a Power Five conference contender is even better, and even a close loss against a quality opponent can be forgiven.

Every AAC team has at least one Power Five opponent on its schedule. Some of those games, such as Houston’s win over Oklahoma last year, are high-risk/high-reward situations that could eventually vault a team into College Football Playoff contention.

Others offer more manageable chances to win over a middling major-conference opponent. Many of the games on this year’s list will be played on the AAC school’s home field, even, offering a chance to sell out the stadium.

Teams are listed in their order of conference record in 2017. Click ahead to see which games we think will be most important for AAC teams in the upcoming season.

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Sep 17, 2016; East Hartford, CT, USA; Connecticut Huskies linebacker Cameron Stapleton (10) and his team react after a failed field goal attempt by the Virginia Cavaliers to end the game at Rentschler Field. UConn defeated Virginia 13-10. Mandatory Credit: David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

UConn Huskies

OPPONENT: Boston College, Nov. 18 at Fenway Park

Last year, UConn had a rough go of things in the AAC. They actually started the season 2-1, a mark which included a win over ACC school Virginia. Had single-digit losses to Navy and Syracuse gone the other way, the Huskies could have started the year 5-1. Yet in the second half of 2016, things all collapsed.

Connecticut did not win another football game after early October. The early statement and near-upset of Syracuse were effectively wasted in the bigger picture as UConn finished with a 3-9 record.

The game between UConn and Boston College at Fenway Park is one of the late highlights of Group of Five non-conference schedules.  These two New England schools have played against one another only four times, all at the turn of the 21st century. All four times, the Eagles took down the Huskies.

Only once, in 2002, has Connecticut managed to even keep the final margin within single digits. UConn will need to avoid falling into any deficit to get a first win over Boston College. Should they pull it off, UConn would have a great AAC building block.

Sep 24, 2016; Blacksburg, VA, USA; East Carolina Pirates running back Anthony Scott (3) runs the ball against Virginia Tech Hokies linebacker Tremaine Edmunds (49) during the fourth quarter at Lane Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Peter Casey-USA TODAY Sports

East Carolina Pirates

OPPONENT: Virginia Tech, Sept. 16 at home

East Carolina missed a bowl game for the second straight year in 2016. It was the first time in over a decade that the Pirates finished back-to-back seasons under .500 in the standings.

Formerly a C-USA dynamo, East Carolina has not been quite the same since moving to the AAC in 2014. The one thing that has been positive the past two years, though, has been the annual showdown between ECU and Virginia Tech.

Since reviving the rivalry in 2007, this matchup has been a rather even affair. In the eight games they have played against the Hokies in the 21st century, ECU has won three. On two other occasions, the Pirates were within a touchdown of victory. Last year’s 54-17 loss in Blacksburg ended the AAC team’s winning streak in the series.

But ECU still has a four-season streak of claiming at least one win over a Power Five opponent, and this is their best chance to extend it to five years.

Sep 17, 2016; New Orleans, LA, USA; Tulane Green Wave running back Dontrell Hilliard (26) carries the ball as he is tackled from behind by Navy Midshipmen safety Daiquan Thomasson (26) in the second half at Yulman Stadium. Navy defeated Tulane 21-14. Mandatory Credit: Crystal LoGiudice-USA TODAY Sports

Tulane Green Wave

OPPONENT: Oklahoma, Sept. 16 at Norman

The Green Wave are not likely to make a run at an Access Bowl bid. Even getting to bowl eligibility would be a boon for the AAC cellar dweller. But sometimes the biggest non-conference game isn’t always about whether a team can win, but rather as a gauge of progress.

Games like this also certainly help the university athletic department. Thus, what looks on paper to be a completely hopeless endeavor is nevertheless the most important game of the year for Tulane.

Despite their respective histories, Oklahoma and Tulane have never faced one another on a football field. Tulane has not taken down a Power Five opponent since winning at Rutgers in 2010, back when the Scarlet Knights were still a Big East team.

The Sooners are not invincible, though, as last year’s season-opening loss to Houston proved. If the Green Wave can even keep things close in Norman, it would be an upset in itself.

Nov 5, 2016; Cincinnati, OH, USA; Cincinnati Bearcats running back Mike Boone (5) breaks a tackle from Brigham Young Cougars defensive back Dayan Lake (5) in the first half at Nippert Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

Cincinnati Bearcats

OPPONENT: Michigan, Sept. 9 at Ann Arbor

The Bearcats entered 2016 as possible AAC contenders. They limped out with a sub-.500 record for the first time since 2010.

Even given the disappointment of the year, Cincinnati still managed to take down a Power Five opponent when they scored an 18-point win against Purdue in West Lafayette. It was the third time in four years that the Bearcats had knocked off a major-conference school since being left behind in the AAC after the Big East split.

Making it three in a row and four in five years will be much tougher this season. New head coach Luke Fickell, formerly of Ohio State, takes on a familiar foe in Week 2 when Cincinnati heads to Michigan.

Last season the Wolverines won 10 games and challenged for the Big Ten title. Of their three losses, the biggest margin of defeat was by a field goal to Ohio State — in double overtime. Cincinnati should be better in 2017, but a win in the Big House would be among the biggest upsets of the year.

Nov 26, 2016; Dallas, TX, USA; SMU Mustangs wide receiver Xavier Castille (2) dives past Navy Midshipmen cornerback Jarid Ryan (9) for the 6-yard touchdown catch during the second quarter at Gerald J. Ford Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Ray Carlin-USA TODAY Sports

SMU Mustangs

OPPONENT: TCU, Sept. 16 at Fort Worth

There were bright spots amid another losing season at SMU last year. The Mustangs managed to topple Houston at a time when the Cougars were on the cusp of the top 10.

SMU took Tulsa to overtime before losing by a field goal, and they kept the gap within a touchdown against South Florida. They also lost by 27 to Baylor and 30 to TCU, and ended the year by giving up 75 points to Navy. But the experience could pay dividends in 2017 for Chad Morris and the Mustangs.

AAC contention is probably still a year or two away, but there is one game that should be circled on SMU’s calendar. The fortunes of SMU and rival TCU have diverged in recent years, but both were outcasts from the old Southwest Conference.

This year, the Horned Frogs host the 98th edition of this rivalry game. Beating a nemesis is always a big deal, and the Mustangs could set a tone for 2017 by bringing home the Iron Skillet.

Sep 10, 2016; Ann Arbor, MI, USA; UCF Knights running back Jawon Hamilton (1) rushes on Michigan Wolverines defensive tackle Ryan Glasgow (96) in the second half at Michigan Stadium. Michigan won 51-14. Mandatory Credit: Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

UCF Knights

OPPONENT: Georgia Tech, Sept. 16 at home

In Scott Frost‘s first year at the helm in Orlando, UCF finished at .500 in AAC play after their winless 2015 campaign. They nearly took down Maryland, extending the contest at home to two overtimes before succumbing to the Big Ten middleweight.

The Knights get to play the Terrapins again this season, but they have another showdown against a Power Five opponent that offers higher risks but also higher rewards were they able to pull off the upset.

For mid-majors, in the AAC or otherwise, the chances of an upset are always greater at home. UCF invites Georgia Tech to Orlando this year, a game with major stakes for both teams.

The Yellow Jackets are coming off a 9-4 season, and they have a chance to make waves in the ACC Coastal this year. These teams haven’t played one another since 2000, and Georgia Tech holds a 3-0 record in the series. This, however, is the first time that UCF will host the Yellow Jackets.

Sep 3, 2016; Houston, TX, USA; Houston Cougars quarterback Greg Ward Jr. (1) congratulates Houston Cougars wide receiver Linell Bonner (15) on his touchdown against the Oklahoma Sooners at NRG Stadium. Houston Cougars won 33 to 23. Mandatory Credit: Thomas B. Shea-USA TODAY Sports

Houston Cougars

OPPONENT: Arizona, Sept. 9 at Tucson

Last year Houston opened its season by toppling Oklahoma 33-23. With win after win, the Cougars appeared to be the class of the AAC. They followed that up by also knocking off Louisville in November.

The two statement wins, though, were not enough to overcome three AAC road losses. Instead of threatening for a bid in the College Football Playoff, the Cougars finished out their year in Las Vegas, losing in a blowout to San Diego State.

Thus important non-conference games can mean only so much depending on what happens in league play. This year Houston avoids the Big 12 champs. Instead, the Cougars head to Tucson to take on Rich Rodriguez’s Arizona squad.

These two teams have not faced one another since 1986, and the lifetime series is split at 1-1. With Rodriguez looking to rebound from a dismal 2016 campaign, this could be one of the best games overall in Week 2.

Oct 1, 2016; Oxford, MS, USA; Memphis Tigers quarterback Riley Ferguson (4) drops back in the pocket during the game against the Mississippi Rebels at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium.Mississippi won 48-28. Mandatory Credit: Matt Bush-USA TODAY Sports

Memphis Tigers

OPPONENT: UCLA, Sept. 16 at home

Memphis lost head coach Justin Fuente and starting quarterback Paxton Lynch before last season. The Tigers still reached eight wins, including a blowout 43-7 victory over nominal Power Five opponent Kansas.

That sort of continuity has served Memphis well over recent years. They also benefit from playing home games at the Liberty Bowl, which allows the Tigers to play Power Five opponents at home. This year is no exception.

In Week 3, the UCLA Bruins will come to Tennessee to take on Memphis. Last year the Bruins had their own struggles, but with touted quarterback Josh Rosen returning from injury Jim Mora’s team should be better this season.

Three years ago, the Tigers lost to UCLA by a single touchdown at the Rose Bowl. If Memphis hopes to contend for the AAC and challenge for the Access Bowl spot, it will need to come up big in this showdown against a Pac-12 opponent.

Dec 19, 2016; Miami, FL, USA; Central Michigan Chippewas defensive back Tony Annese (18) tries to tackle Tulsa Golden Hurricane running back James Flanders (20) during the second half at Marlins Park. The Golden Hurricane won 55-10. Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

Tulsa Golden Hurricane

OPPONENT: Oklahoma State, Sept. 2 at Stillwater

Since moving from Conference USA three years ago, Tulsa has been overlooked among the pecking order of the AAC West. Yet their 2016 campaign showed how dangerous the Golden Hurricane could be this year in the conference.

They lost big to Ohio State in Columbus, but otherwise went 10-2 with one-score losses to Houston and Navy. Philip Montgomery will hope to get the year started strong, with a Power Five matchup against an old state rival right out of the gate in Week 1.

It has been six years since Tulsa has squared off against Oklahoma State. It has been even longer — 1998, to be precise — since the Golden Hurricane have taken down the Cowboys. And in terms of winning at Stillwater, you have to go back to 1951.

But Mike Gundy‘s team is not invincible at home, regardless of what he still says about last year’s loss to the Chippewas. Tulsa could be a threat not just in the AAC but also in the Access Bowl race if they take down the Pokes on the road.

Nov 5, 2016; Jacksonville, FL, USA; Notre Dame Fighting Irish quarterback DeShone Kizer (14) is tackled by Navy Midshipmen linebacker Michah Thomas (44) in the second quarter at EverBank Field. Navy won 28-27. Mandatory Credit: Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

Navy Midshipmen

OPPONENT: Notre Dame, Nov. 18 at South Bend

Injuries forced Navy to improvise right out of the gate at quarterback. Yet once Houston fell to the Midshipmen and down the standings last year, it appeared as though Navy had the inside track to the Access Bowl bid.

Then back-to-back losses to Temple in the AAC Championship Game and Army in Philadelphia shattered that dream. The Midshipmen did, however, end their five-game losing streak against Notre Dame in a 28-27 nailbiter in Jacksonville.

That rivalry, the second most-frequently played on this list (aside from SMU-TCU), will be reprised once again this year when Navy visits South Bend on November 18.

With the Fighting Irish losing starting quarterback DeShone Kizer to the NFL, and nearly half of its total production on both sides of the ball, Navy could win in the shadow of Touchdown Jesus for the first time since 2009. If the Midshipmen can remain healthy, it might even be the late statement needed to push them toward Access Bowl contention once again.

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Dec 29, 2016; Birmingham, AL, USA; South Carolina Gamecocks wide receiver Deebo Samuel (1) is brought down by South Florida Bulls cornerback Tajee Fullwood (13) during the fourth quarter in the 2016 Birmingham Bowl at Legion Field. Mandatory Credit: Shanna Lockwood-USA TODAY Sports

South Florida Bulls

OPPONENT: Illinois, Sept. 15 at home

Technically, South Florida had the best overall record in the AAC last season. Only a loss to Temple kept the Bulls out of the conference championship, and their only other loss came against Florida State. USF took down Syracuse 45-20 on the road.

They lost head coach Willie Taggart to the Oregon job in the offseason. Yet this year might be an even better year for the Bulls as they contend for AAC honors and a spot in a New Year’s Six bowl.

That is A) because they landed Charlie Strong to replace Taggart, and B) because they have just one game against a Power Five opponent this year. That game takes place in a Friday-night showdown at home against Illinois.

The two schools have never faced one another before in football, but the Illini have not had a winning season in five years. With Quinton Flowers coming back to lead the offense, USF should have the upper hand and could set up a potential unbeaten campaign in this contest.

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Sep 17, 2016; University Park, PA, USA; Penn State Nittany Lions linebacker Jake Cooper (33) looks to pressure Temple Owls quarterback Phillip Walker (8) during the fourth quarter at Beaver Stadium. Penn State defeated Temple 34-27. Mandatory Credit: Matthew O’Haren-USA TODAY Sports

Temple Owls

OPPONENT: Notre Dame, Sept. 2 at South Bend

Temple got hot at the right time, winning six straight to close out the regular season and then taking down Navy in Annapolis in an AAC title game upset.

The Owls also lost both of their showdowns against Power Five opponents, falling by seven points at Penn State in September and eight points against Wake Forest in the Military Bowl. With head coach Matt Rhule now at Baylor, though, their most important test of 2017 is also the first for new coach Geoff Collins.

Collins starts his career at the helm with a trip to South Bend. The Owls have played Notre Dame only twice, and both games came within the past five years.

In 2013, Temple fell 28-6  on the road. Two years later, Notre Dame escaped Philadelphia with a 24-20 win over the Owls.

The Fighting Irish are not likely to be national contenders this year after collapsing in 2016 and losing talent to the NFL, and Temple could set up an AAC title defense and position itself for a New Year’s Six bid by taking down the Irish for the first time in school history.

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