- Associated Press - Friday, August 12, 2016

Houston coach Tom Herman and his defending American Athletic Conference champion Cougars have moved on from one of the best seasons in the history of the program.

The words Peach Bowl are banned from the football facility. All the gear and swag the Cougars brought back from Atlanta after beating Florida State is not allowed to be worn at team gatherings.

“I haven’t sensed an ounce of complacency, which is good,” Herman said.

There is a similar feeling throughout the conference as the American tries to build on a season in which the league set itself apart as the strongest outside the Power Five conferences.

Temple, Memphis and Navy all spent time in the AP Top 25 and by the end of the season South Florida was playing as well as any of those teams.

The AAC notched 10 wins in 2015 against Power Five conference teams, including Mississippi, Miami, Penn State and Louisville. The Cougars’ 38-24 victory against Florida State was the highlight, a final statement that helped the American recover from what was otherwise a blah bowl season. The conference heads into 2016 with chests puffed with pride.

“We have forged a powerful Power Six narrative as a nationally relevant and respected conference,” Commissioner Mike Aresco said.

A true Power Six is not happening anytime soon, but the realistic goal for the American in 2016 is to again lock up the spot in the New Year’s Six bowls that goes to the highest-ranked Group of Five conference champion.

THE FAVORITES

East: USF coach Willie Taggart was heading toward the hot seat before redirecting the Bulls to seven wins in eight games to end the regular season. The Bulls return the talented threesome of quarterback Quinton Flowers, running back Marlon Mack and receiver Rodney Adams and most of the back seven on defense.

Temple, retooling what was the best defense in the conference last year, and Cincinnati figure to push the Bulls. UConn is hoping to improve its offense enough to be a dark horse contender.

West: Houston is an overwhelming favorite to repeat. Quarterback Greg Ward Jr., who accounted for 38 touchdowns last season, returns to lead a potent offense. The defense will rely on a talented front.

Contenders Memphis and Navy are both replacing star quarterbacks. Keep an eye on SMU and Tulsa with their second-year coaches and prolific offenses.

TOP PLAYERS

- Ward could be a legitimate Heisman contender if he can lead the Cougars into playoff contention with big games in the opener against Oklahoma and a late-season meeting versus Louisville.

- QB Dane Evans, Tulsa, passed for 4,332 yards in his first season running coach Philip Montgomery’s Baylor offense.

- RB Marlon Mack, USF, has led the American in rushing the last two seasons.

- DT Foley Fatukasi, UConn, eight sacks last season.

- QB Matt Davis, SMU, threw for 2,263 yards and 16 touchdowns and led the Mustangs with 761 yards rushing and 10 scores.

NEW FACES

- Tulane coach Willie Fritz. The Green Wave lured Fritz away from Georgia Southern. Don’t expect a typical triple-option in New Orleans. Fritz’s offenses when he was at FBS Sam Houston could air it out.

- East Carolina coach Scottie Montgomery. The 38-year-old former Duke offensive coordinator brings an all-business approach to the Pirates.

- UCF coach Scott Frost. The former Oregon offensive coordinator takes over a team that went winless last season. This rebuild is likely to take a while.

- Memphis coach Mike Norvell. The 34-year-old offensive coordinator from Arizona State has a tough act to follow in Justin Fuente.

ON THE HOT SEAT

None. Another disappointing season for Tommy Tuberville at Cincinnati could generate some heat. In the AAC, it’s about retaining the rising-stars the way Houston did with Herman and Temple did with Matt Rhule. How much longer can they keep those guys around?

PREDICTION

EAST

USF

Temple

UConn

Cincinnati

East Carolina

UCF

WEST

Houston

Navy

Tulsa

Memphis

SMU

Tulane

Conference champion: USF.

___

Follow Ralph D. Russo at www.Twitter.com/ralphDrussoAP

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