NEWPORT, R.I. — Central Florida reaped the benefits of the American Athletic Conference's automatic BCS bid last year and defeated Baylor in the Fiesta Bowl. After a marquee win and developing quarterback Blake Bortles, the No. 3 overall pick in the NFL draft, UCF is well-known in college football circles.
"When we went to the Fiesta Bowl and people saw UCF, they thought it stood for University of California," said linebacker Terrance Plummer, one of several Knights at the AAC football media day on Tuesday.
"Now people know UCF; just playing in that game, winning that game, put us on a plateau."
The AAC no longer has an automatic BCS or College Football Playoff bid, but Plummer said the Knights' goal remains the same.
"Our goal never changed since I've been here," said Plummer, the Fiesta Bowl defensive MVP. "We want to win the conference championship every year, that's the goal."
UCF, picked second behind Cincinnati in the preseason media poll, lost Bortles and running back Storm Johnson to the Jacksonville Jaguars but coach George O'Leary is confident in the team having similar success to its 12-1 2013 season.
Houston was third in the poll followed by East Carolina, SMU, USF, Memphis, Temple, UConn, Tulane and Tulsa.
"We'll be a very solid football team, obviously you've got a lot of kids back on offense and defense," O'Leary said. "The key is replacing the quarterback, when you have a kid drafted as a junior. We've got four individuals there, whoever gives us the best opportunity to win will be that guy."
Justin Holman and Boise State transfer Nick Patti are in the running to take over this season. Rannell Hall led the Knights in receptions and receiving yards last season with 57 catches and 886 yards and looks to continue to improve in 2014.
"During the offseason we had great workouts in the weight room, conditioning, so everything went well," Hall said.
UCF opens Aug. 30, traveling to Ireland to play Penn State. Two weeks later the Knights visit SEC runner-up Missouri.
O'Leary said that the tough nonconference schedule is to help prepare for conference play.
"I was listening to the commissioner [Mike Aresco] talk, and UCF came out a lot," O'Leary said of Aresco's opening remarks. "I thought last year just justified what had taken place the years before. We've been double-digit wins for a number of years."
Several Teams In New Homes
Cincinnati is the preseason favorite to win the AAC with 17 first-place votes.
"It's encouraging that people think we have a good football team, and we do," coach Tommy Tuberville said. "All you have to do is go back 12 months ago and they picked Louisville to win and they didn't win it."
Running back Ralph David Abernathy IV said the ranking is a reflection of the offseason.
"It's nice to be recognized for all the hard work we put in as players," he said. "What really matters is how you perform on Saturdays."
The Bearcats will play home games at Paul Brown Stadium, home of the Cincinnati Bengals.
Tuberville said the team might not have a true home-field advantage but that playing at an NFL venue is great for the players.
"Everyone's college dream is to play in the NFL, and this is one step closer, playing on an NFL field. It's great for our team and the University of Cincinnati," said quarterback Munchie Legaux.
Legaux was granted an extra year of eligibility after injuring knee ligaments last Sept. 7.
Tulane, fresh off its first winning season in 10 years that culminated in a trip to the New Orleans Bowl, will open its new on-campus field, Yulman Stadium, leaving the Superdome in New Orleans where they have played since 1975. Green Wave players said they can feel the excitement building.
"The only thing we're probably going to miss about the Superdome is the air conditioning," said Tulane safety Darion Monroe. "In Louisiana, it's pretty hot down there. That'll be a home field advantage for us because we work out in those conditions every day. The fans couldn't wait until we got something on campus. Who could pack the Superdome except for the Saints?"
Houston will open TDECU Stadium, also on campus.
East Carolina Brings A Following
The AAC welcomes East Carolina, a school that had fewer than 40,000 fans at just one home game last season.
"The fans love us and that's what really makes a football program good, is the fan base," said linebacker Brandon Williams.
The Pirates drew 50,096 to Greenville's Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium when they hosted Virginia Tech Sept. 14.
UConn plays at East Carolina Oct. 23.
Bowl Hopes For SMU, USF
Southern Methodist is looking forward to its second year in the AAC, but running back Kevin Pope said the season-opener at Baylor is weighing on everyone's minds.
"It's going to be a tough game, we've got to come out and compete and play four quarters," Pope, the converted linebacker, said.
The Mustangs went 5-7 in 2013 and June Jones' squad will look to get back into the bowl conversation. SMU was picked fifth in the conference.
"I think we're going to be better than we've been athletically," Jones said. "We've just got some young guys that are going to need to grow up fast. We have some good senior leadership; we've got some good guys who have been there before."
South Florida went 2-10 last year, with the Bulls' only wins coming against Cincinnati and UConn. Senior wide receiver Andre Davis wants USF to return to form. The Bulls went to six straight bowl games from 2005 to 2010, but have missed the postseason the past three seasons.
"Team goals are definitely to get back to a bowl game," Davis said. "Definitely to win the conference, just to get back on track to where USF was beforehand."
Tulsa In AAC Opener
Tulsa coach Bill Blankenship and his Golden Hurricanes were picked to finish last in the AAC but they won't have to wait long to try to prove the media wrong.
Tulsa will host conference newcomer Tulane on Aug. 28 in the first AAC game at 8 p.m. The Golden Hurricane finished 3-9 last year. AAC member Temple also opens on Aug. 28, vs. Vanderbilt at 9:15 p.m.
More Rebuilding Teams
Temple went a disappointing 2-10 last season.
"We kind of used that as a learning experience," running back Kenneth Harper said.
In coach Matt Rhule's second season, the Owls expect the transition period to be over.
"I think schematic-wise everything will be much better," said quarterback P.J. Walker.
Temple had trouble closing games, blowing a 21-point lead at home to UConn.
"Our goal for this whole offseason, the one thing we really focused on, really preached was finish," said offensive lineman Kyle Friend.
Memphis went 3-9 in its first season in the AAC and third-year coach Justin Fuente has started a turnaround by changing the internal culture of the program.
"The point I want to make to them is, 'Let's turn that back inside, this is how you do it,'" he said. "It's one thing to say I want to win the Heisman Trophy, but how do you do it?"Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun