The American Athletic Conference didn't quite fill its bowl allotment in its inaugural season, as only five of the league's 10 teams secured the necessary six wins to become eligible. However, the league did get some attractive postseason matchups that will give it the chance to prove its mettle following its first season.
As expected, league champion Central Florida was sent to the Fiesta Bowl. It'll take on Baylor on New Year's Day. The Bears locked up the Big 12 title by knocking off Texas in the regular-season finale, and the break between games will allow it to get some key players healthy. Still, the Knights aren't complaining -- it's the first BCS bowl in program history.
Louisville began the season assuming it would be the big-time team in the AAC, and Charlie Strong did some mild lobbying for his team's chances at securing an at-large BCS selection. But that was never really realistic, and the Cardinals will take on Miami in the Russell Athletic Bowl on Dec. 28. This game could be a league game for the Cardinals next year, as they will be joining the Hurricanes in the ACC.
Two other AAC teams share the stage on Dec. 28. Cincinnati's heading back to the Belk Bowl, and it once again faces a home-field disadvantage. The Bearcats will take on North Carolina, and the Tar Heels' Chapel Hill campus is an easy drive to the bowl destination of Charlotte, N.C. Of course, the same was true for Duke a year ago, and the Bearcats knocked off the Blue Devils 48-24.
Rutgers barely became bowl-eligible at all, but somehow wound up with one of the most attractive matchups. The Scarlet Knights face Notre Dame in the Pinstripe Bowl in New York City. It'll do so with three new assistants, however, as defensive coordinator Dave Cohen was one of three coaches relieved of his duties following the regular-season finale.
Houston caps off the AAC bowl teams. It'll play Vanderbilt in the BBVA Compass Bowl on Jan. 4 in Birmingham, Ala. The Cougars faded late, but still bring one of the top freshman quarterbacks in the country to the table in John O'Korn.
That leaves the AAC with two games against ACC teams, one against the Big 12, one against the SEC and one against the Fighting Irish. It'll give everyone a good sense of how the conference relates to the more prominent leagues by the time 2014 rolls around.
CENTRAL FLORIDA (11-1)
Game: Central Florida 17, Southern Methodist 13. The Knights again had to come back in the second half against a team with a losing record, and again got the job done. Blake Bortles's touchdown run in the third quarter put UCF in front for good.
Takeaways: Central Florida had already locked up a spot in a BCS bowl when it took the field on Saturday, but it won the league title outright and capped off an undefeated American Athletic Conference campaign by knocking off SMU in the regular-season finale.
The road game, which at 24 degrees was the coldest in franchise history, saw the defense take charge on a day when the offense was silent much of the 60 minutes, apart from a quick burst when UCF sped up the pace and took a 17-13 lead.
That was it offensively for the Knights, but the defense dominated down the stretch, with three fourth-down stops and an interception in the fourth quarter to end the Mustangs chances at a bowl bid. Central Florida earned a trip to the Fiesta Bowl, where it takes on Baylor.
Next: Vs. Baylor at the Fiesta Bowl, Jan. 1.
Game: Louisville 31, Cincinnati 24. The Bearcats dropped a heartbreaker to the Cardinals, falling by a touchdown in overtime. Cincinnati forced the extra session with a 26-yard field goal by Tony Miliano, but allowed the Cardinals to score a touchdown on the first series of overtime and couldn't move the ball on its own possession.
Takeaways: Cincinnati nearly won the Keg of Nails for what could be the final time in years, but after forcing overtime in the final seconds of regulation, the Bearcats went quietly in overtime and fell 31-24 to the Cardinals.
"Our guys fought hard and we come up a play short," Cincinnati coach Tommy Tuberville said. "I didn't want that thing to go into overtime. I came close to not even going for it on fourth and five down there. But you got to give yourself a chance at home and again you have to believe in your players and I still believe in them even though we came up a little short. It was an overall team game. Our offense and defense made some big plays and they did the same thing they just made a couple more than we did."
That bought the Bearcats a return trip to the Belk Bowl. That's not a dream game for a 9-3 team that finished a few plays short of the conference title, but it's not bad given how the season started.
"We lose a quarterback and we lose our center. We had 15 surgeries throughout the year," Tuberville said. "Everybody has injuries. We had over abundance of them during the first half of the year but anybody that we put in there battled and you couldn't ask any more from this team. They played hard, they played hard in the games we lost and at that time point in the season we weren't good enough to win and prevent mistakes. But you could tell tonight how much we have grown up."
Next: vs. at Belk Bowl, Dec. 28
Game: Connecticut 45, Memphis 10. The Huskies finished the season with their third consecutive victory, saving their best performance of the year for last in a 45-10 romp over the Tigers. Casey Cochran threw for a school-record 461 yards, and Geremy Davis caught a program-best 15 passes.
Takeaways: If this was interim coach T.J. Weist's last game as the Huskies coach -- and it likely was -- at least his players gave him a good tape to lead off his resume with.
The Huskies came through with a massive performance on the offensive side of the ball to dominate Memphis 45-10. Connecticut finished with 538 yards of total offense and overwhelmed a good Tigers defense.
"There's nothing special about it, it's just guys making plays and playing smart football," Weist said. "Casey [Cochran] went out and threw the ball and guys caught it. Guys were aggressive catching the ball. Geremy [Davis] really proved that he's a heck of a player. Deshon Foxx really had a great day. You can tell there is a lot of leadership on this team. It gives us great momentum for next year. It gives them confidence."
For the senior class, it was a tough final three seasons on campus. It witnessed the program reach unprecedented heights in their first year, only to see the Fiesta Bowl trip followed by three straight losing seasons. Still, at least the final three games ended their careers on a high note.
"We wanted to send the seniors off right," Weist said. "We wanted to play the Husky way with great effort, finish, and guys playing together with energy. I couldn't be more proud of this team and the senior class. ... I couldn't be prouder of the way we came together. This senior class in the last six of eight weeks has stayed the course. They learned how to win and come together."
Next: Season complete.
Game: Houston was off last week.
Takeaways: The Cougars sat out the last week of the regular season, but still have another game to play. Houston accepted a berth in the BBVA Compass Bowl on Jan. 4 in Birmingham.
Next: vs. Vanderbilt in the BBVA Compass Bowl in Birmingham on Jan. 4.
Game: Louisville 31, Cincinnati 24. The Cardinals outlasted the Bearcats in overtime to win the Keg of Nails trophy. Louisville took the lead twice in the fourth quarter, saw Cincinnati force overtime with a last-second field goal, and then scored on the first session of overtime and stopped the Bearcats to win it.
Takeaways: The Cardinals had a memorable matchup for its final game as an American Athletic Conference member -- a trip to Cincinnati to face the Bearcats with the Keg of Nails trophy on the line. And the results did not disappoint.
Teddy Bridgewater hit Damian Copeland with a momentum-changing 22-yard touchdown pass in the fourth quarter, one of three times the lead changed hands in the final 15 minutes. After the Bearcats tied things up on a field goal at the end of regulation, Louisville came away with the win in overtime.
"I thought he was sacked," coach Charlie Strong said of the touchdown pass. "He was moving around in the pocket and I thought the guy pulled him off and then all of the sudden he threw it and I thought it was going out of the back of the end zone, but then (Damian Copeland) makes the catch. It was an unbelievable play by Teddy."
"I was just trying to make a play," Bridgewater said. "I was just trying to stay alive and fight in the pocket. I trust that Copeland would come down with the ball if I put it up there for him and he did it tonight."
The result was a victory in an environment as loud and as hostile as Louisville has faced all season -- a good approximation of what Bridgewater may see at the next level.
"Oh yeah," Bridgewater said, when asked about whether the atmosphere was as charged up as he'd seen all season. "No ifs, ands, and buts about it. We knew that coming into this environment. It was a lot of the guys first time playing here. We knew it was going to be a hostile environment and there was going to be a lot of energy tonight."
Next: vs. Miami at the Russell Athletic Bowl, Dec. 28
Game: Connecticut 45, Memphis 10. The Tigers had no answers for the Huskies on the road, ending the season with three losses in a row. Paxton Lynch finished the year with 2,056 yards passing, becoming the second freshman in school history to throw for more than 2,000 yards in their first season.
Takeaways: The frustrating thing for Memphis about the way the regular season ended was that the Tigers felt like they were in a position to make plays against the Connecticut ... and were blown out anyway.
"I thought we played hard, but we didn't make a play on either side of the ball," coach Justin Fuente said. "I mean, it wasn't that we didn't play hard, we played real hard. The kids kept their wits about them and continued playing, but sometimes the harder you try, the worse it gets. On special teams they were playing hard and on offense we were, I mean, we didn't play well and Connecticut did, but we couldn't make a play. Sometimes we were right there and couldn't make the play."
Quarterback Paxton Lynch finished his freshman season with 2,056 yards passing, but struggled at times in the finale. That shouldn't have come as too much of a surprise -- the Tigers are in their first year in the American Athletic Conference, and this was just the third game in program history in the Northeast.
"I think they just beat us in all phases of the game," Lynch said. "I mean they kicked our butts on defense. On offense, they shut us down I feel like and overall they wanted it more than we did."
Still, Lynch sees hope for the future.
"I think we're headed in the right direction because it's a tougher conference and it's different than the teams we played last year," Lynch said. "They are a lot better than the teams we played this year, USF, Cincinnati, and Louisville. We were in those games but we came up short."
Next: Season complete.
Game: Rutgers 31, South Florida 6. The Scarlet Knights finally secured a bowl bid with a victory over the Bulls in its final regular-season game. The victory earned the team a spot in the Pinstripe Bowl, where it will play Notre Dame.
Notes: The Scarlet Knights picked a perfect time to play their mist complete game of the season, dominating South Florida en route to a 31-6 win that left the team bowl-eligible.
Perhaps the most surprising star was the defense. Rutgers held South Florida to 151 yards of total offense and zero touchdowns -- quite a bit better than the 429 yards allowed the Scarlet Knights had averaged heading into the weekend.
Quarterback Chas Dodd also rewarded the vote of confidence to start him in such a critical game. The senior finished 19-24 for 179 yards and a pair of touchdowns to ensure the game against South Florida wasn't also his final game in college football.
Next: vs. Notre Dame in the Pinstripe Bowl, Dec. 28
SOUTHERN METHODIST (5-7)
Game: Central Florida 17, Southern Methodist 13. The Mustangs fell just short of bowl-eligibility, falling to the American Athletic Conference champion Knights. SMU led 13-10 in the third quarter, but surrendered a 15-yard touchdown run to Blake Bortles and never scored again.
Notes: Southern Methodist might have been able to survive the loss of its starting quarterback against a Central Florida team that had already locked up the conference title and a BCS bowl bid. But losing the backup was just too much to overcome.
Senior Garrett Gilbert ended his college career on the sideline with a knee injury. Redshirt freshman quarterback Neal Burcham was having his best game of the year, but left in the fourth quarter with a head injury.
That turned the team's postseason hopes over to Garrett Krstich, who couldn't lead the Mustangs to a comeback victory. Southern Methodist's 17-13 loss left the team with a 5-7 record and ended a string of four consecutive bowl appearances.
Those fans who stayed for the postgame Senior Day ceremonies deserve particular mention. The SMU-UCF game was the coldest home game in the history of the program at 24 degrees.
Next: Season complete.
SOUTH FLORIDA (2-10)
Game: Rutgers 31, South Florida 6. The Bulls ended their season with a whimper, as the offense failed to do much damage against one of the worst defenses in the country. South Florida was held to just 151 yards of total offense in defeat.
Notes: South Florida couldn't play the spoiler in its final game of the season, laying an egg in a loss to Rutgers on the road.
Freshman Mike White completed 14 of his 31 passes for 141 yards and an interception, but it was the running game that was particularly disappointing. Marcus Shaw carried nine times for just 16 yards.
Marvin Kloss kicked two field goals to finish the season with 18, one shy of the school record. DeDe Lattimore finished his career on a more positive note, and his career-high 18 tackles left him with 337 for his career, second on the school's all-time list.
Next: Season complete.
Game: Temple was off last week
Takeaways: They didn't go to a bowl game, but the Temple seniors got to finish their college careers on a positive note with a 20-point victory over Memphis.
Temple tight end Chris Coyer had a sendoff to remember. He finished with three catches for 129 yards and a touchdown, despite being injured enough that it wasn't clear he'd be able to play at all.
"I thought our seniors really stepped up today," coach Matt Rhule said. "Chris Coyer, playing on an ankle most guys wouldn't and to not be able to finish the game, but to take the 75-yard touchdown and another 40-yard touchdown. It really showed our seniors wanted to win on the right note. He played when most guys wouldn't play, but that's who Chris Coyer is, he's a true Temple Owl."
A more optimistic sign for the future was the performance of some of the younger players. Freshman quarterback P.J. Walker threw for 328 yards and four touchdowns, and his 2,084 tie him for the fourth-most passing yards in a season in school history. Sophomore wideout Robbie Anderson caught seven passes for 96 yards and three scores.
If Temple can learn how to finish games better than it did in 2013, the growth of its young position players may indeed be a sign of brighter days ahead.
Next: Season complete.
--After a 0-9 start, Connecticut ended the season with three victories in row to avoid a double-digit loss season and at least give the seniors a positive end to a career that began with a trip to the Fiesta Bowl and ended with three losing seasons in a row.
That finish probably won't be enough to get interim coach T.J. Weist the job permanently. Weist lost his first five games after taking over for the fired Paul Pasqualoni during the first bye week, and while the team looked much-improved down the stretch, athletic director Warde Manuel intends to conduct a national search for a full-time replacement now that the season is complete.
But for others likely to be back in 2014, the regular-season finale provided one final opportunity to prove to whoever takes over as coach that they're players worth building around.
Note showed his case better than redshirt freshman quarterback Casey Cochran. Cochran, who took over from true freshman Tim Boyle after Boyle had taken over from Chandler Whitmer after an 0-4 start, threw for a program-record 461 yards in the season-ending 45-10 victory over Memphis. He completed 36 of his 54 pass attempts and threw for four touchdowns.
"At any school there is always competition and I'm going to be ready to go back and compete when we start workouts again," Cochran said. "I don't feel comfortable with having the job yet; I'm going to have to keep working. I'm not comfortable with the season I had. There are a lot of things that I can improve on and as soon as I can recuperate a little from these last three games I'm going to get going on that."
Redshirt junior Geremy Davis also ended the campaign on a roll. He set a school record with 15 receptions against the Tigers, finishing with 207 yards and a touchdown. At 1,085 yards, he's the first Huskie to finish the season with 1,000 yards receiving since the Huskies became a BCS team. The last to do so was Carl Bond in 1998.
"I just focused on playing and changed as the game went on," Davis said. "I'm happy we could go out with a great win for these seniors. These guys went to a bowl a few years ago. Next year is going to be my turn to be a senior so I want to make this a lesson to not let it happen again."
--The Russell Athletic Bowl isn't exactly where Louisville wanted to be when the season began. The Cardinals started off as a darkhorse national championship contender and Teddy Bridgewater a legitimate Heisman hopeful. Both of those dreams fell by the wayside with its October loss to Central Florida.
But that didn't mean the Cardinals played out the string with any lack of fervor. Louisville won its final five games and ended the regular season with a 31-24 victory over rival Cincinnati in overtime, taking home the Keg of Nails trophy one final time before leaving for the ACC in 2014.
The game saw a rarity these days -- a coach failing to try and ice a kicker. Cincinnati's Tony Miliano trotted out to attempt a 26-yarder with his team down by three in the final seconds, and Strong elected to simply let him kick it.
"Their field goal kicker was going to make it so I said let's just get it to overtime and let's go play the game," Strong said.
He did, but that didn't stop the Cardinals. Louisville ran the ball into the end zone, and the defense forced a three-yard loss and three incomplete passes to win it.
"We drove it and got two big runs. We had tempo and our offense was in tempo mode," Strong said. "When we went to that tempo, it just changed the game. Defensively, we came up with some big defensive stops. We got them backed up and behind the chains. We made a big play there to get them behind the chains so they had to throw the ball. We just needed to go make plays."
This likely marked the final regular-season game of Bridgewater's career. Though he has a year of eligibility remaining, he's widely expected to declare for the NFL draft after the season. If that's the case, he left Louisville fans plenty to remember him by.
"I am just excited. I actually told my mom that I wanted to cry -- tears of joy," Bridgewater said. "I am just proud of this team and we showed that we have heart. We still have a lot to play for. It is not about us, it is about this brand on the front of our jerseys. The guys fought and I am extremely proud of those guys."
--It didn't take long for Rutgers to begin making changes to its football staff in the wake of a 6-6 season, even with the Pinstripe Bowl still to come.
Defensive coordinator Dave Cohen, quarterbacks coach Rob Spence offensive line coach Damian Wroblewski all were let go by head coach Kyle Flood the day after the season-ending 31-6 victory over South Florida. None of the trio were retained to coach the bowl game.
"After reviewing the season, I felt it was in the best interest of our program to make these staff changes," Flood said in a statement. "I appreciate all of the efforts of these coaches during their time in Piscataway and wish them well in their future endeavors."
None of the three was a big surprise. The Scarlet Knights defense had a strong case as being the worst in football in 2013, and Cohen also the allegations of bullying from former Scarlet Knights cornerback Jevon Tyree to deal with. Charges that he used threatening language and made Tyree feel physically threatened are currently being investigated by the school.
Rob Spence's main charge was developing Gary Nova as the starter, but that didn't happen. For the second year in a row, Nova collapsed down the stretch and was replaced by Chas Dodd. It was Dodd who started the final two games of the season, including the bowl-clinching win over the Bulls.
The offensive line under Flood hasn't been the pillar of strength as it was under former coach Greg Schiano, so Wroblewski took the fall for that.
Also notable was that Flood got to make those decisions at all. There was much speculation that the coach himself was in danger of not accompanying the team in its move to the Big Ten, but the fact that Flood was allowed to replace his coaches was an early indicator that he'd be back for a third season. If there was any doubt, athletic director Julie Hermann gave Flood a vote of confidence in the announcement of the assistant coaching changes.
"Our football program continues to evolve and grow, as evidenced by the changes Coach Flood just announced. I support these moves and Kyle's leadership as we transition into the Big Ten," Hermann said in a statement. "In two seasons, Kyle has led us to our first share of the conference championship and has guided our program to two consecutive bowls, including this season's highly anticipated New Era Pinstripe Bowl versus Notre Dame."
QUOTE TO NOTE: "We lose a quarterback and we lose our center. We had 15 surgeries throughout the year. Everybody has injuries, but we had an overabundance of them during the first half of the year. But anybody that we put in there battled and you couldn't ask any more from this team. They played hard, they played hard in the games we lost and at that time point in the season we weren't good enough to win and prevent mistakes. But you could tell tonight how much we have grown up." -- Cincinnati coach Tommy Tuberville, reflecting on his team following its loss to Louisville in the regular-season finale.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
FIVE BIGGEST TAKEAWAYS FROM WEEK 15 IN THE AAC:
1. The rest of the AAC won't have UConn linebacker Yawin Smallwood to worry about any more. The junior announced after the regular-season finale that he was forgoing his final year of eligibility to enter the NFL draft.
2. Houston will have a new offensive coordinator when it plays in the BBVA Compass Bowl. Doug Meacham left to become the offensive coordinator at TCU, and Cougars assistant head coach Travis Bush was promoted to replace him.
3. It was a cold-weather finale for the Florida teams. Central Florida played in 24-degree weather at SMU, its coldest game ever. South Florida-Rutgers kicked off at 33 degrees, tied for the second-coldest game in Bulls history, trailing only a 2008 game at West Virginia.
4. Neal Burcham was impressive for SMU before leaving in the fourth quarter with an apparent concussion. That's good, considering that with Garrett Gilbert graduating, he's the presumed starter heading into next season.
5. Rutgers tight end Tyler Kroft had three more catches for 51 yards against South Florida. His 40 catches were tops on the team, which says a lot about both his unexpected development and the disappointing performance of the receiving corps.
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