CFB: Predictions for the American Conference in 2024

By Simon Carroll

The 2024 College Football season is on the horizon! As Saturday ‘ball gets ever closer, we bring you a series of conference previews. Today, Simon Carroll makes his predictions for the American Conference, a fourteen-strong team affiliation that is growing in stature each season:

Conference Winner - Memphis Tigers

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The American Conference has somewhat established itself as the leading conference in the Group of Five, and looks set to maintain that status despite the departure of last season’s champions SMU to the ACC. The Mustangs have been replaced by Army, an addition that further widens the conference’s geographic footprint and brings the Black Knights into the same fraternity as rivals Navy – although the ‘Civil War’ game will remain a non-conference contest allowing it to be played the last Saturday of the season.

There are some strong programs in this conference, with the winner presumably in a good spot to challenge for a berth in the expanded College Football Playoff. Tulane, UTSA, South Florida and Rice could all challenge, and indeed Army may make an immediate impact. But the favourites have to be Memphis, who will look to do even better than the ten-win season they had in 2023.

Head Coach Ryan Silverfield returns for his fifth season at the helm – his ninth consecutive year in Memphis – and will preside over a program teeming with weapons on both sides of the ball. The only loss appears to be star running back Blake Watson, but the Tigers have addressed the position – and the offensive line – via the portal handily. Expect the passing game to be dominant (more on that in the next section) and the defense to be stingy led by linebacker Chandler Martin.

Memphis have a tough test in a non-conference trip to Tallahassee, but in the American I expect them to be favoured by Vegas in every contest. Eleven regular season wins is certainly not out of the question.

Most Valuable Player - Seth Henigan, QB, Memphis

Looking for an under-the-radar quarterback who could build an NFL Draft resume this season? How about Tigers QB Seth Henigan, who returns to Simmons Bank Liberty Stadium for his fourth and possibly final year. A starter at Memphis since he was a true freshman, Henigan has been remarkably consistent for the Tigers, posting more than 3,300 yards each season as he has thrived in Ryan Silverfield’s offensive scheme. Secure with the football, Henigan has a TD:INT ratio of 79:25 with more than 10,000 yards and zero fumbles on his resume – and can scramble too, with another 700 yards and 9 scores on the ground.

Henigan benefits from the one thing never guaranteed at the college level – consistency. Memphis recruit well, keep the ship rolling, and rarely have a bad season. That stability has allowed Henigan to quietly go about his business – and with his top three receivers all returning in 2024, he is primed to get on a lot more people’s radars this year.

A big game against Florida State in Week 3 might put Henigan on the map, in a similar way Michael Pratt’s virtuoso performance against Oklahoma in 2022 made him a household name. Honestly, this was probably the easiest pick in this series – Henigan is going to BALL OUT in 2024.

Offensive Player of the Year - Dean Connors, RB, Rice

Lots of talent to choose from in the American, a conference that often eschews defense for big box scores. So how about we spread the love around a little? Rice have for too long been a forgotten team in college football, but head coach Mike Bloomgren is on a mission to change that; heading into year seven, Bloomgren has improved the Owls from two wins in 2018 to six last year, and has had the program go to back-to-back bowl games. The trajectory seems to be trending even further upwards, and ‘offensive weapon’ Dean Connors is a big reason for the optimism coming out of Houston…

A Hawaii native, Connors arrived at Rice in 2022 after beginning his college career at Riverside CC, California. Finding his feet in year 1, he exploded onto the scene last season, rushing for 771 yards and seven touchdowns. But to pigeon-hole Connors as just a ball carrier doesn’t do his talents justice – with 403 yards and three more scores through the air, it’s clear to see he’s a danger regardless of the playcall.

Offensive Coordinator Marques Tuiasosopo has unlocked Connors potential, moving him around the offense. An appreciation for just how dangerous he is with the ball in his hands is hard to explain – his 6.4 yards per carry was the best in Rice football for almost 20 years (100+ carries), and if he sees the open field then he’s a touchdown waiting to happen. With almost 600 of his 2023 rushing yards coming in the last seven games it’s clear that he’s just hitting his stride – Connors is one to watch.

Defensive Player of the Year - Colin Ramos, LB, Navy

Navy knows how to build linebackers. And in Colin Ramos, they have one that is right up there with the likes of legends Diego Fagot, Andy Ponseigo and Clint Bruce. Now entering his senior year with the Midshipmen, Ramos took a little time to establish himself, but the last two year’s he’s become a mainstay in Brian Newberry’s defense.

In classic military academy fashion, Ramos is slightly undersized at 5’11” and 200lbs. But that hasn’t stopped him throwing his body around and racking up the stats; since the start of the ‘23 season he’s compiled almost 200 tackles, 17.5 TFL’s, six sacks and four forced fumbles. His trademark speed allows him to chase down plays from the weakside, whilst his toughness often sees him shift inside when facing the run.

Last season Ramos endeared himself to the Midshipmen faithful by recording an incredible SIXTEEN tackles against Army – the most by any Navy player in a decade. His exploits last season saw him named All-Conference by multiple outlets, and it would be surprising if he didn’t break the 100-tackle mark again in 2024. It’s true – I do have an affinity for linebackers. But you try watching Colin Ramos rampage around the field and not break out into a smile.

Freshman of the Year - Jayden Lewis, CB, Tulane

@hudlhighlights This play blew us away 🤯🤯 Jayden Lewis | Anniston HS, AL #hudlhighlights #football #highschool ♬ Always Been a Player - Richard Lindesay

How Tulane were able to pluck a four-star cornerback out of Anniston, Alabama – sat between two recruiting hotbeds of Birmingham and Atlanta – I will never know. But that’s what they did with Jayden Lewis, who chose the Green Wave from twenty different scholarship offers – passing on overtures from heavyweights such as Tennessee, Florida State, Penn State and Auburn.

Ranked as the 20th best cover-corner recruit in the nation, Lewis is incredibly quick. He won the Alabama State titles in both the 100m (10.72 seconds) and 200m (21.89 seconds) as a junior – and got a head start in New Orleans after enrolling early and hitting the campus back in January. The early signs look promising, with Lewis slated to start at outside corner. And if they need some more speed on offense too, he has previous – taking on the whole defense whilst at Anniston High School (see the video above).

It should also be noted that the Green Wave secondary may be the program’s most ‘in-flux’ position group, with transfers Lu Tillery (ULM) and Jalen Geiger (Kentucky) coming in via the portal also expected to get plenty of game time. If the speedy Lewis can establish himself in the back end early, he could be a lockdown corner at Yulman Stadium for the next three to four years.

Breakout Player of the Year - Amare Thomas, WR, UAB

Watch any Blazer football last year? No? Shame on you! Head Coach Trent Dilfer found the going a little tough in his first season as an FBS head coach, with UAB finishing ninth in the American after just four wins. There is a ray of hope though in the form of receiver Amare Thomas, who looks set for a breakout campaign after flashing in 2023…

As a true freshman last year Thomas put up very healthy numbers, hauling in 53 catches for 437 yards and three scores – despite a fairly busy depth chart that saw him operate from the slot more than the outside. That figures to change this year as a whole host of talent leaves Birmingham – headlined by Tejhaun Palmer (NFL Draft, 6th Round, Cardinals) and Fred Farrier (transfer – Kentucky). Already expected to nail down a spot on the outside, Thomas will now see an increased workload as he looks to lead this receiving corps. At 6’1” and 180lbs he’s not your classic possession receiver, but will challenge defenses vertically – and when hot he’s incredibly difficult to handle (see the 9 catches against Georgia in just his fourth college game, or the 99 yards he put up against Tulane).

If Thomas takes that next step and becomes more consistent, he has every chance of topping 1,000 yards as a sophomore. Further helping his cause will be the return of fifth year QB Jacob Zeno, who looked impressive in his first year as a starter in 2023.

Surprise Team of the Year - South Florida Bulls

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After an impressive first year down in Tampa, head coach Alex Golesh looks set to improve on a 7-6 record that saw USF deliver their best season since 2017, and earn more wins than the previous three campaigns combined. To finish off the season the Bulls thrashed Syracuse 45-0 in the Boca Raton Bowl – not always a barometer for future success, but a great platform for Golesh and this program to build from…

After a wild transfer portal 12 months ago that saw South Florida bring in 16 new faces, things have been a lot more steady this offseason. Twelve of those previous transfers look set to start in 2024 as part of a depth chart that hasn’t lost a lot of talent. Led by dual threat quarterback Byrum Brown, you can expect USF’s offense to be up their statistically with any in the nation – Brown was one of only four FBS QB’s to rush for 800 yards and 10 touchdowns last season, wth 3,300 yards and 26 scores through the air too. He’ll be supported further with the addition of receiver Abdur Rahmaan-Yaseen, who flashed speed in limited spells on the field for Purdue.

The Bulls have questions on the o-line and defense, tempering my expectations they can match Memphis and co at the top of this conference. They also have a tricky out-of-conference schedule that includes a trip to Alabama (who they pushed close at Raymond James Stadium last year) and a home matchup against Miami. It won’t be plain sailing, but South Florida have the chance to take another step in 2024 – eight wins and another bowl game isn’t unrealistic.

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