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AAC Fantasy Preview: New Conference, New Opportunity

Jesse Siegel

Jesse Siegel

Siegel covers college football, college basketball and minor league baseball for RotoWire. He was named College Sports Writer of the Year by the Fantasy Sports Writers Association.

The Big East is no more, leaving the new American Athletic Conference and a seemingly rag-tag, mismatched bunch of schools. It may take some time to get used to November matchups in the snow between UConn and SMU. However, make no mistake, talent remains in this conference for 2013. Louisville is a cut above, with Charlie Strong's group set to make a run at the last BCS National Championship. Who will shine as a new era begins? Let's look at the fantasy studs and duds for the inaugural season of The American.

TOP-FIVE FANTASY STARS

1. Teddy Bridgewater, QB, Louisville

The Cardinals will move to the ACC next season, but for 2013, Bridgewater is the face of the American Athletic Conference. In fact, Bridgewater is a Heisman candidate after a scintillating sophomore campaign in which he completed 68.5 percent of his passes for 3,718 yards, 27 touchdowns and just eight interceptions. Bridgewater was seventh in the nation in quarterback rating and sixth in the nation in completion percentage. He had six games in which he passed for at least 300 yards last season and had multiple touchdown throws in 10 of the 13 contests. With big-play receivers at his disposal and an inferior schedule, Bridgewater could be in for a monster campaign before bolting to the NFL.

2. Blake Bortles, QB, Central Florida

Bortles took the starting quarterback job last season and ran with it for the Knights, passing for 3,059 yards, 25 touchdowns and just seven picks as a sophomore. Bortles got even better as the season progressed; he threw just two interceptions over his last 11 games. The 6-foot-4, 225, gunslinger completed 62.9 percent of his passes. He showed of his wheels at times too, rushing for eight touchdowns on the ground despite his big frame. Bortles had just one game last season in which he did not find the end zone on at least two occasions. A step up in competition for the Knights may leave a little room for adjustment from Bortles, but overall he should still have a standout season at UCF.

3. Brendon Kay, QB, Cincinnati

Kay jumpstarted the Cincinnati offense when inserted into the lineup last season, starting the last five games and racking up 1,298 yards and 10 touchdowns through the air. Kay also has the dual-threat element to his game, rushing for 306 yards and another score on the ground. However, the senior had only completed eight passes in his entire career prior to last season, so it will be interesting to see if the pressure of the starting gig as well as a the grind of a full season wears on him. Still, if he performs up to his capabilities, he could post some studly numbers for the Bearcats, as he can beat opposing defenses in a variety of ways.

4. Lyle McCombs, RB, Connecticut

Don't forget about McCombs, who had a down season in 2012 but still rushed for 860 yards and six touchdowns. He did improve his pass-catching ability, though; McCombs hauled in 24 passes for 230 yards during last season's sophomore campaign. The Huskies have been plagued by incredibly poor quarterback play, which allowed teams to stack the box against McCombs, who also missed a game last season due to a sprained wrist. The quarterback situation can't get any worse (hopefully), and McCombs has proven he can be a workhorse back. If he gets any sort of offensive help at all, he should surpass 1,000 yards on the ground, like he did as a freshman, and also score double-digit touchdowns.

5. DeVante Parker, WR, Louisville

Parker is the No. 1 receiver for the aforementioned Bridgewater. He snagged 10 touchdown passes last season; the next closest Cardinal had four. Parker and Bridgewater really found a groove together as the season progressed; Parker caught at least one touchdown in each of Louisville's last six games. Parker averaged 18.6 yards per catch, flashing his big-play ability. Bridgewater likes to spread the ball around, but Parker is his favorite target to find pay dirt.

FANTASY SLEEPERS

Garrett Gilbert, QB, SMU

The former University of Texas quarterback is expected to sling the pigskin all over the field this season in the high-flying spread attack under coach June Jones. He'll certainly be hurt by the departure of stud running back Zach Line, but that will be all the more reason for the Mustangs to air it out. Gilbert was highly recruited coming out of high school, but has failed to live up to lofty expectations. Could this be the year he finally puts it together? The 6-4, 220, quarterback was his usual, inconsistent self in 2012, passing for 2,932 yards but completing just 53 percent of his passes. He also had just as many interceptions (15) as touchdowns and was sacked 33 times. With a full season at SMU under his belt, Gilbert could finally deliver on his potential.

Kenneth Farrow, RB, Houston

The departure of Charles Sims opens the door for Farrow, who will assume starting running back duties for the Cougars. Running backs often get overlooked in the aerial Houston offense, but the amount of available touches both on rushes as well as screen passes make them extremely valuable for fantasy purposes. Farrow averaged a robust 5.4 yards per carry with fairly limited touches in 2012; Sims received almost all of the goal-line touches as well, sniping 11 touchdowns compared to two for Farrow. That will change in 2013. Farrow also proved capable as a receiver, snagging 20 passes for 165 yards and a touchdown. With the lion's share of the rushing load on his plate, Farrow has the chance to post some serious stats for Houston.

Ralph Abernathy, RB, Cincinnati

George Winn is gone, leaving the featured tailback role to the diminutive Abernathy. Abernathy makes up for his lack of size (5-7, 160) with breakaway speed and lateral quickness. A change-of-pace back in 2012, he averaged 5.3 yards per carry. Abernathy did most of his damage coming out of the backfield as a receiver, though, catching 28 balls for 341 yards and four touchdowns. His ability to operate in space, along with increased touches, should make him due for a huge uptick in production, assuming his body can handle it.

Traylon Shead, RB, SMU

A junior college All-American in 2012, Shead was once a promising Texas recruit, much like quarterback Garrett Gilbert. He never saw the field as a Longhorn, though, and ended up at Navarro Junior College. Last season, he rushed for 1,194 yards and 17 touchdowns, overwhelming the competition with his size, strength and deceptive quickness. He'll get the chance to play right away due to the departure of starter Zach Line, and has already received high praise from coach June Jones. Shead is touted as a complete back, with the ability to catch the ball as well. He should hit the ground running for the Mustangs this season.

FANTASY BUSTS

Gary Nova, QB, Rutgers

Nova's inconsistency will ultimately be his downfall. He didn't have a bad sophomore campaign, statistically, but Nova's play can be simply maddening. He passed for 2,695 yards and 22 touchdowns in 2012. On the downside, he tossed 16 interceptions and completed just 57 percent of his throws. There are times when he looks like a superstar; at Arkansas last year Nova completed 25-of-35 passes for 397 yards and five touchdowns. Other times, he looks simply lost; he tossed six interceptions against Kent State when Rutgers was undefeated. He's experienced and athletic, but lacks the consistency to be an elite signal-caller.

Storm Johnson, RB, Central Florida

There will be some flak for this bust prediction, particularly since Johnson was expected to be so dynamic originally for the Miami Hurricanes. The junior finds himself at UCF instead and should get the bulk of the carries with the ascension of fellow running back Latavius Murray to the NFL. Johnson started last season extremely strong, but faded down the stretch due to a combination of injury and fatigue. He also isn't much of a receiver; he caught 10 passes for just 20 yards in 2012. Johnson has some serious flash but won't help in the passing game, and it remains to be seen if he can take the wear-and-tear of a full season.

Anthony McClung, WR, Cincinnati

Two big games to end the 2012 campaign masked a mediocre junior season for McClung. Even with nine grabs for 180 yards and a touchdown in those games, McClung still failed to live up to his 2011 stats across the board. He had just two games with more than four catches last season. McClung is the leading returning receiver (Travis Kelce and Kenbrell Thompkins have moved to the NFL), but McClung doesn't have the size or the big-play ability to be a No. 1 receiver. It remains to be seen if he'll be able to cash in on his opportunities as the focal point of the Bearcats passing attack.

Damian Copeland, WR, Louisville

Are there enough balls to go around for the Cardinals? The previously mentioned DeVante Parker is the top wideout for the Cardinals this season, and Eli Rogers has been playing with Bridgewater since they were teenagers at Miami Northwestern. That leaves Copeland, who led the team in receptions last season, but found the end zone just twice. Copeland is more of a possession receiver, while Parker is the big-play threat. Copeland should still get his share of looks, but he's not the elite wideout on this squad, and perhaps not even second in line despite his production from a season ago.

TEAM-BY-TEAM FANTASY STARS

Overall position ranking in parenthesis.

Central Florida Knights

QB Blake Bortles (37), RB Storm Johnson (51)

Cincinnati Bearcats

QB Brendon Kay (26), RB Ralph Abernathy (71), TE Travis Johnson (25), K Tony Miliano (20)

Connecticut Huskies

None

Houston Cougars

RB Kenneth Farrow (37), Stephen Houston (44), WR Deontay Greenberry (52)

Louisville Cardinals

QB Teddy Bridgewater (13), WR DeVante Parker (19), WR Eli Rogers (71)

Memphis Tigers

RB Brandon Hayes (66), TE Alan Cross (23)

Rutgers Scarlet Knights

WR Brandon Coleman (23)

South Florida Bulls

RB Marcus Shaw (65), TE Sean Price (41)

SMU Mustangs

QB Garrett Gilbert (39), RB Traylon Shead (52)

Temple Owls

None