With Memphis replacing a handful of key players, Houston could be the early favorite to win the AAC West Division. Leading the way for second-year coach Major Applewhite is arguably the top returning defensive player in the nation: Ed Oliver. In two seasons with the Cougars, Oliver has recorded 39.5 tackles for a loss, five forced fumbles and 139 overall stops. He’s the key cog in a defense that limited opponents to 23.8 points a game last fall. Applewhite and coordinator Mark D’Onofrio must replace a couple of key seniors from the 2017 defense, but two transfers – Darrion Owens (Miami) and Isaiah Chambers (TCU) – should provide help next fall. After Brian Johnson left for Florida, Applewhite hired former Baylor and FAU assistant Kendal Briles to call the plays. Under Briles’ direction, FAU averaged 40.6 points a game in 2017. The offense must replace its top two receivers and the right side of the line. However, Briles should help quarterback D’Eriq King develop with a full offseason to work under center. The dynamic junior will also have running back Duke Catalon (637 yards) providing support on the ground. Houston has a chance to make some early noise with Arizona visiting on Sept. 8, along with a road date at Texas Tech on Sept. 15. In conference play, Applewhite’s team misses UCF and has to play at Memphis and Navy. However, USF, Temple and Tulane have to visit TDECU Stadium.