Previewing the American Athletic Conference

A long, strange offseason means that we get even more time to dig deep and dive into previews for the upcoming season. In what will be a very unpredictable season due to an unprecedented offseason mostly derailed by COVID-19, a positive note for college football enthusiasts is that we can spend more time than ever preparing for the 2020 college football season. In order to make sure that you’re fully prepared for this season, we’ll be taking a look at each conference, providing you with some team previews, players to look out for, predictions, power rankings, and much more. First up to bat alphabetically: the American Athletic Conference.

The AAC is widely considered to be the strongest of the Group of 5 conferences (AAC, C-USA, MAC, MWEST, Sun Belt), and it’s an entertaining one. There’s plenty of offense and strong competition at the top. While the top three teams are the class of the conference, there aren’t any cupcakes: even Tulsa and USF, the last two teams by order of my projected conference standings, stand an outside chance at making a bowl.

Projected Order of Finish

  1. UCF Knights
  2. Cincinnati Bearcats
  3. Memphis Tigers
  4. SMU Mustangs
  5. Navy Midshipmen
  6. Houston Cougars
  7. Tulane Green Wave
  8. Temple Owls
  9. East Carolina Pirates
  10. Tulsa Golden Hurricane
  11. USF Bulls

Key Games

October 16th – UCF at Memphis

October 31st – Memphis at Cincinnati

November 21st – Cincinnati at UCF

It sounds obvious, but the title race will likely come down to who can win the big games. Cincinnati has found it difficult to knock off highly-ranked competition in years past, while Memphis is improving in that regard and UCF has proven time and time again that they aren’t scared of any opponent. The conference season can be simplified by boiling it down to the two biggest games for each of the three favorites. Lose both of these games and you’re out. Win one and you may have a chance. Win both and you’re all but assured to be the champ. My favorite non-conference games are UCF hosting North Carolina on September 4th, and Cincinnati visiting Nebraska on September 26th. One of those games will be much more pleasant to watch than the other (UNC at UCF), but they should both be tough games.

Conference Title Contenders: Cincinnati Bearcats, UCF Knights, and Memphis Tigers

The American features a three-headed monster at the top of the conference competing for the conference championship. Unlike many other conferences in the land (Clemson dominating the ACC year after year, as one example), this is a genuine three-way race for first place in which a reasonable argument could be made in defense of either Cincinnati, UCF, or Memphis.

Let’s start with the reigning champs, Memphis. A lot of pundits will be down on Memphis this year due to their Head Coach Mike Norvell leaving town this offseason to take over as the head coach for Florida State. While Norvell was undoubtedly a huge part of elevating this team all the way to a New Year’s Six bowl game, it would be foolish to expect this team to fall off a cliff immediately. He’s replaced internally by Ryan Silverfield, who’s already proven to be a strong recruiter. Although the program may see decline in future years due to seemingly unsustainable gains (they’ve been improving for 8 straight years now, which is pretty much unheard of in college football), the decline will not be drastic just yet this year. My power rankings have them at #2 in offense and #3 in defense in the conference. They return bonafide stars at QB (Brady White), RB (Kenneth Gainwell) and WR (Damonte Coxie), so the offense isn’t going anywhere after ranking #8 nationally in scoring offense last year. The defense improved drastically last year and it was a huge part in their conference championship from a year ago, but their rush defense was a huge weakness and it likely won’t be fixed immediately, even with the hire of new Defensive Coordinator Mike MacIntyre gaining praise from most circles.

Central Florida is a program that most fans know by now. The fact that it takes perfection for a Group of 5 team to gain national relevance is a subject matter for another day, but UCF gained the nation’s attention back in 2017 when they went a perfect 13-0 and knocked off Auburn in front of over 70,000 fans at Mercedes-Benz Stadium and millions more watching at home. While the attention was much deserved and overdue, UCF seems to be flying back under the radar after a “disappointing” 10-3 season in 2019. I think this is more due to the national media and public-at-large’s attention span that it is to their play on the field. While Memphis and Cincinnati may be the trendy names nowadays, UCF isn’t going anywhere yet at a titan in the AAC. Whether or not quarterback McKenzie Milton returns from a near-career ending injury, this team will be led by great quarterback play due to the presence of Dillon Gabriel, who impressed with 3,600+ yards and 29 TDs as a true freshman. The offense was eye-poppingly devastating last year – 540.5 yards per game, 43.4 ppg – but it was also very well-rounded, with both the rushing and passing offense numbers finishing in the top-20 of the country in yards per game. Things get interesting when you consider that the defense has a chance to be the best in the conference, led by a steller secondary. My power rankings have them at #1 in offense and #2 in defense in the conference.

Coming off an 11-3 season capitalized by a 38-6 beatdown of Boston College in the Birmingham Bowl, Cincinnati is poised for a big year under a great head coach in Luke Fickell. Turning down a Power 5 job (Michigan State) to remain at Cincinnati, it’s clear that Fickell plans on building upon his success and achieving even greater things in the years to come. Will he succeed? Well, it’s hard to argue against given the fact that he’s reeled in top-50 recruiting classes for three straight years–extremely impressive for a team in this conference. This really should be a Power 5 program when all things are considered, so they have a clear leg-up on most teams in the AAC. The defense was the key to victory last year, and they return 76% of their production. The offense ran the ball effectively (25th nationally in ypg) but really struggled to move the ball through the air, averaging only 182.3 ypg, good for only 107th in the nation. The struggles through the air and lack of explosiveness are the main concern with this team, and in my opinion it’s a legitimate and major concern. Desmond Ridder returns for his third year as starter at QB, and while usually that’d be a huge plus in college football, Ridder struggled mightily at times with accuracy and doesn’t really challenge teams vertically either. He is effective using his legs and this offense won’t be terrible given the experience. It doesn’t help things that their leading receiver from last year, Josiah Deguara, is now playing tight end (or fullback, judging by the rumors) for the Green Bay Packers. They have a few big recruits behind Ridder and if one of them takes over and looks the part, they might be the favorite in my eyes. My power rankings have them at #7 in offense and #1 in defense in the conference. The 8.5 on their season win totals is certainly looking like a play…

Predicted Champion: UCF Knights

This will be an extremely competitive and entertaining conference in the country, and it’s a difficult one to tell from top to bottom. However, I have to give the edge to UCF here given the fact that there’s a chance they have the best offense and defense in the conference. They’ll be looking for revenge on Cincinnati after last year’s defeat, and they get the Bearcats at home, which is huge. An October 16th road visit to Memphis could make or break their season, but given the fact that it’s one of only two conference games that are considered toss-up games for them this year, I expect the Knights to be laser-focused in that game. As for Cincinnati’s chances for the crown, it’s difficult for me to pick them with confidence given the offensive struggles. Get down a few scores early in a game with a team like UCF, and they may struggle to come back. I like UCF’s well-roundedness and predict them to regain the title.

Season Outlooks: The Rest of the Pack

SMU Mustangs

Offense Power Ranking (AAC): 3

Defense Power Ranking (AAC): 9

They’ll have one of the best offenses in the country and feature plenty of experience led by star QB and former Texas transfer Shane Buechele. I don’t care what team you are or what conference you play in: get into a shootout with this team, and you’re in trouble. The problem with SMU is that they always seem to get themselves into shootouts, even when they don’t want to–the defense stinks. Ranking 109th nationally in scoring defense last year and 125th in passing defense is the Achilles heel that will keep them from winning the requisite games for a conference championship. However, they have the talent to come close and very well might upset a few teams along the way.

Navy Midshipmen

Offense Power Ranking (AAC): 5

Defense Power Ranking (AAC): 7

In what was one of the quietest 11 win seasons in recent memory, Navy came out of nowhere and had an extremely successful season in 2019. However, don’t expect the same results this year. Last year’s triple option offense ran entirely through quarterback Malcolm Perry, who has since graduated. Finding the right quarterback to run this offense is essential, and that’s a huge question mark for Navy–one exacerbated by the limited offseason practice time due to COVID-19. I have their offense power ranked at #5 in the conference, but there’s definitely a world in which they finish the season well below that mark–they’re in some trouble if that’s the case. Most expect this to be a step-back year for Navy, and I agree. Head Coach Ken Niumatalolo is a true gem and it’s tough for me to bet against him, but this is more likely to be a tricky, upset-minded team than it is a conference contender.

Houston Cougars

Offense Power Ranking (AAC): 6

Defense Power Ranking (AAC): 8

The Cougars had one of the strangest teams in recent memory last season, opting to essentially tank the season by redshirting a number of key players including star QB D’Eriq King after a rough 1-3 start to the year. Usually when you tank you’re looking for significant improvement in the following years, and that’s the hope with Houston as they’ve brought in plenty of transfers to help shore up the team, especially on the defensive side of the ball where they really struggled a year ago. Head Coach Dana Holgorsen has been extremely confident going into the year, but I’m skeptical of just how much improvement they will make in one year’s time. The defense was awful. The passing game was 91st in yards per game despite running an Air Raid-light system, which is…not good. Quarterback Clayton Tune struggles too much throwing the ball for me to think the offense will explode, but he should improve and the offense will as a whole–he really held them back last year, but the situation was terrible for him. They’ll be better, but there are way too many unknowns here for me to pick them with any confidence.

Tulane Green Wave

Offense Power Ranking (AAC): 9

Defense Power Ranking (AAC): 6

Things actually appear to set up pretty well for Tulane this year: they were #5 in the AAC in both scoring offense and scoring defense last year, return a loaded backfield for one of the best rushing attacks in the whole country (#11 rush ypg last year), and they are coming off back-to-back bowl game wins for the first time in program history. Things could certainly be worse, and this is a fun, competitive, well-rounded team. However, much like Navy, there is a huge question mark at quarterback. Monitor new quarterback and former Southern Mississippi transfer Keon Howard’s performance early-on in the season: if he’s better than expected, this is a team to back in the betting markets.

Temple Owls

Offense Power Ranking (AAC): 10

Defense Power Ranking (AAC): 5

Temple was a frustrating team last year: they appeared set to be a dark horse when they upset Memphis 30-28 in Week 6, but followed that up with a 21-45 loss at SMU and a 21-63 loss at home to UCF. They’re a hard team to gauge this year due to their inconsistency. The good news: they have a three-year starter in quarterback Anthony Russo, a great running back in sophomore Re’Mahn Davis, and a standout wide receiver tandem in Jadan Blue and Brandon Mack. The bad news: the defense is usually a strength for this team year after year, but they’ll likely take a step back as they are #123 in the country in returning defensive production. The offense will need to be much better for this team to surprise, and that’s no guarantee given the fact that I’m not a Russo believer. I’ll be monitoring closely whether or not Iowa State transfer Re-al Mitchell is granted an eligibility waiver this year: if he does, and gets playing time and looks the part, this offense could really take off and I’ll be backing this team.

East Carolina Pirates

Offense Power Ranking (AAC): 4

Defense Power Ranking (AAC): 11

The Pirates are a fantasy goldmine this year and there’s reason for excitement at the program, but this might not be their year quite yet. I expect this offense to be in the top-30 of the country, which may be good enough to get them to .500, but the defense is still an issue. Just how good can the offense be? The answer to that question will determine where they finish: if they average over 500 yards per game like they did in the last 6 games of the season (including a game where they dropped 43 on Cincinnati’s vaunted defense), they should go bowling regardless of how bad the defense is. Getting into shootouts with the loaded offenses in this conference is a bold strategy and we’ll see how it pays off for them. They return the 4th most experience in the country and are fresh off their best recruiting class in recent memory, so I’m cautiously anticipating a better performance than we saw from last year’s 4-8 squad.

Tulsa Golden Hurricane

Offense Power Ranking (AAC): 8

Defense Power Ranking (AAC): 10

While I’ve been a fan of some Tulsa teams in the past and they had an encouraging upset of UCF last year, things are trending down for them in a hurry. They have by far the lowest undergraduate enrollment of any FBS team (around 3,300) and are reported to have huge budget concerns. This may not even be an FBS team for much longer, which makes it a hard team to pick with confidence, to say the least. The hope for a strong season here is that they treat this like a last-hurrah or a rallying season to garner support and save the program before talks get serious about disbanding the program, but we haven’t seen many instances of that in the past to base our predictions with confidence. They do return pretty much all of their coaching staff, have two senior running backs who’ve combined for 45 career touchdowns, have a strong receiving core, and a good quarterback in former Baylor transfer Zach Smith. The offense will need to really take off for them to compete, and there’s definitely a possibility that happens.

USF Bulls

Offense Power Ranking (AAC): 11

Defense Power Ranking (AAC): 4

This should be a build-up year for Jeff Scott. I think he’s a good fit for this team and that they’ll be competitive in the coming years as he continues to recruit well, but it won’t happen this season. The offense was cover-your-eyes terrible last year, and unless UNC transfer Cade Fortin is fantastic at quarterback that will likely be the case this year again. For context on how bad the offense was, they averaged only 9.4 points per game in their losses last year. Yikes! The defense is fine and they have a very strong secondary, so they’re no pushover by any means, especially if the offense clicks. Units almost never go from moribound to good in one year, so temper your expectations. They only need to win a few toss-up games to finish in the 7-9 range of the conference, and their defense has that in play as a possibility.

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