conference preview 2021: AAC
By Simon Carroll
A team-by-team analysis of the American Athletic Conference, the season ahead and final standings predictions.
1. Cincinnati Bearcats
Being ranked 13th preseason is not high enough.
That’s the biggest takeaway for Luke Fickell and this Cincinnati football team from 2020, who went undefeated through the regular season, beat three ranked teams along the way, but only finished 8th in the rankings come the end of year. So how does a GO5 program with this much talent and this level of quality coaching break into the college football playoffs? Simple – be ranked higher to begin with.
2021 will tell us if a preseason AP ranking of 8th will be good enough to convince the playoff committee that they are worthy of a seat at the table. Having the Bearcats at this level in itself is a phenomenal achievement for Fickell and his team, who after a first season reset have gone 31-6 over the last three seasons at Nippert Stadium. And this year, the talent on the roster might be even better than 12 months ago…
The biggest boost to Cincy’s chances of a CFP spot is the return of quarterback Desmond Ridder, who eschewed the opportunity to hit the NFL for another season at the college level. 32-5 as a starter, Ridder will likely be the best QB in the American and a household name when it comes to the NFL Draft next April. They lose Gerrid Doaks in the backfield but have a ready-made replacement in Jerome Ford, and Ridder has a deeper class of pass catchers to aim at, with tight end Josh Whyle perhaps the best of the lot. The biggest question on offense comes up front where they lose three starters, but it’s an offense to be feared by the rest of the conference.
The defense is even scarier. This is a unit that would be considered elite in the SEC – on the d-line MyJai Sanders and Curtis Brooks anchor the three man front, rush linebacker Darrian Beavers returns to get after the quarterback, and in Ahmad Gardner and Coby Bryant they bring thirteen career interceptions and two defensive touchdowns to the secondary. This is as explosive and experienced a defense as you’ll find anywhere in college football.
To become the first ever non-power 5 school to make the playoffs, The Bearcats will likely have to be perfect. That’s just the way perception is skewed against the smaller programs. Going undefeated won’t be easy in a competitive conference; UCF, SMU and Tulsa are tough fixtures, but they’re all at home for Cincy. Two big road trips out of conference to Indiana and Notre Dame would be mammoth victories on the schedule, especially if those programs have healthy rankings come the end of the year. The odds are against them, but if any team – and coach – is going to break the glass ceiling, it’s this one.
Prediction: 11-1, American Athletic Champions
2. UCF Knights
If any team has the talent and experience to compete with The Bearcats this season, it’s UCF. Ignoring last year as an anomaly, The Knight’s record the three years before that reads 35-4, and they finished ranked each season. For a GO5 program to have that sort of consistency is impressive, particularly over two different coaching staffs.
Make that three; Josh Heupel leaves Orlando for the Tennessee job, and in comes Gus Malzahn. The sheer fact a program like Central Florida can attract a coaching heavyweight like Gus is a sense of achievement in itself, but Malzahn hasn’t come to have a happy retirement in the Sunshine State – he chose this school because it is built to win, and has the roster to do so.
The last time this Knights’ offense averaged less than 40 points a game was back in 2017, and with quarterback Dillon Gabriel under center, 2021 should be another explosive year at the Bounce House. 61 TD’s in 23 career games is insane, and if Malzahn starts sprinkling in some of his no huddle high tempo offense then it could be a record year for the junior gunslinger. Jaylon Robinson is the best receiver in the AAC, and Brandon Johnson isn’t too far behind, whilst Bentavious Thompson will be looking to replicate his 2019 numbers to offer a similarly dynamic ground game.
The difference between Cincinnati and UCF is found on the other side of the ball, although the new regime have been quick to bolster the depth chart with some talent via the transfer portal. He raided his former employees Auburn for edge rusher Big Kat Bryant, who will wear the #1 jersey and looks set to put up numbers this year. But don’t discount fellow transfers Ricky Barber (Western Kentucky) and linebacker Bryson Armstron (Kennesaw State), who is a tackling MACHINE – 314 tackles and 40 tfl’s in three years with The Owls. 1st year DC Travis Williams – who came over with Malzahn from The Tigers – should oversee a step up from a shoddy 2020 showing by this unit.
Even with an undefeated season, UCF won’t have enough juice from this schedule to catch the attention of the playoff committee, so they’ll have to revert to claiming the national title once again. The big matchup comes on October 16th at Cincinnati, which could be a dress rehearsal for the championship game two months later. An opening game against the similarly high-powered Boise State will prove to be one of the games of this weekend, and could dictate the direction the rest of this season goes for The Knights.
3. Houston Cougars
I’m not sure Dana Holgorsen envisioned such a chaotic first two years in Houston after leaving West Virginia. In year one he had star QB D’Eriq King and a bunch of talented teammates redshirt before leaving via the transfer portal ahead of 2020, which itself was a catastrophe of a season for almost every football program in the nation. With games postponed and rescheduled, a final record of 3-5 was a side note to the feeling of relief that the year was over in some respects. Year 3 feels like year 1 for Holgorsen and his coaching staff, which has remained intact and should preside over a much more settled and talented roster in 2021.
He might not be D’Eriq King, but Clayton Tune quietly had a decent season last year for the Cougars. His progression curve has gone in the right direction each year, and with some better decision making the turnovers should drop and allow him to take the next step this year. Holgorsen knows how to run an offense, and whilst there may be no marquee names at the skill position you can expect it to be productive; perhaps tight end Christian Trahan and receiver Nathaniel Dell are the two names to watch out for.
Houston’s defense underwhelmed last year but that was more circumstance than anything else – this year they return nine starters, a bunch of redshirts and opt outs, as well as a couple of intriguing transfer portal additions too. Names that will make splash plays include Derek Parish, who will occupy the LB/DE hybrid or ‘Bandi’ role, and linebacker Donavan Mutin. But if you don’t know who Marcus Jones is, you need to go and watch the tape immediately – a predatory corner, Jones is a ball magnet, with 18 passes defended, four interceptions and more than 100 tackles in three years at Troy and Houston. If he improves further this year, he’s a potential NFL star.
Despite not quite having the horses to compete with the likes of Cincinnati and UCF just yet, The Cougars might have a chance of a place in the AAC championship game by virtue of the fact they avoid both those opponents on their conference schedule. That said, back to back road trips at Tulsa and Tulane will be a sticky start to October, and a home tie against Memphis on the penultimate weekend of the year gives this program a shot at ending a five game losing streak to the Tigers. Houston will be better this year, and a bowl game is definitely attainable.
4. Tulsa Golden Hurricanes
The AAC is stacked full of potential conference winners and ranked teams, and on the back of an impressive season where they went undefeated in conference play until the championship game (which they lost by 3 points), you can certainly include Tulsa in that category. This program knocked off two ranked opponents, kept #11 Oklahoma State to within 9 points, and were a missed field goal away from turning over Mississippi State in the Armed Forces Bowl. It’s been feast or famine throughout head coach Philip Montgomery’s tenure at H.A. Chapman Stadium (31-40), but confidence is high they can use 2020 as a springboard to greater things.
Tulsa’s success last year was predominantly on the back of a very stout defense that conceded just 21.6 points and 333 yards per game – their best showing in fifteen years. The bad news is that Xaven Collins, the Nagurski Award-winning linebacker and catalyst for this improvement, has departed for the NFL. But the unit stile returns eight starters and defensive coordinator Joseph Gillespie is confident of maintaining standards. There are breakout candidates everywhere, including Jaxon Player (DT), Justin Wright (LB), Treyvon Reeves (LB), Kendarin Ray (SS), Cristian Williams (NB) and Travon Fuller (CB), who transfers over from Texas A&M.
An accurate description of the Hurricanes’ offense would be inconsistent, particularly down the stretch last year. The big change comes under center, where quarterback Zach Smith moves on and is replaced by Davis Brin, who this coaching team are high on. His introduction to Montgomery’s offense should be aided by the running game – in particular Shamari Brooks, who is a big year away from breaking the Tulsa rushing record. Keylon Stokes and JC Santana are the receivers expected to contribute in 2021.
Tulsa avoids UCF in 2021, but they have a nasty set of road games, including at Stillwater for the reverse fixture with Oklahoma State, at the ‘shoe vs Ohio State, Cincinnati and the season finale at SMU. That comes out as the 61st most difficult schedule in the nation, and it’s going to be much harder for this program to replicate last year’s record in the conference. But no team will relish playing the ‘Hurricanes, who are one of the few team that have a defense capable of standing up to the AAC’s high-powered offenses.
5. SMU Mustangs
Over the last two seasons, Sonny Dykes has repaired some of his reputation following an unsuccessful four year stint at Cal, leading SMU to a 17-6 record and establishing them as a competitive force in the AAC. Not many teams head into 2021 as experienced as The Mustangs are, and with Dykes adding some key talent via the transfer portal, SMU are another team that will fancy their chances at a conference title game come the end of the year.
Remember Grant Calcaterra, the talented tight end who retired at Oklahoma due to concussion issues? Well he’s back, resurfacing at Gerald J. Ford Stadium for one final audition for an NFL career. He joins an otherworldly amount of talent at the skill positions, with Rashee Rice and Danny Gray at receiver, and a plethora of talented ball carriers including Ulysses Bentley, who went over 1,000 yards from scrimmage and added 12 TD’s in 2020. Another big transfer, quarterback Tanner Mordecai, comes out from Spencer Rattler’s shadow and should win the starting job over exciting freshman Preston Stone – the new QB will be well protected by the conference’s second best o-line in front of him. This Pony offense is going to be GOOD.
A defense that couldn’t get off the field on third down last year should be better, with nine starters returning and much better depth with the addition of some transfers. Former Florida Gator Jahari Rodgers looks to step in for Brandon Stephens, who now gets paid by the Baltimore Ravens, whilst Turner Coxe should be the sack artist up front. This unit doesn’t compare to the offense in terms of talent, but under new defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt it is likely to show improvement.
SMU, under Sonny Dykes, tend to start the season off hot but fade down the stretch; in 2019 they lost three out of their last five to tumble out of the national rankings, and in 2020 they did exactly the same thing. That doesn’t bode well for a schedule that makes them face five of their main rivals for the conference in the last five weeks, with three of them on the road and their season finale on a short week. But with the chance of a 3-0 start in their out of conference slate, The Mustangs’ early form should see them secure a bowl appearance at the very least.
6. Memphis Tigers
With Mike Norvell heading to Florida State, 2020 saw Memphis look from within to find their next head coach; despite never being a coordinator, Ryan Silverfield had a lot of roles for the Tigers, including assistant head coach, run game coordinator and offensive line coach. He picked up the mantle, and whilst it might not have been quite to the heights his predecessor achieved at the Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium, Silverfield did achieve a winning record and a bowl win amidst very testing circumstances.
The same coaching braintrust returns in 2021, but a declining level of talent versus the ever increasing competition in the American Athletic Conference will make getting back to double digit wins extremely difficult. With Brady White gone at quarterback, choosing the next signal caller becomes priority number one for Silverfield – former Arizona QB Grant Gunnell seems to be the consensus frontrunner. A careful if unspectacular quarterback, Gunnell will lean heavily on star wide receiver Calvin Austin, who will be hoping to put up back to back 1,000 yard seasons ahead of a potential NFL career. A strong running game behind an experienced line will likely bear the weight of the offensive output.
Defensive coordinator Mike MacIntyre (no, not THAT one), returns for his second season after enjoying something of a turnaround last year – conceding an eye watering 557 yards per game in the first half of the year compared to just 332 ypg the second half. That improvement should filter into 2021 as 8 starters return and The Tigers bring in some key transfers. Former Mississippi State Bulldog Devon Robinson will add depth in the trenches, and Julian Barnett might see nickel duties after coming over from Michigan State – where he originally played receiver. The biggest boost to this unit though is La’Andre Thomas sliding back in atop the depth chart after opting out of 2020. Between him, Barnett and Quindell Johnsen, the Memphis’ secondary should be one of the best in the conference.
Memphis are one of the lucky ones to avoid Cincinnati in conference play, but try reminding them of that when they’re knee deep in road trips to Tulsa, UCF and Houston. Without getting too carried away, a home game against an SEC team in Mississippi State isn’t necessarily an impossible feat, and a win there would give Silverfield some credit in the bank when it comes to recruiting that area. A postseason game is well within reach for this program in 2020, with ambitions to challenge at the top of the AAC likely a year away.
7. Tulane Green Wave
Before Willie Fritz arrived in New Orleans in 2016, Tulane had only one winning season since 2002 – be that in Conference USA or The American Athletic. After one year finding his feet, Fritz has since gone 25-25 over the last four seasons, with three bowl games and two bowl wins also on the resume. The Green Wave have become a real tough, competitive program, but the next stage for Fritz and his coaching staff is to have this team challenging for conference titles – something Tulane hasn’t done since the halcyon days of Tommy Bowden 23 years ago.
On offense, they undoubtedly have the horses to compete. Michael Pratt returns under center with ambitions of challenging Ridder and Gabriel for conference honours after an incredible freshman season that saw him throw for 20 touchdowns against just 8 interceptions. Former Notre Dame OC Chip Long comes in as the coordinator of this unit, and any hope of a serious tilt at the American will be predicated on him getting Pratt and company up to speed with his scheme quickly. They are deep at receiver, have a solid line and a dual headed monster in the backfield in Tyjae Sharps and Cameron Carroll; talent like that should make the transition easier.
There’s more change on the defense, which also has a new coordinator in Chris Hampton – a familiar face after coaching the secondary at Tulane from 2016 to 2019. He has a job on his hands finding some new pass rush, as defensive linemen Patrick Johnson and Cameron Sample both left for the NFL. The d-line will have a lot of new faces on it, and division transfer JoJo Dorceus might find some playing time after coming over from Memphis. There’s more optimism regarding the back seven, with Jeffery Johnson leading the linebackers and strong safety Larry Brooks setting the tone, but a dropoff in production considering the turnover should not come as a surprise.
Technically, Tulane have the toughest conference slate in the AAC, as the two teams they don’t play are Temple and USF, who had one win between them in the American last year. They’ll likely be in for a hiding from three of their non-conference games too (Oklahoma, Ole Miss, UAB), but with rose tinted glasses you can see a path to a bowl game. With Pratt still holding four years of eligibility and an ascending group of talent around him, The Green Wave are on the right path.
8. East Carolina Pirates
Much like Tulane in the early part of Willie Fritz’s tenure, East Carolina have been trying to establish themselves in the AAC as a robust football program that can compete on any given Saturday with the rest of the conference. Head coach Mike Houston improved his conference wins from one in 2019 to three in 2020, finishing last campaign with an impressive beatdown of SMU. Is the next step a reasonable aspiration heading into 2021?
With the offensive firepower this team has, you’d be inclined to say yes. You can count Holton Ahlers in the same bracket as Michael Pratt, ready to compete with the Ridders and Gabriels of the AAC world for accolades. The weapons Ahlers has available, both in the pass and run game, are impressive; Tyler Snead and CJ Johnson are a deadly receiving duo, and running back Rahjai Harris has the feel of a superstar in waiting after a very promising freshman campaign. The big concern is up front, which has lacked consistency in recent years and loses it’s best starter in D’Ante Smith.
Houston hails from the defensive side of the ball, so it’s no surprise that he and DC Blake Harrell oversaw improvement in tough circumstances last year. For The Pirates to improve in 2021, they’ll need more out of a young, but experienced unit. Only one senior and one junior are currently starters on this unit, with linebackers Bruce Bivens and Xavier Smith the leaders of the defense. Outside of that the unit lacks flashy names, but keep one eye out for DJ Ford, who transfers in from North Carolina – the former Tar Heel has 22 ACC games under his belt and should line up at strong safety.
Houston will want to match the three conference wins from last year at the very least, and they’ll be eyeing back to back home games against Temple and USF, and a big game at Navy – sandwiched between Memphis and Cincinnati – as a good opportunity to aid their cause. Most importantly, they play TONIGHT at home to Appalachian State, who are a much better program than the one they beat six times in a row dating up to 2012. A couple of early non-conference wins could give The Pirates some much-needed confidence and momentum before their AAC foes come into focus.
9. Navy Midshipmen
Head coach Ken Niumatalolo is a legend in Annapolis, turning a military academy into a perennial winning football program, with more than 100 wins, eleven bowl games (six won), and two national rankings in his 14 years at Navy. This remarkable success is probably why a 3-win season – the program’s second such season in three years – is seen as a disappointment. That season inbetween? The Midshipmen went 11-2 and finished 20th in the nation. Only a fool would write them off from bouncing back in 2021…
As with any triple option offense, the stats don’t tell the full story, but considering Navy’s attack scored a paltry thirteen points COMBINED in their final three games of last year, there is work to be done. There’s a QB battle brewing between sophomores Xavier Arline and Tai Lavatai, but considering the offense, it’s the ground game that will determine how far the Midshipmen can improve this year. The four leading rushers all departed, meaning a lot of new faces will step up. A fullback may be a rare sighting in the NFL nowadays, but in the triple-option it’s a crucial aspect of the offense, and Isaac Ruoss & James Harris will be the main contributors. They’ll be flanked by a stable of ball carriers, of which probably seniors Chance Warren, Carlinos Acie and Tyger Goslin will be given the most reps.
The defense clawed back some dignity at the back end of 2020 – conceding an average of 45.75 points across their first four losses, before reducing that to an average of just 14.7 points across their last three. You could argue that had the offense shown a modicum of production, this team may have been bowl bound. But I digress. Diego Fagot is the undisputed leader of this unit; the star linebacker has racked up 188 tackles, 24.5 tfl’s and 8.5 sacks in 30 career games, and will look to maintain those numbers in his final year at the Memorial Stadium. Outside of that, Michael McMorris and Kevin Brennan will lead the secondary as they look to get back to the standards set in 2019.
Considering how ugly the schedule is, they might need to wait a year to be judged on their improvement; Navy’s slate is the 42nd most difficult in the nation, with tough contests everywhere you look. October is downright nasty, with five conference games that could see them go winless throughout the month (UCF, SMU, at Memphis, Cincy, at Tulsa). And the Commander-In-Chief’s Trophy lokos as far away as ever considering the rise of Army and Air Force. Based on thi uphill task, if Navy heads into MetLife Stadium for the Civil War on December 11th with a chance of making a bowl game, it would be a shock.
10. USF Bulls
If South Florida fans are still holding their football team to the standards set by inaugural head coach Jim Leavitt, where he took a fledgling program and brought consistent winning seasons to Tampa, they are probably living in the past. Since the Bulls legend left under a cloud in 2009, only Willie Taggart has seen success, and that was for a short period of time. For current incumbent Jeff Scott, he was tasked with picking up the pieces of a deteriorating roster following the Charlie Strong regime. Needless to say, beginning a rebuild during a pandemic wasn’t ideal, and the former Clemson OC struggled, winning just one game in 2020 – against an FCS opponent.
Being whitewashed in conference play is a low bar when looking for signs of improvement, but the AAC is a tough competition and strides on and off the field may not be replicated in the box scores. But one thing Scott knows is offense, and he’ll be hopeful his scheme will bear fruit in 2021; Cade Fortin was named the starting quarterback a week ago, and the former Tar Heel will hope to get more than the eight passing attempts he achieved last year before injury struck. Scott hasn’t been shy in adding depth to the receiving options via the transfer portal, but it isn’t a group that will win games for a team. The ground game however, might have some juice – Darrian Felix (Oregon) and Jaren Mangham (Colorado) come in and join lead backs Kelley Joiner and Brian Battle, as the Bulls look to run the ball down the throats of their opponents.
The defense has a long way to go before it becomes even remotely competitive in 2021, and that’s despite the presence of two stellar linebackers in Antonio Grier and Dwayne Boyles. Coordinator Glenn Spencer returns and has an actual offseason to coach this unit up as opposed to the car crash of COVID he walked into when he arrived at Raymond James Stadium, so that should bode well for the unit. They’ve attempted to rebuild a porous secondary through some transfer portal additions, but USF defense will likely be behind the curve in 2021.
Scott will be keen to identify moments where his team has a chance of an upset victory, but the American is such a deep and talented conference that those opportunities will be few and far between. As mentioned, the Bulls’ record this year may not be a true indication of the progress made, but hopefully AD Michael Kelly understands the context and sticks with the man he personally hired to turn this program around.
11. Temple Owls
No team will be happy to see the back of 2020 as much as Temple. Just one win – by two points over USF – was an alarming regression from the eight wins in head coach Rod Carey’s first season. There were COVID fingerprints all over the campaign, but this coaching staff will be keen to bounce back to prove to doubters that last year was an aberration rather than an eye opening indictment as to the state of this program.
Not being able to practice in pads until October will leave you behind the competition, but even so, this defense was abject in 2020. Carey has been quick to make reparations, adding six more bodies from the transfer portal, of which three will probably start; Jerquavion Mahone (DT, Kentucky), Cameron Ruiz (CB, Northwestern) and Keyshawn Paul (CB, UConn) all go straight in to the top of the depth chart, which tells you everything you need to know about the strength of the two-deep on this side of the football. Perhaps William Kwenkeu offers a ray of optimism for a breakout star at linebacker.
With established quarterback Anthony Russo heading to Michigan State this offseason, things were beginning to look as bleak on offense as they were on defense. But Carey had a major coup in the transfer portal, bringing in former Georgia QB D’Wan Mathis to run the offense. Mathis played receiver at high school and projects as a dual threat quarterback, which should pair nicely with returning wide receiver Jadan Blue and transfer running back Iverson Clement (Florida), who should have big years. That’s not a bad nucleus to build around for an offense starting from scratch.
Unless they manage to beat USF in Tampa, is there a win to be found in the conference for Temple? Such is the strength of the AAC, emerging as possibly the most competitive GO5 conference despite its short history. College football is notoriously unpredictable, but even Carey and his staff would be surprised if they can get this program to a respectable record in 2020. Considering last year was their first losing season since 2013, this bottoming out seems to have come from nowhere – but it’s real, and Temple will be looking further down the road for progress rather than the next few months.
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