2021 College Football Preview: Over/unders for every AAC team

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VSiN’s 2021 College Football Betting Guide is now available for order. Get access to over 300 pages of information, including over/under picks for all 130 FBS teams and our experts’ favorite season win total bets right here.

Here is the 2021 CFB betting guide preview for the American Athletic Conference.

FAVORITE: CINCINNATI

Cincinnati represented the Group of 5 in the New Year’s Six last season, but the Bearcats ended their year in disappointment. They led No. 9 Georgia 21-10 going into the fourth quarter, but couldn’t make the lead stand up as Georgia kicked a 53-yard field goal with three seconds left to win the Peach Bowl 24-21. That spoiled Cincinnati’s unbeaten season, but the Bearcats earned their first outright conference championship since 2009, when they went 12-1 under Brian Kelly, won the Big East and made their previous appearance in a BCS/New Year’s Six bowl game at the Sugar Bowl. 

This year, Cincinnati returns QB Desmond Ridder, who posted career bests in completion percentage (66.2), passing yards per game (229.2), passing yards per attempt (8.2), rushing yards per game (59.2) and total touchdowns (31). He should be able to improve those numbers with four of his top five receivers returning. On defense, Cincinnati returns over two-thirds of its tackle, sack and forced-turnover production. New defensive coordinator Mike Tressel spent nearly a decade and a half with Mark Dantonio at Michigan State and takes over a defense that was ranked No. 2 nationally by Football Outsiders. Cincinnati is the clear favorite to win another AAC title, but if the Bearcats want to return to the New Year’s Six or even be a live dark horse for the College Football Playoff, they must prove themselves in major road tests Sept. 18 at Indiana and Oct. 2 at Notre Dame.

LIVE DOGS: UCF and HOUSTON

Gus Malzahn was not exactly seeking a new coaching gig with a $20 million buyout coming after being fired at Auburn. But when Josh Heupel took off for Tennessee, new UCF athletic director Terry Mohajir called his old friend with whom he had worked at Arkansas State. Malzahn saw UCF’s potential firsthand when the Knights defeated his Auburn team in the 2017 Peach Bowl to cap an undefeated season. UCF has gone 2-1 in New Year’s Six games, so this program has proved it can compete with and even defeat Power 5 teams. 

Malzahn inherits one of the nation’s top passers in junior QB Dillon Gabriel, who led the nation with 357 passing yards per game last season, along with 34 total touchdowns and just four interceptions. Historically, Malzahn has run a read-option-heavy offense, and Gabriel is more of a pocket passer. Will he adjust his system to his personnel or force his personnel to adjust to his system? Furthermore, UCF will need to replace a lot of skill-position players and is relying on 10 transfers, including seven from Power 5 programs. The defense needs to improve, especially against the pass. After consecutive undefeated regular seasons, UCF hasn’t played for the AAC title in two years. The Knights go into the deep end immediately, facing Boise State, Louisville and the conference opener at Navy all in the first month. They also face Cincinnati and SMU on the road. UCF will have talent under Malzahn, but will it be able to hold up against such a difficult schedule? 

Meanwhile, this is a big year for Dana Holgorsen in Houston. The school is not paying $4 million a year for a 7-13 combined record the last two seasons. While the Cougars went just 3-5 last season, at least they found their QB in the post-D’Eriq King era. Senior Clayton Tune is in his second year as a full-time starter, and while he loses a couple of transfers in the receiving corps, he also gains three Power 5 transfers from Texas Tech, Minnesota and UCLA. The offense should be able to put points on the board. When the Cougars scored 30 or more last year, they went 3-0; when they were under 30, they went 0-5. The defense looks to be the strength of the team with 11 starters back — but from a unit that gave up 32 PPG. Houston also forced only six turnovers in eight games in 2020. 

The Cougars get some breaks in the conference schedule this season, not having to face Cincinnati, and avoiding UCF and getting SMU and Memphis at home. The Cougars get to measure themselves against a Big 12 opponent in their hometown at NRG Stadium when they open against Texas Tech. Houston has been a disappointment for two years, but this group might be just a little under the radar.

DEAD MONEY: SOUTH FLORIDA

South Florida should be improved under second-year coach Jeff Scott, but it might not show in the win column. Scott comes from a winning culture, having spent 12 seasons under Dabo Swinney at Clemson and winning two national championships as the offensive coordinator. He has already upgraded USF’s recruiting, moving from 109th to 65th this season in the 247 Sports recruiting rankings, but this is going to take time. 

On offense, USF should be improved from averaging only 365 YPG and 23 PPG in Scott’s first year. North Carolina transfer Cade Fortin seems to have the inside track at QB over Miami transfer Jarren Williams. Whoever wins the job will have nine returning starters with whom to work. The good news on defense is that the Bulls return nine starters ... the bad news is that the unit gave up 441 YPG and 40 PPG. USF will show incremental improvement and should be more competitive, but the early schedule is daunting, with nonconference trips to NC State and BYU and a game in Tampa against Florida. The Bulls also close with road games against two bowl teams last season in Tulane and UCF. 

BIG GAMES ON THE BOARD

Boise State at UCF, Sept. 2: Two non-Power 5 powerhouses meet in the opening week as the Gus Malzahn era in Orlando gets under way. The Knights return one of the nation’s best QBs in sophomore Dillon Gabriel. Boise State starts a new era of its own as Andy Avalos returns to serve as head coach. Avalos had been at Boise from 2012-18 and was Oregon’s defensive coordinator for the last two seasons. Last time Boise State opened its season in the Sunshine State, it won at Florida State. This is a massive game right away for Malzahn.

Cincinnati at Indiana, Sept. 18, and Cincinnati at Notre Dame, Oct. 2: Many thought Cincinnati did not get a fair shot at the final spot in the CFP last season. The Bearcats beat three Top 25 teams in Army, SMU and Tulsa, but no one in the Power 5. This season they get big opportunities to prove they belong in the CFP discussion with two trips to the Hoosier State, one in Bloomington and one in South Bend. 

SMU at TCU, Sept. 25: The Battle for the Iron Skillet was postponed and rescheduled twice but ended up not taking place in 2020 due to COVID-19. SMU coach Sonny Dykes will try to incorporate another highly touted transfer QB from the Big 12 into his Air Raid offense. Oklahoma transfer Tanner Mordecai will try to revitalize his career as Shane Buechele did after transferring from Texas. But in this game he will face a TCU team that might be Gary Patterson’s best in five years.

Houston at Tulsa, Oct. 1: Tulsa reached the AAC Championship Game last season and nearly knocked off undefeated Cincinnati, then was out of gas and lost to Mississippi State in the Armed Forces Bowl, its first bowl appearance since 2016. Houston is looking to rebound after two disappointing years under Dana Holgorsen. This game is a likely early eliminator in the Western Division. 

CINCINNATI

The Bearcats are by and large power-rated as the best team in the Group of 5. They had Georgia down 21-10 early in the fourth quarter last season before losing on a field goal in the final seconds. Fifth-year senior QB Desmond Ridder returns to lead an offense that averaged 37.5 PPG and led the AAC at 6.7 YPP. Cincinnati’s defense held opponents to 115 YPG under their season average, which was No. 2 in the nation. Foes averaged just 16.8 points and 325 yards per game. The Bearcats return seven starters on each side of the ball but lost defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman, who took the same position at Notre Dame. 

Cincinnati will be easily favored in all six games at home, where the Bearcats have won 20 straight. For the program to take the next step, they must prove they can stand up to the Power 5 schools. Last year’s Peach Bowl against Georgia went a long way toward proving they can, but they were unable to finish the job. Luke Fickell’s program has clearly improved every year and won its first conference title during his tenure. Nevertheless, games at Indiana and Notre Dame will be the barometer of whether Cincinnati can be the first Group of 5 squad to make the CFP. 

The season win total of 10 looks to be right on the number. The Bearcats likely will get a split at best in their two big nonconference road tests, and they could get clipped once in conference play. Cincinnati is just 14-14-2 ATS under Fickell, so there is a major risk that it will play down to its competition at least once.

Pick: Push 10

HOUSTON

Fans are getting restless in Houston, nearly six years removed from the 13-1 season when former coach Tom Herman led the Cougars to a New Year’s Six win over Florida State in the Peach Bowl. Dana Holgorsen has gone 7-13 in his first two years, but this looks like the season for Houston to jump toward being a winner again. The Cougars return 80% of their production from 2020, with nine starters back on each side of the ball. 

Junior QB Clayton Tune was thrown into the fire in 2019 after D’Eriq King decided to redshirt after four games before transferring to Miami. Last season was disjointed, as the Cougars had three games postponed before playing six straight weeks, then had another four-week break before losing the regular-season finale at Memphis. Then a depleted Houston team lost to Hawaii in the New Mexico Bowl. This year Houston will have some stability, which has been in short supply during Holgorsen’s first two seasons. 

The Cougars had one of the more talented rosters in the AAC and then added several high-impact transfers on offense. Three receivers are coming in: KeSean Carter from Texas Tech, Seth Green from Minnesota and Jaylen Erwin from UCLA. Ta’Zhawn Henry, a Texas Tech transfer, should give Houston’s running game a boost. While the opener against Texas Tech is a toss-up, the Cougars should win their next three games (at Rice and vs. Grambling and Navy). Houston avoids playing Cincinnati and UCF this season and draws Memphis and SMU at home. All four conference road games -- at Tulsa, Tulane, USF and Temple -- are very winnable. 

Pick: Over 8.5

UCF

Gus Malzahn takes over an offense that finished second in the nation in YPG (568) and eighth in PPG (42). That offense should be as strong as ever with eight starters back, including one of the nation’s best quarterbacks in sophomore Dillon Gabriel. It will be interesting to see how much Malzahn and new coordinators Tim Harris and G.J. Kinne tinker with an already productive unit. Malzahn has historically relied more on a read-option system, but did have Jarrett Stidham at Auburn, so he might let Gabriel do what he does best (throw the ball down the field). 

UCF lost some talent in the transfer portal but gained more when Nate Craig-Myers went from Auburn to Colorado State before rejoining Malzahn at UCF. He’s a deep threat to go along with Brandon Johnson from Tennessee and former big-time Notre Dame recruit Jordan Johnson. The Knights also return five starters on the offensive line, so Malzahn will mix in more of a power running game to go along with Gabriel’s big arm. A trio of transfers will attempt to bolster a UCF backfield that lost its top two rushers. Coming in are Virginia transfer RJ Harvey, Auburn’s Mark-Antony Richards and Northwestern’s Isaiah Bowser, who has battled injuries but has 1,300 career rushing yards. 

With nine starters back, the defense must improve. It struggled to get off the field last season, allowing almost 500 YPG and 33 PPG. Malzahn will win big like every coach before him at UCF, but 9.5 wins looks high with new systems and coaches on both sides of the ball.

Pick: Under 9.5

SMU

Sonny Dykes’ Air Raid offense should be as potent as ever despite the graduation of QB Shane Buechele. Dykes and second-year coordinator Garrett Riley called the plays for an offense that averaged over 500 YPG and 39 PPG. Sophomore Tanner Mordecai, a highly touted Oklahoma transfer, and big-time true freshman recruit Preston Stone will battle for the QB job. The Mustangs return six of their top eight receivers and add TE Grant Calcaterra, an Oklahoma transfer who caught 41 passes and scored nine TDs during three seasons in Norman. Ulysses Bentley ran for just under 1,000 yards as a freshman, and North Texas transfer Tre Siggers comes into the fold to create a 1-2 punch. All five starters also return up front. Jim Leavitt, the head coach at USF from 1997-2009, takes over as defensive coordinator of a unit that returns nine starters but needs more consistency. 

SMU has been right on the verge of being very good. The offense has posted stellar numbers, and the program has become stable with 17 wins over the last two seasons. However, the Mustangs have never been able to come up with that big victory to cement themselves as true contenders in the AAC. SMU has four road games in which it will likely be an underdog -- TCU, Houston, Memphis and Cincinnati -- but has five likely wins at home and a couple of toss-ups against UCF and at Louisiana Tech. The Mustangs won seven games last year and rose to No. 16 after a 5-0 start. If they can just beat the teams they should, SMU should clear its season win total.

Pick: Over 6

MEMPHIS

Brady White leaves Memphis as its all-time leading passer, and the Tigers did score 31 PPG and average 453 YPG last season, but something was missing -- RB Kenneth Gainwell, who opted out after losing multiple relatives to COVID-19 complications. The RB-by-committee approach could not replace Gainwell’s production, but the entire committee is back this season, so the Tigers should be able to run the ball better. 

Replacing White at QB is another challenge for second-year coach Ryan Silverfield. Arizona transfer Grant Gunnell seems to have the inside track, but is competing with LSU transfer Peter Parrish and freshman Keilon Brown for the job. Whoever starts has the responsibility of getting the ball to small but speedy junior Calvin Austin, who’s just 5-foot-9 and 162 pounds but caught 63 passes for 1,053 yards and 11 TDs. The defense had some growing pains last year as new coordinator Mike MacIntyre switched the scheme from a 4-3 to a 3-4, but he has eight starters back to match the eight starters back on offense. 

Last year was solid at 8-3, but naturally a comedown from a New Year’s Six bid and three straight AAC title game appearances. The Tigers avoid Cincinnati on the schedule. Navy, SMU and Tulane are good home games, but having to travel to UCF, Houston, Tulsa and Temple should be just enough to keep them from getting back to the AAC title game. Mississippi State should provide a good early test on Sept. 18. 

Pick: Over 7.5

TULSA

Defense did not exclusively carry the Golden Hurricane to the AAC Championship Game last season, but it did shoulder much of the weight. This unit limited teams to 4.7 yards per play and 21.6 PPG. Eight starters are back on D, though Tulsa will have to replace linebacker Zaven Collins, who won several national awards and was drafted in the first round by the Arizona Cardinals. 

On offense, all five starters on the line are back. The running game should get a boost with the return of senior Shamari Brooks, as the two-year starter missed last season with a torn ACL. The offense will be led by a new QB. Zach Smith has graduated, and junior Davis Brin or senior Seth Boomer will lead a unit that returns its entire receiving corps. But Tulsa must cut down on turnovers, amassing 18 in nine games last season. Tulsa finally caught some breaks in close games last year but still has 12 one-possession losses in the last three seasons. 

After a home opener against UC Davis, the Golden Hurricane travel to Oklahoma State and Ohio State in consecutive weeks. Three straight home games follow, but three of Tulsa’s last four are on the road at Cincinnati, Tulane and SMU. The last time Tulsa had a breakthrough season was going 10-3 in 2016, followed by 2-10 the next year. A similar thing happened in 2012, with an 11-3 season followed by 3-9. The drop might not be as precipitous this time, but Tulsa’s schedule is much tougher in 2021.

Pick: Under 6.5

EAST CAROLINA

Coach Mike Houston came to East Carolina with championship pedigree, having won the FCS title at James Madison in 2016. Houston is 7-14 over two seasons at ECU, but 10 starters return on each side of the ball. Last year, East Carolina had the most starts by underclassmen in the FBS and it now returns the most production of any team in the conference. Junior QB Holton Ahlers is in his fourth year in the program, making 17 starts and leading an offense that averaged a tad over 30 PPG and 400 YPG. Leading receiver Blake Proehl left early for the NFL, but everyone else is back. 

Defensively, ECU allowed 447 YPG, 35 PPG and particularly struggled against the run; with 14 of its top 15 tacklers returning, the production should increase. East Carolina opens the season with Appalachian State on neutral territory in Charlotte. South Carolina comes to Greenville the next week before ECU travels to Marshall. It’s not an easy start, but the Pirates need to win at least one of the three. The road schedule in league play is tough, with trips to UCF, Houston and Memphis. While the Pirates had their sixth straight losing season, they did finish strong with wins at Temple and against SMU, so they showed character by still bringing an effort after a 1-6 start. This looks like the year when East Carolina makes the jump back to respectability. 

Pick: Over 5

TULANE

The Green Wave were one of only 19 FBS programs to play 11 games or more last season. They started slowly at 2-4, including a blown 24-0 halftime lead against Navy, but went 4-1 down the stretch before losing to Nevada in the Idaho Potato Bowl. Under Willie Fritz, Tulane likes to run the ball and led the AAC in rushing last season. But former Notre Dame offensive coordinator Chip Long was brought in to diversify the unit.

QB Michael Pratt returns after making nine starts last season. His entire receiving corps is back, so Tulane should be able to spread the ball more frequently if the line can hold up. The group struggled to protect the passer, allowing 35 sacks in 2020. Tulane is also replacing its defensive coordinator. Jack Curtis was fired and Chris Hampton, who was on the staff as the DB coach from 2016-19, was brought back. The defense gave up 8.5 YPP last year, which was way up from 6.8 in 2019. The Green Wave have made three consecutive trips to bowl games and Fritz has gotten them to respectability, but they have yet to take the next step up the AAC pecking order. They open with Oklahoma coming to 30,000-seat Yulman Stadium. After Morgan State visits, Tulane goes to Ole Miss before UAB comes to New Orleans. With two new coordinators, this season might be a small step back for Tulane. 

Pick: Under 5.5

TEMPLE

It was a rough go for Temple in 2020. Rod Carey’s Owls were not even allowed to scrimmage until October due to COVID-19 protocols and did not play their opener until Oct. 10. Only 45 scholarship players were available, and Temple went 1-6. The Owls were down to their fifth-string QB in the season finale against East Carolina. Nine offensive linemen took 70 or more snaps, and the offense averaged a paltry 20 PPG and 348 YPG. The top two QBs have transferred, Anthony Russo to Michigan State and Trad Beatty to Georgia Tech. Transfer D’Wan Mathis was highly recruited and started for Georgia at Arkansas last year, but he looked overwhelmed. Perhaps the drop in class will benefit him. The Owls might go with a two-QB system as Re-al Mitchell is a dynamic athlete and runner. 

The lack of offense put the defense in jail a lot, and the unit struggled to get off the field, allowing 37 PPG and 433 YPG. The defense gave up 9.2 yards per pass, and every team except option-heavy Navy threw two at least TD passes against Temple. The season win total is three, and Temple should have one guaranteed win over Wagner. Rutgers and Boston College probably have too much for them, so the game at Akron will likely determine whether the Owls have a shot at this total. Navy and USF will join them at the bottom of the AAC, so those are win opportunities, and three wins looks about right. 

Pick: Push 3

NAVY

Navy’s opening 55-3 loss to BYU last season was a sign of things to come. The 3-7 record was just the third losing season in Annapolis in 18 years. Navy used three starting QBs in its first three games. Due to COVID-19 protocols, the Midshipmen did not hit in practice, and it showed. Navy wins games by being physical at the point of attack, and its lack of physicality and precision was evident. Add to that the lack of experience, with 25 first-time starters, and you get these results. With its triple option, Navy usually is among the national leaders in rushing. But the Midshipmen averaged only 178 rushing yards per game -- just 42nd in the country -- the offense averaged just 16.6 PPG and the team was 124th in the nation in total offense. 

A 5-foot-9, 165-pound sophomore, Xavier Arline, will get the first crack at the starting QB job but will receive competition from sophomore Tai Lavatai and junior Maasai Maynor. The Midshipmen return nine starters on defense but are undersized up front and were dead last in the AAC in red zone defense. Navy should be improved because Ken Niumatalolo has always found a way to rebound from down seasons in his 14 years in Annapolis. 

The win total is set at 3.5, but the schedule is daunting. Navy opens at home against Marshall and Air Force before conference play. Road games include trips to Houston, Memphis, Tulsa and Temple. UCF, SMU, Cincinnati and East Carolina come to visit. The Midshipmen also have their usual rivalry tilts at Notre Dame and against Army. It is difficult to find four wins on that list.

Pick: Under 3.5

SOUTH FLORIDA

Jeff Scott won two national championships as Clemson’s co-offensive coordinator. He is widely respected as a recruiter and has already upgraded the talent in this second season at USF. Scott stepped into a tough situation last year, leading a group that had just one spring practice. Even against a manageable schedule, it would have been a herculean task to be competitive. But USF did not have a manageable schedule, with early trips to Notre Dame and Cincinnati. The Bulls were down to only 60 players at the end of a 1-8 season. 

Nine starters are back on offense and on defense, and the QB position will be upgraded with North Carolina transfer Cade Fortin and Miami transfer Jarren Williams. USF has more young talent than a year ago, and Scott will get it turned around. However, the schedule is a challenge. The Bulls will beat Florida A&M, but that game is sandwiched among a road opener at NC State, a home game against Florida and back-to-back trips to BYU and SMU. They also have road games at East Carolina, Tulane and the War on I-4 with UCF. The Bulls also have to play Cincinnati. USF looks like it is a year from being competitive.

Pick: Under 3.5

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