The VSiN college football experts have been hard at work this summer, writing up team previews and predictions for all 131 FBS teams, including their favorite individual season win total and College Football Playoff bets.
Here are the team previews for the American Athletic Conference
Last year, Cincinnati became the first Group of 5 school to make the College Football Playoff before losing to Alabama, 27-6, in the semifinal. National Coach of the Year Luke Fickell’s club is still the favorite in its last season in the conference before departing with Houston and UCF for the Big 12, but the Bearcats must replace nine NFL draft picks.
Having made the playoff last season, you would think that Cincinnati’s offense was a juggernaut, but it was not (58th in the nation in total offense). Nevertheless, the unit must replace a four-year starter and two-time AAC Offensive Player of the Year in quarterback Desmond Ridder, plus its leading rusher Jerome Ford and leading receiver Alec Pierce (all of whom went to the NFL).
While the skill position corps is brand new, there is some continuity on offense with the entire offensive line returning for first-year offensive coordinator and former Bearcats QB Gino Guidugli (2001-2004). Guidugli still holds most of the program’s passing and total offense records and was promoted this year from QB coach to replace Mike Denbrock, now at LSU in the same role.
Ben Bryant was the backup QB here in 2019 and 2020 before transferring to Eastern Michigan last year where he started 11 games and threw for 3,121 yards and 14 TDs. Bryant is now back at Cincinnati competing with highly touted former Mr. Ohio QB Evan Prater for the starting job. LSU transfer Corey Kiner is going to need to be counted on immediately to produce for a running attack that averaged 173.3 YPG.
Six starters, including No. 4 overall pick CB Ahmad “Sauce” Gardner, are now in the NFL, so this unit will undergo a major overhaul in 2022.
The defensive line should remain a strength as veterans Malik Vann and Jabari Taylor are joined by 325-pound Virginia transfer Jowon Briggs in a three-man front. The trio combined for 8.5 sacks last season and will bring an experienced presence to a young defense. First-team All-MAC linebacker Ivan Pace transfers in from Miami (Ohio) and joins his brother Deshawn (94 tackles, 4 INTs) to man what should be a strong LB corps that also includes Ty Van Fossen (69 tackles, 5.5 TFL).
The secondary is the biggest issue as the Bearcats must replace All-American Gardner, in addition to Coby Bryant and Bryan Cook. Senior safety Ja'von Hicks and junior nickel Arquon Bush combined for five INTs last year and will need to provide leadership for a group that has three new and inexperienced starters.
Even with two companions – Houston and UCF – exiting with them to the Big 12 next season, the Bearcats will have the entire league gunning for them in what is a bit of a transitional year. A return to the CFP is highly unlikely, but they are still the team to beat in the AAC and have gone 16-0 in league play the last two seasons.
The offense got stuck in the mud a bit too often last season and it is a tough ask for a still high-level defense to produce 30 takeaways (third nationally in 2021).
Cincinnati gets a good measuring stick game right out of the gate with a trip to Arkansas to see if they can stay on the national radar. The Bearcats also get road testers at UCF and at SMU, but do avoid Houston and Memphis.
Pick: Over 9 (-130)
ECU has shown incremental improvement each year under head coach Mike Houston, who won the FCS National Championship at James Madison in 2016. The Pirates posted their first winning season in 2021 (7-5) since 2014 and were scheduled to play Boston College in the Military Bowl before COVID-19 issues forced BC out of the game.
Coach Houston has prioritized getting tougher up front and those results finally showed last season, as the rushing attack amassed one of the program's highest totals since 2000. The Cougars reshaped the line, introduced two-tight-end sets and went young with true freshman duo Keaton Mitchell (1,132 yards, 9 TDs) and Rahjai Harris (583 yards, 4 TDs) in the backfield. Highly touted North Carolina transfer Kamarro Edmonds also joins the party at RB.
Senior QB Holton Ahlers, who is just 221 yards from ECU's career QB rushing mark and should break the all-time passing mark in the program this year, and has been the starter for the better part of the last three seasons.
Ahlers will need top returning receiver C.J. Johnson (520 yards, 14.9 YPC) back from an offseason suspension, but incoming Toledo grad transfer Isaiah Winstead (520 yards last season) could step in. Georgia transfer Jaylen Johnson also comes to Greenville in search of more playing time. Former Oklahoma TE Ryan Jones (37 catches, 442 yards, 5 TDs here last year) also gives Ahlers another option. Houston also believes he has his best OL in his ECU tenure this season.
The Pirates mix up their defense with both 3-4 and 4-3 looks.
Senior Xavier Smith (44 tackles) moves back inside from hybrid rush end/OLB, where he and fellow senior Myles Berry (53 tackles) should be a top LB tandem in the league. Junior rush end Jeremy Lewis had 49 tackles and four sacks last season.
Up front, Rick D'Abreu, Immanuel Hickman and nose tackle Elijah Morris all return on the line. Hickman led the team with 7.5 tackles for a loss. In all, six of seven starters are back on the front seven.
All-conference CB Ja'Quan McMillian and his five interceptions are gone, along with leading tackler LB Bruce Bivens, but skilled Malik Fleming and former safety Juan Powell lead a deep secondary that intercepted 15 passes.
East Carolina won four of its last five games and was competitive for a half vs. Cincinnati to work its way back to respectability. The Pirates won five league games, matching their total conference victories from the previous three seasons combined. They finished T-3 for a club that was picked eighth in the conference.
After an opener with NC State, the schedule is manageable, and they will likely need to win five of those next six games as the slate gets much more difficult with games vs. UCF, at BYU, at Cincinnati, and vs. Houston before the season finale at Temple.
The Pirates will be better in 2022, but it might not show with a repeat of seven wins. A 6-6 season looks likely.
Pick: Under 6.5 (-140)
Houston paid for a Big 12 coach back in 2019 by bringing in Dana Holgorsen from West Virginia. Last season, it finally paid off with a 12-2 season -- and the Cougars will begin play in the Big 12 next season. Houston, along with its fellow AAC expatriate UCF, looks to be the biggest challenger to Cincinnati. The Cougars won 11 in a row before bowing out to Cincinnati in the AAC Championship Game, but they capped off the 2021 season with a win over Auburn in the Birmingham Bowl.
The Cougars have the best and most-experienced QB in the conference with senior Clayton Tune, who passed for 3,546 yards and 30 TDs in his third year in Holgorsen’s system. Much of that passing game production came courtesy of all-conference receiver junior Nathaniel Dell (90 catches, 1,329 yards, 12 TDs). Dell is a speedy, big-play threat who had six 100-yard games, including 152 yards against Cincinnati in the AAC title game.
Dell will also have support on the inside with a returning KeSean Carter, who missed the final month last year due to a foot injury. The Cougars also hit the transfer portal for reinforcements on the outside, picking up Cody Jackson (Oklahoma), Samuel Brown (West Virginia), Joseph Manjack IV (USC) and Brice Johnson (Ole Miss). True freshman Matthew Golden turned heads in the spring.
The loss of running back Alton McCaskill IV (961 yards, 16 TD) to an ACL injury late in spring practice is a significant blow and senior Ta’Zhawn Henry, the team’s second-leading rusher with 524 yards and seven touchdowns, along with USC transfer Brandon Campbell and Stacy Sneed will have to replace by committee behind an offensive line returning just two starters.
Houston has produced high NFL draft picks on the defensive line three of the last four years; the latest is Logan Hall (48 tackles, 6.5 sacks, 7 TFL), who follows in the steps of Ed Oliver (2019) and Payton Turner (2021).
The defensive line, dubbed as “Sack Avenue”, is still the conference’s best and should at least come close to matching the 45 sacks of 2021. D’Anthony Jones and Derek Parish combined for 12 sacks and 20.5 tackles for a loss, but sophomore Nelson Ceaser could be Houston’s next high NFL draft pick from this group.
Middle linebacker Donavan Mutin (77 tackles) is the heart and soul of the defense, while the back end of the secondary is experienced with safeties Gervarrius Owens and Hasaan Hypolite making a combined 35 starts the last two seasons. These veterans will have to lead two new starters at corner.
Last season Houston started out with a loss to Texas Tech; this season, they get the Red Raiders in Lubbock in Week 2. However, they can’t look past the road opener at defending Conference USA champion UTSA, who moves into the AAC next season. Nevertheless, Houston avoids both fellow conference contenders Cincinnati and UCF on the schedule.
The Cougars were clearly improved last season but did take advantage of a softer league schedule that also avoided Cincinnati and UCF. They very well could be favored in every game after the Texas Tech game in Week 2, including the road games at Memphis and SMU.
It looks unlikely that Houston matches the 12 wins of last season, but nine wins looks doable against another easy league schedule.
Pick: Over 9 (-120)
The Tigers were bowl eligible once again although their game against Hawaii in the Hawaii Bowl was canceled due to COVID-19 (or having too many players transfer out of the Hawaii program, depending on whom you believe). However, Memphis’s six wins were its lowest since 2013. Two new coordinators come in for head coach Ryan Silverfield as the Tigers attempt to get back towards being a contender in the AAC.
Arizona transfer QB Grant Gunnell (now at North Texas) was slated to be the starter before a preseason injury. True freshman Seth Henigan became the first true freshman starter for the program since 2011 and finished the season as the leader among the nation's freshmen QBs in completions, attempts, yards (3,222) and touchdowns (25). His development continues under Silverfield and new OC and QB coach Tim Cramsey, who spent the last four seasons in the same role at Marshall.
The Tigers are relying on an experienced backfield — and the addition of Northern Illinois transfer and 2021 MAC Freshman of the Year Jevyon Ducker (1184 yards) — to invigorate a once-productive run game. Leading rushers Brandon Thomas (669 yards, 8 TD) and Rodrigues Clark (387 yards, 4 TD) also return to run behind an offensive line with three returning starters.
At receiver, Calvin Austin (1149 yards, 8 TD) is off to the NFL, so the Tigers will try a committee approach led by Javon Ivory, Gabriel Rogers and Eddie Lewis. Joseph Scates is a solid addition from the transfer portal after playing 33 games in three seasons at Iowa State.
New DC Matt Barnes spent the last three seasons on the Ohio State staff and had the play-calling duties once they were stripped from Kerry Coombs. He takes over a defense that gave up 418 YPG and 29 PPG.
His first order of business is to find a way to generate more of a pass rush from a defensive line that returns just one starter and force more turnovers, plus replace the 123 stops of leading tackler JJ Russell. Xavier Cullens is back in the middle and getting Geoffrey Cantin-Arku from Syracuse and Tyler Murray from Charlotte on the outside should help.
The secondary needs its experience to translate into more production. While there are tacklers – safety Quindell Johnson is going to be an all-conference performer again and Rodney Owens and Sylvonta Oliver return for sixth seasons -- the DBs only generated seven interceptions.
Memphis started 3-0 last season, including an upset victory over Mississippi State, but then lost six of its next eight games and had to survive in the season finale vs. Tulane to get bowl eligible.
The Tigers start out 2022 with consecutive road games at Mississippi State and Navy. Three winnable home games follow before Houston comes to town in early October.
Memphis avoids Cincinnati on the schedule and gets its two toughest opponents – UCF and Houston – at the Liberty Bowl, and four of its first five opponents had losing records in 2021. Nevertheless, there are new coordinators on both sides of the ball and clearing 7.5 wins could be a reach -- even with the continued development of a potentially great QB in Henigan.
Pick: Under 7.5 (-140)
Go Navy! Beat Army! Well, the Midshipmen did just that in the season finale but that was the only highlight in a disappointing 4-8 season. Navy has gone a combined 7-15 over the last two seasons after an 11-2 campaign in 2019. This season they need to find a way to win close games (they lost four of them, including vs. Cincinnati and Houston, by eight points or less in 2021).
The Midshipmen can always run the ball in their triple-option attack, but it was a second straight disappointing season in terms of production as they averaged just 20.1 points and 282.2 yards per game in 2021. Nonetheless, the rushing game did improve, ranking ninth nationally (225.5 YPG) after finishing 52nd in 2020.
Junior QB Tai Lavatai seized the starting job and led the Midshipmen to the season-ending upset of Army. He completed 56% of his passes for 449 yards and five scores with the ability to hit the deep pass – and ran for 371 yards and seven scores.
Navy will always be near the bottom in passing yardage but could use one of its two returning regular receivers Jayden Umbarger and Mark Walker make one or two big catches per game on a more regular basis. The top three rushers are gone, and Navy’s backfield is full of small, quick guys, but lacks the big bruising fullback this season.
Navy was improved on this side of the ball last season despite only three starters starting all 12 games. Six starters are expected to be back for a unit that finished third in the AAC last year and was ranked second against the run. The next step is to generate more turnovers (just 14 last year) and find any kind of pass rush (16 sacks in 2021).
Three of the top four tacklers are gone, with the biggest hit at linebacker (Diego Fagot). John Marshall leads the defense in the Striker role as the leading returning tackler (53 tackles).
The secondary needs help from a pass rush. There were seven interceptions, but none over the last four games. Overall, the teams that could throw were able to do so against the Midshipmen. The corners are the big early concern, but Rayuan Lane and Evan Gibbons are returning starters at safety.
4-8 is always a disappointing season in Annapolis, but to be fair, it was against the toughest schedule in program history -- 11 of Navy’s 12 opponents earned bowl berths last season, including three AP Top 25 finishing teams (Cincinnati, Notre Dame, and Houston).
The schedule is a bit less daunting for 2022. However, the rapidly expanding transfer portal is never going away in big-time college football, and it especially hurts programs like Navy who cannot accept either undergraduate or graduate transfers nor bring back fifth-year seniors.
There is the opportunity for a good start opening with Delaware and Memphis at home, but the end of the season is a brute with three straight games at Cincinnati, vs. Notre Dame and at UCF. In order to get bowl eligible, they will need to pull at least one or two upsets.
Pick: Under 4.5 (-125)
Sonny Dykes left SMU after the 2021 regular-season finale to take the job at Iron Skillet rival TCU. Dykes also took his co-OCs with him to Fort Worth, so now his former SMU OC (2018-2019) Rhett Lashlee is in charge. Even with the coaching change, SMU will continue to throw the football often as they attempt to reach the AAC’s upper echelon.
In his first season at SMU, Tanner Mordecai led the AAC with 3,628 yards passing, and his 39 TDs ranked fifth nationally. But redshirt freshman Preston Stone was recruited to SMU by Lashlee when he was the OC back in 2018 and 2019. Mordecai should retain the job, but it will depend on how he adjusts to Lashlee’s faster-paced offense that will entail more intermediate and deep throws. SMU led the AAC in total offense and scoring offense in 2021.
The receiver corps lost breakaway threats Danny Gray and Reggie Roberson Jr. Rashee Rice, the team leader in receptions with 64, will likely be the main target. Transfers Beau Corrales from North Carolina, Jake Bailey from Rice and Kelvontay Dixon from Texas should provide depth and experience.
The offensive line, which showed improvement last season, will get major help from transfers Joe Bissinger from Virginia and Owen Condon from Georgia. The Mustangs allowed only 16 sacks, a remarkable number considering their 468 passes. Tre Siggers, who rushed for 727 yards and nine TDs, returns along with strong short-yardage back Tyler Lavine.
SMU was strong up front, allowing only 3.8 yards per rush and posting 27 sacks and returns three starters on the defensive line that combined for 15 sacks.
Improving the secondary is the team's biggest challenge. The unit placed pressure on the offense by surrendering big plays and failing to create momentum with turnovers. Opponents averaged 278.1 yards passing per game (124th) and 8.3 yards per attempt.
New defensive coordinator Scott Symons, who spent the last three seasons as the DC at Liberty, will bring in a 4-2-5 scheme.
The Mustangs could have as many as 10 seniors starting on defense, but they do not possess the playing experience you might think, so it is reasonable to expect that SMU will go with some younger, speedier players in this new scheme.
SMU’s offense should be one of the nation’s best once again and they averaged over 38 PPG last year (ninth nationally). However, the defense is going to have improve, especially against the pass.
The Mustangs do get TCU and their old coach Dykes at home, along with Cincinnati and Houston. However, they do have tough road tests at Maryland, and at UCF. It will be tougher to get off to the hot 7-0 start of 2021, which ended up with SMU losing four of its last five games.
Lashlee is a good young coach that has potential to make SMU one of the best Group of 5 programs down the line, but this looks like a season where they may take a step back with a first-time head coach and two new coordinators on both sides of the ball.
Pick: Under 7 (-115)
Jeff Scott certainly is not used to losing, having won two CFP National Championships (2016, 2018) at Clemson as the Tigers OC. However, he is 3-18 in his first two years in a rebuild at South Florida. The Bulls are recruiting well but not winning many games, which is perhaps a reason why the Big 12 left them -- but not their I-4 rival UCF -- behind in its recent expansion.
The Bulls showed incremental improvements on offense last season, but still averaged just 23.2 PPG. Ten starters are back, including returning starting QB Timmy McClain (9 starts, 1,888 yards, 55.5% completion percentage, 5 TDs, 7 INT); however, Gerry Bohanon (12 starts, 2,200 yards, 62.9%, 18 TDs, 7 INT) transfers in from Baylor to take the starting job.
New OC Travis Trickett and Scott want to run a faster tempo offensively and Bohanon’s experience behind an offensive line returning all five starters and 136 combined starts should provide a boost.
The top three receivers return, but only combined for three touchdowns last season. The backs are in place with everyone of note back. Jaren Mangham was the team’s bright spot with 671 yards and 15 scores, Kelley Joiner was second on the team with 480 yards and showed some flash and Brian Battle was an all-star kick returner averaging 32.5 yards a pop with three touchdowns.
Bob Shoop has had numerous stops as a DC at the Power 5 level (Vanderbilt, Penn State, Tennessee and Mississippi State) and takes over the role at USF inheriting nine starters from 2021. Shoop brings in a new 4-2-5 scheme for a unit that was one of the nation’s worst finishing 123rd in the nation allowing 476 YPG and 35 PPG.
The defensive line needs reinforcements, so Rashad Chaney (Minnesota) and Jatorian Hansford (Missouri) transfer in. Antonio Greer (92 tackles, 3 sacks) and Dwayne Bowles (68 tackles) could be one of the best LB tandems in the conference.
The secondary needs the most work as they gave up 263.3 YPG and 26 TDs. The unit was decimated by injuries but return all five starters plus Power 5 transfers Will Jones (Kansas State), Matthew Hill (Auburn), Christian Williams (Miami), Aamaris Brown (Kansas State) and Ray Thornton (Clemson).
Scott has only defeated one FBS opponent in his two seasons in Tampa. The talent is slowly but surely getting better. However, the wins may continue to be few and far between this season. USF opens with BYU and has road trips to Florida and Louisville before conference play.
USF also must travel to both AAC favorites Cincinnati and Houston.
Scott signed a two-year extension in the offseason and a $22 million indoor practice facility is scheduled to open this fall, with plans for a new on-campus stadium also underway.
The Bulls program is headed in the right direction and it should be better than last year’s 2-10, but patience is going to be necessary as USF is likely a year away from competitiveness.
Pick: Over 4.5 (+ 100)
The Rod Carey era is over in Philadelphia after a 12-20 three-year record (4-15 the last two years) and Stan Drayton now becomes the Owls’ sixth head coach in seven seasons. Drayton spent the last five years at Texas as the associate head coach and RB coach. Matt Rhule and Geoff Collins were able to win here a few years ago; now, it is Drayton’s turn.
The Owls were 125th in the nation in total offense last year. They couldn’t run the ball, had no downfield passing game, and failed to score more than 14 points in nine games and in any of the last seven games.
Drayton’s first order of business is to bolster an anemic running game. Sophomore Edward Haydee led the team with just 330 yards and three touchdowns last year – averaging under four yards per carry. Darvon Hubbard is coming in from Texas A&M and Jakari Norwood is moving in from Illinois as part of a rotation.
In 2020, D’Wan Mathis was the opening-game starter for Georgia; last year, he led an offense that averaged 16.3 PPG. He has potential as a dual-threat quarterback that has some returning depth in the receiving corps with Jose Barbon (40 catches, 440 yards) and Amad Anderson Jr (24, 283), plus Michigan State transfer Ian Stewart and Georgia Tech transfer Adonicas Sanders.
Temple is switching to a 3-4 defense after allowing 37.5 points per game last season. LBs Jordan Magee (54 tackles, 6.5 TFL) and Muheem McCargo (37 tackles, 3.5 TFL) man the backer corps.
The additions from the transfer portal – Jerquavion Malone (Kentucky) and nose tackle Zach Gill (North Carolina), who missed last year with injury – will have to produce immediately for a group that only averaged 1.42 sacks per game (114th in nation).
The strength of the unit might be the secondary with two seniors – Cameron Ruiz and Keyshawn Paul – returning at corner. However, they combined for one of the Owls’ paltry six INTs. Daesean Winston also must stay on the field. After opting out of 2020, Winston missed nine games in 2021.
Drayton’s coaching career, which included a couple NFL stints, started nearly 30 years ago and he finally gets a chance to be a head coach.
He does not get any breaks in conference play, having to play the league’s best three teams in Cincinnati, Houston, and UCF.
The Owls do begin with three winnable nonconference games (at Duke, vs. Lafayette, and vs. UMass). However, it is difficult to see many wins coming in league play this year as this program continues its constant transition through coaching change after coaching change.
It is going to take a couple solid recruiting classes to return Temple back to the Al Golden, Matt Ruhle and Geoff Collins years. Temple will likely have a season like the last two.
Pick: Under 2.5 (+ 120)
The Green Wave entered 2021 with high expectations but slumped to the worst season (2-10) under coach Willie Fritz. Tulane was a bit unlucky last season as the program was 0-5 in one-score games with a minus-nine in turnover margin. Fritz is a good coach and is out to prove that 2021 is an aberration after three straight bowl seasons.
Virtually the entire offensive staff is gone after last season’s freefall. New OC Jim Svoboda built a consistent NCAA D-II playoff team over the last decade at Central Missouri. He co-mingles West Coast offense with modern spreads and RPO concepts.
QB Michael Pratt (2,390 yards, 57.8% completions, 21 TDs, 8 INT) has a lot of potential but is now working with his third OC in three years. He has also taken a beating behind an offensive line that has failed to protect him. The new scheme should allow him to get the ball out faster, but the unit up front still must be substantially better.
RB Tyjae Spears returned late last season from a torn ACL and had four 100-yard games in his last five, including 264 yards at Memphis in the season finale. Colorado transfer Ashaad Clayton also adds depth.
Tulane’s top two pass-catchers – receiver Shae Wyatt (33 catches, 376 yards, 3 TDs) and tight end Tyrick James (31, 429, 4) -- return. Notre Dame transfer Lawrence Keys and Maryland transfer Dea Dea McDougle also add depth.
Tulane’s defense took a step back under first-year coordinator Chris Hampton last fall, surrendering 34 PPG (114th) and 5.8 YPP. This unit also struggled to stop the pass (10th in the AAC), gave up too many big plays and had issues getting off the field on third down.
They did improve over the last five games and will look to improve with seven returning starters. LBs Nick Anderson (56 tackles, four sacks) and Dorian Williams (73 tackles) have spent three years together.
Edge rusher Darius Hodges led the conference with 14.5 TFLs and flirted with the transfer portal but returns to lead a pass rush that was relied upon too much last year by a secondary that gave up 271.2 yards per game (120th in nation) and allowed opponents to complete 66.6% of their passes.
Tulane took a nosedive last year due to a variety of factors, including a one-month displacement due to Hurricane Ida, a tough early schedule including games at Oklahoma and at Ole Miss, and friction between coaches (mainly involving former OC Chip Long who is now at Georgia Tech).
The schedule eases up a bit this year and Fritz has always been a solid coach. He seemingly has an offensive staff in place that he’s more comfortable with.
The Green Wave have a trip to Kansas State early in the season, but have nonconference games that are winnable against UMass, Alcorn State, and Southern Miss.
The end of season run with UCF, SMU, and at Cincinnati, though, is brutal. Tulane will be better than 2-10, but likely needs to pull an upset to get back to the 6-6 mark of 2020.
Pick: Under 6 (-130)
A four-game winning streak to close 2021 helped coach Philip Montgomery’s team reach the postseason for the second year in a row, where the Golden Hurricane notched a win over Old Dominion in the Myrtle Beach Bowl. Only nine starters return for Tulsa, though, and the Golden Hurricane must go through a much tougher schedule in order to reach a bowl game for the third straight season.
Fifth-year senior QB Davis Brin (3,244 yards, 59.4% completions, 18 TDs) returns, but had an inconsistent season last year. He threw 16 interceptions, highest in the nation. However, Tulsa had the second-best offense in the AAC (442 YPG). Seniors JuanCarlos Santana (689 yards, 3 TDs) and Keylon Stokes (2,402 career yards), who missed most of last year, return, but leading receiver Josh Johnson (1,114 yards, 6 TDs) is gone. Isaiah Epps also transfers in from Kentucky.
RB Shamari Brooks is arguably the biggest loss, though, as he leaves Tulsa as the program’s No. 2 all-time rusher. Nevertheless, the backfield still has depth with Deneric Prince, Anthony Watkins, and Steven Anderson (1,377 combined yards, 11 TD) back to go along with JUCO rushing leader Jordan Ford.
The offensive line loses four starters to transfer, graduation, or to the NFL Draft (including No. 24 pick overall LT Tyler Smith).
Luke Olson is the new DC but has been on staff here for 11 years and will continue to use the 3-3-5 scheme that finished fifth overall in the AAC last season in total and scoring defense, allowing 371 YPG and 27 PPG.
Jaxon Player (10 TFLs, four sacks) has transferred to Baylor. Anthony Goodlow (six sacks) and Colorado transfer Jayden Simon will lead the defensive line.
Middle LB Justin Wright led the team with 82 tackles last year. Joining him in the LB corps include Grant Sawyer, who has played 46 games at Tulsa, and former Oklahoma transfer Jon-Michael Terry, who missed most of 2021 with injury.
Tulsa returns three starters in the secondary including strong safety Kendarin Ray, who missed eight games with a foot injury.
Tulsa was able to get away with a few losses in games it should’ve won – home dates with UC Davis and Navy – but it won’t be able to do that this year.
Despite not having to make trips to Ohio State and Oklahoma State, the schedule is not easy with road dates at Wyoming and at Ole Miss.
Only three starters return on defense and nine overall. Tulsa is also thin on the offensive line which must protect a quarterback that turned it over way too often. They also must replace a great deal on the defensive line.
The Golden Hurricane rallied for a bowl game last year, but it looks like a big ask to repeat that feat with lack of returning experience.
Pick: Under 6 (-120)
Gus Malzahn’s debut season, all things considered, was a success at 9-4 including a win over Florida in the Gasparilla Bowl. Very few programs hit the transfer portal as hard as the Knights did in this offseason. While there are a fair number of personnel changes, 13 starters are back, and a great deal of Power 5 depth has been added.
Malzahn’s offense averaged a respectable 402 YPG and 32 PPG last season. QB Dillon Gabriel was lost for the season after three games and RB Isaiah Bowser (737 yards, 9 TDs) missed five games. Gabriel is now at Oklahoma and as a pure pocket passer was never really a fit for Malzahn’s spread option.
Enter John Rhys Plumlee, who ran a similar offense at Ole Miss before Lane Kiffin moved him to receiver. He adds an extra dimension to UCF’s running game and will challenge Mikey Keene (1,730 yards, 63.6% completions, 17 TDs, 6 INT) for the starting QB job.
UCF averaged 198.3 YPG on the ground (second in AAC) and should be good again. The offensive line returns three starters and adds three-year starter Ryan Svoboda from Virginia on the right side. However, the passing game must be more dynamic.
Leading receiver Ryan O’ Keefe (812 yards, 7 TDs) returns, but the offense needs Florida transfer Kemore Gamble to be a factor at tight end, and Auburn’s Kobe Hudson must be a dangerous outside option.
The unit took a big step in its first season under coordinator Travis Williams, improving its total defense numbers to 53rd nationally.
The strength is in the secondary. That group includes cornerbacks Davonte Brown (team-high 13 PBUs) and Corey Thornton (32 tackles, 2.5 TFLs, six PBUs) as well as safeties Quadric Bullard (83 tackles, four TFLs, six PBUs) and Divaad Wilson (72 tackles). A name to watch at safety is transfer Koby Perry, an FCS All-American at Austin Peay.
There is experience on the edge with Tre'mon Morris-Brash (10 TFLs, five sacks) and Josh Celiscar (7.5 TFLs and three sacks). The interior is headlined by Ricky Barber (29 tackles, three sacks). A newcomer to watch is Lee Hunter, a former four-star recruit and Auburn transfer.
Linebacker is the biggest question with zero returning starters. UCF turned to the transfer portal for help, bringing in Jason Johnson, who was an FCS All-American at Eastern Illinois.
Malzahn has a good deal of talent back plus plenty of plug-and-play transfers enter the program. He reunites with Chip Lindsey, his old OC at Auburn (2017-2018). The offense could still be in transition and losing a talented passer like Gabriel is never easy, but this personnel looks a little better equipped to run what Malzahn wants.
UCF steps out of conference to host Power 5 programs Louisville and Georgia Tech, and the Knights will be heading to Power 5 next year as a member of the Big 12.
The Knights avoid Houston and get Cincinnati for Homecoming at the Bounce House. The toughest part of the schedule should be in November where UCF closes conference play with three of its last four on the road.
UCF is the third choice to win the AAC behind Cincinnati and Houston but has a relatively favorable schedule. With the influx of talent, nine regular season wins is highly doable.
Pick: Over 8.5 (-125)