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In AAC, it's no divisions, 1 favorite: UCF

By Wes Reynolds  () 

The favorite

UCF

With UConn leaving the AAC to join the Big East while becoming an independent in football, the divisions have been scuttled for the time being with just 11 teams left in the conference. This season’s consensus favorite is UCF. The Knights are priced at -110 at Westgate SuperBook to win the AAC championship game. They return eight starters on offense, including QB Dillon Gabriel, who showed he was a freshman at times but had a highly productive debut season. The QB situation is a lot clearer than last year with Gabriel cemented as the starter. Backup Darriel Mack, who was projected to start going into last season before injury, has opted out. Ten players are following suit, including two defensive starters, DT Kalia Davis and CB Tay Gowan. These losses create concern regarding depth, especially on both lines, but the Knights’ schedule is manageable. The only non-conference road game at rebuilding Georgia Tech. 

Live dogs

Memphis and Cincinnati

These two met in the AAC championship game last year. Memphis earned the New Year’s Six bowl bid to represent the Group of 5 and fell 53-39 to Penn State in the Cotton Bowl. Memphis and Cincinnati are priced at 4-1 to win the conference. Perhaps Memphis has the slight edge in scheduling. The Tigers host league favorite UCF, while Cincinnati must travel to Orlando to face the Knights, who will be in a revenge spot. However, Memphis suffered a blow when RB Kenneth Gainwell opted out due to losing four family members to COVID-19. Gainwell represents 2,069 all-purpose yards that the Tigers will have to replace. 

Dead money

South Florida

Charlie Strong is out at USF and Jeff Scott is in. Scott is a first-time head coach who was a Broyles Award finalist last season as the nation’s top assistant coach while serving as co-offensive coordinator at Clemson. He worked under Dabo Swinney, so Scott comes from a winning culture at one of the most prominent programs in college football. This looks like a good long-term hire for USF, but as usual with new hires, expect some growing pains. Besides Scott, USF has two new coordinators: OC Charlie Weis Jr. and DC Glenn Spencer. Therefore, players must learn new schemes on both sides of the ball.  Furthermore, USF’s non-conference schedule is not easy. The Bulls travel to Notre Dame and Florida Atlantic, now led by onetime USF coach Willie Taggart. After that game, they visit Cincinnati for the AAC opener and their third consecutive road game in just the fourth week of the season. That has the potential to wear down a team early. The Bulls might be favored in only three of their 11 games (Citadel, East Carolina and Tulsa), but the future is bright and they won’t be the 100-1 shot (Westgate SuperBook) in the future that they are this time to win the AAC.

Big games on the board

SMU at TCU, TBD

Many rivalry games have gone away due to COVID-19, and the Battle for the Iron Skillet could suffer the same fate, as it was postponed from its scheduled Sept. 11 date. The schools hope to reschedule. Last season SMU broke a seven-year losing streak by going to Fort Worth and beating then-No. 25 TCU outright 41-38 as an eight-point underdog. That win got the ball rolling for SMU to have its first double-digit-win season since 1984. Meanwhile, this game turned the momentum sour for TCU. The Horned Frogs had a rare losing season (5-7) under Gary Patterson but at least seemed to have found their solution at QB with sophomore Max Duggan. However, he is out indefinitely with a heart condition. 

UCF at Memphis, Oct. 17

These clubs never got a crack at each other last season as Cincinnati emerged out of the Eastern Division to make the AAC title game before bowing out at Memphis. UCF swept the Tigers (3-0-1 ATS) in the 2017 and 2018 regular-season meetings and conference championship games. Mike Norvell is now coaching Florida State, and one thing he was never able to do at Memphis was defeat UCF. First-year coach Ryan Silverfield was promoted from assistant head coach, and his first order of business is to reverse that trend.

Memphis at Cincinnati, Oct. 31

Cincinnati certainly will have double revenge on its mind, having lost both meetings (2-0 ATS) at Memphis last year. Starting QB Desmond Ridder hurt his throwing shoulder at USF last year and tried to play through. But he was forced to miss the regular-season finale at Memphis, a 34-24 loss that cost the Bearcats the right to host the AAC championship game. Ridder returned the next week but still was not right physically. This meeting likely will determine UCF’s primary challenger. 

Cincinnati at UCF, Nov. 21

Cincinnati is the co-second choice with Memphis to win the AAC, but the Bearcats got UCF 27-24 as a four-point home underdog last season. That catapulted Cincinnati into the driver’s seat in the division before losses to Memphis in consecutive weeks at the end of the season. Luke Fickell has posted back-to-back 11-win seasons and was rewarded in August with a contract extension through 2026. The defensive-minded coach has nine starters back, and this battle could involve the conference’s best defense against its best offense. 

 

 

Cincinnati 

The Bearcats have put up back-to-back 11-win seasons, and while they will not have a third in a row with only nine games scheduled, they are again in the mix to win their first AAC championship. Cincinnati loses a home game with Western Michigan and road games at Nebraska and Miami (Ohio). The brief non-conference schedule does get easier, though, with home games against FCS Austin Peay and Army. The Bearcats did win 11 games last season, but arguably they slightly overachieved. They were outgained by 37 ypg in conference play and amassed conference wins at East Carolina, at USF and vs. Temple by three points or fewer, all as double-digit favorites. Senior QB Desmond Ridder is healthy after missing two starts late last season, but the strength of this team is defense. Cincinnati returns nine starters plus senior FS James Wiggins, a 2018 starter who missed last season. Luke Fickell signed his best recruiting class this offseason with 22 three- and four-star players, so the depth should be better. But the offense will need to be more productive and be able to put away inferior teams, which it struggled to do last season.

East Carolina

Mike Houston brings championship pedigree to East Carolina after winning an FCS national championship at James Madison in 2016. Although they increased their win total by only one last year, the Pirates were improved on both sides of the ball. They increased their scoring average by four points (22.8 to 26.8) and decreased their points allowed by nearly the same amount (33.7 from 37.3). The offense should continue to improve with junior QB Holton Ahlers and his top three receivers back plus the addition of graduate transfer RB Chase Hayden from Arkansas. Defensive problems remain, which is why Bob Trott’s contract as defensive coordinator was not renewed. Blake Harrell steps into that role coming in from Kennesaw State. Harrell did have the No. 1 scoring defense in 2017 when he was the DC at the Citadel. His primary focus is always on stopping the run; ECU allowed 5.1 ypc and 208 ypg in ’19. COVID-19 has done more than affect ECU’s schedule, with the South Carolina and Norfolk State games off and the Marshall game still looking to be rescheduled. The Pirates also had a coronavirus outbreak over the summer, and 30 players had to be placed in isolation. The Pirates’ first game is not until Sept. 26, but they are still playing catch-up regarding practice and conditioning.

Houston

Dana Holgorsen took over the program last year with a five-year, $20 million contract. Year 1 was  tumultuous. The Cougars opened with a loss at Oklahoma and had to play their first four games in a 19-day span. They started 1-3 before the wheels came off, and Houston ended up 4-8. QB D’Eriq King, RB Mulbah Car and WR Keith Corbin redshirted after four games. Car and Corbin returned, but King transferred to Miami. Holgorsen also made a change with one of his co-offensive coordinators as Marquel Blackwell was demoted to RB coach and former TE coach Shannon Dawson now serves with Brandon Jones as co-OCs. The Cougars return 19 starters — 10 on offense, nine on defense — so they could be the AAC sleepers at 25-1 to win the conference. Junior Clayton Tune has started at QB nine times over two seasons and was playing hurt last year. He should have plenty of weapons, as seven of last year’s top eight receivers return. On defense, Houston gave up 34 ppg and 468 ypg last season, but the talent has received an upgrade as four Power 5 transfers are now eligible. The team should be better overall, but the road schedule is difficult with trips to Memphis, BYU, Navy, Cincinnati and SMU. Four of those teams won 10 or more games last year. 

Memphis

The Tigers come off arguably the greatest season in program history with a 12-2 record and a New Year’s Six appearance in the Cotton Bowl. Nevertheless, success can have its cost when you are a higher-level Group of 5 program. Mike Norvell is now at Florida State, and DC Adam Fuller went with him. Ryan Silverfield, who was a Norvell assistant all in all four of his years at Memphis, takes over as coach and retains Kevin Johns as the OC. Memphis’ new DC is Mike MacIntyre, the former Colorado coach who was the DC at Ole Miss last season. MacIntyre held Memphis to a season-low 15 points (avg 40.4 ppg) in the 2019 season opener. While at Mississippi, MacIntyre helped the defense drop its points allowed by almost 10, cut the rushing yards allowed by 83 per game and increase the sack total from 22 to 33. He will inherit eight returning starters and 14 of the top 17 tackle leaders from last season. Offensively, the Tigers return a legitimate NFL QB prospect in Brady White. However, the offense did suffer a major blow with sophomore RB Kenneth Gainwell opting out. Gainwell amassed over 2,000 all-purpose yards last season and was named Freshman of the Year by the Football Writers Association of America. That production will be difficult to replace on such short notice, but Memphis has enough talent to be an AAC contender, and it does get league favorite UCF at home Oct. 17.

Navy

Navy rebounded from a disappointing 3-10 season with an 11-2 campaign capped by a win over Kansas State in the Liberty Bowl. The Midshipmen were the most improved team in the nation last season. Not only did Navy increase its win total by eight games, it also was the only team in FBS to improve its yards per game on both offense and defense by over 100 ypg. Much credit goes to first-year DC Brian Newberry. The Middies were going to get an opportunity to play Notre Dame in Ireland to open the season, but that game was moved back stateside and then canceled. Navy also must figure out how to replace QB Malcolm Perry, who set the academy and FBS single-season QB rushing record with 2,017 yards and threw for 1,084. Senior Dalen Morris has emerged as the first-string QB. Junior Chance Warren and sophomore Perry Olsen seem to have more upside, but Morris has been the best at operating the offense in camp. During Ken Niumatalolo’s tenure, senior starting QBs have gone 53-25 and underclassmen 44-34. There is talent around the untested Morris, including the top three rushers after Perry and top six receivers. Navy showed a more aggressive defense last season, constantly changing fronts and blitzing more. The Middies return seven starters on that side and should be one of the league’s best defenses. Navy also catches a break in avoiding UCF and Cincinnati on the schedule, and it hosts Memphis on Nov. 14. 

SMU

SMU had not posted a double-digit-win season since Bobby Collins was at the helm in 1984. Last year that changed, though the Mustangs were not running the “Pony Express.” But they averaged 41.8 ppg and 490 ypg with a hybrid of a power spread and Sonny Dykes’ Air Raid offense, which he learned under Hal Mumme and Mike Leach. Texas transfer QB Shane Buechele threw for just under 4,000 yards with 34 TD passes in his first season in Dallas. This year SMU will have a new OC as Garrett Riley comes in from Appalachian State and A.J. Ricker gets promoted from OL coach to serve as co-OC. Seven starters are back, including four of five on the offensive line, but SMU will need someone to replace RB Xavier Jones’ 1,276 yards and 23 TDs. SMU’s veteran DL ranked second in the nation with 52 sacks. Three of the front four are gone, and the defense did regress in the second half of the season, giving up 532 ypg in the last six games vs. only 370 ypg in the first seven. The Mustangs start on the road for three straight non-conference games, although all are in Texas. They avoid UCF in the regular season and get the other preseason AAC top-5 teams (Memphis, Cincinnati and Navy) at home, so the opportunity is there if SMU can shore up the defense. 

South Florida 

The Charlie Strong era is over, and Jeff Scott, one of the most respected coordinators and recruiters in the country, takes over as the youngest head coach in the AAC at 39. Scott served on Dabo Swinney’s staff at Clemson for 12 seasons, including the last five as co-OC. He certainly brings championship pedigree and should prove to be a great hire in a few years if USF can keep him around. Scott is not the only new coach at USF, which brought in two new coordinators, Charlie Weis Jr. on offense and Glenn Spencer on defense. Weis and Spencer served in the same roles on Lane Kiffin’s staff last season at Florida Atlantic. Spencer’s FAU defense led the nation in takeaways in 2019. The Bulls have a bright future, but it will take a while for Scott and the new staff to right the ship. USF has a trip to Notre Dame on Sept. 19 and then faces Florida Atlantic on the road. The USF defense might be ahead of the offense since the Bulls averaged only 20.8 ppg in 2019. The Bulls have a three-way battle for the QB job. Sophomore returning starter Jordan McCloud is fighting fellow sophomore and North Carolina transfer Cade Fortin as well as graduate transfer Noah Johnson, the 2018 SWAC Offensive Player of the Year at Alcorn State. This is a rebuilding year for USF, but it could be a tougher customer toward the end of the season.

Temple

The Owls are in an interesting spot compared with their fellow AAC members. As of now, Temple has no non-conference games scheduled. The Owls just began scrimmaging at the start of September and do not play until Sept. 26, when they travel to Navy. Temple also must get over the disappointment of being unable to face Miami in the season opener. That game would have been one of the best situational spots in college football as Temple would get a crack at Manny Diaz, who accepted the Temple head-coaching job last season only to quit 17 days later and return to Miami. In his first year, Rod Carey provided some stability and the Owls went 8-5. Temple’s defense improved a little last season, but the offense took a step back. It took time for QB Anthony Russo to get comfortable under Carey and OC Mike Uremovich, who came to Philadelphia from Northern Illinois. Russo entered camp 14 pounds lighter and will be asked to be more of a running threat if he can beat out Iowa State sophomore transfer Re-al Mitchell and fellow sophomore Trad Beatty. Temple must face two of the league’s best three teams, Memphis and UCF, on the road, so Carey’s 25-12 SU and 26-10-1 ATS career road marks will be put to the test. Temple is a bit of a wild card because of its conference-only schedule. 

Tulane

Willie Fritz is unsung, having been a winning coach everywhere he has been. He won two junior college national championships at Blinn College, led Division II Central Missouri to its first playoff berth, took Sam Houston State to back-to-back FCS championship games in 2011 and ’12 and brought Georgia Southern a Sun Belt title in its first year in FBS. Now he has led Tulane to bowl victories in consecutive years for the first time in school history. Tulane returns only 12 starters, so it will need to rely on a cavalcade of Power 5 graduate transfers. The group includes WR Mykel Jones (Oklahoma), LB Kevin Henry (Oklahoma State), CB Kyle Meyers (Florida State), OG Ben Knutson (Virginia), OT Jaylen Miller (Duke) and S Ajani Kerr (Georgia Tech). Tulane had trips planned to Northwestern and Mississippi State, but those opponents have been replaced with South Alabama and Southern Miss, which will be a rematch of last year’s 30-13 Tulane win in the Armed Forces Bowl. The Southern Miss game has another intriguing angle in that likely new starting QB Keon Howard transferred from Hattiesburg after starting nine games in two seasons there. Tulane has some upside and is certainly well-coached, but the graduate transfers will have to make the most of their second chances and do so in a hurry. 

Tulsa

Philip Montgomery won 10 games here in 2016, but Tulsa has had three straight losing seasons and it looked like he was on the hot seat. But he is back for a sixth season. Tulsa could struggle again since it opens with road games at Oklahoma State, at Arkansas State and at UCF. In fact, Tulsa does not play at home until Oct. 17. The Golden Hurricane return nine starters on offense, including senior QB Zach Smith, a 1,000-yard rusher in senior Shamari Brooks and a 1,000-yard receiver in senior Keylon Stokes. The offense, also coordinated by Montgomery, should put up its best numbers in several seasons. But the line, which gave up 3.25 sacks per game, is shifting players to different spots and will need to come together. On defense, the Golden Hurricane bring back only four starters and will be tested early by three opponents that averaged over 32 ppg last season. Another thing that has held Tulsa back the last three seasons is its record in close games. The Golden Hurricane are 2-11 the last three seasons in one-score games. Tulsa is also behind in preparation and had a nine-day disruption in fall camp due to eight players testing positive for COVID-19. The game at Arkansas State on Sept. 26 will be the key to Tulsa’s season. If they lose in Jonesboro, the Golden Hurricane could be looking at an 0-4 start.

UCF

UCF slipped a little bit last season to what is now considered a disappointing season in Orlando at 10-3. Of course, anything less than what they accomplished in 2017 and ‘18 with two New Year’s Six bowl appearances and a 25-game regular-season winning streak would be considered underachieving. UCF did have three losses last season, but they were by a combined seven points. The QB situation last year was murky, as 2018 starter McKenzie Milton was out with a knee injury. Darriel Mack was favored to start but got hurt in fall camp, and true freshman Dillon Gabriel beat out Notre Dame transfer Brandon Wimbush. Wimbush has graduated and Mack has opted out of the season, but this was already Gabriel’s job. He  threw for 3,653 yards and 29 TDs against just seven INTs. UCF also brings back six of its top seven rushers and receivers, so Gabriel will have plenty of tools at his disposal. Josh Heupel’s offense is always explosive, and UCF enters the season with a 39-game streak of at least one passing and one rushing touchdown, longest in FBS. Two defensive starters have opted out, but the Knights do return six quality starters and are strong in the secondary. The chief concern is the depth up front, as several backups on both lines opted out due to coronavirus concerns. The Knights are likely to be favored in every game, including their Oct. 17 showdown at Memphis.

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