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American Athletic Conference preview: Cincinnati, Memphis and UCF battle for title under increased spotlight

Sam Cooper and Nick Bromberg
·10 min read
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The American Athletic Conference was already viewed by most as the top conference outside the Power Five. The AAC’s top teams have consistently been ranked in the Top 25 in recent years, with UCF’s back-to-back undefeated regular seasons in 2017 and 2018 making waves in the sport.

With the Big Ten and Pac-12 out of the equation this fall, the AAC warrants an increased spotlight in 2020. The 2020 season also happens to be the first year the AAC will be without divisions. UConn’s decision to leave the AAC for the Big East in basketball meant the conference was down to 11 members in football.

Rather than have divisional imbalance with six members in one division and five in the other, the AAC eliminated its divisional format altogether. It’s a move that will make the race for the conference crown even more exciting.

Below we’ve previewed all 11 AAC teams, listed in predicted order of finish.

UCF

UCF fell back down to earth a bit last fall, going 10-3 after back-to-back undefeated regular seasons. The Knights return sophomore QB Dillon Gabriel, who completed nearly 60 percent of his passes and threw 29 TDs to just seven interceptions as a freshman. Seniors Tre Nixon and Marlon Williams will be counted on to replace the receiving production of Gabriel Davis, who had 72 catches for 1,241 yards and 12 TDs. Otis Anderson, last year’s leading rusher, is also back. Two of the team’s better defensive players, DL Kalia Davis and CB Tay Gowan, are among 10 players who have opted out of the 2020 season. Despite those losses, the Knights are the conference’s most-talented team.

Memphis

Memphis, the defending conference champion, enters 2020 with a new head coach in Ryan Silverfield. Silverfield, promoted from offensive line coach, takes over for Mike Norvell, who left for Florida State. Silverfield was with the Tigers for the program’s ascent under Norvell, so there will be plenty of continuity. The Tigers were explosive on offense in 2019 and much of the talent that made that unit special has returned, including QB Brady White and receiver Damonte Coxie. However, Kenneth Gainwell, the team’s star RB, decided to opt out as his family has been hit hard by COVID-19. On defense there are seven starters returning, including five of its top six tacklers. But there could be some growing pains as the defense transitions to a 3-4 base under new coordinator Mike MacIntyre.

Cincinnati

Coming off back-to-back 11-win seasons, will this be the year Cincinnati takes the final step needed to win the AAC? The Bearcats, last year’s AAC East winners, should have one of the best defenses in the conference yet again, with the experience (nine starters back) returning to be *the* best in the AAC — especially with the depth in the secondary and the trenches. But the lack of explosiveness on offense could be what separates the Bearcats from UCF and Memphis atop the conference standings. With RB Michael Warren off to the NFL and an array of unproven options at receiver, Cincy desperately needs a bounce-back year from QB Desmond Ridder in order to win the conference.

CINCINNATI, OH - OCTOBER 04: UCF (QB) Dillon Gabriel (11) tackled by Cincinnati (LB) Darrian Beavers (27) during a college football game between the University of Central Florida Knights (UCF) and Cincinnati Bearcats on October 4, 2019 at Nippert Stadium in Cincinnati, OH  (Photo by James Black/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Cincinnati and UCF will be two of the top teams in the American Athletic Conference in 2020. (Photo by James Black/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

SMU

Texas transfer Shane Buechele’s first season at SMU was a success. Buechele threw for over 3,900 yards, completed 63 percent of his passes and threw for 34 TDs in an offense that averaged nearly 42 points per game. His second season with the Mustangs will be without star WR James Proche, now with the Baltimore Ravens, and RB Xavier Jones. Proche had 111 catches for 1,225 yards and 15 TDs while Jones rushed for 1,276 yards and 23 TDs. The return of Reggie Roberson, though, gives Buechele one of the AAC’s top receivers. SMU’s defense gave up over 30 points per game in 2019 and must replace Delontae Scott, who accounted for 17 tackles for loss and nine sacks in 2019.

Navy

How do you replace Malcolm Perry? That’s the big question facing Navy’s offense entering 2020. The QB ran for 2,017 yards and 21 TDs in 2019 and is set to be replaced by senior Dalen Morris. He rose to the top of the Navy QB depth chart during fall camp as Chance Warren shifted to slotback. The defense was the AAC’s best in 2019 and returns seven starters including standout LB Diego Fagot, who had 100 tackles and 5.5 sacks. While we won’t see Navy play Notre Dame in 2020, the Midshipmen’s Labor Day game against BYU is a nice way to cap off what will be a very odd Week 1.

Tulane

Senior Keon Howard takes over at QB in 2020. He replaces Justin McMillan, who led Tulane in both rushing and passing in 2019. Howard is one of six new starters on Tulane’s offense, though three of the five returning starters are on the offensive line. The Tulane defense must do better at rushing the passer in 2020. After recording 41 sacks in 2018 — up from 14 in 2017 — Tulane had just 21 sacks in 2019. Considering all four defensive line starters are back, an overall better pass rush seems like a safe bet.

Houston

After a 1-3 start in 2019, Houston tried something radical. UH and new coach Dana Holgorsen took full advantage of a new NCAA rule that allows players to redshirt after playing four or fewer games. The Cougars ended up finishing the year 4-8 as many of their best players sat out. Will it pay off in 2020? D’Eriq King, the team’s star quarterback, ended up transferring to Miami, but the majority of UH’s offensive firepower returns. Most of the defense is back, too, but that side of the ball has been a major struggle in recent years. The Cougars were second-worst in the conference in total and scoring defense last fall, allowing 467.5 yards and 34 points per game.

Houston head coach Dana Holgorsen during the second half of an NCAA college football game against SMU Thursday, Oct. 24, 2019, in Houston. (AP Photo/Michael Wyke)
Will Houston head coach Dana Holgorsen's bold play to redshirt some of his top players in 2019 pay off in 2020? (AP Photo/Michael Wyke)

Temple

Temple has been no stranger to coaching turnover in recent years, but the program has still managed to string together five straight winning seasons. The first season under Rod Carey was no different as the Owls went 8-5. Temple had a strong defense a year ago, but lost Quincy Roche, the AAC Defensive Player of the Year, to a transfer. On top of that, the Owls’ top six tacklers from 2019 are out of the equation. That’s a lot to replace. Offensively, QB Anthony Russo has 23 career starts, but will be pushed by Iowa State transfer Re-al Mitchell. Jadan Blue and Branden Mack should be one of the conference’s top WR duos while Re’Mahn Davis is back after nearly rushing for 1,000 yards a year ago.

Tulsa

Tulsa’s offense returns largely intact in Phillip Montgomery’s sixth season. QB Zach Smith threw for nearly 3,300 yards in 2019 but threw just 19 TDs. RB Shamari Brooks rushed for 1,046 yards but found the end zone six times. Since averaging 42.5 points per game in 2016, Tulsa hasn’t averaged more than 30 points per game since. Scoring lots of points will be vital; the defense returns just four starters and hasn’t accumulated more than 14 sacks in a season since that 10-3 campaign in 2016.

East Carolina

The Pirates got the go-ahead to resume practicing on Tuesday after a coronavirus outbreak among the team paused practices. That practice suspension (the second of the offseason for ECU) meant that the team’s game against Marshall on Sept. 12 got postponed. ECU, entering Year 2 under Mike Houston, brings back all of its key offensive skill position players, led by QB Holton Ahlers. ECU’s three leading tacklers on defense also return. Can the defense get better for a third straight season? After giving up 45 points per game in 2017, ECU cut that to 37 points per contest in 2018 and 34 in 2019.

South Florida

Longtime Clemson assistant Jeff Scott takes over for Charlie Strong in Tampa and takes over a team that steadily fell from 10-2 in 2017 to 4-8 a season ago. Jordan McCloud took over for Blake Barnett as the team’s starter in 2019 and is competing with transfers Noah Johnson and Cade Fortin for the starting QB job. Improving the passing game is a must in 2020. No USF receiver had more than 30 catches in 2019 and just three players had more than 20 for an offense that was the AAC’s worst.

Independents

The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in significant changes among the FBS independent programs. Notre Dame, the most notable program that does not belong to a conference, will be a member of the ACC in 2020. Meanwhile, UConn, UMass and New Mexico State have all decided not to play in 2020.

That leaves just three others: Army, BYU and Liberty. They were all left scrambling to fill out their schedules and have done so impressively. Army has a full 12-game slate beginning with Saturday’s home game against Middle Tennessee. Liberty has a 10-game schedule that includes three ACC opponents. BYU, meanwhile, is up to eight games after being down to just four confirmed games a few weeks ago.

Here’s what to look for from those three programs in 2020.

Army

After combining for a 21-5 record in 2017 and 2018, Army took an unexpected step back in 2019, finishing 5-8. While familiar faces like Sandon McCoy and Artice Hobbs return in the backfield, there will be a new quarterback leading the option offense following the departure of Kelvin Hopkins. Christian Anderson, a junior, was listed atop the Black Knights’ Week 1 depth chart with Jabari Laws as the second option. Four starters return on defense for head coach Jeff Monken, who is entering his seventh season. Army plays a whopping eight home games this year, including five of its first six contests, before closing out the year in Philadelphia against Navy.

Army head coach Jeff Monken stands with his team singing after an NCAA college football game against Michigan in Ann Arbor, Mich., Saturday, Sept. 7, 2019. Michigan won 24-21 in double-overtime. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)
Army head coach Jeff Monken stands with his team singing after an NCAA college football game against Michigan in Ann Arbor, Mich., Saturday, Sept. 7, 2019. Michigan won 24-21 in double-overtime. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

BYU

On the heels of consecutive 7-6 seasons, BYU opens 2020 against two service academies: Navy on Sept. 7 and Army on Sept. 19. It’s a tough start for a schedule that was once diminished down to just four games, but is now back up to eight. The Cougars’ original slate included six Power Five opponents, but now they play two from the AAC, Sun Belt and Conference USA, plus one independent and one FCS program. But hey, it’s better than nothing. BYU’s first three games will be on national television, too, so that’s a nice boost for the school. The Cougars have some fun players, especially QB Zach Wilson, who excels at improvising when the play breaks down in front of him. Unfortunately, Wilson’s top target, TE Matt Bushman, suffered a season-ending injury in preseason practice earlier this week.

Liberty

Hugh Freeze coached Liberty to a bowl game in his first season, although it was against an extremely weak schedule. The Flames lost their two offensive stars, QB Buckshot Calvert and WR Antonio Gandy-Golden, to graduation (Gandy-Golden was an NFL draft pick) and a few prized defensive recruits due to the school’s handling of, well, a bunch of things. With only nine starters back in all, plus a tougher schedule that includes three ACC opponents, a winning record would be a nice accomplishment for the Flames in 2020.

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