Team-by-team previews of AAC football

Team-by-team previews of the American Athletic Conference:


Last year’s record: 9-1, 7-0 AAC

Coach: Luke Fickell, 5th season, 35-14

QB: Desmond Ridder, senior, 186-281 for 2,296 yards and 19 TDs in 2020

The buzz: The Bearcats captured their first conference title since 2014 last season and were on the cusp of a spot in the College Football Playoff semifinals. The defense, which was one of the best in the country in 2020, returns a bevy of talent, including DE Myjai Sanders and CB Ahmad Gardner.


Last year’s record: 3-6, 3-5 AAC

Coach: Mike Houston, 3rd season, 7-14

QB: Holton Ahlers, junior, 165-269 for 1,927 yards and 18 TDs in 2020

The buzz: The Pirates return the most experience in the league with 10 returning starters on both sides of the football. The defense should improve from a unit that ranked No. 102 in the country in total defense thanks to the growth of LB Xavier Smith and CB Ja’Quan McMillian.


Last year’s record: 3-5, 3-3 AAC

Coach: Dana Holgorsen, 3rd season, 7-13

QB: Clayton Tune, junior, 170-285 for 2,048 yards with 15 TDs in 2020

The buzz: Few teams in the league saw their season impacted more by COVID than Houston, which had six games postponed due to the safety protocols. The Cougars were dead-last in the conference in turnover margin (-10), including Tune, who threw eight interceptions in the final five games.


Last year’s record: 8-3, 5-3 AAC

Coach: Ryan Silverfield, 2nd season, 8-3

QB: Grant Gunnell, junior, 64-93 for 625 yards and 6 TDs in 2020 (at Arizona)

The buzz: The biggest question facing the Tigers this offseason is finding a replacement for quarterback Brady White, who finished his career as the school’s all-time leader in passing yards and passing touchdowns. The defense lost a handful of players to the transfer portal but returns pass rusher Morris Joseph.


Last year’s record: 3-7, 3-4 AAC

Coach: Ken Niumatalolo, 13th season, 101-67

QB: Xavier Arline, sophomore, 4-12 for 27 yards and 210 yards rushing in 2020

The buzz: Navy is coming off its second losing season in the past three years and much of the onus falls on the offense, which finished last in the conference in scoring and total offense. Arline emerged late in the season as a viable candidate at quarterback.


Last year’s record: 7-3, 4-3 AAC

Coach: Sonny Dykes, 4th season, 22-13

QB: Tanner Mordecai, sophomore, 32-40 for 395 yards with 2 TDs in 2020 (at Oklahoma)

The buzz: The Mustangs were among the top teams in the conference in offense the last two seasons and 2021 should be no exception. SMU features a plethora of talent at the skill positions with WR Reggie Roberson Jr. and RB Ulysses Bentley IV, and former Oklahoma transfer Mordecai should step in for the departed Shane Buechele.


Last year’s record: 1-6, 1-6 AAC

Coach: Rod Carey, 3rd season, 9-11

QB: Re-al Mitchell, sophomore, 26-52 for 238 yards with 3 TDs in 2020

The buzz: Temple is coming off its worst season since 2006, with much of the blame attributed to a roster that struggled with the impact of COVID. The Owls retooled most of their roster through the transfer portal, adding QB D’Wan Mathis, RB Iverson Clement and DE Will Rodgers.


Last year’s record: 6-6, 3-5 AAC

Coach: Willie Fritz, 6th season, 29-33

QB: Michael Pratt, freshman, 140-254 for 1,806 yards with 20 TDs in 2020

The buzz: Tulane has put together three consecutive winning seasons for the first time since the early 1980s. The Green Wave have built a reputation of being one of the top rushing teams in the country but the emergence of Pratt at quarterback could give this team a more balanced attack.


Last year’s record: 6-3, 6-1 AAC

Coach: Philip Montgomery, 7th season, 31-40

QB: Davis Brin, junior, 19-29 for 268 yards with 2 TDs in 2020

The buzz: Tulsa put together just its second winning season since joining the league in 2014. Brin’s emergence at quarterback this spring makes him the front-runner for the job but identifying a legitimate playmaker at the spot could be the biggest hurdle facing this experienced team.


Last year’s record: 6-4, 5-3 AAC

Coach: Gus Malzahn, 1st season

QB: Dillon Gabriel, junior, 248-413 for 3,570 yards with 32 TDs in 2020

The buzz: Malzahn has injected a renewed enthusiasm into a program that’s sagged a bit over the past two seasons. New defensive coordinator Travis Williams looks to retool a defense that took a major step backward in 2020 while Gabriel leads a young set of talented playmakers on offense.


Last year’s record: 1-8, 0-7 AAC

Coach: Jeff Scott, 2nd season, 1-8

QB: Cade Fortin, junior, 4-8 for 39 yards in 2020

The buzz: There were a lot of growing pains for the Bulls in Year 1 under Scott, including an eight-game losing streak to wrap up the season. The quarterback position has undergone a makeover thanks to transfers Fortin and Jarren Williams, with the pair enjoying a veteran offensive line to play behind.

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