• Travis Tyler

2020 AAC Preview

The American Athletic Conference might as well be considered the "sixth" Power conference in college football.. It's home to many of the teams that have given Power 5 teams the most trouble. In 2019, we saw record breaking offensive performances en route to a thrilling title chase. The conference champion Memphis Tigers battled hard against Penn State in the Cotton Bowl. This year, the competition should be even more intense. Here's a preview to get you ready in the AAC.


Teams

Projected starters based on depth charts at ourlads.com


Cincinnati Bearcats

Head coach Luke Fickell enters his fourth year (and new contract extension) in Cincinnati coming off a division title and 2nd place finish in the conference. The Bearcats were 11-3 but lost the conference championship game to Memphis. The defense led the way, with the offense using the run game to keep pace.


The 2019 Bearcats finished 60th in scoring offense, 50th in total offense, 107th in passing offense, and 25th in rushing offense. RB Michael Warren and QB Desmond Ridder formed a solid rushing attack, amassing 1,915 yards and 19 TDs together. It was Warren's 2nd straight 1,000 yard season, allowing him to become the first player from Cincinnati to declare early for the NFL Draft. Ridder took steps forward in the running game, but took a bit of a step back in each passing category. The 2020 Bearcats will hope senior Alec Pierce and several transfers can improve the passing attack. They will also need a tight end to step up, since Josiah Deguara is now in the NFL after a record-setting college career. Charles McClelland is the most likely replacement for Warren. They return several experienced offensive linemen, so their skill players should be able to perform at a high level.


The 2019 Bearcats defense was 40th in the NCAA last year, including 24th in scoring and tied for 10th in interceptions. The 2020 version only loses 3 players from that bunch. All-Conference players Darrick Forrest, Elijah Ponder, Ja'Von Hicks, and Ahmad Gardner all return. Ponder is joined on the defensive line by Malik Vann, Curtis Brooks, and Myjai Sanders among others. They lose linebackers Perry Young and Bryan Wright, but return very capable players in their place. Coby Bryant and James Wiggins join Hicks and Gardner to round out the secondary. Very strong unit.


Opted out: none reported


East Carolina Pirates

The Pirates are coming off a tough first year under former James Madison head coach Mike Houston. While they finished the year 4-8 and only won 1 conference game, there were a couple positives. They finished 22nd in the country in passing yards per game and reached their highest rushing total since 2014.


There's plenty to work with on this offense. The passing game will be storng once again as QB Holton Ahlers and 4 of his top 5 receivers will be returning, led by walk-on Tyler Sneed, who had a tremendous freshman season. The group will also be joined by UCLA transfer Audie Omotosho. Running backs Demetrius Mauney and Darius Pinnix Jr return and will be joined by Chase Hayden, a grad transfer from Arkansas. They'll look to improve ground game that only averaged 3.7 yards per carry. The offensive line returns 5 players with starting experience and adds Justin Chase from South Carolina.


When you look at last year's defense, you can see how they had such a bad record. The pirates finished 119th in total defense (out of 130 FBS teams) and 111th in scoring defense, giving up 33.7 points per game. They were bad against both the run and the pass and lose All-Conference DT Kendall Futrell in the middle of the defense. They return 5 starters from last year, and will get help in the secondary from Alabama transfer Nigel Knott. We'll find out if they've improved when they host UCF in the season opener on September 26. It will be a good, early test.


Houston Cougars

Dana Holgorsen built his reputation through coaching some of the nations most explosive offenses, something Houston has been known to have. Unfortunately, the first season of his return to Houston, where he had previously been offensive coordinator, was filled with issues. He quickly lost favor with QB D'Eriq King, who has since transferred to Miami. He has also lost pass rusher Isaiah Chambers to McNeese State. All this and more ended in just a 4 win season.


Clayton Tune is the likely starting quarterback. He made 7 starts last year and threw for 1553 yards and 11 touchdowns. His main target will be All-Conference receiver Marquez Stevenson. They also bring back Keith Corbin at receiver. Corbin redshirted last year but finished 2nd in the conference in TD catches in 2018. He should provide a jolt in the passing game along with redshirt freshman Ke'andre Street. Leading rusher Kyle Porter also returns and is a player who can do everything out of the backfield. There are pieces here, we'll see if they can come together. The key will be the passing game, which ranked only 91st in the country (the running game ranked 37th).


For this team to improve, the defense will have to play much better. Lead tackler Grant Stuard returns and will switch from safety to linebacker. This gives the Cougar defense a strong linebacker unit with Stuard, Donovan Mutin, ZaMar Kirven, and West Virginia transfer Jovanni Stewart. Stewart should be familiar enough with the scheme to make an impact. DE David Anenih leads the returning players in sacks. The Cougars will start the season September 18 against Memphis.


Opted out: DL Sedrick Williams


Memphis Tigers

Speaking of Memphis, let's check in with the defending conference champs. 2019 was quite the season, as the Tigers finished 12-2 overall. That led to head coach Mike Norvell landed the Florida State job just before the Cotton Bowl. Ryan Silverfield was named the interim coach for the game and did well enough to earn the gig permanently.


The 2019 Memphis offense had a great season. They finished 10th in total offense, 8th in scoring offense, 17th in passing, and 39th in rushing. QB Brady White and WR Damontae Coxie return for the potent passing attack. Unfortunately, they will also be missing quite a few players. TE Joey Magnifico has graduated, RBs Antonio Gibson and Patrick Taylor are both in the NFL, and RB Kenneth Gainwell has opted pout of the 2020 season. That leaves them WITHOUT their top 3 rushers from last season. That leaves Kylan Martin as the top back. He'll be helped by Rodrigues Clark and Asa Martin, but the three have just over 400 career yards combined. Senior TE Sean Dykes replaces Magnifico. The offensive line returns 3 starters and will have notable reserves filing the remaining spots.


The defense was just good enough last year, but there's room for improvement. They were very good against the pass, ranking in the top 20. Most of the unit returns, including CB TJ Carter, DL O'Bryan Goodson, and DL Joseph Dorceus. Memphis opens 2020 September 18 against Houston. While they don't quite have the known commodities on offense, they should still be a good team.


Navy Midshipmen


Navy was actually a co-division champion with Memphis but lost the tie breaker. Ken Niumatalolo has had a led the team to new heights and expectations have risen. They almost always have a veteran team, and, despite some losses, this year is no different in that regard.


The Navy offense has run like a well-oiled machine, led by AAC Offensive Player of the Year Malcolm Perry. Perry was the teams leading rusher and set many career records. Now, Perry has graduated and will be replaced by Daylen Morris (listed as starter on team website). Luckily for Morris, he'll have 3 experienced RBs to help him out. Fullback Jamale Carothers leads the group after rushing for 734 yards in just 10 games. You should know by now that you won't see many passes from this team, but they can still run with the best of them.


A big part of Navy's success has been the defense. They finished 2019 10th in run defense, 38th in pass defense, and 34th in scoring. They lose 2 time captain Nizare Cromartie, but All-Conference defenders Jacob Springer and Diego Fagot lead a veteran unit with plenty of experience. They'll kick off the season against BYU on September 7.


Opted out: RB Kenneth Gainwell


SMU Mustangs

2019 was the best season in recent memory for the Mustangs. In just the 2nd year under Sonny Dykes, they won the most games in a season since 1984, setting records in scoring, yardage, and touchdowns along the way. It's a young team, but with many key players returning, it could be another big year on the Hilltop.


The offense had a record-setting season in 2019. As far as 2020 is concerned, they'll return All-Conference performers QB Shane Buechele, WR Reggie Robinson, and TE Kyle Granson, but they'll lose stars James Proche, Xavier Jones, and KR/WR CJ Sanders. TJ McDaniel and Tyler Paige look like the top options at running back, while Arkansas transfer TQ Jackson may be the next receiver up. They return the entire starting offensive line, so the biggest question is how they'll adjust under new offensive coordinator Garrett Riley.


They'll have to hope the offense can continue to score, because the defense won't stop many. They finished 109th in scoring and 125th in passing. That's not good in any conference, especially this one. One area they excelled in was sacking the quarterback, as they tied for the lead in sacks per game. Although they lose stars like S Patrick Nelson, DE Delontae Scott, and S Rodney Clemons, they see the much needed return of LBs Richard Moore and Richard McBryde from injuries. Both players transferred from Power 5 schools and will be a much needed boost. It's a young group that brings back many starters. We'll see what they've got September 5 against Texas State. The TCU game will tell us more, if they ever end up playing it.


Opted out: DL Mike WIlliams, DB Eric Sutton


Temple Owls

The first year under Rod Carey could've been better, but the Owls finished with a decent 8-5 record. Carey has been successful as head coach at Northern Illinois, completing an undefeated regular season in 2013. That team would lose the Orange Bowl, but Carey should be able to make Temple a consistent winner.


The offense had a pretty average 2019, mostly using the passing game. It's a good strategy for them since they have a big armed QB in Anthony Russo and several senior receivers like Jaden Blue and Branden Mack. With several long and tall offensive linemen, who aren't that heavy, building through the passing game seems ideal. Unfortunately, they'll be without WR Isaiah Wright and TE Kenny Yeboah. They have the players to pick up what they'll miss from Wright, but Yeboah is a big loss. Transfers Tyler Sears and Darius Pittman will compete to replace him. They also los OL Matt Hennessy but can use many of there transfers and veterans in his spot. Freshman All- American Re'Mahn Davis returns to lead the gorund game.


The 2020 version of this defense loses 3 All-AAC Players (DE Quincy Roche, LBs Shaun Bradley and Sam Franklin) and 2 additional starters (CB Harrison Hand and LB Chapelle Russell). The strength is very much the defensive line with All-Conference caliber players Daniel Archibong and Ifeanyi Maijeh to go along with Wake Forest transfer Manny Walker. The secondary remains in good hands with Christian Braswell and Amir Tyler, while Isaiah Graham-Mobley leads a new group of linebackers. Just keep an eye on anyone in a sngle-digit jersey, because Temple doesn't give those to just anybody. The Owls begin play September 26 against Navy.


Opted Out: DB Ty Mason


Tulane Green Wave

Tulane is almost always in the basement of this conference when it comes to football, but they've made some good strides recently. They've had 2 straight winning seasons for the first time in a long time. However, it was a rough year in the conference, as they lost 5 of the last 6 games in the regular season. They finished with a bowl win in the Armed Forces Bowl to reach 7-6.


The team will be looking to replace starting QB Justin McMillan, who graduated after throwing for 2444 yards and 17 TDs in 2019. He also ran for another 745. Dual threat ability is a must in their Qbs. Keon Howard Jr. will get his turn to be the guy. He'll be throwing to a receiving corps made up of transfers, like Mykel Jones from Oklahoma, and many freshmen. The running game will consist of Howard and RB Amare Jones, who finished with the 7th most all-purpose yards in team history last year. With so many experienced o-linemen and skill players with high potential, this team may be poised to take the next step.


The defense returns 7 starters from a year ago, including star DE/OLB Patrick Johnson. Johnson has NFL potential as a pass rusher. The big losses are in the secondary, so don't be surprised if they're prone to big plays in the passing game. The season starts September 12 against South Alabama.


Opted out: none reported


Tulsa Golden Hurricane

Tulsa has a rough 4-8 season with just 2 conference wins in 2019. Overall, Philip Montgomery has done a good job as head coach, leading the team to a 10 win season in 2016 and usually having a dynamic offense. They'll try to put last season in the rearview.


The offense wasn't bad last season and only loses one skill player (WR Keenen Johnson). They finished with the 30th ranked passing game in the country (lower than usual but still good), and bring back QB Zach Smith and 3 of his top 4 receivers. All-Conference WR Keylon Stokes will look to replicate his 1116 yard 7 TD season from a year ago. The team also returns its top leading rushers, including Shemari Brooks, who ran for over 1200 yards. The offensive line only returns 2 starters but has several key reserves ready to step in. Most of them even got playing time against Michigan State's vaunted defensive line, so they're battle-tested. They need to score more, but they've got a solid unit.


The defense is where they really get in trouble. This year's team only returns 3 starters from a year ago. That might not be such a bad thing, since teams could seemingly move the ball at will against them. They do lose All-Conference players Cooper Edmiston, Reggie Robinson, and Trevis Gipson, who were the consensus leaders of the group. Zaven Collins is the lone All-Conference starter to return and will have his work cut out for him. They'll also see players return from injuries that caused them to miss 2019. The offense is clearly going to lead this team.


Opted out: OL X'Zauvea Gadlin



UCF Knights

Arguably, no Group of 5 team has enjoyed as much recent success as UCF, and they deserve it after an 0-11 season just a few years ago. It's quite the story, really. To go from that bad to winning a New Years' Six game that quickly? That rarely happens. Although they didn;t win the conference last year, the Knights still won 10 games and haven't missed a beat under Josh Heupel. Let's see if they can keep rolling.


A big question last year was how will they replace star Qb Mackenzie Milton? There were several potential answers, but the best turned out to be Dillon Gabriel. As a freshman, Gabriel led the Knights to top 10 rankings in total offense (2nd), scoring offense (5th), and passing (8th). He also finished the year in the top 20 of most individual passing categories. Being able to to put someone like him out there is a major advantage. This is very much a senior-led offense with 7 senior starters. They lose a couple key players in Gabe Davis and Adrian Killins, but bring back their next 2 rushers (Otis Anderson and Greg McCrae) and 3 of their top receivers. The offense should be in great hands once again.


The defense is also loaded with seniors with 8 projected as starters. Richie Grant and Antwan Collier will lead a standout group in the secondary. Transfer Kenny Turnier will help along the d-line. With so much experience returning, the Knights look like contenders. They'll try to show us that against Georgia Tech September 19.


Opted out: OLs Allan Adams, Lamarius Benson, Adrian Medley, DLs Mason Cholewa, Kalia Davis, Kendrick Wilson, DBs Tay Gowan, Devunte Dawson,Elijah Benoit, QB Darriel Mack


USF Bulls

After a couple of promising seasons as conference contenders, the Bulls went 4-8 in 2019, leading to the firing of head coach Charlie Strong. They made an interesting hire to replace him: Clemson co-offensive coordinator Jeff Scott. If Scott can replicate some version of the Tigers' offense, the Bulls are in good hands.


Jordan McCloud replaced Blake Barnett at quarterback after 2 games in 2019 and hasn't looked back. While he wasn't overwhelming, it was good to get his feet wet and find a baseline heading into this season. He has the luxury of playing behind a veteran offensive line and throwing to returning lead receivers Randall St. Felix and Bryce Miller. Unfortunately, they've lost their other major contributors.


Most of the defense returns, led by a secondary that features KJ Sails and Mike Hampton. LBs Antonio Grier and Dwayne Boyles will benefit once again from playing behind DT Blake Green. There's talent here, it just needs to be used correctly. The season starts September 12, but the big test is September 19 against Notre Dame.


Opted out: WR Eddie Mcdoom



Best Games


Arkansas State @ Memphis, 9/5

This is a matchup of two teams who should both compete for their respective conference titles. Both teams had very close games against SMU last season. I think Memphis is still the stronger team and plays in a better conference, so they should have the edge. It will be interesting to see the Tigers' defense against a promising, senior-led passing attack for the Red Wolves. Very intriguing game on opening weekend.


BYU @ Navy, 9/7

This is one of the more intriguing non-conference games for the AAC. BYU is a puzzling team with some inconsistencies. They finished only 7-6 last year but had some big wins against USC, Boise State, and Utah State. I'm mostly intrigued by how Navy's offense runs under a new signal-caller. That's the biggest question mark that could hold them back from competing for the conference title.


Memphis @ SMU, 10/3

Two of the most potent offenses in America will meet once again. Last year's game was a 54-48 thriller that saw Memphis come out on top. This year, the game shifts to Dallas. While SMU returns many key players from last season, Memphis lost many of theirs. The nature of these offenses will make this a shootout once again. It could be a key game in the conference title race.


Navy @ Air Force, 10/3

It's always great to watch our military academies get together for a game. Both these teams won double-digit games last year and were led by the play of their quarterbacks. Navy's Malcolm Perry is now in the NFL, while Air Force's Donald Hammond has some issues being resolved in the school. While neither player will be a part of this game, but it should be a good one nonetheless.


UCF @ Memphis, 10/17

Another matchup of high-powered offenses. These teams haven't seen each other since they met twice in the 2018 season. UCF won the first matchup by a single point, then won the conference championship game over the Tigers by more. A game between the previous two Conference Champions is always a must-watch, and this one should have bearing on the title race for 2020.


Temple @ Memphis, 10/24

I expect this to be another game that could factor into the title race. Temple should be an improved team and only lost by 2 to the Tigers last season. With a few key players now gone for Memphis, these teams are closer to each other in talent level. It should be an entertaining game.


Cincinnati @ SMU, 10/24

These teams didn't meet last year, but boy that would've been a good one! I'm intrigued to see these offenses match up. SMU's was more prolific last year, but Cincinnati can do damage as well, especially against a porous Mustang defense. This game should also have some influence on the conference title, making it even more exciting.



Memphis @ Cincinnati, 10/31

Another game that will undoubtedly factor into the conference title chase. These two teams met twice (in back-to-back weeks) last season, including the Conference Championship game. While Memphis has an explosive offense, Cincinnati might just have the conference's best defense to matchup with it. I expect a highly competitive game with the team's stars taking over.


Navy @SMU, 10/31

Navy won this by a touchdown a year ago. It's pretty amazing that a run-heavy team was able to keep up with such a contrasting opposing offense. Without Malcolm Perry, it will be even more difficult this year. Navy has one of the conference's best defenses, so they'll have a chance. If SMU's offense has a similar year to last year, the Mustangs will come out on top.


Cincinnati @UCF, 11/21

A late conference title influencer. Cincinnati won a close one, 27-24 last year. With both teams returning many key players from those teams, I would expect this game to be similar. UCF might be a little tougher now that QB Dilon Gabriel has much more experiece under his belt, but Cincy's defense gives them a slight edge.

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