The AAC has been at the forefront of the Group of 5 spotlight since 2017, 4 years after the league was formed in 2013. This is a younger league, born out of the collapse of the old Big East and recruitment of Conference USA programs like UCF, Houston and others. These programs have competed at the highest level lately and defeated teams like Auburn, Notre Dame, FSU and others along the way. In addition to those accolades, this conference has seen a team play in the Peach Bowl twice, the Fiesta Bowl and the Cotton Bowl. Cincinnati took the big leap and shattered the glass for Group of 5 programs last season as one of the 4 programs in the 2021 College Football Playoff.
This league has been the home to high flying offense for years. UCF, Houston, Tulsa, SMU, Memphis and Cincinnati have been putting up points and yards at an optimum level. As the offense gets the praise, this league has seen some defiant defenses and tenacious players. This season will be no different, but I expect more touchdowns than forced punts from the league this Fall.
Things I want to see this season in the AAC:
- Can NAVY return to glory after a few down years and find another Admiral at QB?
- Can the Bearcats win their 3rd straight title?
- Is UCF ready to compete at the highest level again?
- Can East Carolina, Memphis, SMU, Tulsa or Tulane make a jump and challenge for a title?
- How will this conference move forward in 2023 after losing the big 3 in Cincinnati, Houston and UCF?
This league is not exempt from the ever changing landscape of conference realignment. The 2022 season will be the final campaign for Cincinnati, Houston and UCF before they transition to the Big 12.
LEAVING THE AAC AFTER THE 2022-23’ ACADEMIC YEAR:
- UCF KNIGHTS
- HOUSTON COUGARS
- CINCINNATI BEARCATS
JOINING THE AAC AFTER THE 2022-23’ ACADEMIC YEAR:
- UTSA ROADRUNNERS
- UAB BLAZERS
- RICE OWLS
- NORTH TEXAS MEAN GREEN
- FAU OWLS
- CHARLOTTE 49ER’S
- CINCINNATI BEARCATS
- EAST CAROLINA PIRATES
- HOUSTON COUGARS
- MEMPHIS TIGERS
- NAVY MIDSHIPMEN
- SMU MUSTANGS
- TEMPLE OWLS
- TULANE GREEN WAVE
- TULSA GOLDEN HURRICANE
- UCF KNIGHTS
- USF BULLS
PRESEASON PLAYER OF THE YEAR:
- QB Clayton Tune (Houston): Going into Year 3 in a pass happy offense and coming off 3,546 yards passing and 30 TD’s. Add in the return of top targets, this could be a special campaign for the Cougar Quarterback.
- Honorable Mention: RB Keaton Mitchell – East Carolina. He had a fantastic Freshman campaign for the Pirates. He’ll be running behind a veteran offensive line as well as a veteran QB in Holden Ahlers to assist him. This a sneaky lethal offense and he is ready to flourish
- Honorable Mention: WR Rashee Rice — SMU. He took in 64 receptions during the 2021 season. These numbers were achieved on a unit that had 2 teammates drafted in April. His ability and Rhett Lashlee’s offense will allow him to flourish. Lastly, he has another season to continue to develop with QB Tanner Mordecai.
4 TEAMS WE’RE WATCHING IN 2022
- How do the Bearcats perform after their College Football Playoff appearance and prior to their departure to the BIG 12…. Would 9-3 be a disappointment?
- Who replaces QB Desmond Ridder, is it Ben Bryant or Evan Prater?
- The Bearcat defense has been elite the past few seasons, who steps up to keep that standard now that 6 starters are in the NFL including both elite corners?
- The defense finished 2021 ranked 5th in the Nation in points allowed per game with 16.9. A large reason for that success was their pass defense, which was 2nd best in the nation in yards allowed of 169 yards allowed per game.
- The offense returns 7 starters, which equate to the entire offensive line and both Tight Ends. These veterans will allow the skill players to flourish and grow
- The 2022 signing class was very solid and surged on behalf of back to back New Years Six Bowls and AAC Titles.
- This team might take a few games to really click but Luke Fickel will have the Bearcats ready
- They open at Arkansas, host Indiana in week 4 and have a tough late October stretch at SMU and at UCF. They do avoid the Houston Cougars in the regular season, but they could meet in the title game
- I think a 9-3 record is a reasonable prediction for this program. They have to get a lot of players playing at an elite level immediately since they open vs the Razorbacks.
- Is this program ready to return to the top of the conference after a brief absence
- Head Coach Gus Malzahn can produce creative offense with tempo, matchups and using the full field. Can he be the coach to carry this program to new heights
- He returns a speedy offense including 6 starters, highlighted by his QB Mikey Keene and explosive Wide Receiver Ryan O’Keefe (84 rec, 812 yards and 7 TD’s). The offense will be supplemented by Ole Miss transfer John Rhys Plumlee. Plumlee was used as a mobile QB, WR and running back during his time in Oxford. You should expect to see packages that use his abilities similar to the way he used players at Auburn and Arkansas.
- The 2021 squad scored 31.9 points per game, which was 37th in the Nation. In regards to yards per game, they were 66th in the Nation with 402.5 yards per game. This offense is based on the ground game and the Knights have a castle full of backs ready.
- As the offense gets the attention, just like the teams under Scott Frost and Josh Heupel, this defense is very good. They return 7 starters from a top 50 defense in points allowed and passing yards allowed.
- The Knights get ACC schools Louisville and Georgia Tech in the Bounce House, as well as SMU, Cincinnati and the Naval Academy. The 12th man is very important in football, but the Bounce House is a unique on campus experience.
- Is this squad ready to reclaim the AAC Title, can this team become consistent week in and week out and was their bowl win over Florida a sign of things to come or a novelty?
- This team was ranked during the 2021 season and gave Houston a real battle
- Sonny Dykes has left for TCU and Rhett Lashlee arrives from Miami to lead the program
- Can the offense find weapons for Tanner Mordecai outside of Rashee Rice, multiple transfers have arrived on campus from Power 5 schools, time will tell if they can push this team higher
- The Mustang offense scored 38.4 points a game, which was 9th in the country. This was augmented by being 13th in Total Yards per Game and 14th in Passing Yards per Game with 304.5.
- The Mustangs defense must improve, especially the pass defense. They finished 2021 ranked 86th in the Nation in points allowed per game with 28.4.
- Their pass defense allowed 278.1 yards per game, which was 124th in the Nation. They also gave up 414.8 yards per game, which was 94th. This side of the ball must improve to help the team and provide balance
- Another way to assist the defense is to improve the ground game and time of possession. If you can control the pace and reduce opponents possessions, it will help the defense.
- This program was ranked # 2 in the Nation during the 2007 season, what happened to this program in the last 14 years?
- Head Coach Jeff Scott (former Co-OC at Clemson) has 3 wins in 2 seasons and is 0-11 on the road. Is this the season his recruiting, transfer portal additions and coaching development changes the direction of this program.
- A $22 Million Dollar on campus facility is ready this Fall. The University is working toward an On-Campus Stadium for this program as well as their recently announced Lacrosse programs. This is a commitment toward winning and competing in the facility wars occurring across the Nation.
- The offense returns 10 starters including the entire line and 3 wide receivers.
- The offense returns 2021 QB Timmy McClain as well as incoming transfer QB Gerry Bohanon from Baylor. This QB competition will be one to watch and might be the biggest decision this program has had to make.
- The offense ranked 100 or higher in ever category except in rushing yards per game, which was 71st in the country.
- The defense returns returns 8 starters including both linebackers and all 5 in the secondary
- The defense finished ranked 100 or higher in every category.
- This side of the ball will improve in 2022 and that will be in part to 4 defensive line transfers from Missouri, UNC, Wake Forest and Temple.
- The state of Florida is loaded with football talent and if USF can continue to recruit and develop (similar to UCF’s sustained success), they can succeed.
- In addition to the AAC grind, the Bulls play BYU, Florida and Louisville in the Fall. The journey toward a bowl game will be tough, but the player and game play development must improve
- In reality, if this team can win 5 in 2021, watch out because the future beyond will be bright in Tampa.
GAMES TO WATCH IN 2022:
- Memphis at Navy (Week 2)
- Navy at East Carolina (Week 4)
- Tulane at Houston (Week 5)
- SMU at UCF (Week 5)
- Navy at Air Force (Week 5)
- Houston at Memphis (Week 6)
- Tulane at USF (Week 7)
- Memphis at East Carolina (Week 7)
- Cincinnati at SMU (Week 8)
- UCF at East Carolina (Week 8)
- Cincinnati at UCF (Week 9)
- SMU at Tulsa (Week 9)
- USF at Temple (Week 10)
- Houston at SMU (Week 10)
- UCF at Memphis (Week 10)
- East Carolina at Cincinnati (Week 11)
- UCF at Tulane (Week 11)
- Houston at East Carolina (Week 12)
- USF at Tulsa (Week 12)
- Memphis at SMU (Week 13)
- UCF at USF – War on I 4 (Week 13)
- NAVY vs ARMY (December 10th. 3pm CBS)
BEST STADIUM IN THE CONFERENCE: BOUNCE HOUSE ON THE UCF CAMPUS
CONFERENCE CHAMPION: HOUSTON COUGARS
I think the Houston Cougars and UCF Knights will meet in the AAC Title Game with the Cougars coming out on top.
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