The American Athletic Conference (AAC) is the strongest of the Group of 5 conferences. Last year the AAC had 3 different teams post double-digit win seasons and finish the year ranked in the Top 25. No other Group of 5 conference had more than one team ranked at the end of the year.
While the conference as a whole went just 4-12 against Power 5 teams, the top teams in this league over the past few years have more than held their own against the big boys.
UCF was the cream of the crop in the AAC last season. The Knights posted a perfect record at 14-0, knocking off Memphis in the AAC Title game and stunning Auburn 34-27 in the Peach Bowl.
Getting a team in a New Year’s Six bowl is quite an accomplishment, but it seems that it will take a near perfect season for any team in the conference to sniff the playoffs in the current 4-team format.
American Athletic College Football Preview & Predictions
One of the biggest challenges facing the American Athletic Conference is keeping their top notch head coaches around. The conference has done a fantastic job of hiring bright young coordinators to take over their programs, but those that have success are quickly scooped up by the Power 5 programs and who can blame the coaches for leaving when there’s no realistic shot of their team making the playoffs. Not to mention the bigger pay days at the bigger schools.
Two new head coaches will be making their debuts in 2018. Josh Heupel takes over at UCF, replacing Scott Frost, who left for Nebraska. The other new head coach is Sonny Dykes, who replaces Chad Morris at SMU. Morris left to be the head coach at Arkansas.
That brings the total to 10 coaches who have been with their respective programs for 2 or fewer years. The only exceptions being Navy’s Ken Numatalolo, who is in his 11th season in charge of the Midshipmen, and Connecticut’s Randy Edsall, who is in his 13th season as head coach. Edsall’s long tenure is a bit misleading, as he previously coached at UConn from 1999 to 2010 before returning to the program last year.
Not only have I studied the coaching staffs of the 12 teams that make up the AAC, but I’ve also broken down who each team has lost from last year and who they have coming back, as well as each team’s schedule.
I’ve put that information to use and put together my projected standings for each team in the AAC, both in terms of their conference record and overall marks.
Want to know who I have making the playoffs this year? Find out by taking a look at my college football predictions. Now is also a great time to check out the win totals for each team. You can also get a jump start on early games, as opening week lines have already been released.
2018 AAC Projected Standings, Rankings & Betting Odds
As you can see, the overwhelming favorite to win the West is Memphis at +235. The Tigers won the division last year with a 7-1 record in league play and have 15 starters back.
Most will just slot Memphis into the top spot in the West without much thought, but I don’t foresee the Tigers repeating as division champs. Instead I’m going with Houston, who I believe is not just the team to beat in the West, but the best team in the AAC.
The Cougars took a step back in the first year after losing Tom Herman to Texas, but it wasn’t as big a drop-off as some might think given they went just 7-5. Out of those 5 losses, 4 came by 6 points or less.
Despite only returning 10 starters, there’s a lot to like about this Cougars’ team. Houston found a solution at quarterback in D’Eriq King and he should thrive under new offensive coordinator Kendall Briles. As for the defense, Houston will feature one of the best stop units in the league, led by All-American defensive tackle Ed Oliver, who will be a Top 5 pick in next year’s NFL draft.
As for why I’m not taking Memphis, I just think the Tigers are going to have a really tough time replacing star quarterback Riley Ferguson and the school’s all-time leading receiver in Anthony Miller. Ferguson threw for 4,257 yards with 38 touchdowns to just 9 interceptions in his senior season and Miller had 96 catches for 1,462 yards and 18 scores.
Next up we have a 3-way tie for 3rd in the division with Navy, Tulsa and Tulane all finishing at 4-4.
Navy is probably the most likely of these 3 to emerge and compete for the title, but I just think the schedule will be tough to overcome after what should be a promising start to the year (I have Navy going 6-0). It starts with a home game against Houston on Oct. 20th. They then have a neutral site game against Notre Dame, before back-to-back road games against Cincinnati and UCF.
Tulsa is a team that will be worth keeping an eye on. The Golden Hurricane went 10-3 in 2016, but plummeted to 2-10 this past season. That was to be expected given all that they lost from that 2016 squad. This year Tulsa has 15 starters back and will be one of the most experienced teams in the conference. This should be one of the most improved teams in the AAC.
Another team that figures to be on the rise is Tulane, who has 14 starters back and is now in year 3 under head coach Willie Fritz. The Green Wave went 5-7 in 2017 and 4 of those losses came by 6-points or less. The only thing standing in the way of Tulane and a big rise up the standings is their schedule. The Green Wave draw Wake Forest, UAB and Ohio State in non-conference play, plus have to play the likes of Cincinnati, Tulsa, USF and Houston on the road.
That leaves SMU in the basement of the West, though I do have the Mustangs sneaking out a couple of wins in league play. Morris did a great job changing the culture at SMU, but now must undergo scheme changes on both sides of the ball and are one of the least experienced teams with just 7 seniors on the roster.
The loss of Scott Frost is a big one for UCF, but there’s still reason to be optimistic that the Knights can defend their East title and get back to the ACC Championship Game. I liked the hire of Heupel, who spent the last two years as the OC at Missouri and he will call the plays in 2018. They also landed Randy Shannon as their defensive coordinator, a position he held the last 3 years at Florida.
However, the biggest key for me picking UCF to win the division is the talent they have coming back from last year’s team. The biggest of those returning is quarterback McKenzie Milton, who is the best the AAC has at the position. Milton completed 67% of his attempts for over 4,000 yards with 37 touchdowns to just 9 interceptions.
The two biggest threats to Central Florida in the East are Temple and South Florida, both of which I have finishing just 1-game back in the standings at 5-3.
The Owls closed out last year winning 4 of their final 5 games and the big turnaround at the end of the year came after Frank Nutile took over at quarterback. Nutile is back and the offense should be potent if he can stay healthy. The defense also figures to be much better in year two under head coach Geoff Collins, who got this job from his success as a defensive coordinator at both Florida and Mississippi State.
USF might be the biggest Wild Card in the bunch. The Bulls are heading into year two under head coach Charlie Strong and are off a 10-2 season. South Florida was just a couple of plays away from being 12-0 (lost 24-28 to Houston and 42-49 to UCF). The big question mark is the production they will get at the quarterback position after losing Quinton Flowers, who threw for 2,911 yards (25-6 TD-INT ratio) and led the team in rushing with 1,078 yards (11 TDs).
My big sleeper in the East is Cincinnati, who I think are in for big time improvements in year two under head coach Luke Fickell. Cincinnati has been recruiting with the best of the Group of 5 teams and there’s a lot more talent on the roster than you would think for a team that went just 4-8 last year. With winnable road games at UConn and SMU, there’s an outside shot this team could rise to the top if they can hold serve at home.
That leaves East Carolina and Connecticut battling it out for the basement in the division. The Pirates are the more talented of the two and get the Huskies at home this year, so they have the upper-hand, but neither figures to be much of a threat in the AAC. UConn could be in for a really tough time, as they aren’t a team that can score a lot of points and return just 2 starters on a defense that was torched for 37.9 ppg and 519 ypg in 2017.
AAC Championship Game Prediction: Houston defeats UCF
|Players (Pos, School)||Odds|
|McKenzie Milton (QB, UCF)||+2800|
|Ed Oliver (DL, Houston)||+6600|
|Frank Nutil (QB, Temple)||+10000|
Find out where these odds rank against the other top players in the country in our Heisman odds section.
To see a full list of the odds to win it all click on the link.