2021 American Athletic Conference Preview

With the exit of Connecticut, 2021 sees the American Athletic Conference return to a single league with no divisions. The top two teams in the league standings will participate in the championship game on December 4, 2021.

Cincinnati was the clear class of the league in 2020 and looks to repeat in 2021. A host of challengers are lining up behind the Bearcats including UCF with new head coach Gus Malzahn, Houston, SMU, and the always dangerous Memphis Tigers.

The AAC will look to improve on its dreadful 2020 bowl performance ( only one win in six bowl games) and continue to build itself as a “power six” conference. Below are G5 Gurus picks for the upcoming 2021 AAC season.

Cincinnati (1)

What to know:

Cincinnati captured the attention of the college football world with its undefeated regular season.  A close loss to Georgia in the Peach Bowl stung, but the Bearcats are loaded and looking to repeat their 2020 magic. 

3 things to watch:

  1. Cut down on penalties.  For all the great things in 2020, the Bearcats had 215 more yards in penalties than the opposition.  That can spell the difference in tight games.
  2. Turnovers.  Cincinnati had at least one turnover in every game in 2020, with 2 or more in 4 games.  As with the penalties, cutting down on mistakes will be critical to beat the power 5 teams on the schedule.    
  3. Power Five Wins.  Games 3 (at Indiana) and 4 (at Notre Dame) are the key to the Bearcat’s hopes for a NY6 Bowl.  Win one or both, and the Bearcats could be back in the NY6 in 2021. 

Central Florida (2)

What to know:

2020 was a step back for the Knights.  After double digit wins in three previous seasons, the Knights struggled to a 6-4 mark, including a blowout loss to BYU in the Boca Raton Bowl.  Gus Malzahn takes the reigns of the Knights high powered offense.  Fix the defense and the Knights could be right back in the discussion for the NY6. 

3 things to watch:

  1. Defensive improvement.  33 points and 500 yards a game won’t get it done.  Nine starters return for the Knights.  The experience will help, but others will need to step up, especially in the secondary.  The knights gave up 300+ yards a game in the air in 2020. 
  2. Which receivers step up?  Gillon Gabriel (32 TDs to 4 interceptions) is back.  Two of the top three receivers are gone, so someone needs to step up to fuel the passing game. 
  3. Schedule.  Boise State at home to open will be a bellwether for UCF.  At Louisville in game 3 will also be a major test before opening AAC play.  Tough road games at Cincinnati and SMU highlight the conference schedule. 

Houston (3)

What to know:

2020 was an up-and-down year for the Cougars.  A strong and deep defense returns for 2021 along with key pieces on offense.  The Cougars dodge UCF and Cincinnati in conference play and could make some noise in 2021. 

3 things to watch:

  1. Offense consistency.  While the Cougars averaged 30 points a game in 2020, almost half of those points came in 3 games.  A key to their rise in the AAC will be finding consistent production on the offensive side of the ball.  8 returning starters and transfers should help. 
  2. Pass rush.  Losing Payton Turner’s production will be tough.  The Cougars need to find a way to get pressure on the opposing team’s QB in the pass happy AAC.   
  3. Passing game.  Clayton Tune needs to cut down on the interceptions and some playmakers need to emerge at receiver to offset the losses at that position from last year.

SMU (4)

What to know:

SMU started 2020 hot winning 7 of their first 8 (the only loss coming to Cincinnati) before dropping their final two games.

3 things to watch:

  1. Replacing Shane Buechele.  Buechele had a solid 2020 with over 300 yards per game and 23 TDs to 6 interceptions.  Finding someone to keep the offense rolling will be the top priority for the Mustangs. 
  2. Manage the Schedule.  Aside from a road trip to TCU, SMU has a very manageable start to 2021.  4-1 or even 5-0 isn’t totally unreasonable.  However, a slow start (3 wins or fewer) could spell problems for the Mustangs as they face a brutal conference schedule. 
  3. Plug the defense leaks.  SMU gave up over 400 yards in seven games in 2020 which included all three losses.  A strong returning crew and help from the transfer poral should help.  If the defense improves, this could be a dangerous team in the AAC.

Memphis (5)

What to know:

Ryan Silverfield’s first year had some ups and downs and ended with a solid 8-3 record and a bowl win.  There are some big holes to fill in 2021.  If the replacement parts are good, there is enough returning talent to see the Tigers to challenge for a spot in AAC title game.

3 things to watch:

  1. Replacing Brady White.  It is hard to replace a career 11,000 passer, but that is the challenge for Memphis in 2021.  Help arrived via the transfer portal.
  2. Consistency in the pass defense.  In the first four games of 2020, the Tigers gave up over 400 yards a game passing.  Excluding run-focused Navy, the Tigers trimmed this to 220 per game over the remainder of the schedule.  They will need stay in the lower range to win the big ones in 2021. 
  3. Rediscover the run.  Memphis had five games with under 100 yards rushing, including a paltry 5 against Cincinnati.  They had only two such games in the previous two full seasons.  The Tigers need a consistent balanced attack to take on the top of the AAC. 

Tulsa (6)

What to know:

Tulsa was the surprise of the AAC in 2020, winning the west and playing both Oklahoma State and Mississippi State tough in close losses.  17 starters return and the Golden Hurricane hopes to run it back in 2021.  Replacing some key parts will be critical to repeat their success. 

3 things to watch:

  1. Find production to offset the loss of Zaven Collins.  Collins was a generational talent for Tulsa.  Replacing nearly 12 tackles for loss, four interceptions (2 for TD), a fumble recovery, and two forced fumbles is a big ask. 
  2. QB production.  Zach Smith is gone.  Whoever takes over the helm at QB needs to be productive and cut down on the turnovers.  The Golden Hurricane had at least one turnover in every game in 2020, including six games with multiple turnovers.    
  3. Season opening gauntlet.  Road trips to Ohio State and Oklahoma State and two tough AAC home games (Houston and Memphis) highlight 4 of the Golden Hurricane first 6 games.  Finding a win in that set of games will be critical for a run at bowl eligibility.  

Tulane (7)

What to know:

Tulane returns a good amount of talent from last year’s 6-6 team that lost to Nevada in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl.  They will likely need to spring an upset or two in 2021 to go bowling again. 

3 things to watch:

  1. Stop the run.  In their six wins, the Green Wave allowed less than 100 yards rushing (skewed by a 270 yard performance in a win over Army).  In their six losses the defense gave up nearly 200 yards rushing.
  2. Protect the QB.  In four losses in 2020, the o-line gave up 4 sacks or more.  This is a line built for the run game, but with all starters returning there is hope it can step up it pass protection in 2021. 
  3. Generate a passing game.  Fritz likes a run-heavy offense.  However, the Green Wave needs to stop teams from stacking the line.  There were good signs in this regard in 2020 and a strong receiving core returns. 

East Carolina (8)

What to know:

The Rufin McNeil curse continued in 2020 for the Pirates as once again they finished below .500.  After firing McNeil in 2015, the Pirates haven’t had a winning record.  But there were signs of promise amid last year’s 3-6 campaign.  The offense averaged 30 points a game and returns all the key pieces for 2021.    

3 things to watch:

  1. Defense improvements.  The East Carolina defense gave up 35 points and nearly 450 yards per game in 2020.  This was actually an improvement over 2019.  Almost all of the defense returns for 2021 so there is reason to hope the progress continues. 
  2. Holton Ahlers.  Ahlers has improved each of the past three seasons, finishing with a solid 136.9 QB rating in 2020.    Ahlers is the key to the Pirates offense.  With a strong returning o-line and new receivers from the transfer portal, Ahlers could have a break-out year. 
  3. Get out of the gate.  The Pirates haven’t won their opener in the past 4 years and have a tough opener with Appalachian State on a neutral field.  This game could set the tone for the Pirate’s season. 

Navy (9)

What to know:

Coming off an 11 win season in 2019, the 2020 Midshipmen stumbled to a 3-7 mark, only their second losing record in the past 9 seasons.  The offense was non-existent, ranking 122 out of 128 teams in scoring at 16.6 per game.  The Navy offense needs to return to something resembling the 2019 version to get the program back on a winning track. 

3 things to watch:

  1. Ball control game.  The Midshipmen aren’t built to sling the ball all over the field.  They reply on the ground game to control the ball. 
  2. Defense to build on last three games.  At the end of 2020, the Navy defense came to life and held opponents to less than 15 points a game (all three were losses as the offense only generated 13 total points).  If the Midshipmen can build on that performance, it could bode well.   
  3. Early wins.  Navy likely will not be favored in any of their first nine games.  Finding a way to win a few games in this group will be essential for the Midshipmen to have any chance to return to the bowl season. 

Temple (10)

What to know:

After appearing in bowl games each of the previous 5 years, the Owls struggled mightily in 2020, falling to 1-6.  They dropped their final four games by an average margin of over 27 points.   There are a lot of moving pieces to the Owl’s roster in 2021 with transfers expected to play important roles.  If these pieces work out, the Owls could surprise some people. 

3 things to watch:

  1. Quarterback stability.  QB was a revolving door in 2020.  Georgia transfer D’Wan Mathis is the favorite to lead the Owls in 2021.  Mathis started for the Bulldogs in their 2020 season opener.  The talent is there.  If Mathis plays to his potential, the Owls could outperform this prediction. 
  2. Set the tone early.  Temple played its first game of 2020 in October.  It never found its groove and wasn’t competitive for most of the season.  Getting some wins early and building confidence will be important for the Owls to have a chance to get back to bowl eligibility.    
  3. Defensive line.  Only one returning starter (albeit a good one) on a line that struggled against the run and pass.  Transfers will play key roles.  How quickly this unit comes together could be the key to a defense that gave up 37 points a game in 2020. 

South Florida (11)

What to know:

Jeff Scott’s first year at USF was a forgettable one as the Bulls fell to 1-8.  After a season opening win against an FCS opponent, the Bulls dropped 8 consecutive games.   The offense showed signs of improvement as the season progressed, but the defense was nearly non-existent.  A ton of help arrived via transfers.  How these new players mesh will likely dictate the Bull’s success in 2021. 

3 things to watch:

  1. Brutal starting schedule.  The Bulls open on the road at NC State before getting Florida at home.  A winnable game against Florida A&M follows before tough trips to BYU and SMU.  Anything better than 1-4 would be considered a major accomplishment.   
  2. New Quarterback.  Transfers Cade Fortin and Jarren Williams will vie for the starting role.  The offense lacked a spark most of 2020.  Whoever gets the starting nod need to bring energy and playmaking to the position.    
  3. Can the defense stop anyone?  The 2020 edition of the Bull’s defense ranked 122 out of 128 teams, surrendering almost 40 points and 440 yards a game.  The Bulls need more than 7 sacks in 2021.  They also can’t surrender over 200 yards a game on the ground every game.  Every starter returns and there are some new pieces from the transfer portal. 

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