American Athletic Conference Preseason Power Rankings

We are getting to that time of year where football season is quickly approaching. Summer camps are about to start, preseason predictions are flying out, and college football fans everywhere are getting that itch for the season to begin. One of the more popular preseason rankings nationwide is a power ranking, basically ranking the teams of how good they are expected to be and not necessarily in their order of finish.

So with that, I wanted to take a look at the AAC power rankings and where things stand prior to the season. I’m not looking to go that in depth with each team as there are a lot of moving parts to each program and the list of changes can be exhaustive for some. Still, you can get a good feel for each program based on returning production, last year’s offense/defense S&P+, the type of players they have returning, and their schedule coming up.

12. UConn

A historically bad defense returning only approximately 63% of its returning production. That’s not exactly a recipe for success this upcoming season. They gave up 50 points per game, so at this point it really can’t get worse. Their offense, however, was an S&P+ top 100 offense, so there is some cause for optimism. Randy Edsall has joined a sinking ship of a program with an administration that refused to acknowledge what its best course of action is regarding the football program. He’s got uphill battles on the recruiting trail now, but with UConn going Independent, they won’t have a conference championship to play for anymore, not like they will this year anyways. Offense has some hope with Pindell at QB and Kevin Mensah at RB, they have some offensive potential. Their schedule includes Wagner, UMass, ECU, Navy, which offer up some win possibilities, but it’ll be tough sledding this season regardless. They have talent coming in as well via transfers, but overall there just has been a dearth of talent in Storrs. Edsall and Co. have a lot of work to do, especially on defense, if they want to win a couple games. They fight hard though, and I wouldn’t expect too many blowouts.

11. navy

Ken Niumatalolo has a bit of a rebuild ahead of him. Army has surpassed them over the last few years as they have reinvested in their facilities and their football program. Navy’s offensive efficiency, total offense, and offensive S&P+ have all slipped. They have the typical games against Army and Air Force, to go along with Holy Cross and Notre Dame. The conference slate isn’t terrible in the AAC West and the only AAC East opponents they meet are ECU, USF, and UConn. There is a path to bowl eligibility and the military academies are governed by different recruiting laws as the other FBS programs. That being said, they lose a lot of production from their senior class, particularly on defense. They recruit plenty of bodies to bring together a capable roster and they return Malcolm Perry who is a legitimate dual-threat. They lacked big plays last season, finishing 89th overall in the country in plays that went for 10+ yards. The big play needs to return for the midshipmen, but I’m not sure they will be able to make it happen.

My main concern is that Navy is suffering the same fate as Army when they joined CUSA. The Cadets ended up tumbling greatly in their recruiting their on-field performance dramatically suffered. Having no other choice, they went independent to try and salvage the program. It took them several years of independence and reinvesting in their program to return to respectability. This year could be make or break for Niumatololo and the Navy administration that seems hesitant to make the same investments as Army. It looks like it will be a long season. UConn, ECU, and Holy Cross appear to be the only games that Navy may be favored.

10. Tulsa

It’s been a difficult first few seasons for Philip Montgomery at Tulsa. He had a strong 2016 campaigned but failed to follow up the last two seasons. That 2016 had quite a bit of talent that Montgomery has had a hard time recruiting to Tulsa. They are one of the top teams in the country in terms of returning production from last year, so Tulsa has legitimate chance to drag themselves out of the dungeon. Zach Smith transferred along with Skipper and Boomer, the Hurricane have options at QB. They also have legitimate NFL talent in Keylon Stokes. The offense lacked explosiveness that you had seen in previous years and they hope its rekindled for this season.

The Hurricane return 4 of there 5 top tacklers from last season, Trevis Gipson has All-AAC talent at DL, and they return most of their secondary. This defense should improve from 76th in total defense. Keep an eye on them this season. They could win a few surprise games.

9. ECU

Mike Houston was probably one of the quieter better hires of the 2019 off-season. I think he will do quite well at ECU. That being said, it may take a little while until ECU is competing for AAC Championships. Houston inherits a program with some decent recruiting over the years, but unable to turn that into successful on the field performance. The Pirate are in fertile recruiting grounds and things appear to be on the upswing in the 2020 class. However, Ahlers looks to be the real deal and a big time dual-threat QB with a big arm. The running back situation is a little more murky, but they have of options. They finished 125th in rushing S&P+ last year, so it can’t get any worse. They have to find a replacement for WR Trevon Brown as well, who came 2nd in the entire country with 170 targets, that’s a lot to replace! Look to Deondre Ferrier and Blake Proehl to receive more looks.

Defensively they have some production to replace, especially on the defensive line with AAC’s Defensive player of the year Nate Harvey moving on. Alex Turner looks to be that guy and they have some experience as well throughout the defensive line returning. Davondre Robinson looks to balance things out in the secondary and may also become an All-AAC caliber safety.

They have a pretty favorable schedule this season with games against William and Mary, Gardner Webb, ODU, and UConn. That should be at least 4 wins. ECU may be on the cusp of a bowl season, but perhaps not just yet.

8. smu

The Mustangs were picked 4th in the AAC media poll released 2 weeks ago. They return just enough talent to be favored in 6 match-ups this season according to S&P+: ECU, Tulane, Navy, Texas State, North Texas, and Tulsa. They are close underdogs to Temple and have winnable games against Houston and USF. Shane Buechele and the Mustang offense have more questions than the defense this upcoming season, something most wouldn’t expect with a Sonny Dykes team. Still, James Prosche and Reggie Robinson headline a very deep WR group including several interesting transfers. Offensively they were pretty streaky in 2018 but made up for it with some explosive plays.

Defensively the Mustangs return a heckuva lot including impact defensemen including 4 out of 5 of their leading tacklers, 2 of their top sack artists, and their top DBs in terms of pass efficiency and pass break-ups. There is a lot to like about this defense once again this year.

7. tulane

Quietly putting together a 7-6 season last year and finishing 2nd in the AAC West, Tulane is not getting a whole lot of preaseason love. Another winning season appears to be on tap for Willie Fritz after taking Tulane to their first bowl in 16 years. There’s a little bit of love with the preseason poll as Tulane is picked to finish 3rd in the AAC West, but considering they return a fair amount of defensive talent, it seems a bit disrespectful if I were New Orleans.

Darius Bradwell was the 8th leading rusher in terms of yards per game in the AAC in 2018. He is overlooked because of all of the talent at RB in the AAC, but he is a legitimate All-AAC talent. Their #2 RB Corey Dauphine, also rushed for over 700 yards and 7 touchdowns. Wide receiver Darnell Mooney was also the 6th leading receiver in terms of yard per game in the AAC last year and averaged 20.69 yards per catch, which is really incredible. He is a dynamic player. Behind him is empty space as pass catching targets. Their passing game has concerns, both at QB and WR. They need more consistency out of McMillan Keon Howard, whomever is the starter.

The defensive line had a high stuff rate, suggesting they had a good run blocking team. They performed rather poorly with situational rushing, but believe it or not, they finished 1st in the AAC with 41 sacks. Patrick Johnson is a dynamic junior and lead the team with 10 sacks, 16 TFLs, and 19.5 stuffed runs. He is the best DL no one is talking about. Last season they also finished 2nd in the conference in allowing 3rd down conversions and 2nd in the conference in red zone conversions. This is a good defense returning a lot of players at every level.

6. Temple

I’m doing individual breakdown for each position in other posts, but the basic rundown is this: new coaching staff, strong core of offensive players, some turnover at DL and DB but there are plenty with experience to provide adequate replacement. There is potential for Temple to challenge for the AAC East, if all goes well, but I have reservations about the coaching staff and special teams (which are often overlooked). This team has plenty of All-AAC talent and NFL talent, so do not be surprised if Temple is in the thick of things come November. My top 5 players to watch and top 5 players who must perform well if Temple is to have a successful season:

5. usf

They are 11th in returning production for their offense but their offensive S&P+ was 69th last year. The offensive line allowed 38 sacks, good for 11th in the conference and 114th in the nation in passing down sack rates. They really flipped a 180 after their first 7 games. After posting 35 points per game, they fell down to just 17 during the back stretch.

Blake Barnett returns for another season and he will have All-AAC RB Jordan Cronkite lining up behind him. They return 3 out of their top 4 receivers as well. If the line improves and some of their transfers pan out, USF should have a strong year on offense. Charlie Strong is certainly hoping so.

Defensively, the lose their top two sack leaders but return a lot of guys with at least 1 sack from last season. At least 4 DL return with 2 or more sacks. Their sack rate and standard downs sack rate were one of the best in the country. They got after the QB at the right moments, even if their overall sack totals were middle of the pack. Nico Sawtelle headlines an overall young position group at linebacker but will have his partner in crime Greg Reaves with him. Reaves will also get time as a rush-end and its likely some of the younger LBs will occupy the mid-field. The defensive backfield will be manned by All-AAC DB Mike Hampton.

It probably wasn’t good news when UConn rolled up 450+ yards on this defense. And they didn’t improve much thereafter. This will be the primary concern coming into the season. Defensively the Bulls have to improve. They ranked 90th overall in rushing S&P+, the front 7 really need to improve this season. I think they do, but I’m hesitant to believe it will be that drastic of an improvement under 3rd year defensive coordinator Jean-Mary. I give them the benefit of the doubt to win some games on their offense and a slight edge over Temple given the offensive prowess and I believe their 7-0 start resembles their team better than the 6 game losing streak to end it.

Wisconsin, Georgia Tech, and BYU highlight their non-conference slate. This may be one of those seasons where their overall record may not improve terribly greatly, but their conference record should improve.

4. houston

In what could be described as the biggest coaching move of the off-season, Houston landed West Virginia’s Holgorsen, a rare coup for a G5 team to snatch a coach from the P5 ranks. The Cougars, if you recall, were looking to breathe life back into the program after getting destroyed by Army in the Armed Forces Bowl. I mean, 70-14 is absolutely horrendous, even if Army was a solid team. Ed Oliver bailed, the defense was in shambles, and the offense couldn’t carry the weight.

D’Eriq King has player of the year in the AAC written all over him, and perhaps even a long shot at the Heisman trophy. Had he not been injured last season, he likely would’ve gone for over 3000 yards passing and 1000 yards rushing. He is the best player in the AAC. Extremely explosive on offense, Houston finished 2nd in the AAC in 20+ yard plays, first in the AAC in IsoPPP (measurement of explosiveness), and 1st in the AAC in scoring offense. They return most of their WR production, a lot of potential at RB, but they do need to replace some experienced OL. Overall, the return 82% of their offensive production, good for 13th in the country.

Gone is All-World DT Ed Oliver along with their top 2 LBs. They do have some pieces returning with experience, including Chambers on the DL and Sprewell on the backend. Joe Cauthen has his work cutout for himself.

I don’t think their defense will be as bad as it was last year, giving up 500 yards per game is not something Houston is accustomed to in recent seasons.

3. cincinnati

Not sure anyone saw it coming last season. Afterall, what was brewing in Cincinnati last season was a QB named Desmond Ridder. Never heard of him? Neither did anyone else. He finished as the rookie of the year in the AAC. Their offensive line one of the top units in the AAC, with the advanced stats really supportive of a strong OL unit. Ridder’s passer rating on 3rd down was 184.8. An opportunistic offense that returns 71% of its production, 42nd overall in the country. Defense wasn’t bad too, finishing 1st in the AAC in points allowed per game and total defense. They also return 71% of production, 36th in the country.

Michael Warren II will patrol the backfield, but the Bearcats will have to replace 3 OL starters. Chris Ferguson and Morgan James and plenty of potential OL recruits could take up the mantel. They return pretty much their entire receiving core.

Defensively the Bearcats return a lot including a young but more experienced secondary. The defensive line has some departures from some seriously talented defensive lineman last year, but Michael Pitts and Ethan Tucky should be able to pick up some of the slack. They have questions about depth though. Their linebackers return all but Malik Clements, so this should be a solid unit.

With games against UCLA and Ohio State, the Bearcats will have a chance to make a statement this year. Luke Fickell is a wanted man by many P5 athletic directors, and it will only intensify if he is able to navigate this schedule successfully. Games at Houston and at Memphis will be no walk in the parks but at least UCF and Temple are at home. This should be another good year and they aren’t fare behind UCF. They have as good a chance as any to win the AAC.

2. ucf

Now I know this may ruffle some feathers, but I do have a legitimate reason for putting them number 2. I know it’s a sin to put the reigning 2-time undefeated AAC Champions anywhere but no. 1 in the power rankings. But hear me out…

Their offense just isn’t the same without Milton. Their points per game tailed off towards the end of the season as did their total offense. Not tremendously, but noticeably enough to make a difference. They just aren’t quite the same team on offense, which also impacts the defense. They have to rebuild their defense a little bit but do return 3 out of their top 4 sack leaders, 3 of their top 4 tackles for loss defenders, and their defensive backfield looks pretty solid, even if they are replacing Kyle Gibson and Rashard Causey. Their returning offensive production ranks 96th in the country, and that was before Darriel Mack went down injured. Brandon Wimbush has had a mercurial time at Notre Dame, and is most certainly capable of leading UCF to an undefeated season, but he doesn’t quite have the same upside as Mack or the ability as Milton. UCF will be a different team offensively, even if they return key skill position players.

They have three very OL returnees on the right side, but they will have to retool their OL a little bit. Of course, it helps to have McRae and Killins in the backfield. A ton of depth in the WR corps.

They lost a fair amount along the defensive line but Brendon Hayes is as good a DL as any in the AAC. They have a lot of recruits from 2019 joining the pile as well as a transfer. They also return some experience, but there will be a learning curve for some of the younger lineman.

Pitt and Stanford highlight their non-conference schedule, and you can’t overlook Kiffin and FAU. Still, their schedule is quite manageable and the 4 key games to watch out for would be Stanford, at Cinci, at Temple, and the rivalry with USF. They have a good chance of winning it all, but I’m more bullish on the no. 1 team.

1. memphis

They overachieved big time last year, but they also return a lot this year. 23rd in the country in returning offensive production and 12th in returning defensive production. They tie UCF with the most preseason All-AAC conference selections. Mike Norvell has this Memphis program hitting on all cylinders…mostly as he has to replace several coordinators and key offensive players.

They have to replace Henderson at RB, but can simply slide Taylor into that spot. There is a pretty good chance they repeat as the number 1 total offense. They do need to do a better job of turning that production into points, as they landed 4th in the American in scoring. Defensively they were 2nd in the AAC in sacks and Huff and Wilson return for another year as does the rest of their top 5 sack producers. They lose their top tackler in Atkins and return everyone else. There simply isn’t that much to replace.

They begin the season at Ole Miss, which should be a strong test early on. They face interesting match-ups at Houston, at South Florida, at Temple, and home against Cinci. There non-conference schedule isn’t much besides The Rebels, so even an undefeated season would put Memphis well out of playoff contention. A NY6 bowl is well within their grasp. Too much returning to look forward to anything else.

The potential is there for Norvell to have an incredible season. It will be up to the players to execute. For now, they are my number 1 team.


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