- Scott Frost might be gone, but UCF quarterback McKenzie Milton is one of the best playmakers in the country. He leads a Knights offense that the rest of the AAC will struggle to contain.
South Florida was the betting favorite to win the American Athletic Conference a year ago, as the Bulls went into the season at +160. Led by dynamic quarterback Quinton Flowers, the team ended up having a tremendous season. It did, however, fail to achieve that ultimate goal of winning the conference.
Instead, it was Central Florida that ended up taking the title home. The Knights opened the year at +450 and went on to have a perfect 13-0 season. Now it’s UCF that is the favorite to win the American, but there are quite a few teams that could be capable of doing something special themselves.
Odds to win AAC:
South Florida +1000
East Carolina +50000
(In order of predicted finish)
New head coach Josh Heupel returns enough talent to the nation’s highest-scoring offense to keep lighting up the scoreboard under dark-horse Heisman candidate QB McKenzie Milton. Heupel made a name for himself with his work as Missouri’s offensive coordinator, but after UCF’s perfect 13-0 season, the best coaching he can do for this team on offense might be letting them stick to what worked a year ago. The defense is another story. The Knights lost a ton of talent all over the field, so new defensive coordinator Randy Shannon will have his work cut out for him. Even if that unit regresses a little, UCF is still the best team in the conference.
2. South Florida
The Bulls took a huge leap defensively under head coach Charlie Strong, which is a result that he never really achieved during his tenure at Texas. USF should continue to defend at a high level this year, as the team returns enough playmakers and faces a Charmin-soft schedule. But replacing quarterback Quinton Flowers isn’t going to be easy. He was a monumental part of USF's offense throughout his career, but the good news is that the Bulls have a lot of talent in their receiving corps. They can give UCF a run for their money if everything breaks right.
Temple’s defense will ultimately decide how good this team is, and the Owls lost a lot of talent on that side of the ball. Head coach Geoff Collins is a defensive-minded guy—he was the defensive coordinator at the University of Florida before taking this job last year—so one would think he’d be able to improve the pass rush and find some stability in the secondary. On offense, quarterback Frank Nutile enters the year with some real momentum after playing well to end the 2017 season. He’ll often look to versatile wideout Isaiah Wright when going to the air. The running game should be solid as well.
Head coach Luke Fickell went 4-8 in his first year with Cincinnati after having spent 16 of the previous 17 seasons on the Ohio State staff. A Year 2 improvement looks very realistic, as the Bearcats offense should be able to keep them in games. In quarterback Hayden Moore and wide receiver Kahlil Lewis, Cincinnati will have one of the best aerial combos in the conference. What’s holding the team back is a defense that is weak in the secondary and doesn’t possess the ability to get after the quarterback. That’s never a good combination.
Much like Cincinnati, the Huskies will be able to put up some points but they won’t be able to prevent anybody from scoring them. The Huskies lost most of the talent off of their porous defense from a year ago, and it’s hard to imagine them finding a way to slow down some of these potent AAC offenses. But with a good quarterback in David Pindell and some solid pass-catching weapons, they should be able to at least excite some of their fans in shootout losses. That just means very little when trying to justify backing them to actually win games.
6. East Carolina
East Carolina’s schedule does it no favors this season: In addition to playing USF, Temple, UCF and Memphis, the Pirates also face both Virginia Tech and North Carolina out of conference. And while the Pirates are still stocked with talent in the receiving corps, quarterback Reid Herring is inexperienced and won't be carving up defenses. On the other side of the ball, ECU fielded the worst defense in the nation last year. And while that means there’s nowhere to go but up, it will likely just be a main reason this team finishes in last once again.
Riley Ferguson and Anthony Miller are no longer around, but it’s pretty clear that head coach Mike Norvell’s spread offense can adapt to any player who's running the show. The Tigers are going to put up points, especially considering talented running backs Darrell Henderson and Patrick Taylor return to make plays behind what could be the conference’s best O-line. On the other side of the ball, Memphis has some talent in its secondary. The Tigers aren’t going to shut anybody out, but they can create turnovers and aren’t going to completely let their offense down.
With Outland Trophy-winning DT Ed Oliver in the fold, the Cougars will have the best defensive line in the conference. Oliver is capable of dominating a game single-handedly, and he’ll likely hear his name called within the first five picks of next year’s NFL draft. Houston also happens to have a ton of transfers coming in to help bolster a talented secondary. Offensively, the Cougars had their worst scoring season in 12 years last year. But Major Applewhite is an offensive-minded coach, and it’s hard to imagine him not figuring it out with all their talent. Houston will have a shot to win the AAC.
Navy’s defensive line probably isn’t nearly as good as it needs to be for it to have the kind of success that would have it thinking about a conference title. But that doesn’t mean the Midshipmen aren’t going to be in the mix. Navy’s triple-option running game will still be as potent as ever, especially with dynamic quarterback Malcolm Perry primed for a breakout year. Zach Abey is now a receiver, but you can count on the converted QB to be a factor at any position. Look for Navy to potentially spoil somebody else’s title hopes somewhere down the line.
Quarterback Ben Hicks and new head coach Sonny Dykes’s Air Raid offense are a match made in heaven. The SMU wideouts might not be familiar faces, but this passing game is going to be successful. Meanwhile, running back Xavier Jones should do his part in a strong rushing attack. The Mustangs’ problem is their defense. New coordinator Kevin Kane did a great job in the same role with Northern Illinois, but it’s going to take some time to get the right kind of talent in. Until then, SMU will strictly be playing shootouts. It's not ready to contend just yet.
Dual-threat quarterback Jonathan Banks was unstoppable as a runner at times last year, but he’ll need to find a way to be more consistent throwing the ball if Tulane is going to avoid finishing at the bottom of the standings. The good news for him is that he’s one of 10 offensive starters returning, so there will be some talent—or at least experience—to get the ball to. The Green Wave’s defense is going to make things difficult, though. The unit allowed far too many big plays last season, and things don’t project to be much better this year.
After a 10-win season in his second year with the program, head coach Philip Montgomery was looking like a star in the making. But his momentum took a big hit with last year’s 2-10 season, and it’s hard to imagine the Golden Hurricane being much better in 2018-19. They still have some serious question marks at the quarterback position, which severely handicaps a strong group of skill-position players. Defensively, Tulsa was miserable at every level last season. It’ll get some help in the form of transfers, but that’s not going to improve the team as much as it needs.
Pick to win the AAC: UCF
Scott Frost is gone, but he built something special in Orlando. There is enough in place for this program to continue to win games at a high clip, and Josh Heupel should establish himself as a great young coach in his own right.
Best value bet: Temple +2000
Temple’s biggest concern is its defense, but Geoff Collins is as good of a mind as there is on that side of the ball. If he can have the unit playing better than expected, the Owls could turn some heads in the AAC. Their offense is more than capable of putting up points against any defense on their schedule.