Some might argue that the American Athletic Conference was the home of the 2017 National Champion. After all, the AAC was where the only undefeated team of the 2017 season competed. Central Florida stunned the football world by going undefeated, 13-0, just two years after finishing the 2015 season winless at 0-12. Led by Head Coach Scott Frost, Central Florida led an impressive charge towards history by toppling every opponent on their schedule, including the SEC Runner-Up Auburn in the Peach Bowl.
However, 2018 may not be as rosy for the AAC. New coaches litter the conference, and many of the difference making players have gone on to bigger and better things as well. Despite that, we are still in for an exciting year of football from a conference that might just be the “Best of the Rest” when compared to the five power conferences.
Can Central Florida repeat their miraculous run from 2017? Will another team blaze a trail towards history? Or, will the AAC return to its status as a wannabe non-power conference in 2018? Here are some things to watch out for.
University of Central Florida Golden Knights (UCF) – UCF was the little engine that could in 2017. The Golden Knights were led by an offense that was too small, a defense that wasn’t strong enough, a coach that was too young, and a linebacker with one hand. They were two years removed from going winless, and had only just finished at .500 the year prior. There was no way that Central Florida was going to win double digit games, let alone the conference, especially considering the firepower that their rivals at South Florida were bringing back for 2017. Yet here we are, still in awe of a performance from UCF that we may never see again from such an unlikely underdog. The Golden Knights are my favorite to repeat as AAC Champions, but that doesn’t mean it will be easy for them. Scott Frost is gone as the head coach, having returned to coach his Alma Mater Nebraska, and many of the stars from 2017 have either graduated or gone on to the NFL. On top of that, the schedule is quite difficult for UCF in 2018, having to travel to South Florida and Memphis, two of the top contenders to topple UCF off their throne. Still, with 9 starters from last season returning on an offense which was overpowering in their 13-win campaign, including now junior quarterback McKenzie Milton, the Golden Knights, while in no way a clear cut favorite, have to be considered the frontrunner for the AAC Crown.
University of South Florida Bulls (South Florida, USF) – The 2017 season was supposed to the year that USF made a run at history with a team that fielded a potential Heisman Trophy Candidate. Quarterback Quinton Flowers single handedly accounted for nearly 4,000 yards of offense and 36 touchdownsas part of an offense that scored more than 30 points in 10 of their twelve games. However, it was not meant to be, as a loss to their rivals from Central Florida in the regular season finale prevented the Bulls from playing for an AAC Championship. South Florida will essentially have to reset in 2018 after losing many of their top offensive threats to the NFL, but previous head coach Willie Taggart and current Head Coach Charlie Strong have recruited well and have the team primed to make multiple successful runs in the AAC. As long as Coach Strong can find an answer at quarterback to replace the departed Flowers, the Bulls should be a strong contender to topple Central Florida from their AAC East Division throne.
University of Memphis Tigers (Memphis) – Mike Norvell, the head coach at Memphis, is the highest paid head football coach outside of a power conference. The Tigers have made a bowl game each of the last four seasons, an impressive feat considering that there was a coaching change in 2015 when Justin Fuente, the former head coach, left to become the head coach at Virginia Tech after guiding the Tigers to the second of four straight bowl games. In 2017, Memphis played undefeated Central Florida for the AAC Championship, only to fall in double overtime to the Golden Knights. Quarterback Riley Ferguson had thrown for a Memphis record 4,257 yards in 13 games, obliterating his own Memphis record for passing yards that he had set in 2016. The challenge for the Tigers will be duplicating their success in 2018. Ferguson graduated, leaving a gaping hole at Quarterback. Fortunately for Memphis, a hidden gem remains in the form of running back Darrell Henderson, who averaged nearly 9 yards per carry in 2017 and accumulated 1,154 rushing yards over the course of the season. Coach Norvell will have to earn his massive salary the hard way in 2018, with replacing Ferguson being the biggest challenge for the young coach. Still, Memphis returns most of their defense, and should have the firepower to make a return trip to the AAC Championship game as the West Division Champion. The big question for 2018: Can Memphis avenge their heartbreak from 2017 and win a conference title?
I have made a point to not proclaim any teams from a non-power conference to be a disappointment unless there is a special circumstance that warrants such a claim. In 2018, I do not foresee such a situation in the AAC.
University of Cincinnati Bearcats (Cincinnati, UC) – Call me a hopeless romantic placing special emphasis on the hometown team, but if you think about the man in charge at Cincinnati, you will remember that Luke Fickell comes from one of the strongest traditions of excellence in college football. Cincinnati has dominated recruiting in the AAC since Fickell took the helm last season, and that should begin to pay dividends in 2018. Granted, the 2017 season was a struggle for the Bearcats, as is often the case for a new coach who has taken over a team left in complete shambles by their previous coach. The pieces are in place, though, for Cincinnati to make immediate improvements in the AAC. Senior quarterback Hayden Moore needs to become a more accurate passer, having never completed 60% of his passes for a season. Moore, though, has shown the ability to be a top flight quarterback in the conference, including throwing only 5 interceptions in the final 9 games of the 2017 season. It would be foolish to call Cincinnati a virtual contender for the AAC Championship in 2018, but with how the team is looking, and with the poise of Coach Fickell roaming the sidelines, don’t be surprised if UC finishes close to the top of the East Division standings when the regular season ends.
Similar to the 2017 season, I believe that the AAC East Division will come down to the winner of the rivalry game between the Central Florida Golden Knights and the South Florida Bulls. Whomever wins that game will go on to face the winner of the AAC West division, which in all likelihood will once again be the Memphis Tigers. With three clear cut contenders, it will be fascinating to see how the AAC plays out during the 2018 season! Come back August 24 to see who I believe will be the champions of the American Athletic Conference!