2019 NCAAF Preview: American Athletic Conference

August 28, 2019
By K. Becks

There may be a changing in the guard in the American Athletic Conference in 2019.

Central Florida has dominated the league over the past two seasons, qualifying for back-to-back New Year’s Six bowls, winning one of them. But while there is still the possibility that the AAC sends another team to one of those postseason games, the gap between the Knights and everyone else has gotten smaller.

All in all, that should result in an ultra-competitive conference and plenty of close games worth watching. Everyone wins, except perhaps the fans in Orlando…only time will tell.

College Football Playoff Contenders

None

Make no doubt about it, there is plenty of talent in the AAC this season. It just will be hard for any of the teams to sneak into the CFP as a surprise entry given that Central Florida is likely to take a step back this season with McKenzie Milton on the sideline recovering from a nasty knee injury suffered near the end of the 2018 campaign. Cincinnati is an intriguing program as well, but the Bearcats have both a difficult non-conference and league schedule to deal with this year.

Barring any major surprises from the other Group of Five conferences, the New Year’s Six bowl bid to that group’s top conference champion will end up going to some team in this league. Top to bottom, the AAC is strong enough to yield respect on a national level and recency bias favors it as well.

Watch Out! (Team That Could Surprise)

Tulane

The Green Wave surprised many in 2018 by becoming bowl eligible, then capped off the season with a convincing victory in the New Orleans Bowl, the school’s first bowl win in 16 seasons. This year Tulane won’t sneak up on anyone, but there is enough talent on the defense that it shouldn’t matter. The defensive line is arguably the best in the AAC, with the entire front returning to a defense that racked up 39 sacks last season.

The difference between a solid season and a great one for Willie Fritz’s squad is the development of quarterback Justin McMillan. The senior was instrumental in a second half turnaround for the offense last season and gives the unit multiple dimensions to go along with a 1,000 yard rusher in running back Darius Bradwell. If McMillan takes the next step as a passer, Tulane is a threat to win the West Division.

Hi, My Name Is… (Player to Watch)

D’Eriq King, Houston senior quarterback

King is one of the most dynamic playmakers in the college game and is already on some people’s Heisman shortlist for 2019. Despite missing the final two games of the season following a torn meniscus in his knee, King still led the conference with 36 passing touchdowns and was second in passing yards with 2,982. He’s also a dual-threat option, rushing for 674 yards last season.

In addition to the money, the decision to leave West Virginia for Houston had to look more attractive for Dana Holgorsen knowing that he’d have a quarterback like King at his expense. The senior will be quite comfortable playing in Holgorsen’s variation of the Air Raid offense and if he can stay healthy, is likely to surpass his already exceptional passing numbers from 2018.

Out-of-Conference Games to Watch

Houston at Oklahoma (August 31)

New Houston head man Dana Holgorsen has plenty of experience facing Lincoln Riley’s offense, and the Cougars have enough talent offensively in their own right to make this one interesting. It’s hard to argue that the quarterback battle between D’Eriq King and Jalen Hurts isn’t the most intriguing in all of Week 1.

The Cougars would shock most fans outside of the greater Houston area by winning this game, but they should be able to keep it quite interesting for at least a half. This is a true test for the Oklahoma offense breaking in yet another quarterback, albeit one who has proven capable of winning games.

Cincinnati at Ohio State (September 7)

New Ohio State head coach Ryan Day gets to face two in-state opponents this season, of which the Bearcats are definitely the more challenging. Luke Fickell has put together a talented squad south of Columbus and will likely give the Buckeyes all they can handle, especially on the defensive end.

If Cincinnati can apply pressure to Justin Fields consistently, this game could be very uncomfortable for Ohio State fans. Given that Cincinnati generally has a reputation as the little brother in the state of Ohio, you can guarantee that Fickell’s team will play with a chip on its shoulder in this one.

In-Conference Games to Watch

Central Florida at Cincinnati (October 4)

Last year this game garnered enough national attention to bring College GameDay to Orlando. While it may not take center stage in early October this season, this one is bound to have major implications on the AAC title race. Both Central Florida and Cincinnati have been firmly planted as the top two picks in the East Division heading into the 2019 campaign.

While the Knights have been no slouch the past few years defensively, they will look to expose a Cincinnati defense that is poised to be one of the better units in the country, let alone the conference. Meanwhile, the Bearcats are fully capable of exacting revenge on Central Florida at home if the offense takes the step forward that many predict it will this season.

Memphis at Houston (November 16)

Both of these teams have the talent to end up as the class of the conference offensively, so if you’re a fan of high-scoring affairs then this is a “can’t miss” matchup. One of the few AAC quarterbacks to match D’Eriq King’s productivity in 2018 was Brady White. The strong armed junior has a great receiving corps to throw to as well, which will put major pressure on Houston’s secondary.

Provided that the Dana Holgorsen hire doesn’t completely backfire in Year 1, Houston will compete for the West Division crown along with Memphis. With this game being so late in the regular season, it has the potential to be a monster one in terms of determining who wins that side of the conference.

Conference Predictions

East Division

1. Cincinnati (8-4, [6-2])

2. Central Florida (9-3, [6-2])

3. South Florida (7-5, [4-4])

4. Temple (6-6, [3-5])

5. Connecticut (2-10, [1-7])

6. East Carolina (3-9, [1-7])

West Division

1. Houston (9-3, [7-1])

2. Memphis (10-2, [6-2])

3. Tulane (7-5, [5-3])

4. Southern Methodist (7-5, [4-4])

5. Tulsa (4-8, [2-6])

6. Navy (4-8, [2-6])

Championship Game: Cincinnati vs. Houston

Winner: Cincinnati

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