The American Athletic Conference has marketed itself as part of the “Power 6” leagues, opposed to being one of the Group of 5 conferences (the FBS non-power leagues’ term for themselves).
While that debate rages on, the level of talent on the football field has left no doubts about it belonging among college football’s elite.
Here’s my look at ten up and comers, who may not be widely known outside of their program, but will be, come this time next year.
10. Randall St. Felix-USF
The 2018 season was one to remember, until it wasn’t for the South Florida Bulls. They started the season with seven straight wins and were ranked in the top-25.
Then, Charlie Strong’s team collapsed.
Six straight losses ensued, culminating with a bowl game loss in their home stadium.
However, a bright spot for USF was the play of Randall St. Felix.
The 6-2, 210-pound redshirt freshman set a Bulls’ season record with four 100-yard receiving games and led the team with 679 receiving yards on 33 catches.
He only got better as the season went on, with the best outing of his college career coming on a six-catch, 165-yard bowl game performance against Marshall, which set a USF bowl game record.
St. Felix will undoubtedly be Blake Barnett’s go-to guy in 2019 and one of the better wideouts in the conference.
9. Samuel Jackson-UCF
This was a tough choice for me, because there’s another lineman on his own team (Jordan Johnson), who I believe is underrated.
However, Johnson is a back-to-back AAC first-team performer, so I went with Jackson.
He was slated to start for the Knights at guard before tearing an ACL during spring practice.
Six months later, he returned to the lineup and saw action in four games for UCF in 2018.
One of the things that makes Jackson special, is his size, especially for a team that’s looking to prove that their among CFB’s elite.
At 6-6, 340 pounds, he gives UCF the type of lineman that they need to compete not only with AAC teams, but the P5 opponents who they’ll face during the season (Stanford) and potentially in the post-season, as they seek their third straight New Year’s Day bowl.
The former three-star prospect turned down offers from Miami and Kentucky for UCF and along with the aforementioned Johnson, AAC all-conference first-team guard Cole Schneider provide arguably the best offensive line among G5 teams.
8. Shane Buechele -SMU
Buechele is flying under the radar, but it’s not because he’s lacking name recognition.
Two seasons ago, it looked as if he was going to be the next great quarterback at the University of Texas.
But after throwing for almost 3,000 yards and 21 touchdowns as a freshman in 2016, he lost his job to Sam Ehlinger and now, he’s looking to resurrect his career 200 miles north in Dallas.
It’s not a foregone conclusion that he’ll be the starter. William Brown sent former Mustangs’ starter Ben Hicks to Arkansas after unseating him last season.
However, it’s fair to assume that Buechele will be given every chance to win the job.
If he can live up to his potential coming out of high school, there’s enough talent for around him for SMU to make a bowl game in 2019.
7. Joseph Dorceus-Memphis
Memphis will look to again challenge UCF for the AAC crown in 2019. Joseph Dorceus will be a huge factor on defense in those efforts.
The former walk-on fullback has turned into one of the better linemen in the conference after two seasons.
Dorceus had a breakout year in 2018, recording 50 tackles, including seven tackles for loss and six sacks.
In two games against conference foe UCF, he had nine tackles, two sacks and three tackles for loss.
In order for Memphis to compete for a conference title again in 2019, Dorceus will have to equal or better his play. Expect him to be a pre-season all-conference selection.
6. Gleson Sprewell-Houston
Sprewell burst onto the AAC scene in 2018 after spending a season in the JUCO ranks.
The 6-2, 200-pound safety was consistently around the football, recording 81 tackles, three interceptions and had nine pass breakups.
He also scored twice on defense for the Cougars, returning a fumble for a touchdown against SMU and had arguably his best collegiate game against Memphis, taking an interception 63 yards for a score.
One of the things that makes Sprewell special is his athleticism in the secondary.
He played defensive back, running back, wide receiver and returned kicks in high school and is clocked at 4.5 in the 40-yard-dash.
5. Zaven Collins-Tulsa
While Tulsa head coach Philip Montgomery is still in the midst of a rebuilding process after a 10-win 2016 season, he has a major building block in Zaven Collins.
The redshirt freshman finished second on the team in tackles with 85 and added 9.5 tackles for loss.
Collins, a former three-star prospect, was lightly recruited coming out of tiny Hominy High School in Hominy, Oklahoma. But he’s more than paid dividends for the Golden Hurricane.
He had five games of 10 or more tackles, including a career-high 14 against an SEC opponent in Arkansas.
4. Quincy Roche-Temple
Temple’s Quincy Roche may be the best defensive lineman in the conference without the accolades.
In two seasons as an Owl, he’s tallied 88 tackles, 21 tackles for loss and 13 sacks.
Yet, he hasn’t made an all-conference team during his stay in Philly. That should change in 2019.
As a reserve in 2017, he made his collegiate debut with a sack against Notre Dame, and a three-sack performance versus UMass.
In addition to being a constant behind the line of scrimmage, he’s blocked two kicks and forced five fumbles.
3. Holton Ahlers-East Carolina
Since East Carolina chose to dismiss Ruffin McNeill following the 2015 season, the Pirates have gone 9-27.
Mike Houston has his work cut out for him, but I’m all in on Ahlers being the signal-caller in Greenville.
The hometown star was a four-year starter in high school and started five games during his true freshman season in 2018.
While he only won one game as a starter, he held tough during a disappointing season.
Ahlers threw for over 400 yards against conference heavyweights UCF and Memphis.
What he also brings is a dual-threat presence, rushing for just shy of 600 yards on the season.
The wins may not come immediately for Houston, but having Ahlers behind center is a great start to turning things around for ECU.
2. Mike Hampton-USF
The Tampa native was heavily recruited coming out of Hillsborough High School.
Since choosing USF in 2016, he’s slowly become arguably the conference’s most underrated defensive back.
He was an all-conference honorable mention by AAC coaches in 2018, after ranking second in the conference and ninth in FBS football with 18 passes defended.
Hampton is also not afraid to tackle, recording 42 tackles and a sack in 2018, in addition to his two interceptions.
For the Bulls to rebound in 2019, Hampton will have to continue to be a lockdown cornerback. He will undoubtedly be the number one corner with the graduation of Mazzi Wilkins.
1. Otis Anderson-UCF
Here’s the fact of the matter about Anderson.
Had he taken an offer from the many programs that offered him out of high school (Charlotte, Bowling Green, Stetson, Appalachian State, FIU) to name a few, he would undoubtedly be their best offensive player, easily getting 25-30 touches a game.
However, he choose UCF and with that, he’s one of a litany of playmakers in Josh Heupel’s offense.
The 5-11, 174-pound playmaker is an enigma to some in UCF circles.
For me, there’s one sequence of plays that clearly shows what type of player the dynamic Anderson is.
Against Memphis in the AAC title game, fumbled a punt late in the second quarter, which led to the Tigers scoring a touchdown and taking a 38-21 lead.
Having been in the press box at Spectrum Stadium that afternoon, the level of despair among Knights fans in the stadium was tangible after the miscue.
The Jacksonville native could have sulked and gone into the tank after his mistake.
However, on the Knights’ first possession of the third quarter, Anderson atoned for his error and caught a 54-yard touchdown pass, re-energizing the crowd and sparking a UCF comeback that ended in a 56-41 victory.
It’s that type of instant offense that he’s capable of on any given play.
With Dredrick Snelson entering the NFL draft, there will be more opportunities for Anderson to showcase his playmaking ability.
Here’s a statistic that shows how dynamic Anderson is. He has 14 touchdowns on 166 career offensive touches.
That’s a touchdown every 11.8 touches. With more opportunities coming his way, I expect him to have a excellent year in 2019.