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Who’s still in the running for the AAC Championship?

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It’s still a healthy list of contenders, but who’s actually legit?

NCAA Football: Cincinnati at Southern Methodist Tim Flores-USA TODAY Sports

It’s still very early in the season to eliminate many teams out of contention for the AAC Championship Game. A conference with a few favorites remains a close race, raising questions about the legitimacy of every team. So who’s still in the running?

We can start with this: USF, Tulane, Temple, and ECU aren’t contending for a spot. The Bulls are a young team rebuilding under Jeff Scott. ECU’s been underwhelming all year despite an offense with great potential. Temple stumbled out of the gate, and hasn’t been able to stop many offenses. Tulane’s a team full of promise, one that’s clearly better than the other three we just mentioned, but not a contender. Same with Navy. While the Midshipmen are 3-1 in conference play, their loss to Houston proved that they’re not ready to compete. Oh and those three wins came against teams mentioned above. What makes a team a contender? Let’s break down each team and give reasons why they are and aren’t contenders for a conference championship.

Cincinnati

Why they are: Cincinnati’s considered a potential College Football Playoff team, so yeah I’d say they’re a contender in the AAC. The Bearcats defense remains one of the best in college football, and the talent on that side of the ball continues to shine. Scoring on this group is nearly impossible, as they’re allowing just 12.5 points per game. They just held an SMU offense that averaged 42.6 points per game coming into the weekend to a measly 13. This is a team on a mission after coming up short in 2019.

Why they aren’t: Desmond Ridder’s arm is the team’s biggest liability. There were times early in the season where he looked better as a passer, but that’s not the case as the season progresses. Granted, Cincinnati’s staff does well to give him simple throws, but he’s not beating anyone with his arm. If any team can figure out a way to make Ridder beat them with his arm, they have a great chance of beating Cincinnati. The passing attack is the only thing holding this team back.

Houston

Why they are: Dana Holgorsen’s revived a Houston program that was lifeless for the last three years in the conference. His offense is electric, and the entire team’s playing with an energy we haven’t seen before. Clayton Tune’s on pace for a career year, and the playmakers around him make the Cougars a tough team to stop.

Why they aren’t: There are concerns in the secondary, and the offensive line has shown inconsistencies as well. Houston didn’t exactly dominate either Navy or Tulane for their two conference wins, and we’ll get a good look at the Coogs this weekend when they face an elite UCF passing attack.

NCAA Football: Tulsa at South Florida
Zaven Collins and the defense are balling, but what happens if they struggle?
Jonathan Dyer-USA TODAY Sports

Tulsa

Why they are: There isn’t a glaring weakness for the Golden Hurricane, which is the first time we’ve said that about this team in years. Philip Montgomery’s squad is dominating so far, and already has an upset win over UCF to its name. The rushing attack has endured the loss of Shamari Brooks, and new faces Deneric Prince and T.K. Wilkerson are beasts with the ball in their hands. Zach Smith continues to prove he’s the quarterback this offense needed all along. Oh and Zaven Collins and the defense are making life miserable for opposing offenses.

Why they aren’t: We’re really waiting for the self-inflicted wounds we saw against Oklahoma State to come back. While they don’t face a team that should beat them for a while, three of the last four games are against teams on this list. Two of those teams can score points in a hurry, something the Golden Hurricane aren’t capable of doing on a consistent basis. This team goes as far as the defense allows.

SMU

Why they are: This team’s still in control of their own destiny, and they have the offense that can bring them to a championship. Shane Buechele and the passing attack continue to thrive despite the loss of Reggie Roberson. Rashee Rice has emerged as the go-to guy, with Danny Gray and Kylen Granson right behind him.

Why they aren’t: The defense is the death of this team, and they couldn’t even limit a Cincinnati offense that struggles mightily to move the ball through the air consistently. Desmond Ridder ran all over the Mustangs, and this team’s in big trouble if their offense can’t score. Like I said, they control their own destiny, but it’s not an easy road by any means.

Memphis

Why they are: Brady White’s as clutch as they come at quarterback, and he’s already led comebacks in two of their biggest games. Calvin Austin emerged as the next Tigers elite playmaker, and the offensive line is experienced (which you need in big games). This team can score points in a hurry, which they’ve seen is necessary to win big games.

Why they aren’t: That same defense has major holes, and tends to put the Tigers in tough positions. If the offense can’t score, it’s not like the defense can take over. Memphis currently sits dead last in total yards allowed (567.8) and passing yards allowed (440.3) per game. It’s not a new thing for the Tigers to need their offense to do most of the work, but this is the worst Tigers defense we’ve seen in years, which will be their downfall.

NCAA Football: Tulane at Central Florida
Gabriel and the offense can score, but nearly all of the weight is on their shoulders to win.
Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

UCF

Why they are: If you had to bet on a team to score a touchdown on one drive, the Knights are one of the few teams you’d pick. Dillon Gabriel’s a monster, averaging 435.6 passing yards per game, and that’s even with the loss of Tre Nixon. Marlon Williams and Jaylon Robinson continue to terrorize defenses, and there aren’t many teams that have any idea how to stop this offense.

Why they aren’t: Speaking of stopping offense, the Knights struggle in that department (482 yards per game allowed). Opponents are averaging 33.4 points per game against the Knights, which isn’t too far behind the 45.2 that UCF scores. You can’t outscore everyone, and we’ve already seen what can happen when this team need the defense to step up. The offense can get them there, but they’ll need a little help. Especially with two losses.

So who’s a contender? Right now, if we had to pick, it’s Cincinnati for sure with Tulsa and SMU right behind them. Houston has yet to be truly tested, putting them with Memphis and UCF on the outside looking in at this point. No one’s out of it, but some teams need help to join that top group.