It seems like forever since Ed Oliver graced the AAC fields, and (in my opinion) the play hasn’t been the same since he left. Still, there’s plenty of talent to go around in the conference. Cincinnati’s been making a living on defense, and the line is one of the best in the country. UCF and Tulane will compete for the top spot too. Below them, there are more questions, but also lots of potential.
Elite: This is the goal. The top of the mountain. Everyone wants to be here.
Second Tier: Good not great.
Wait and See: Your team could be good or they could be bad. Just let them play it out.
1. Cincinnati: Luke Fickell’s building something great at Cincinnati, and it all starts with defense. Especially up front. The Bearcats don’t return an elite pass rusher (leader returns just four sacks), but they’re great at disrupting the run game. Five of the six returning contributors have 5.0 tackles for loss or more, starting with ends Myjai Sanders (6.5) and Malik Vann (5.0). The strength of this group will be in the middle at tackle. Elijah Ponder is a force, and Cincinnati has depth with Jabari Taylor, Curtis Brooks, and Marcus Brown back too. With the offense needing to identify some playmakers, the defense will need to be elite again, and they have the guys to do so.
2. UCF: Randy Shannon’s turning the Knights defense into a factor. It might not every be the same level as the offense, but a good defense makes UCF a nightmare to face. They have the front that’s going to make life miserable for an opposing offensive line. Kenny Turnier led the team in tackles for loss last year (13.5), and is joined by Kalia Davis (8.0) and Anthony Montalvo (5.0) in the middle. Randy Charlton has a ton of potential on the outside, and can be the best pass rusher in the conference when his game is on. Tre’Mon Morris-Brash is also back, and returns 9.0 tackles for loss and 3.0 sacks.
3. Tulane: If you don’t know Patrick Johnson by now, get acquainted. He’s an absolute stud. Whether the Green Wave uses him as a defensive lineman or a linebacker, Johnson’s going to get the job done. He’s strong enough to hold the point and stuff the run on one play, and then drop back to cover a receiver the next. If not for the other guys on the line, Johnson wouldn’t have that flexibility. Cameron Sample will play opposite of Johnson, and Jeffery Johnson and De’Andre Williams will contribute at tackle.
4. Memphis: Joseph Dorceus finally emerged as a threat at defensive end last year to go along with his fullback duties, recording 14.5 tackles for loss and five sacks (both second on the team). His success could open up opportunities for Everitt Cunningham and Jalil Clemons at the other defensive end position. Up the middle, O’Bryan Goodson returns to clog things up, but also has a little burst in his game that can surprise the man blocking him.
5. Temple: The Owls defense continues to be stifling even with another new coach, and that all starts up front. If Quincy Roche didn’t transfer to Miami and stayed, Temple would be the top defensive front in the conference (maybe even in the country). New defensive ends are needed, but the return of Ifeanyi Maijeh and Daniel Archibong at tackle give the coaching staff a good foundation.
6. Houston: Let’s just erase last year for Houston. It’s a fresh start for everyone (if they play), and that should produce some optimism for the defensive front. Payton Turner was arguably the most consistent at end, with David Anenih and Derek Parish contributing at Bandit. All three seemed out of position, but became more consistent as the year progressed. The two tackle spots is where the Coogs should see the most improvement. Olivier Charles-Pierre should have been one starter last year, and he’ll be joined by Jamykal Neal, Logan Hall, Willie Smith, Atlias Bell and potentially JUCO transfer Sedrick Williams.
7. SMU: The Mustangs defense made an impact last year thanks to their attacking style, but the defensive line will need to step up with many of their key playmakers gone. End Turner Coxe is the top returner on the line, but there’s not much returning production behind him. Gary Wiley and Nelson Paul will fill in the rotation at end, and Elijah Chatman is back at tackle. The defense will continue to be the focus with Sonny Dykes’ offenses scoring at a blistering pace, and everything starts with this group.
Wait and See
8. ECU: The only reason the Pirates are this low is because they just don’t have the experience returning. This group’s full of potential though. Chance Purvis and Hozey Haji-Badri are the two guys that are getting attention, but they’ll need help around them. Purvis notched 12.0 tackles for loss and 4.0 sacks. Haji-Badri is getting respect from both his coaches and his teammates, and it primed for a big year.
9. Navy: Whenever someone talks about the Midshipmen, the focus shifts towards the offense. But the defense will be the group to watch this year, though they’ll need to find new starters on the line. Jay Warren (44 tackles) and Jackson Perkins (4.0 tackles for loss) are back to lead a group that helped Diego Fagot and Jake Springer get free to make plays. Navy finished 16th in the country in stopping the run, so they’ve proven they are elite in the run game on both sides of the ball.
10. USF: Until further notice, just assume every position (except maybe the secondary) is open for competition. The Bulls defensive line should be the same. With Greg Reaves gone, a new reliable playmaker is needed. Blake Green (23 tackles), Rashawn Yates (3.5 TFL), and Jason Vaughn (3.0 TFL) are the top returning playmakers, further proving the point that this is an open competition.
11. Tulsa: It’s no longer on the Golden Hurricane offense to make things work. It’s on the defense. Zaven Collins returns behind the line to be the leader, but his teammates up front will need to prove they can help him out. Jaxon Player will be one of those guys, as he returns 7.0 tackles for loss. Outside of him, there’s Cullen Wick (30 tackles) and Yohance Burnett (34 tackles, 2.5 TFL), but that’s it.