Welcome back to the 2020 version of our Preseason AAC Position Previews. I apologize for the lack of writing on year from an AAC perspective and from me. I’ve been working on my College Football Preview for the last few months, but I am back and ready for the 2020 season.
It’s been a long offseason without spring practices, and it seems like sports have been gone forever. This year will be different in many ways, as the cancellation of spring ball means we didn’t get an idea of who will be the new faces on various teams or who looks like they’re back and ready for more.
We start, as always, with the quarterbacks, and this year’s group brings back a bunch of new talent to the conference. D’Eriq King’s transfer to Miami means someone else can snag the top spot, and this year’s group will fluctuate quite a big throughout the season.
Unfortunately, UConn’s not around to snag the last spot at most of the positions, so there will be new teams at the bottom of the conference. Don’t blame us if that’s your team, blame the Huskies. This year, the teams are divided into three tiers. Room for Improvement is no loner around, with Elite, Second Tier, and Wait and See remaining. As a reminder, here’s what each one means.
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. SMU: This all rides with Shane Buechele. The Mustangs quarterback had a phenomenal year in 2019, throwing for nearly 4,000 yards and 34 touchdowns. Even with the loss of James Proche, he’ll pick up where he left off with Reggie Roberson and Kylen Granson returning. Buechele needs to limit the risks he takes this year, as there were many instances where his receivers bailed him out last season, but the SMU will be explosive once again with him running the offense.
2. Memphis: Brady White answered the challenge presented to him last year. The Tigers quarterback proved that he could be part of the winning, and he showed that big games didn’t limit his production. Now that he decided to return for one more season, Memphis’ offense returns every top player their skill positions and up front. White’s leadership will be valuable as Memphis tries to defend their conference championship, a task that will be tough with a handful of teams on their heels and a new coaching staff entering the picture.
3. UCF: Let’s get this out of the way. If McKenzie Milton were 100% healthy and back to his normal self, UCF would be first without question. Since we don’t know that, were treating it like he’s not playing. Dillon Gabriel did a great job of taking over the offense, but (similar to Brady White two years ago), he’ll need to prove he can thrive in big games. Gabriel threw all seven of his interceptions in losses last year, and his accuracy was all over the place. If he can hone in his skillset to become more consistent, the Knights will compete for the conference title again.
4. Cincinnati: Desmond Ridder’s role in the offense was mostly a game manager over the past two years. With Michael Warren II in the backfield, he wasn’t asked to do anything above and beyond. Warren’s gone, leaving Ridder as the leading returning rusher for the offense. The pressure will be on him to improve as a passer, and becoming more accurate with his passes will be the biggest key (it dropped from 62.4 to 55.1 last year). Cincinnati’s defense will once again be great, and it’s up to the offense to determine if a conference championship is possible.
5. Tulsa: The Golden Hurricane didn’t have much hope for their quarterback before Zach Smith arrived, and he gave them a player who can elevate the offense. Granted, his accuracy was spotty (only four games he completed more than 60% of his throws), but he still opened up the playbook for Tulsa. With the talent returning on this side of the ball, Smith and the offense could bring the Golden Hurricane back to bowl eligibility.
6. ECU: I’ve been a fan of Holton Ahlers since he came to campus, and I think this is the year he breaks out. We’ve seen how high his ceiling goes, but he needs to become more consistent. He already has eight games of 300+ passing yards under his belt, but he also has five under 200. The Pirates passing attack should be lethal this year if Ahlers can take the next step, and it should remind fans of the Shane Carden days.
7. Temple: After a few years of uncertainty surrounding the position, Temple finally has some stability coming into the 2020 season. Anthony Russo returns after a 21 touchdown season, and showed fans his potential frequently last year. The Owls passing attack can be one of the most explosive with Russo throwing to Jadan Blue and Branden Mack this year, and they also added Iowa State transfer Re-al Mitchell to the quarterback room in the offseason.
Wait and See
8. Houston: Dana Holgorsen navigated a storm in 2019, and settled upon Clayton Tune as his starter. Tune improved as the season progressed, and even showed us his wheels at times. As a passer, he needs time. With the talent at receiver, there are many who expect Tune to take a step forward under Holgorsen, something the head coach has proven to do at his previous stops. Houston’s offense has the talent to score points, but that result hinges on their quarterback.
9. Tulane: Willie Fritz is looking for someone to replace Justin McMillian after two years as the starting quarterback. Former Southern Miss transfer Keon Howard figures to inherit that role this year. The position appears to be open for competition, and the questions surrounding the offense will be answered by the winner of that battle.
10. USF: There are many questions surrounding Jeff Scott’s arrival as the Bulls new head coach, and starting quarterback is one of the biggest. Jordan McCloud’s back after an up and down year, and some stability is just what he needs. The sophomore shined at times last year, but not enough to help the team. A new scheme means the position is open for competition, but McCloud should be the favorite.
11. Navy: Ken Niumatalolo showed everyone that he can adjust to his quarterback and find ways to make them successful. The result was Malcolm Perry winning AAC Offensive Player of the Year. Can he do that with Perry Olsen? Tyler Goslin and Dalen Morris will push Olsen, but it seems many believe he’s the guy. No, the offense isn’t going to change much, but their quarterback’s play could make it look a little different.