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AAC Roundtable: Power 6 Predictions for the 2020 season

If you’re a gambler, it might be the year to sit out. Or maybe double down.

Houston v Central Florida Photo by Alex Menendez/Getty Images

Making predictions can be extremely difficult sometimes, and even more so when the season itself is up in the air. The AAC is anyone’s to win, but players opting out could add another layer of uncertainty. So if you’re making any predictions this year, good luck. It’s not going to be easy.

Who wins Offensive Player of the Year?

JOE B: With Kenneth Gainwell opting out, let’s go with Dillon Gabriel, because it feels like he’s ready to explode. Yes he had three rough games last year, but that was as a freshman. The growing pains are over, and it’s time for the Knights and Gabriel to remind teams how dangerous they can be.

DAN: Shane Buechele. I think, if he didn’t opt out, Kenneth Gainwell would have been the consensus pick here. Instead, by skipping this season, Gainwell left room for debate. For my part, I think SMU has been largely forgotten about since their loss to Memphis last season. While they did trail off at the end, they won 10 games on the back of an explosive offense. Shane Buechele led that attack and he’ll be back for another year in Sonny Dyke’s air raid offense. He fits the scheme perfectly, and his stats are going to be impressive.

STEVE: Brady White. My original selection would have been Memphis running back Kenneth Gainwell before the news of his opt-out broke on Sunday. But the Tiger offense remains a juggernaut even without their star sophomore. Senior quarterback Brady White stuck with the program after a much-improved 2019 which featured over 4,000 yards and a Cotton Bowl appearance. His confidence has soared, he looks increasingly comfortable in the pocket, and he has a solid slew of weapons returning.

ERIC: Dillon Gabriel is poised for a really big year with the Knights. It’s a shame that the COVID-19 pandemic robbed him of a full offseason as the QB1 in Orlando. As with any freshman quarterback, he had his share of rough moments. What was most impressive was the way he rebounded from those performances. Throw in the fact that he may have the most impressive trio of receivers at the Group of Five level, I don’t see how 3,500+ yards and 35 touchdowns isn't a given.

Who wins Defensive Player of the Year?

JOE B: People are sleeping on TJ Carter. Well, teams aren’t, but fans certainly aren’t giving him the credit he’s due. One of the best corners in college football, I think this is the year that Carter makes a big statement, one that helps his draft stock immensely.

DAN: Patrick Johnson. Don’t sleep on the Green Wave, or their best defensive player, Patrick Johnson. A dominant pass rusher, Johnson can expect to be double teamed and chipped all season long, because teams fear his pass rushing ability. As a junior, he only posted a disappointing 4 sacks, but expect him to bounce back to sophomore year form, when he posted 10 sacks.

STEVE: Ahmad Gardner. Cornerback is not an easy position to master as a freshman, but Gardner seamlessly stepped in and gave fits to opposing receivers in his first season suiting up for Cincinnati. Luke Fickell’s squads typically emphasize defense, and I expect the Bearcats to have the premier unit in the conference. If Gardner can replicate his ballhawking abilities on the top defense in the AAC, this will be his award to lose.

ERIC: Tulane defensive end Patrick Johnson is due to rebound in a major way after a dip in production last season. After a 10-sack sophomore campaign, he only had four sacks last season — in part due to being double-teamed throughout the season. Now that he’s had a season to adjust and Cam Sample is still on the other side of the defensive line, I’m expecting a monster season from Johnson.

Who will be the biggest Breakout Player?

JOE B: If you’ve been following me, you know I love Holton Ahlers. He’s going to be the trendy pick for this spot, but I think he’s well deserving. Ahlers averaged 374 yards per game passing in his final six games, which is where the excitement started. With his top three receivers also returning, the Pirates passing attack is ready to dominate in 2020.

Ahlers could be in the running for player of the year when it’s all said and done.
Photo by Greg Thompson/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

DAN: Holton Ahlers. Call me crazy, but ECU is going to make a big leap forward this season, and they’ll do it on the back of quarterback Holton Ahlers. Now in his third year starting, Ahlers will be in his second year under head coach Mike Houston’s system. He’s a big, strong, dual threat. Just by getting his accuracy under control, he’ll make that ECU offense explosive again.

STEVE: Sam Crawford Jr. Tulsa’s offense will be a problem for opponents this year. With Keenen Johnson departed from the receiving group, a strong portion of that lost production will direct toward Crawford, who was sensational in the final three games of last season. Crawford is threatening on deep routes, and he’ll emerge as one of the receiving yards leaders for the conference.

ERIC: I know the trendy pick is ECU’s Holton Ahlers, but I feel as if he’s a known commodity at this point. My choice will be Tulane’s Amare Jones. He’s a dynamic player who will touch the ball as a rusher, receiver and returner. In 2019, he accounted for over 1,400 yards — despite being a third-string running back. Jones reminds me of UCF’s Otis Anderson and I expect him to have a breakout season in 2020.

Which team is the most overrated?

JOE B: I don’t love this category, because the AAC tends to be underrated as a whole. But I guess if I have to pick I’m going with SMU. The Mustangs overachieved last year and brought us a thrilling run towards a championship. Without Xavier Jones and James Proche, the offense looks to new players to step up. All of the pressure falls on the defense, however, and I don’t know if they’re up for the challenge.

DAN: Cincinnati. The highest ranked AAC team, in the initial AP Poll, is also the most overrated. Now, the Bearcats are a really good team, and deserve a lot of the accolades they’re receiving, but they also have more questions on offense than other front runners. Can Desmond Ridder take the next step forward? How do you replace Michael Warren?

STEVE: An “overrated” team from the American Conference seems like an oxymoron, because all four AAC teams that finished ranked in 2019 were severely underrated. However, I’ll select SMU for this spot. The Mustangs won two of their final five in 2019, and one of those wins involved allowing 51 points to East Carolina. Then, they fell 52-28 to Florida Atlantic in bowl season. Last year’s defensive lapses in the homestretch indicate that they’re still a step away from the likes of UCF, Memphis, and Cincinnati.

ERIC: I’m surprised to see Cincinnati ranked as high as they are entering the season. That’s no disrespect to what Luke Fickell has done with the Bearcats, but I don’t see how UCF isn’t ranked higher. If any season would have been the one for them to win the American, it would have been 2019. Now, without Michael Warren II, I see a natural regression on offense.

Who’s the Sleeper Team in the conference?

JOE B: Tulsa. Philip Montgomery has his back against the wall (well maybe not in the year we’re having), meaning a bowl game is a must. Fortunately, the Golden Hurricane return a ton of experience offensively, including a solid quarterback in Zach Smith. The running game should thrive, and there’s talent at receiver as well. Zaven Collins leads a defense that needs to replace a few key guys, but they’re the team that people are sleeping on in 2020.

DAN: Navy. Without a doubt, Navy is the most difficult to team to judge annually. They recruit differently, and their offense is worlds apart from the rest of the conference. In the last three seasons, their win totals have gone from 7 to 3 to 11, finishing ranked 20th last season. A good chunk of last seasons team returns, but without the fanfare surrounding the AAC favorites. Yes, they have to replace Malcolm Perry, but if they find a serviceable replacement they should be very good again.

Brooks and the Golden Hurricane offense are ready to take their coach off the hot seat.
Photo by Greg Thompson/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

STEVE: Tulsa. Last year’s Tulsa team was one of the best 4-8 programs I’ve seen in a while. They upset UCF after a double-digit deficit, would have taken down Memphis and SMU if not for severe kicking woes, fought Cincinnati to the final minutes, and led Oklahoma State at halftime. Philip Montgomery is coaching to retain his job, and he has to be happy with the cards returning to his hand, including quarterback Zach Smith and the complementary running back duo of Shamari Brooks and Corey Taylor II.

ERIC: I know this won’t be a popular pick, but I’m going with South Florida. Okay, hopefully you’ve recovered from you laughter to hear me out. As abysmal as the Bulls were last season, they had three losses by a combined 17 points — two of which came against AAC bowl qualifiers. Mike Hampton and KJ Sails as the cornerbacks are a really good starting point. If South Florida can muster a semblance of an offense, I see five games on their schedule that are winnable.

Pick the AAC Championship matchup and winner.

JOE B: I never lie picking the obvious, but it’s tough to pick against the favorites. I think Memphis has some growing pains and slips up a bit, leaving a matchup of Cincinnati vs. UCF in the championship. I’m also ok if Memphis replaces Cincinnati in this scenario, because who doesn’t love that storyline? Both the Knights and Bearcats have something to prove this year but I think UCF returns as the champ.

DAN: UCF vs Memphis. This may not be going out on a limb, but it is the match-up everyone wants to see, and with good reason. For the past three seasons, these two have been indisputably dominant. That should continue in 2020. Both have explosive players at skills positions, and experience at quarterback. The difference between the two? UCF has depth and talent on defense that goes far beyond what Memphis can bring to the table, particularly in the secondary. Because they’re a more well-rounded team, UCF will win the AAC Championship.

STEVE: After sitting idle in 2019, we’re set for a return of the UCF vs. Memphis rivalry. With the likes of Dillon Gabriel, Greg McCrae, and Otis Anderson on the field when the Knights control the ball, with Brady White and Damonte Coxie suiting up for the Tigers, these offenses are too lethal not to force another meeting in the AAC Championship. Defensively, there is top-tier talent on both sides as well, specifically strong safety Richie Grant for UCF and cornerback T.J. Carter for Memphis. It’s a coin-flip, but I’ll pick Ryan Silverfield and the Tigers to get off the schneid and win the AAC crown back-to-back.

ERIC: Who’s ready for UCF vs. Memphis again? Everyone’s favorite national champions are officially at the point where they don’t rebuild, they just reload. With Gabriel running the offense, a healthy Greg McCrae and Marlon Williams ready to step into a more prominent role now that Gabe Davis is in Buffalo, I expect the UCF’s offense to be as lethal as ever. Yes, Kenny Gainwell chose to opt-out of this 2020 season, but I’m a believer in Brady White. Just a reminder, this is his sixth season of college football. While he had the game-manager label in previous years, I think he’ll follow up last year with another season that will show why he was so highly-touted coming out of high school. In the end, my choice is UCF to take home the crown.