It wasn’t a pretty start for Memphis and SMU this weekend, and that’s important because they’re two of the best teams in the conference. The Tigers appeared to figure it out towards the end, but the Mustangs struggled with Texas State the entire game. What does that mean for the rest of the conference? It means that the door is open for a sleeper team to sneak in and take their spot. Maybe even compete for the conference title. But who is that sleeper team? This year, it seems there are a number of options, so let’s dive into who could shock us and make a run this season.
UCF, Memphis, SMU, and Cincinnati are the favorites, given that they went a combined 43-11 last year. Temple and Tulane should be solid this year, and there aren’t many people overlooking them, which leaves us with these four teams below.
I’ve said it a number of times now, Philip Montgomery must make a bowl game. After going 16-10 in his first two seasons, Montgomery’s finished 9-27 over the past three. How does he still have a job? Despite a 4-8 record this past season, there were signs of improvement. The Golden Hurricane beat two Mountain West teams (San Jose State and Wyoming) who were solid, nearly upset Memphis, and stunned UCF with a 34-31 win. It feels like this team’s ready to shock the conference, even if that means just making a bowl game.
Zach Smith can take most of the credit for Tulsa’s turnaround. After two years of struggles with Seth Boomer, Luke Skipper, and Chad President, Smith provided stability at the quarterback position. He’s joined in the backfield by Shamari Brooks and Corey Taylor II, and the talent up front and at receiver make this offense a potentially dangerous one. I doubt they compete for the conference, but they should be significantly better than last year.
It feels like the Pirates are ready to explode in 2020. The return of Holton Ahlers and his top three receivers put the ECU offense in a great position this season, and head coach Mike Houston should have the defense prepared as well. Where’s the evidence that this team can compete? Look at their schedule from 2019.
Outside of NC State and Navy, the Pirates weren’t ever out of a game. That’s what an explosive offense can help with, keeping your team in every contest. The two games that stood out the most? Cincinnati and SMU. The Bearcats needed a field goal as time expired to beat ECU and the Mustangs needed two fourth quarter touchdowns to put away the Pirates (and still only won by eight). It’s going to require a consistent group effort if ECU wants to contend in the AAC, but they’re set up nicely for a chance to win eight games. And if you’re looking for fantasy players, they have options for you.
So far, nearly everyone thinks the Bulls will finish last or close to it in 2020. Which makes them the perfect sleeper team. Throw in the fact that we know very little about this team outside of who’s on the roster, and it makes them an even better candidate. Jeff Scott has work to do, but expectations are low. Exceeding them shouldn’t be difficult, and falling short can be chalked up to the fact that it’s his first year and will take some time.
One thing’s for sure: the Bulls secondary will be one of the best in the conference. KJ Sails, Nick Roberts, Bentlee Sanders, and Mike Hampton all return, and will give USF a fighting chance defensively. Even if everyone else struggles, the secondary will at least do their part to keep the Bulls in games.
It pains me to write this, but Houston is a sleeper team. After a disappointing 4-8 season, the Cougars are looking to bounce back in a big way, and there are many reasons to believe it will happen. It just depends on how much. Clayton Tune gets back a plethora of talent out wide, including the return of Keith Corbin and Marquez Stevenson. The offensive line will need to step up in a big way after struggling mightily last year (thanks largely to inexperience and injuries). Dana Holgorsen’s second seasons at his previous stops proved to be insanely explosive, meaning the Coogs could be lethal in 2020. It all comes down to the defense.
Joe Cauthen and the defensive staff spent most of the 2019 season trying to teach guys new positions, while also figuring out who could play and provide depth. Holgorsen helped him out this year by bringing in a ton of talent, especially in the secondary. Deontay Anderson and Damarion Williams were solid last year, but there was significant drop off behind them. Guys like Troy transfer Marcus Jones have already impressed and should help, and an improved defense could put Houston into title contention.