What a fun year for the AAC. Even during a year full of uncertainty and a pandemic, the conference found ways to play games. Cincinnati made it to the New Years Six bowl game, but came up just short. Tulsa shocked us all by facing the Bearcats in the conference championship, and gave us some thrilling finishes. What will the conference look like in 2021? It’s too early to predict, but that’s why these rankings are fun. Here is your 2021 version of the Way Too Early AAC Power Rankings.
This ranking depends heavily on two people: head coach Luke Fickell and quarterback Desmond Ridder. With Fickell’s name likely to be at the top of many programs’ lists, his return is the biggest key to the Bearcats repeating as champions. A loss to Georgia in the Peach Bowl might motivate him to come back, and get his quarterback to take another year of eligibility. In a strange year, Desmond Ridder has the chance to come back after his senior season. After winning AAC Player of the Year, his return is just as important as Fickell’s. With Ben Bryant in the Transfer Portal, the quarterback position could go from experienced to not in a heartbeat.
Josh Heupel enters a pivotal year in his time at UCF next year, and the Knights are hoping they can get back to the conference championship. Heupel’s headed in the wrong direction right now, but his staff continues bringing in the talent to compete yearly. Dillon Gabriel returns with plenty of talent back at the skill positions, including speedsters Jaylon Robinson and Ryan O’Keefe. The defense features young, rising stars in Cam Goode and Josh Celiscar, but Randy Shannon hasn’t impressed fans as of late.
A disappointing end, in many ways, finished what was an incredible season for the Golden Hurricane, but it looks like they’re here to stay. Zach Smith leaves the offense in Davis Brin’s hands, and there’s a ton to like about this group. The backfield could have four guys returning with Shamari Brooks back from injury to join T.K. Wilkerson, Corey Taylor II, and Deneric Prince. The defense will be without star linebacker Zaven Collins, but they return a number of key contributors.
Sonny Dykes dipped into the Big 12 transfer pool again to fill his quarterback vacancy. With Shane Buechele off to the NFL, he needed a guy to run his offense. Oklahoma transfer Tanner Mordecai figures to be his man, and he’ll join an offense that brings back some electric talent. Freshman of the Year Ulysses Bentley IV is back and will look to eclipse 1,000 yards rushing. Speedster Danny Gray returns with Rashee Rice to give Mordecai some big play targets downfield. Dykes main concern will be finding a way to stiffen up a defense that didn’t help much at times in 2020. The goal has to be the conference championship.
It’s a huge year for Dana Holgorsen in 2021, one that he must show improvement. Assuming a normal year with 12 games, eight wins needs to be the minimum goal. Clayton Tune will return to lead the offense, and his performance will be under a microscope the entire season. He’ll lose his top target in Marquez Stevenson and top rusher in Kyle Porter, but there are other players that can step up. The offensive line needs to be better for the offense to improve, and it feels like the defense will take a big leap in Joe Cauthen’s third year.
Don’t sleep on the Green Wave. This could be a sneaky good team in 2021. Michael Pratt had his ups and downs this year as a freshman, but the he showed why he’s the quarterback of the future for this team (20 touchdown passes). He’s joined in the backfield by Cameron Carroll, and his top two receivers in Deuce Watts and Jha’Quan Jackson are back as well. The Green Wave defense needs to replace Patrick Johnson and Cameron Sample, but guys like Dorian Williams, Nick Anderson and Macon Clark showed promise this year.
Ryan Silverfield needs to find a new quarterback with Brady White moving on to the NFL. LSU transfer Peter Parrish and Arizona Transfer Grant Gunnell give the Tigers options to replace White, but we’re not sure what we’ll get with either of them. Wide receiver Calvin Austin III is arguably the best in the conference, and tight end Sean Dykes will be back after a big year. It’s tough to see Memphis competing for a conference title, but there is talent there to keep them competitive.
As long as Ken Niumatalolo stays in Annapolis, the Midshipmen will be solid. It’s tough to know what’s going to happen with Navy in a normal year, but now with guys being able to come back, I’m not sure what to expect in terms of who’ll be back. Jamale Carothers took a step back with Nelson Smith emerging, but it feels like he’s due for a Malcolm Perry type comeback. Linebacker Diego Fagot had another great year, and should return to lead an experience Navy defense, which could be the biggest reason they rise up higher than this ranking.
Holton Ahlers has one more chance to be who we think he can be. The Pirates offense didn’t take off in 2020, but they return a lot of that talent in 2021. Mike Houston has plenty to figure out next year, and getting his offense to play at a higher level is near the top of the list. Sophomores Tyler Snead and CJ Johnson give Ahlers reliable targets, and freshman running back Rahjai Harris came out of nowhere to share AAC Freshman of the Year with SMU’s Ulysses Bentley IV.
With Jordan McCloud entering the transfer portal, Jeff Scott wasted little time finding his new guy. Miami transfer Jarren Williams comes back to Florida after a year at Garden City Community College, and gets a chance to show why the Canes recruited him out of high school. Scott’s defense should be fun to watch in 2021, led by linebackers Dwayne Boyles and Antonio Grier who combined for 100 tackles, 11.5 tackles for loss and three sacks this season.
Rod Carey has a lot of work to do. Transfers hit the Owls hard this offseason, and it seems like next year will be a rebuilding one for them. Anthony Russo’s transfer to Michigan State means the offense needs a new leader. Re-al Mitchell, Trad Beatty, and Kamal Gray will all be in the mix, and they’ll need to find a way to revive the offense. Temple’s defense also must figure things out, as it took a major step backwards this season.