Stopping the pass has been difficult for college football teams as of late. It’s been like that for the AAC for years now, and it doesn’t appear as if that’s changing anytime soon. Teams like UCF, Memphis and SMU have led the way in the department lately, and they will do so again this year. However, the rest of the conference is catching up with talent of their own at both tight end and receiver. If you’re a defensive back, life isn’t much fun on a weekly basis, and stopping these passing attacks won’t be easy in 2021.
Elite: There’s no doubt about this position. Stud or studs in this category.
Second Tier: Solid, but not elite. Might have studs, but no depth or vice versa.
Wait and See: Either this position is bad or has too many new faces to judge.
1. SMU: The Mustangs might have to usher in a new quarterback to the offense, but it shouldn’t be difficult for them to find success throwing the football. Reggie Roberson’s injury turned out to be a blessing in disguise as he decided to return to SMU instead of going pro. He led the team in yards per catch and tied the lead for touchdowns last year despite only playing in five games. Rashee Rice led the team in catches and yards, and speedster Danny Gray is back as well. Sonny Dykes dipped into the transfer portal to snag tight end Grant Calcaterra as well. So yeah, the winner of the quarterback competition just has to be average throwing the ball to produce monster numbers.
2. Memphis: Calvin Austin III is the best wide receiver in the conference, and there will be no debate surrounding this fact. Route running, speed, you name it. He has it. Memphis might have a new quarterback entering the picture, but the pass catchers will make life easy for them. Tight end Sean Dykes returns after posting career numbers in 2020, and Javon Ivory showed some serious flashes of potential in limited reps last year. Arkansas transfer Shamar Nash should also help lessen the departure of Tahj Washington to USC.
3. UCF: Depth is my main concern with UCF at wide receiver, but you can’t deny the elite talent they have in Jaylon Robinson and Ryan O’Keefe. If anything, their speed alone makes defensive coordinators panic every play. Robinson finished second on the team in catches and yards last year, and should eclipse 1,000 yards this year. O’Keefe averaged an electric 19.6 yards per catch in 2020 and put his speed on display frequently. Jake Hescock returns at tight end, and depth at receiver will come from the transfer portal additions like Tennessee transfer Brandon Johnson.
4. Tulsa: Outside of the four guys we’ll list, Tulsa doesn’t have anyone that’s reliable, but these four erase the need for that. Keylon Stokes decided to come back after leading the team in catches and yards, but he’ll have competition for that this year. J.C. Santana, Josh Johnson, and Sam Crawford Jr. are all back to give the Golden Hurricane passing attack weapons once again. There’s really no excuse for the new quarterback to be successful with these four running downfield.
5. Tulane: If nothing else, Tulane wins best names at wide receiver. Duece and Phat Watts possess two of the best names in all of college football, and Duece returns as the leading receiver for the Green Wave. Jha’Quan Jackson came on strong last year, and led the team in touchdowns. The coaching staff thinks former Oklahoma transfer Mykel Jones will have a big year, and tight end Tyrick James is an underrated option as well.
6. Cincinnati: No one in this group exceeded 400 yards receiving last year, but the Bearcats passing attack came on strong towards the end of the year. Tight end Josh Whyle led the team in almost every receiving category, and is one of the best tight ends in college football. Michael Young shined late in the season, and many believe he’ll be a star this year. Alec Pierce remains one of the most underrated players in college football and is a great jump ball catcher.
7. ECU: CJ Johnson has the potential to lead the conference in receiving, and his big play ability was displayed despite his limited opportunities. He averaged 21.3 yards on his 19 catches, and led the team with six touchdowns. Tyler Snead also returns with his 134 career catches. Tight end Shane Calhoun could step up and play a larger role this year for the Pirates, with extra depth coming from new faces for ECU in 2021.
8. USF: Frustrating might be the best way to describe USF’s passing attack last year. Luckily for them, exciting should be the word used this year. Bryce Miller, Latrell Williams, and Xavier Weaver all had great springs, and tight end Mitchell Brinkman returns as well as a reliable option. The winner of the quarterback battle has some options, so it’s on them to make sure the passing attack moves in the right direction.
Wait and See
9. Houston: Dana Holgorsen’s got a lot of options at his disposal in the passing attack, but are any of them capable of making it explosive? Nathaniel Dell returns after leading the Coogs in receiving, and is probably the go-to guy at this point. Tight end Christian Trahan is expected to play a larger role this season, and Texas Tech transfer KeSean Carter is the definition of a possession receiver. There’s plenty of good options, but it remains to be seen if they can elevate to great.
10. Temple: Jadan Blue is the one name to keep an eye on until further notice. Randle Jones could step up for the Owls offense to help him out, and Rod Carey hit the transfer portal hard to snag Purdue transfer Amad Anderson Jr. too. Tight end David Martin-Anderson is extremely underrated but quickly gaining the attention of defensive coordinators across the league.
11. Navy: It’s going to be tough for Navy to ever have this position listed higher as long as Ken Niumatalolo’s running the show. Mark Walker and Mychal Cooper are the only two known options at receiver, but neither eclipsed 200 yards last year. It’s not to say they’re not talented, but they only combined for 25 catches last year. So it has more to do with the limited reps than anything else.