Welcome back to your favorite series that leads you into the season: the 2021 Preseason Position Previews Series! These are always good for discussion, and reminds fans that the season will be here before we know it. As always we start with the quarterbacks, a position that the AAC has seen plenty of talent, but this year could provide some new faces to become elite. What puts you in the elite tier? I’m glad you asked, check out the criteria below.
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. UCF: Dillon Gabriel’s already thrown for 7,223 yards and 61 touchdowns in his young career. He took a step forward in 2020, completing more passes, throwing for more touchdowns, and throwing less interceptions than he did in 2019. All in three fewer games. The Knights are in great hands as long as he’s healthy, though there are some intriguing options behind him.
2. Cincinnati: A lot of pressure falls on Desmond Ridder’s shoulders this year. Ben Bryant transferred to Eastern Michigan, leaving zero experience behind him. Ridder did take a big step towards the end of the year, but Bearcats fans are hoping to see more consistency out of him. He’s thrown for 6,905 yards and 57 touchdowns, and could have an even bigger year with the talent returning around him.
3. ECU: Over the last three years, Cincinnati’s become one of the best defenses in the country, including one of the best pass defenses. Only one player has been able to throw for more than 350 yards on them. It’s Holton Ahlers. Not JT Daniels. Not Justin Fields. Not Dillon Gabriel. Just Ahlers. He threw for 535 yards (!!!!) in 2019 against the Bearcats, and it was just one of the games in which he flashed his brilliance. Unfortunately, consistency has been an issue. The other two games in which he faced Cincinnati: 184 and 87 yards. If Ahlers can find a way to stabilize his game, ECU’s going to be a nightmare to stop.
4. Tulane: Tulane turned to a freshman to steady the offense, and it was the best decision they made last year. Michael Pratt threw for 20 touchdowns and just eight interceptions last year, and returns to lead what should be a loaded Green Wave offense. He’ll need to complete more of his passes, but he now gets to work with Chip Long, who helped develop turn Memphis’ Riley Ferguson into a dangerous weapon in 2016.
5. Houston: Clayton Tune’s received varying opinions from fans over the last couple years. Inherited by Dana Holgorsen’s staff, he’s shined at times but also struggled mightily. Coogs fans are hoping he found some stability heading into his final season, and should mentor the guys behind him to lead the future of this team. Sofian Massoud and incoming freshman Maddox Kopp should push him to be better (not for his job), and an improved Tune makes Houston’s offense better (something they desperately need).
Wait and See
6. SMU: This is the team with the potential to rise up to the elite section of the conference. Oklahoma transfer Tanner Mordecai comes into arguably the best situation of nearly any transfer quarterback in college football, mostly because he doesn’t have to be great to have a great season. With the amount of talent returning at the skill positions and up front, there’s no reason this Mustangs offense can’t be one of the best in the country again. Incoming four star freshman Preston Stone will challenge him, but it should be Mordecai who wins the job.
7. Memphis: Everyone pointed to Peter Parrish and Grant Gunnell as the next starter for the Tigers, but Keilon Brown inserted his name into the discussion this spring. The battle for QB1 should go well into the fall, maybe into the season too. This isn’t a Tigers offense that returns a ton of explosive talent like in year’s past, but the winner does get to throw to Calvin Austin III and Sean Dykes, which alleviates some pressure.
8. Tulsa: Seth Boomer and Davis Brin square off to replace Zach Smith, and the winner gets the keys to a well-oiled offense. Every starter returns at every other position not in the backfield, and even their partners in the backfield return a ton of experience. Boomer has struggled mightily in the past, but the coaching staff appears to still like him given that he was the backup last year. Brin played hero in the Tulane game, but only has that one game of experience.
9. USF: Miami transfer Jarren Williams quickly won over USF fans with his decision to come to South Florida, but then struggled in the spring game. He has a full summer to dive into the playbook more, but he has Cade Fortin nipping at his heels. Fortin stole the show in the spring game, and inserted his name into the competition. Jeff Scott is looking for a quarterback to revive the Bulls offense, and Fortin at least got the excitement started.
10. Temple: Georgia transfer D’Wan Mathis at one point was running the show for the Bulldogs last year. Now he’s on an Owls team that needs an offensive revival. Former Iowa State transfer Re-al Mitchell will push him for the starting spot, and could be a nice changeup if Rod Carey decides to use two quarterbacks.
11. Navy: The nice thing about Navy quarterbacks is that they can quickly improve if they can figure out how to run Ken Niumatalolo’s triple option well. Look at Malcolm Perry. Perry went from potential star to inconsistent to AAC Player of the year in three years. It’s not impossible. Xavier Arline could be that guy this year after a 2020 season full of struggles and inconsistencies, and the nice thing for him will be less competition so he can focus on running the show.