College football is so close! You can almost smell the fresh cut grass.....errr....turf? They don’t cut turf though. Whatever. You get the point. You can almost smell fall at this point. Football is the best season of them all, and the AAC’s ready for a big season. To get us there, we’re going to count down the 50 best players in the conference. We will go 10 at a time, and today we start with the 50th best player all the way down to the 41st.
50. LB Isaac Slade-Matautia, SMU
@SMU_Football has 4 Top 100 transfers according to @TheAthletic double any other #AAC team. SMU (from Oregon) Transfer LB Isaac Slade-Matautia is the highest ranked transfer into the #AAC Lots of talent is headed to the Hilltop. #PonyUpDallas https://t.co/xGWvael9Yz— Pony Sports (@charliew2525) July 21, 2021
The Oregon transfer was another great addition by Sonny Dykes to the Mustangs roster, and it comes at a position that’s looking to replace Richard McBryde. Slade-Matautia spent the last two seasons starting for the Ducks, and comes to SMU with a career 131 tackles, 12.0 tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks, and 16 passes defended. If the Mustangs are to win a conference championship, their defense needs to step up, and they’ve added a linebacker that can provide stability up the middle and make an impact every play.
49. OT Adam Klein, Temple
Temple’s rock on the line returns for one more season, and the Owls are glad they’ll have a veteran presence leading the way. While Temple’s line only allowed 11 sacks last year, the offense still sputtered frequently. If Rod Carey can get Temple back on track, it’s going to start offensively, and he has Klein there to make sure they have the right mentality. He’s an all-conference talent who remains under the radar until his team experiences a little more success again.
48. DE Morris Joseph, Memphis
No Joseph Dorceus? No problem. O’Bryan Goodson gone? Not a big deal. Morris Joseph, the former UTSA transfer, emerged as the next great Tigers defensive linemen. Memphis’ line features some intriguing options, but none more exciting than Joseph, who had a big year in 2020. He produced 53 tackles, 11.5 tackles for loss, and 8.0 sacks for Mike MacIntyre’s defense, all in just 11 games. With a few new faces joining this group, the returning starters need to get them up to speed, but at least Joseph and the other returning contributors give MacIntyre some stability.
47. CB Malik Fleming, ECU
ECU’s defense for the longest time sat at the bottom of the AAC in nearly every statistical category, but they have a chance to change that this season. Fleming’s one of the many talented defensive backs on the Pirates defense, and he has the potential for some all-conference recognition. While Fleming didn’t produce much in the box score, he made an impact on the field. With teams potentially testing him more, that should change. He’ll also get plenty of opportunities to face some of the best receivers in the country given the amount of talented pass catchers the AAC boasts. He should know, his team has two of the best on their own roster, which means he’ll get plenty of practice facing quality competition.
46. S Bryan Cook, Cincinnati
Cincinnati loses both of its safeties in 2021, but they’re more than happy with the guys coming in to replace them. With James Wiggins struggling with injuries at times last year, Cook saw some significant playing time, including the Peach Bowl where he thrived. His performance against Georgia made many believe that the play at safety will continue at a high level, if not exceed it. Whether he has to drop back in coverage or make a play in the backfield, Cook plays the game at 100% at all times, and he’s ready to have a break out year for the Bearcats.
45. RB Rahjai Harris, ECU
One of the biggest concerns for the ECU offense was the fact that running the ball continued to limit their offensive explosiveness. It looked like they were headed for another year of that until Rahjai Harris stepped up. The Pirates will also have Keaton Mitchell backing him up, but Harris is the starter that can help ECU elevate its offense even more. With 624 yards and four touchdowns in eight games last year, we could see him break 1,000 yards even with Mitchell behind him.
44. LB Nick Anderson, Tulane
His first year as a full-time starter did not disappoint, and now the Green Wave have the best set of linebackers in the conference. Anderson’s 88 tackles and 10.5 tackles for loss put him second on the team, and his returning experience will be a great asset for a team looking to surprise people this year. With most of the attention directed to the offense, Anderson and the defense play a big role in Tulane’s success this year.
43. C Gerard Wheeler, Tulsa
The leader of the offense, Wheeler makes his presence known in multiple ways. At 6’3”, 331 pounds, it’s tough to miss him on the field, and his play certainly backs up the hype surrounding him. Tulsa’s rushing attack has been nearly unstoppable last year thanks largely to the big men up front paving the way, and Wheeler’s been a big factor in that the last two years. Now he’s back, and he’s one of many linemen that can dominate the trenches for the Golden Hurricane.
42. QB Michael Pratt, Tulane
Pratt’s been seen working out with former Alabama wide receiver Jaylen Waddle, and he has a great set of receiver returning to put that practice to good use. After throwing for 1,806 yards with 20 touchdowns and just eight interceptions, many are picking him to have a breakout season for the Green Wave. He’ll need to work on completing more of his passes (55.1% last season), but that should come with experience. Duece Watts and Jha’Quan Jackson return at receiver to make Pratt’s life easier, and fans are extremely excited to see what Year 2 for Pratt means for their team.
41. LB Xavier Smith, ECU
Mike Houston’s defense has a ton of talent that screams potential. They just need to turn that into production. Smith is one of the more underrated players in the conference, and his athleticism allows him to play a multiple role for the Pirates defense. Same with Bruce Bivens and Jireh Wilson. After initially coming to ECU as a defensive back, Smith’s settled in to his linebacker role well over the last two years, producing 123 tacklse, 10.5 tacklse for loss, 10 passes defended, and 3 forced fumbles. A natural playmaker, he’ll play a big role in getting ECU’s defense to take a step forward in 2021.