When you think Top 10, you think elite. The best of the best. Guys that make an impact on their own. The AAC’s produced a number of extremely talented football players, and this year’s no different. Memphis has a guy who can make a similar impact to what Anthony Miller did with the Tigers. SMU returns its most explosive playmaker who’s ready to break out of James Proche’s shadow as the Mustangs top deep threat. Navy has their biggest impact player since Malcolm Perry. If you’re looking for excitement, you’ve come to the right place.
10. QB Desmond Ridder, Cincinnati
At his peak, Desmond Ridder has first round NFL Draft potential, and the Bearcats enter a season where they’ll rely on him even more. Depth behind him is a concern, but a healthy Ridder gives Cincinnati a difference maker at quarterback, and the offense will thrive with him throwing the ball downfield. Last year, he threw for 2,296 yards with 19 touchdowns and six interceptions. He also rushed for 592 yards and 12 touchdowns. His legs might be called upon less with his health becoming even more of a priority, but he’ll still make plays with them when necessary.
9. DT Jaxon Player, Tulsa
I didn't know who Jaxon Player was five minutes ago but I sure as hell do now. One of the best reps I've seen all season from any college defensive lineman! pic.twitter.com/8vJb8g3rnF— Brett Kollmann (@BrettKollmann) December 16, 2020
Just ask Oklahoma State how they feel about Jaxon Player, because the answer will most likely not be positive. Player made an impact in many ways, and the Cowboys just happened to be the first of many teams to experience that firsthand. With 16.0 taklces for loss in the last two years, he’s set to have a career year with a full slate of games ahead of him (his career high is nine). Tulsa might need some new impact players at linebacker and corner, but they’ll be just fine on the line with Player back.
8. G Dylan Parham, Memphis
Memphis asked Parham to play out of position last year, and the result wasn’t what you’d expect. At 6’3”, 285 pounds, his frame isn’t built to play tackle, but the Tigers put him there and he got to work. Sure, he lost some reps because of his inexperience, but overall he provided quality play for a line that needed some help on the edge. This year, he’ll slide back in to guard where he’ll feel more at home and still thrive. Memphis needs to find a way to get the rushing attack back to where it used to be, and Parham will help jumpstart those efforts now that he’s back on the inside.
7. WR Reggie Roberson, SMU
RINSE AND REPEAT!— ESPN College Football (@ESPNCFB) October 3, 2020
Shane Buechele ➡️ Reggie Roberson Jr. pic.twitter.com/Bdom3FtZwS
Roberson’s injury early in the season limited the explosive potential of SMU’s offense, but they still managed to move the ball with relative ease. Now they get their top receiver back, who still managed to lead the team in touchdowns and yards per catch despite only playing 4.5 games. While he’s yet to break 1,000 yards in a season, a healthy Roberson for an entire year has a chance to explode. He returns, 2,109 yards (17.1 ypc) and 18 touchdowns, and the Mustangs hope 2021 results in a career season for him. With his speed, he’ll terrorize opposing defenses, and team’s can’t put too much attention on him without risking someone else burning them (Rashee Rice, Danny Gray, Grant Calcaterra). It’s only a matter of time before Roberson steals the spotlight.
6. S Quindell Johnson, Memphis
Memphis might not be known for defense, but Quindell Johnson could singlehandedly change that. With 139 tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss, five interceptions and nine passes defended, Johnson gives the Tigers an elite player on the back side of their defense. Mike MacIntyre will find ways to use Johnson everywhere on the field, and there won’t be many things he can’t do. If all goes as well as fans think, All-American honors could be in play. All-Conference is the minimum for him, and he has his eyes set on bigger things in 2021, including getting Memphis back to a conference championship.
5. LB Diego Fagot, Navy
Navy’s defense struggled mightily last year, but that wasn’t all on them. Luckily for them, they return nearly every starter, and they get their leader back in Diego Fagot. If not for COVID, Fagot might have produced two consecutive 100-tackle seasons. His work off the field doesn’t get talked about enough, as it becomes quickly evident he studies film based on his quick reactions to his reads. He also brings a chip on his shoulder, and you’ll constantly see him jawing with opposing players. He has the right mentality of an underdog that doesn’t care who he’s facing. He’ll find a way to win. Fagot returns a career 188 tackles, 24.5 tackles for loss and 8.5 sacks, and Navy’s in good hands with him leading an experienced defense.
4. DE Myjai Sanders, Cincinnati
Sanders shocked Bearcats fans by deciding to return to school instead of going pro, but they’re not complaining given the talent returning around him. A loaded defensive line will benefit from his return mostly because teams will send extra protection his way. With a career high 10.5 tackles for loss and 7.0 sacks in just 10 games, Sanders can build upon those numbers in 2021. Scouts and analysts already have him on their radar, and he has a chance to raise his stock even more, and potentially help bring Cincinnati to a College Football Playoff appearance if everything goes right.
3. WR Calvin Austin III, Memphis
Memphis continues to live the life of luxury in terms of elite pass catchers, and that trend continues in 2021. From Anthony Miller to Tony Pollard to Damonte Coxie, the Tigers have seen a number of elite players catch passes for them, and Calvin Austin will challenge Miller for the top spot. A speedster thanks to his track experience, Austin’s worked hard to make it known that he’s not just a fast guy. His ability to run crisp routes and avoid contact with quick moves at the line give him a chance to blow past anyone he faces, including future NFL talent. He had a breakout season in 2020 with 1,053 yards and 11 touchdowns, and he’s set to have an even better season with a full slate of games ahead of him.
2. QB Dillon Gabriel, UCF
Arguably the best deep ball passer in college football, Dillon Gabriel can do more than just chuck it deep. With 7,223 yards and 61 touchdowns to his name through two seasons, there’s reason to believe 2021 will be his best yet. Gus Malzahn’s comes to the Knights to take over for Josh Heupel, and everyone’s focus is on how Gabriel will adapt to the new system. A talent like Gabriel’s shouldn’t have to adapt much, mostly because Malzahn knows he must adapt his system to his star quarterback. While everyone’s sleeping on Gabriel nationwide, we won’t. His production proves what he can do, and it might be the beginning of his greatness, which means that UCF would return to championship contention this season.
1. CB Ahmad Gardner, Cincinnati
People are already slating Gardner to be a first-round pick, and it’s been easy to see why. At 6’2”, it’s easy to see the length he brings to the table for his current team, and it’s something that helps him be successful every week. Even when he gets beat, he’s able to make up for a little of it thanks to his reach. Gardner’s been extremely consistent too, picking off three passes in each of the last two years along with six passes defended in each as well. There’s a reason why teams test fellow corner Coby Bryant more often, and it’s because they know that testing Gardner typically doesn’t end well for them.