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AAC Roundtable: Predictions for the 2021 Season

Will Cincinnati be able to repeat again in 2021?

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: DEC 19 AAC Championship - Tulsa at Cincinnati Photo by Ian Johnson/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

It’s been a whirlwind of an offseason for the American Athletic Conference. Rumors of expansion have captured the headlines as of late, but on the field, there are plenty of storylines to follow. Our UDD staff drop their predictions below for what should be an exciting season in the American.

Who is your surprise team in the American this year?

Dan Morrison: I don’t think a lot of people are expecting much more from Tulane than being about .500, which is right about where they’ve been the past three or four seasons. Still, they’re a program that continues to improve. Michael Pratt had ups and downs as a freshman. Now, he’s ready to be more consistent and push the ball downfield in a new offense. A solid supporting cast around Pratt will help. On defense, there is some turnover, but plenty of reason to be excited. Oklahoma and Ole Miss make for two high profile out of conference games too.

Jared Miller: I’m oddly excited for this year’s ECU team. Now, I’m not picking them to reach the AAC title game or anything crazy but I do think they win more than three games this fall and that would be an accomplishment in itself. Holton Ahlers is a solid signal caller entering his senior season with over 7,000 career pass yards and receiver Tyler Snead is nothing to scoff at. The Pirates haven’t won more than four games since 2015 but I get the feeling that changes this year. Heck, even the losses will probably be closer than they have been as of late.

Joe Broback: I like both picks here, but I’m going with Jared. ECU’s a high ceiling, low floor team, and I believe they have what it takes to shock everyone. Mike Houston’s squad showed flashes of their potential at times the last three years, but they also struggled mightily. Ahlers remains the biggest key on this team, because we’ve seen the elite level he can reach. If he’s firing on all cylinders, the Pirates offense sits at the top of college football, but he needs to find a way to avoid the dips in his play. The second biggest key falls on the defense. A team that returns a ton of talent must become more consistent and disciplined, otherwise the pressure stays with the offense to outscore their opponents.

Steve Helwick: Tulane being picked to finish No. 7 in the AAC media day poll doesn’t sit right with me. Quarterback Michael Pratt accounted for more touchdowns than any other true freshman in the country last season, and the best part about 2021 is he’ll no longer be a true freshman. His late-season performances against Army and Memphis signaled that he’s only scratching the surface of what he’s capable of. Add a deep running game spearheaded by Cameron Carroll (6.1 yards per carry in 2020) and Tyjae Spears (7.4 yards per carry), as well as a stacked linebacking corps, and you have all the makings of a dark horse contender. My only concern is that Tulane must replace the AAC’s best pass rushing attack from 2020, as Cameron Sample and Patrick Johnson departed for the NFL.

Emily Van Buskirk: Defintely Tulane. The Green Wave averaged 34.7 points per game last season, the highest under sixth-year head coach Willie Fritz and this year they have an old, wiser, more confident Michael Pratt under center. The players have already commented about how much more poised the sophomore QB looks this year. They have an incredibly fun schedule, opening up with Oklahoma at home. Everybody’s concerned about the offensive line, but they return seven players with 20 or more starts, anchored by Corey Dublin who was named to the Outland Trophy Watch list and was part of a group that helped Tulane average an AAC-leading 217.1 rushing yards per game in 2020. Dublin himself said there is a lot of experience and a lot of depth.

Who is your breakout player?

Dan: The AAC is always stacked with skill-position talent, and there are plenty of players who could come out and surprise people in different high-flying offenses. With that being said, Xavier Arline of Navy, in their old school offense, has me excited. Now, that might sound a bit odd. Arline is one of three quarterbacks to objectively fail last season for Navy, so why should this year be different? He’s a sophomore now, with a full offseason of actually learning the complex Navy offense under his belt. He’s also an incredibly athlete, who was a top-5 lacrosse recruit before going to his choice of military academy to play both football and lacrosse.

Jared: There’s plenty of players that I’m excited to watch this year but perhaps none more so than Ulysses Bentley IV. SMU’s running back seems like he’s on the verge of something very special in 2021. An 11-touchdown season last year that came up just short of 1,000 yards was just the beginning. Bentley was thrust into a starter’s role after an injury sidelined TJ McDaniel and he showed everyone he’s more than capable of handling the work load. Yes, McDaniel is back and SMU has tremendous depth in that position but If he stays healthy I expect big things from the sophomore this fall.

Joe: If you’re not on the Michael Pratt bandwagon yet, you better hop on quick. He’s been working out with Miami Dolphins wide receiver Jaylen Waddle in the offseason, and gets to work with a ton of talented skill players on his team. His entire offensive line returns, as well as his top two pass catchers in Duece Watts and Jha’Quan Jackson. Throw in Mikel Jones, Phat Watts, and tight end Tyrick James, you find a formula destined to be successful in 2021. Pratt took over early for Tulane as a freshman last season, and that experience should lead to more exciting results this year.

Steve: UCF has the luxury of an endless revolving door of wide receiver talent. From Tre’Quan Smith to Gabriel Davis to Tre Nixon to Marlon Williams, a new face steps up to replace departed talent every season. That new face in 2021 will be Ryan O’Keefe. The 5’10” receiver is equipped with a dangerous degree of speed, as demonstrated in his 4-catch, 175-yard performance against Memphis. He drew frequent mismatches lining up in the slot last year, and this season, O’Keefe will be able to bolster the passing attack while Jaylon Robinson draws considerable attention from opposing defenses. Don’t be shocked if he averages nearly 20 yards per catch, because he’ll be Dillon Gabriel’s favorite deep target.

Emily: Cincinnati’s Josh Whyle. This is the year of the Tight Ends, I feel it. And since tight ends are somewhat fullback adjacent, I am hopping on board. Tulane will be utilizing them; UCF definitely will be under Guz Malzahn. But the guy to watch is in Cincy – Whyle caught 28 passes last year for a team-leading 353 yards and six touchdowns. He can run, he can catch and equally important if not more so, he can block for Jerome Ford. Basically, he’s going to make Cincy that much more dynamic, giving QB Desmond Ridder the green light every single down.

Who is your pick to win Defensive and Offensive Player of the Year?

Dan: I think it’s pretty safe to say that Dillon Gabriel, UCF’s quarterback, should be the early favorite for Offensive Player of the Year. He’ll have to transition into a new system, but there’s no reason to think he won’t be able to. The defensive side of the ball is a bit tougher to tell, but Myjai Sanders from Cincinnati seems like a safe bet to start the season. If he can build on last season, he’ll have double digit sacks against a tough schedule.

Jared: Offensive Player of the Year seems like it’s Desmond Ridder’s to lose. Cincinnati’s signal-caller is in tier above the rest of the QBs in the American, maybe save UCF’s Dillon Gabriel. Ridder was last season’s most efficient passer in the American (66.2 % completion percentage) and threw for over 2,200 yards. If anyone takes this accolade from him odds are it’s Gabriel but right now it’s Ridder’s. Then, on the defensive side, I’m drawn to Navy linebacker Diego Fagot. It’s probably not a sexy pick but this guy was fourth in the conference last year for tackles for loss (11) and it was considered a down year for Fagot who had to miss time because of COVID. Give him a full season and let’s see what happens.

Joe: I’m going to be a little different. Gabriel and Ridder will be the favorite for Offensive Player of the Year, but I’m going to pick SMU quarterback Tanner Mordecai. If SMU plays to the level I believe they can, it’s because Mordecai and the offense put up big numbers. It’s the only question remaining on the offense that returns nearly every starter, and it’s going to be exciting to see what the product looks like in 2021. On defense, I’m picking Memphis safety Quindell Johnson. Defensive coordinator Mike MacIntyre has a Swiss Army Knife on his defense, and one that could push for All-American honors when it’s all said and done. Johnson’s a physical player who can do everything for the Tigers defense, and the recognition will flow his way when that happens.

Steve: One of the top five quarterbacks in the country plays in this conference, and that’s Dillon Gabriel. The sophomore iteration of the Hawaii native looked much more confident, and that mentality showed on the field as he logged 32 touchdowns to just four interceptions, while ranking fifth in the FBS in passing yards. Gabriel has a knack for flinging deep passes to only where his receivers can make a play, and I think his playmaking can even take on a greater form with Gus Malzahn on the sidelines. Defensively, the answer is likely a Cincinnati Bearcat and I’ll go with Ahmad Gardner. Cincinnati’s pass defense has been a disruptive force for two years running and Gardner’s six interceptions and 12 pass breakups have played a major part in that. When explosive passing offenses like Memphis and SMU combined for 23 points against the Bearcats in 2020, it is evident that Gardner’s impact can rattle any unit in the conference.

Emily: I’m going to go off script and say Clayton Tune wins Offensive Player of the Year because I strongly feel he is about to go off this season stat-wise, surpassing the 2,048 yards he threw last year. All he has to do is limit his mistakes and keep those INT’s down. Plus, he gets seven games at home and no Cincy or UCF. Cake. As for my Defensive Player of the Year, I’m going to call another audible and say East Carolina’s Xavier Smith. He’s an excellent tackler and he will have the opportunity to take down all the big names this season with games at Marshall, UCF, Houston, UCF and Navy. Smith led the team in tackles last season with 72 tackles, eight TFL’s, six pass breakups and four quarterback hurries. The Pirates are hungry and Smith will show us where there’s a “Will” there’s a way.

Team most likely to disappoint?

Dan: If there is one team that is in a position to disappoint, it’s Memphis. The Tigers are replacing their long time quarterback, Brady White, and no matter how excited you are for Grant Gunnell it’s a major unknown. Add in questions at running back for the first time in years and a ton of defensive turnover, and a tough schedule and the Tigers are ready for a step back year.

Jared: I’m not as high on Tulsa as maybe I should be. I think last year’s undefeated conference run (6-0 AAC) won’t happen again. Road games at Tulane, Cincinnati and SMU will be tough and I see at the very least one of those three handing the Golden Hurricane a loss. Not to mention, that non-conference schedule is rough. I wouldn’t be surprised if Tulsa misses the AAC title game and finishes around .500 based off their schedule alone.

Joe: Initially I’ve been saying Memphis, but I’m worried that Tulsa won’t be able to replicate the magic from last year. Zaven Collins provided a lot of that magic on defense, and the Golden Hurricane also lose both of their veteran starting cornerbacks to Missouri, so it’s tough to see them duplicating last year. Make no mistake, this will still be a tough team to beat, but it just will be disappointing to watch after last year’s excitement.

Steve: This finally feels like the year Memphis falls off the pedestal. The Tigers finished 8-3 last year and skated by many opponents that shouldn’t have been close contests. Now the team is forced to replace longtime quarterback Brady White, wide receivers Damonte Coxie and Tahj Washington, and some of the best defenders on the roster — cornerback T.J. Carter and defensive linemen Joseph Dorceus and O’Bryan Goodson. It’s been a great seven-year run of winning in Grind City, but it wouldn’t be shocking to witness a rebuilding 2021 campaign.

Emily: Memphis. I don’t love that so much of their success is predicated on finding the “right” quarterback. Brady White obviously left some big shoes to fill but I would be more concerned with figuring out how to replace Riley Patterson’s 81 points and Adam Williams 42.5 yards per punt. Losing left tackle Obinna Eze to TCU was also not ideal. Plus they have a bit of a trap game at Arkansas State followed by a bout with SEC’s little brother bulldogs. Not sure the Tigers have the legs to make it through the season with less than five losses.

Your sleeper picks to win the Conference are?

Dan: Breaking the conference down into the old East and West divide, you’d have to assume that Cincinnati wins the East, as they’re generally considered the favorite to win the conference as a whole. On the West, SMU’s high-flying offense doesn’t seem like there is going to be much of a match all season long, at least until they run into those Bearcats.

Jared: I just can’t pick against the Bearcats in the East. UCF seems to be the only team on that side poised to present a challenge. The West gets a lot more interesting, though. Tulane shouldn’t be slept on this season. Willie Fritz is entering his sixth season calling the shots in New Orleans and I really like this year’s Green Wave team. They return their top two leading tacklers from a season ago, the Michael Pratt stock is only going up and the very talented receiving corps stays mostly in tact.

Joe: People continue to sleep on SMU if you ask my opinion. UCF and Cincinnati remain the favorites to win the conference, so the Mustangs continue to be my pick. A deep sleeper pick would be Tulane, and most of that falls on Michael Pratt to take a big step forward. The Green Wave have the offense to put up points, and a solid defense that’s super underrated in the conference.

Steve: The AAC does seem like its on a crash-course for a Cincinnati vs. UCF title game in the first week of December. But Tulane is my main sleeper to crash the party, as I expect Michael Pratt to look sharper in the passing game with a year of experience under his belt. If I want to reach deeper for a more ambitious sleeper, let’s go Navy. The Midshipmen evidently weren’t prepared for last season, and they’ve experienced tremendous bounce-back seasons under Ken Niumatalolo before. Their defense can carry momentum from the final month of last year to this fall.

Emily: SMU. I know, not exactly the most plausible but I wanted to do something a little different aka someone other than Cincinnati and UCF. And why not the Mustangs? High, high hopes for Oklahoma transfer QB Tanner Mordecai, especially under the offensive-minded Sonny Dykes. He did help coach Jared Goff to 26 school records at Cal. Plus the offensive line is like scary good. The Mustangs also return 10 starters on the defensive side of the ball under new coordinator Jim Leavitt. And the most convincing piece of evidence that SMU will surprise everyone with an AAC title: the addition of Lou Groza Award finalist Blake Mazza from Washington State. He is 34 of 40 on career field goal attempts with a long of 51-yards. That kind of range will be the X-factor that gets SMU to the top.

Most likely Power Five win for the Conference?

Dan: There are plenty of places where the AAC could pick up a Power Five win in 2021. UCF, Cincinnati, Memphis, SMU, and even ECU all have P5 opponents that they could very well beat. Still, Houston vs. Texas Tech at NRG Stadium jumps out as a very winnable game for the conference. It’s a little bit overlooked compared to some of the bigger out of conference games, but the Red Raiders have major issues and the Cougars are going to need a win badly to get their season off on the right foot.

Jared: A couple games catch my eye here but ECU vs. South Carolina is the one we should keep our eyes on. The Pirates aren’t as lowly as their recent records might indicate. I really like Holton Ahlers and with Mike Houston in his third season as head coach it seems like East Carolina is right on the cusp of doing something. A tough season opener against App State may sharpen the Pirates up just enough to pull off the home upset over the Gamecocks in Week 2.

Joe: The more I look at it, Cincinnati beating Indiana seems most likely. I believe in the Bearcats this year, and I’m not sold that Indiana was a legitimate Top 25 team last year given the luck they saw in multiple games. Desmond Ridder vs. Michael Penix Jr. gives us one of the most underrated matchups this season, and both play big roles in determining the outcome. Both defenses feature future NFL talent too, so it’s going to be a battle.

Steve: Are we still using the term ‘Power Five’? I mean, the AAC has consistently won these games should be favored in a slew of them this fall. Cincinnati vs. Indiana and UCF vs. Louisville should be AAC victories. The conference will also generate wins in one or two of the following as well — Houston vs. Texas Tech, SMU vs. TCU, Temple vs. Rutgers, East Carolina vs. South Carolina.

Emily: Cincinnati over Notre Dame, Tulane over Oklahoma and Temple over Rutgers. The first one is the most likely, as the Bearcats are the most talented, complete team in the AAC and Notre Dame has a penchant for losing games like that. The Green Wave over the Sooners is more wishful thinking sprinkled with a little early-season luck. Tulane gets Oklahoma on their home turf for the first game of the season, meaning both teams will be trying to figure it out and whoever puts it together faster wins, so why couldn’t the wave roll? And lastly the Owls – another example of opening week chaos. In Week 1, it really is anybody’s game as team’s see true competition for the first time. I think Temple might be able to surprise some folks and upset the Scarlet Knights.

O/U 2 teams will experience a coaching change?

Dan: Over. Either through firing their own coach or their head coach being offered a new job. Sonny Dykes and Luke Fickell both look poised to at least garner interest at the Power Five level. Rod Carey and Dana Holgorsen can only ignore their hot seats for so long. Other coaches, like Mike Houston and Willie Fritz, could prove to be wildcards. Picking out which three move on isn’t easy, but there are plenty of options.

Jared: Over. Realistically I see two teams moving on from their current guys and another two seeing their coaches off to greener pastures after the season. Another brutal campaign for Temple could result in Rod Carey getting the boot and Jeff Scott might not be given much more of a leash in South Florida even if it is just his second season. Then there’s guys like Phillip Montgomery in Tulsa that could catch the attention of some P5 programs if the Golden Hurricane build on last season’s success. You’ve also got to believe Luke Fickell gets some opportunities if Cincinnati does what they’re expected to this year.

Joe: Push to under. Fickell’s the most obvious one here, but I don’t see anyone else realistically getting poached or fired. Temple’s committed to Rod Carey for the long haul, Navy’s never firing Ken Niumatalolo, and ECU will be better so Mike Houston’s safe. Jeff Scott and Gus Malzahn just started so they’re not going anywhere this year. Ryan Silverfield and Philip Montgomery could get attention, but they’d have to really shock everyone. Dana Holgorsen’s only way out is if Houston tanks. Willie Fritz and Sonny Dykes are the only other two that I think are wild cards. If Fritz keeps the Green Wave at seven or eight wins, I think he stays. If it’s more, then we have an interesting situation. Dykes’ first stint at the Power 5 level didn’t go so well, so I think teams might be hesitant to hire him if SMU doesn’t at least make the conference championship. Stability in the AAC? Crazy, I know.

Steve: Let’s go under. The College Football Playoff expansion and the realignment of the Big 12 dialogue have risen the stock of the AAC, making it a better place to headline a program. If I had to guess one coach to get bought out by another school, it’d be Philip Montgomery if he leads Tulsa to another stellar campaign. The 2020 pandemic season also prevented some of the newer coaches — Dana Holgorsen, Mike Houston, Rod Carey — from getting a fair shot in their second year at the helm, so this is essentially year two for all three. Thus, I’m not expecting any performance-based firings.

Emily: Definitely over, although you hate to see it especially given the complications from least season. But it is a “what have you done for me lately” sport so teams like Temple and Houston have to step up to show progress. Then there are coaches like Fritz and Dykes who might be wooed away, although the likelihood of Dykes leaving the state of Texas is about as much as David Shaw leaving his cushy 4-million dollar job at Stanford.

Who will win the American?

Dan: There’s no sense trying to get cute with an upset pick or anything. Cincinnati is the favorite for a reason, and they’re still the best pick to win the conference until proven otherwise.

Jared: It’s really hard to pick against the defending champs. Desmond Ridder alone makes Cincy scary, not to mention their myriad of other playmakers. I have no reason to believe that the Bearcats will be backing off at all in 2021.

Joe: Yeah, Cincinnati as of right now is the pick, but there are a few things I’m watching. If the games against Notre Dame and Indiana don’t go well, we could see the Bearcats take a step back. That opens the door for other teams to rise up. But for now, it’s Cincinnati’s title to lose.

Steve: A suffocating front seven, one of the best secondaries in college football, an experienced dual-threat quarterback... it’s Cincinnati. The Bearcats were a quarter away from perfection in the Peach Bowl last year, and an undefeated record this season could launch the team to an even further dimension in 2021, given a high-quality opponent in Notre Dame looms on the schedule.

Emily: UCF. I’m rolling with Gus Malzahn and the Knights. It’s the perfect winning combination: one incredibly talented head coach + two absolutely stacked sides of the ball = another self-proclaimed National Championship, obviously.