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2021 AAC Media Day Recap: All 11 teams take the podium

Reigning champion Cincinnati finishes first in AAC media day poll. UCF, SMU, and Houston also eye contention.

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

The American Athletic Conference held its annual media day Wednesday morning, albeit in a virtual setting. Commissioner Mike Aresco kicked off the morning with dialogue about conference realignment, supportive words about potential College Football Playoff expansion, and a statement declaring that AAC games resulting in cancelation due to positive COVID-19 cases will be forfeited instead of rescheduled.

Following Aresco, all 11 teams were represented by their head coach, one offensive player, and one defensive player to preview the 2021 football season. General topics discussed among all teams included about COVID-19 vaccinations and protocols, conference realignment, College Football Playoff expansion, and NIL legislation.

The preseason media poll was also released, with reigning conference champion Cincinnati receiving 22 of 24 first-place votes while UCF obtained the other two:

  1. Cincinnati (22)
  2. UCF (2)
  3. SMU
  4. Houston
  5. Memphis
  6. Tulsa
  7. Tulane
  8. East Carolina (tie)
  9. Navy (tie)
  10. Temple
  11. South Florida

Here is a dive into the more specific storylines involving each AAC program, as discussed Wednesday:

Cincinnati Bearcats

The Cincinnati Bearcats received 22 of 24 first place votes in the preseason media poll. A likely AP Top 15 team when the initial poll is released, Cincinnati is faced with some of the loftiest expectations for an AAC team since the conference was formed. The Bearcats finished the 2020 regular season with an undefeated record but failed to finish higher than No. 8 in the College Football Playoff committee rankings. Cincinnati would undoubtedly benefit from playoff expansion, but head coach Luke Fickell is focused on what he can accomplish with a team that was one quarter away from perfection last season.

“For the Desmond Ridders and the Myjai Sanderses and all these guys, to talk about the expansion of the playoff, it doesn’t do a whole lot for us right now,” Fickell said. “With all the things going on, we’re trying to stay focused on what’s the now, what’s the immediacy, and focus on the things we need to do for 2021.”

South Florida v Cincinnati
Cornerback Ahmad Gardner is changing his jersey to No. 1 this season as Cincinnati attempts to secure consecutive AAC titles.
Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

While many recent AAC powers have showcased high-flying offenses, Cincinnati garners its national recognition on the defensive side of the ball. The Bearcats ranked eighth in scoring defense while intercepting passes at the fourth-highest rate in the country in 2020. Cornerback Ahmad Gardner has been the centerpiece behind the program’s recent defensive dominance. Nicknamed “Sauce”, the All-American cornerback aims to sustain his personal production after producing 59 tackles and six interceptions over the past two seasons.

“I know there’s gonna be some teams that want to stay away from me,” Gardner said. “Whether the ball is coming my way or not, I’m gonna give it 110 percent every snap. My job is to make every receiver better that goes against me. No matter what conference it is, they’re gonna know who I am for the rest of their life. That’s what my job is.”

East Carolina Pirates

Outside of their inaugural year in the AAC, the Pirates have yet to finish above .500 since joining the conference. In the second year under head coach Mike Houston, East Carolina finished 3-6, but the roster has the upper hand as far as returning production. The Pirates will trot out 21 starters from the 2020 season this fall. With a slew of familiar faces back in all position groups, East Carolina’s primary focus becomes developing the defensive line after finishing in the bottom quartile in both sacks per game and rushing defense.

“We played a lot of freshmen up front last year. The good thing is they’re not freshmen anymore,” Houston said. “They have a year of experience under their belt, but they’re still young players. Seeing if we can play at a high level on the defensive front will be a big indicator early on of what kind of success we can have.”

East Carolina checked in at No. 8 in the preseason media poll and has the makings of a dark horse team. The Pirates finished 2020 with positive momentum after upsetting SMU behind Holton Ahlers’ 298 passing yards and four touchdowns. In eight outings last year, Ahlers fired 3+ touchdown passes in half of them, signifying that East Carolina’s passing offense has the explosive potential to compete with the rest of the conference.

“We’ve always been looked over,” Ahlers said. “We might be a surprise team to other teams but we’re not gonna be a surprise team to ourselves. We hold ourselves very accountable in what we do and we take everything personal. You were talking about being predicted to finish eighth. I don’t think any of us try to finish eighth, so we’ll see how that is at the end of the year.”

Houston Cougars

Houston is still searching for its identity as year three of the Dana Holgorsen era approaches. While Holgorsen enters his third go-around with the Cougars, it is also the third year of starting quarterback Clayton Tune. Tune showed flashes of greatness as a junior in 2020 with three consecutive 300-yard passing games to start the season and a 100-yard rushing outing later on. Now, Holgorsen hopes Tune can bottle up these successes and unleash it into a finished product in 2021.

“Year three for a quarterback is usually when they turn a corner from my experience with that,” Holgorsen said of Tune. “I’m not doing a very good job coaching if he’s not better year three. He had a great spring and the rapport he has with the receivers is much better. We have to be better in front of him for him to be better. We’ve had 20 different offensive line combinations in 20 games. Those guys gotta be consistent, those guys gotta gel, and those guys gotta do their job.”

Quarterback Clayton Tune threw for multiple touchdowns in six of his eight games in 2020.
Photo by Matthew Pearce/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Tune has potential to be an electrifying talent with his dual threat nature, and Houston has served as a home to many versatile, exhilarating players over the years. While wide receiver and kick returner Marquez Stevenson left campus in order to pursue an NFL career, the Cougars retain another fleet-footed weapon in Marcus Jones. He secured All-American honors last fall as the only FBS player to record 100 punt return yards in multiple games. A cornerback, punt returner, and a musician with a debut album dropping next month, Jones enters 2020 with his name tied to a litany of watchlists.

“Honestly, I don’t feel pressure at all because basically, I have that mindset to control what you can control,” Jones said. “I don’t really worry about all the other things. I’m thankful for it and all the watchlists, but my mindset is to control what you can control.

Memphis Tigers

Memphis was selected to finish No. 5 in the AAC preseason media poll. Fifth place in the conference is not familiar territory for the Tigers, who have strung together a winning season in all seven years of the College Football Playoff era. But the Tigers will have to reshuffle their offense immensely after losing the likes of quarterback Brady White, running back Kenny Gainwell, and wide receivers Tahj Washington and Damonte Coxie. That paves way for Calvin Austin to be the veteran leader of the Tigers. Two years ago he was marinating in walk-on status, but has since been placed on scholarship. After registering 1,053 yards and 11 touchdowns last season, head coach Ryan Silverfield will not undersell Austin’s impact on his program.

“He’s just scratching the surface of what he’s capable of,” Silverfield said. “With the loss of guys that opted out during the season, he knew he needed to rise to the top and he did so. I think Calvin’s a hungry young man. He realizes that he is capable of achieving a lot of great things, not only at the University of Memphis but beyond. What I appreciate about him is his attitude, his mindset, his approach hasn’t changed, hasn’t wavered.”

After a frequent target of poaching by other programs, Memphis enjoyed the luxury of retaining both its offensive and defensive coordinators during the offseason. Defensive coordinator Mike MacIntyre already demonstrated signs of improving the unit in his initial year at the helm. After allowing 35.7 points per game in the first six contests, Memphis’ defense solved its issues and yielded just 18.6 per game over the final five-game stretch — a stretch it hopes to replicate to usher in 2021.

“It was tough not having spring ball and going straight into the season,” free safety Quindell Johnson said. “As the season went on, the defense got comfortable, and we started making more plays and playing together more. This year, by him coming back, that’s huge for all the guys because most guys coming back didn’t have a DC for more than two years.”

Navy Midshipmen

Navy’s 2020 season kicked off on Labor Day against BYU. In what was supposed to be a highly anticipated national television matchup, the Midshipmen fell flat, looking unprepared for the season in a 55-3 thrashing — the first warning sign of a dreary 3-7 season. With spring football in full session and a team 100 percent vaccinated in regards to COVID-19, head coach Ken Niumatalolo understands all excuses are off the table in 2021.

“We were in a pandemic and we didn’t know what was going on. A lot of what happened last year was my fault, and I chose to go that route,” Niumatalolo said. “We take the necessary precautions not only to protect our players, but make sure that we can play. We’ve done everything in our power to make sure that we’re gonna play this year and we’re gonna be ready to go.”

Tulsa v Navy
Head coach Ken Niumatalolo enters his 14th full season as the front man for Navy, boasting a 101-67 record.
Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images

Navy is no stranger to bounce-back seasons. The 2018 iteration of the program landed near the bottom of the standings with a 3-10 record, but when counted out in the preseason polls heading into 2019, they righted the ship. Navy rebounded from double-digit losses to construct an 11-2 record, finishing in the final AP Poll for the second time since 1960. The veterans on this team understand that a similar jump is feasible once again.

“It really started once the season ended last year. We started laying the foundation for our culture and what it’s gonna be this year,” free safety Kevin Brennan said. “Things are back to normal now, for the most part. There are no excuses. People are ‘burning the boats’ every day. That’s our team motto.”

SMU Mustangs

SMU’s transformation under Sonny Dykes has been a work of wonder, and the Mustangs have posted a 17-6 record with several AP Poll appearances over the course of the past two seasons. The program has thrived in building high octane offenses, but defense has been the limiting factor preventing SMU from an AAC Championship Game appearance. To shore up the defense, Dykes brought in esteemed defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt, who formerly held that role at Kansas State, Colorado, Oregon, and Florida Atlantic.

“When you look at his track record, they get a lot better in year one, even improve in year three, and are typically competing for championships pretty quickly. We feel like if we can continue to improve on defense — our talent’s much better than it has been, our roster’s much deeper than it has been — I think we have some pieces that Jim can utilize,” Dykes said. “The thing that is so unique about Jim is the passion that he coaches with. He’s 63 years old, but you’d think he is 33 with the way he comes to work every day.”

Offensively, the primarily storyline focuses on replacing quarterback Shane Buechele. A quarterback battle has erupted on campus between Oklahoma transfer Tanner Mordecai, freshman Preston Stone — a massive haul for the Mustangs as a 4-star recruit out of Dallas — and redshirt junior Derek Green. Whichever quarterback lines up under center, he will be gifted with one of the best wide receivers in the country. Reggie Roberson was on pace for an All-American season in 2020 with 474 receiving yards and five touchdowns through four games. Unfortunately, a season-ending knee injury struck during the win over Memphis. But Roberson has recovered as he prepares to deliver the best version of himself in 2021 with his new quarterback.

“The rehab has been great and going into fall camp, I feel amazing. I feel better than I have the whole time I’ve been here at SMU, and I just can’t wait,” Roberson said regarding his return to the lineup in 2021. “And we’ve got three great QBs back there. Any one of those guys can go out there and start for me. They’re all competitive. They all want to play. They all know the playbook.”

South Florida Bulls

Jeff Scott debuted as the head coach of South Florida during the 2020 pandemic-riddled season. Scott arrived in Tampa after serving as the offensive coordinator for Clemson and qualifying for the College Football Playoff in all five years of serving that role. But the winning hasn’t translated to Tampa quite yet after the Bulls posted a 1-8 record in 2020. Scott’s Clemson days date back to 2008, and he witnessed the implementation of a winning culture by head coach Dabo Swinney. A disciple of the two-time national champion coach, Scott follows Swinney’s model into fixing the current state of South Florida.

“The 12 years that I spent with Coach Swinney are just invaluable,” Scott said. “The biggest thing that I learned is it starts with the people. It starts with the coaching staff and being sure you have a staff around you that believes in the same things as far as developing the culture. The next thing is changing the way the players think and getting them to believe in what you’re doing.”

Offensive guard Demetris Harris is one of many senior leaders on South Florida’s offensive line.

One stepping stone that can mold the foundation of a rebuilding program is a cohesive offensive line. South Florida features five seniors in the trenches, including several linemen who have been in the program for six seasons.

“The biggest thing is continuity,” offensive guard Demetris Harris said. “We’ve grinded together, we’ve won games together, we’ve lost games together, we’ve sweated it out. I know what pisses (center) Brad (Cecil) off. I know what gets (offensive tackle) Donovan (Jennings) going. I know what it takes for Hop (offensive tackle Jarrett Hopple) to get going. I know how to get myself going. They know how to get me going... When it comes to the games, it’s gonna be even better because we have that experience.”

Temple Owls

Temple is still figuring things out as the Owls enter year three of the Rod Carey era. The 2020 season was a rough one for Temple, which faced numerous COVID-19 cancelations and didn’t kick off its season until mid-October. But it also was difficult from an offensive standpoint, and the Owls finished as one of 16 teams in the FBS to average under 20 points per game. To correct this standing, Temple brought in transfer quarterback D’Wan Mathis, who started the season opener for Georgia last fall. While most coaches wait until August to declare the starting quarterback, Carey named Mathis as the No. 1 guy as early as April.

“D’Wan is a real self-motivated guy, so he’ll want to go ahead and keep getting better for himself,” Carey said. “He hasn’t played a lot of football since high school, so the curve for improvement is fantastic. In that room, he has a lot of similar characteristics to everybody. We have a room full of dual threat guys now.”

The 2021 season is all about a fresh slate for Temple, which is coming off its worst AAC winning percentage since 2013. During their media day, Carey and the Owls were traveling on a bus to New York in hopes of bolstering team chemistry, which was difficult to manufacture during the season of strict COVID protocols.

“The first thing is bonding. It takes everyone out of their element and gets us together alone,” Carey said as the reason for the New York trip. “From there, it’s about the work. It’s always about the work.”

Tulane Green Wave

Tulane is the sleeper team in the conference, checking in at No. 7 in the preseason media poll. The Green Wave have been an average team waiting to break through for three years running. But Tulane’s offense is equipped with Michael Pratt, who accounted for more touchdowns than any other true freshman quarterback in 2020. Head coach Willie Fritz is enthusiastic about catapulting into the upper echelon in 2021 and believes Pratt’s leadership could play a major role in that breakthrough.

“Michael is a fantastic leader on and off the field,” Fritz said. “He did get thrown into there Week 3, and from that point forward, we didn’t look back. There’s so many things he does for us on the field, but he’s more effective off the field in helping the coaching staff build that team atmosphere and team camaraderie that is so important.”

Tulane v Central Florida
Quarterback Michael Pratt enters the 2021 season as the full-time starter after passing for over 1,800 yards as a true freshman.
Photo by Alex Menendez/Getty Images

The Green Wave’s journey to their first-ever AAC title begins Oct. 2 with a trip to East Carolina. But Tulane, equipped with 18 returning starters and a dangerous linebacking corps, has a golden opportunity to cause commotion in the college football world on opening weekend. Annual Big 12 champion Oklahoma will pay a visit to Yulman Stadium in New Orleans for a Week 1 showdown.

“It’s exciting to have one of the top teams in the nation (visit),” inside linebacker Nick Anderson said. “Having that opportunity to display how good we are as a program on our own turf is phenomenal. It’s something that we’ve put emphasis on this entire offseason is being great and starting off with that first game, really showing the nation who we are as a football program and showing them that we can really compete with top level teams.”

Tulsa Golden Hurricane

Tulsa consistently lost heartbreakers in 2019. In 2020, the Golden Hurricane seemed to be a team of destiny, always emerging from double-digit deficits in the second half to secure unlikely victories. While the countless down-to-the-wire victories make for exciting football, Tulsa aims to correct the trend of falling flat in first quarters. The Golden Hurricane logged 12 combined first quarter points in nine games last season, unable to score in the opening frame in each of their final five showings.

“Last year, those guys did a really good job of coming together and we started making some plays late in games,” head coach Philip Montgomery said. “We’ve gotta do a better job this year of coming out of the gates a little cleaner, starting a little faster from that standpoint, and then we still gotta finish the way we did. The one thing you can count on in our league is you’re gonna get exciting games. They’re gonna be 60 minute games that you’ve got to play every second of it.”

Tulsa hung its hat on defensive playmaking last season. Outside linebacker Zaven Collins claimed both national defensive player of the year awards, the Bednarik and the Nagurski, and was selected in the first round of the NFL Draft. Cornerbacks Allie Green IV and Akayleb Evans spearheaded the pass defense to allow under 190 yards per game, but both players transferred to Missouri. A plethora of the primary architects of the defensive playmaking have moved on from the program, and Tulsa must recapture that aspect of the game in 2021.

“It’s tough losing anybody, especially a player like Zaven and our two corners, but we got great leadership on the defense,” defensive tackle Jaxon Player said. “We’ve got some great guys stepping up and coming off of injuries, so this year should be special.”

UCF Knights

The Knights were a late entrant to the coaching carousel. Former athletic director Danny White moved to Tennessee and unexpectedly hired Josh Heupel on Jan. 27. As signing day approached, UCF was tasked with hiring an athletic director and head coach. Ultimately, the program brought in Gus Malzahn, who qualified for a BCS National Championship and two New Year’s Six bowls during an 8-year stint with Auburn. Malzahn, who witnessed UCF’s ceremonious 2017 Peach Bowl victory firsthand, is excited about the program’s potential.

“I would say most coaches around the country look at this program as a gold mine. I’ve always thought this was a top 20 job,” Malzahn said. “You see the future of college football changing. This is a program that all those changes are gonna be for the good here. There is unbelievable potential, it’s an unbelievable place to recruit to. I thought that five months ago before I took the job. Now I think that even better since I’ve had the job.”

NCAA Football: Central Florida Spring Game
Gus Malzahn inherits a UCF team that finished ranked in the AP Poll in three of the previous four seasons.
Mike Watters-USA TODAY Sports

UCF has struck gold in the transfer portal since Malzahn’s arrival, going as far to secure potential starters including defensive end Big Kat Bryant and wide receiver Brandon Johnson. But the new coaching regime also inherits one of the nation’s premier quarterbacks in Dillon Gabriel. While Gabriel posted 3,570 passing yards, 32 touchdowns, and only four interceptions for the nation’s second most prolific offense, he has yet to participate in an AAC Championship Game.

“There’s one stat, and that’s the W,” Gabriel said. “For me, that’s where my eyes are and that’s my prize. Just finding ways to win, whether it’s by 1 or by 50. We just need to take it one week at a time so when December 4 comes, we’re in that game.”