The American Athletic Conference held its annual media day Thursday and maintained its virtual setting for the third consecutive year.
In terms of storylines, it was as eventful of an AAC media day in history. Cincinnati’s College Football Playoff berth finally altered discussions about the conference’s previous inability to qualify for the sport’s ultimate feat. But with the ever-changing landscape of college football, much of the focus was shifted toward off-the-field developments such as conference realignment.
For the third straight season, the AAC will feature 11 teams, but this will be the final year with this current group as Cincinnati, Houston, and UCF are set to depart for the Big 12 on July 1, 2023. In exchange for those three programs, the AAC will add six C-USA institutions to replenish the size of the conference.
To kick off media day, AAC commissioner Mike Aresco took to the podium to discuss realignment and the conference’s recent run of success.
“It was the pinnacle, no question about it, making the College Football Playoff,” Aresco said of Cincinnati’s historic feat. “I think we look forward to another great season. We’ve got a lot of good teams that have a good shot at the playoff or a New Year’s (Six) bowl again.”
Additionally, the preseason media poll was released Thursday morning. The 2021 runner-up Houston Cougars edged the two-time reigning AAC champion Cincinnati Bearcats by one point for the claim as the league’s favorite. Cincinnati led all teams in first-place votes, but Houston and UCF also earned consideration in this category:
2022 AAC Preseason Media Poll
|Ranking||Team (First-Place Votes)||Points|
|Ranking||Team (First-Place Votes)||Points|
With the preseason media poll released, it’s a sign that 2022 kickoff is inching close. All 11 AAC teams sent head coaches and player representatives to the podium to discuss these preseason expectations, position battles, and other preseason storylines concerning their teams at media day:
The Bearcats finally broke through the glass ceiling and preserved status as the first-ever AAC team to crack the elusive College Football Playoff field. While Cincinnati didn’t emerge victorious in the Cotton Bowl semifinal, Luke Fickell’s program garnered copious amounts of attention for being trail blazers in the conference. However, the 2022 iteration of the team is a far cry from 2021 in terms of experience. The Bearcats ranked third among all colleges with nine selections in the 2022 NFL Draft, but Fickell still believes the returning production — which includes all five starting offensive linemen — can sustain the winning culture despite immense turnover.
“With exception to a couple positions, I think we’ve got a lot more maturity than people would know. I think our leadership is maybe more mature than maybe it even had been with Desmond (Ridder) and Coby (Bryant),” Fickell said citing quarterback, cornerback, and running back as positions the team is still figuring out. “Our guys have come from different places and earned things in a different way. I think the uniqueness is a lot of these guys have played. We’re not just a team that played 11 guys on defense and 11 guys on offense.”
Cincinnati’s NFL draft selections at the aforementioned positions of uncertainty included Ridder, two All-American cornerbacks in Bryant and Sauce Gardner, and running back Jerome Ford. Replacing each draft pick won’t be easy, but filling Ridder’s shoes will be especially complex. As the second quarterback off the draft board in April, Ridder guided Cincinnati to a 26-0 home record and registered the third-most wins for a quarterback in FBS history. His replacement will be last year’s backup Evan Prater or Eastern Michigan transfer Ben Bryant, who boomeranged back to Cincinnati after previously wearing Bearcats colors from 2018 through 2020.
“They’re both unique quarterbacks. They have different playing styles,” wide receiver Tre Tucker said. “But the thing I like about both of them is sometimes, you don’t know who’s out there. You just get a ball and you’re like, ‘Man, that ball was really good.’ So you just have to look back and see who it was because that’s how tight the competition is. There’s no big discrepancy about who’s out there.”
East Carolina Pirates
East Carolina held the conference’s longest bowl drought heading into last season, unable to qualify for the postseason since 2014. But the Pirates were among the most-improved programs in the country, accruing seven regular season wins and earning a spot in the 2021 Military Bowl. Unfortunately for the Pirates, the long-awaited bowl game was canceled due to a COVID-19 uptick in Boston College’s locker room. Running it back with a similar goal in mind, head coach Mike Houston understands his experienced roster is capable of attaining endeavors that hadn’t been enjoyed in Greenville in quite some time.
“With the experience we have back — and really it’s the first time we’ve had experience like this — I expect us to look like a good football team from day one,” Houston said. “There’s really no excuses not to. The guys that are gonna be on the field — the two-deep — are guys who’ve played a lot of ball. They’ve been in the system, they’ve been in the program, so we expect to be playing at a high level right out of the gate.”
East Carolina’s 2021 success is correlated with marked improvement on the defensive side. The Pirates ranked below 100th in scoring defense for five straight seasons, but last year, they were on the right side of the FBS median by allowing just 26.2 points per game. After observing desirable results, the team places unwavering belief in third-year defensive coordinator Blake Harrell — the unsung author of the revival of East Carolina football.
“With Coach Harrell coming back, all the guys on the defense have a certain level of confidence that we never really had before,” inside linebacker Myles Berry said. “Now it’s not just knowing your position and knowing the roles and responsibilities of your position, but we’re learning everybody’s position. We’re all working on the same platform and as a fine-tuned machine. You saw it the second half of last season when the defense was rolling strong and we’re gonna carry that momentum into this year.”
The Cougars were selected as preseason favorites for the AAC crown after a breakthrough 2021 campaign. Head coach Dana Holgorsen finally saw his vision come to fruition in year three as Houston strung together 11 consecutive wins, appeared in the conference championship, and closed with a monumental Birmingham Bowl win over Auburn. One reason for the Cougars’ improvement was the accelerated play of quarterback Clayton Tune. In impressive evolution from year two to year three as a starter, Tune boosted his completion rate from 59.6 to 68.3 percent and lifted his touchdown-to-interception ratio from 15-to-10 to 30-to-10. Holgorsen thinks there’s room for even more elevation in Tune’s final season on campus.
“He should be improved in every area of his game,” Holgorsen said. “I was very proud of how he improved last year. He overcame the beginning of the year where he didn’t play very good in the second half against (Texas) Tech, and then he got hurt two games later and had to battle that injury for three or four games. But the way he finished the second half of the season — tons of improvement... Probably the biggest key is we got better pieces around him now. We got a more experienced offensive line and one of the most dynamic receivers in the country (Nathaniel Dell).”
Tune is now regarded as one of the sport’s elite quarterbacks at age 23. Age and experience are factors which gift Houston a lofty ranking to usher in this upcoming season. With an average age of approximately 22 years per starter, the Cougars trot out a horde of key contributors from their 15th ranked scoring offense and 19th ranked scoring defense a year ago. But one position group that underwent major turnover on defense is cornerback. One of Houston’s most pressing challenges involves replacing 2022 NFL Draft picks Marcus Jones and Damarion Williams, who spearheaded a top 20 pass defense last year.
“With losing those two guys, it is some big shoes to fill,” strong safety Hasaan Hypolite said. “But in our room, we keep competition close so no guy is better than the next guy. So if I mess up and do something wrong on a play, it’s a pretty good chance I’m gonna be taken out and the next man is gonna be up. If he performs at a higher level than me that game, I gotta put my feelings to the side and do what’s best for the defense. That’s literally our mindset.”
Memphis enters year three of the Ryan Silverfield era hoping to stretch the AAC’s longest-ever bowl eligibility streak into a ninth consecutive season. But there is plenty of adjustment the Tigers must account for this offseason. Offensive coordinator Kevin Johns accepted a similar role at Duke while defensive coordinator Mike MacIntyre earned a head coaching job at FIU. Memphis replaces those coordinators with Tim Cramsey and Matt Barnes, respectively. Silverfield emphasized that Barnes, a former Ohio State assistant, plans to implement a “completely different defense” during his first year overseeing the unit.
“Coach Barnes is young and energetic. We have no choice but to match his energy and that energy is good energy,” free safety Quindell Johnson said. “Once you match that energy, you have a group of guys that come together and gel together and want to play football. It’s going to be amazing and it’s going to be lethal for us when we play opponents.”
Offensively, the group must prepare for adjustments, not only in the coaching staff but on the field. Over the past two seasons, Memphis heavily relied on the talent of Calvin Austin III. The two-time First Team All-AAC wide receiver leveraged his success in a Tigers uniform into a fourth round NFL Draft selection last April. With a considerable fraction of their receiving production elsewhere — including tight end Sean Dykes — Memphis must search for emerging faces to lift the aerial attack.
“It’s very hard to sit there and say you’re going to replace Calvin Austin and Sean Dykes,” Silverfield said. “You got guys like Javon Ivory, Marcayll Jones, Joe Scates, Gabe Rogers, Koby Drake, Eddie Lewis that we expect to step up and play a big role in what we want to do offensively — guys that you have heard of that may not have had the number of catches as Calvin Austin... Now that Seth (Henigan) has a year in the system, it’s going to be that much more attainable to have success in the passing game because of that depth at wide receiver.”
Team cohesiveness is especially pertinent to the Midshipmen, which run one of college football’s more complex schemes in the triple option. Having everyone on the same page is essential for the system to thrive, so it’s no surprise Navy was severely hampered by COVID-19 restrictions in the past two seasons — preventing the level of team chemistry from reaching pre-2020 levels. But with restrictions lifted, Navy is ready to serve as a dangerous lurker after being picked to finished second-to-last in the AAC preseason media poll.
“This is the first time in the last three years that we had a normal offseason,” head coach Ken Niumatalolo said. “We’ve been able to prepare our football team exactly like how we did 12 other football teams since I’ve been here. That gives me the greatest confidence. Since January to now, we’ve done the things that we normally do... I was telling our strength coach in June when we were doing our sled pulls and pushes and we had a ton of guys throwing up, I said, ‘I don’t know if I’ve ever been this happy to see guys throw up again.’ But we needed that because of our nature and who we are.”
Navy stumbled to an 0-3 start last season, but the Midshipmen flipped the script and finished the year strong with a coveted win over Army. A grueling schedule was certainly a factor as 11 of 12 opponents attained bowl eligibility in 2021. But Navy’s players know they’re not far from a turnaround as they challenged AAC title game participants Cincinnati and Houston to within one score last fall.
“We’re always gonna be flying around. We’re always gonna be making the most of what we have. The thing that coaches have harped on and we have harped on as a class is that we need to be better with the details,” outside linebacker/safety John Marshall said. “Ultimately, if we can put those together, a lot of those close games go our way and it ends up being a much better season for us last year. Even though that’s the past, we’re gonna look on forward to this year, and I think if we can do that, we’ll be a very good team.”
SMU built an empire through the transfer portal during the Sonny Dykes era, collecting an array of outside talent ranging from quarterback Tanner Mordecai to running back Tre Siggers to inside linebacker Isaac Slade-Matautia. Even through coaching turnover, the trend of utilizing the portal as a significant construction tool continues as head coach Rhett Lashlee fills the head vacancy left by Dykes. SMU has over 50 new faces on the roster, including 14 transfers that joined the team as recently as June 1. These incoming pieces, especially the transfers, should bolster an SMU team which returns just three offensive and five defensive starters.
“When it comes to the new world of transfers, a lot of really good players leave the Dallas metroplex and when they decide to transfer, they want to transfer closer,” Lashlee said. “That’s been a big part of the last three or four years in what we’ve been able to do here both in high school and in the transfer world and it’s all because of our location here in Dallas... We’ve got a good mix of new players, we’ve got a good mix of transfers, we’ve got a mix of returning veteran players in key positions. The biggest thing is they like each other and seem to work well together.”
When serving as the offensive coordinator at SMU in 2019, Lashlee witnessed boundless success working with transfer quarterback Shane Buechele. Last season, SMU’s passing offense sustained the standard to produce similar numbers with another transfer in Mordecai. With Mordecai back on campus along with the team’s reigning receptions leader Rashee Rice, the Mustangs have the arsenal needed to field a top 15 passing offense for the fourth consecutive year.
“There’s a lot I like about Tanner’s game,” Rice said. “To be honest, I like the fact that he doesn’t hesitate to look deep. Tanner’s the type of guy that is gonna read the field before and he has a pre-determined route sometimes. If we have a play and he’s able to tag a route, it’s more than likely gonna be a touchdown tag route. He’s really confident and I’m confident in his game as well.”
South Florida Bulls
The Jeff Scott era has brought much hope to the city of Tampa. While the results haven’t been tangible in the standings, the hype surrounding the program is evident. Last September, the construction of a $22 million, 88,000 square foot indoor practice facility was announced. The largest fundraising project in program history is set to complete soon, allowing players to hone their skills in the facility without obstruction from the Florida conditions.
“Every day we walk on the field and see the indoor practice facility being built up,” wide receiver Xavier Weaver said. “I’m just ready to get inside of it. Sometimes we don’t have lights at night. When it’s raining, we can’t practice. I’m ready to be in there — 2 am, 3 am — running routes with the guys, so I’m just excited.”
Additional excitement in Tampa can be attributed to landing a New Year’s Six bowl winning quarterback through the transfer portal. South Florida completed a massive haul by luring Baylor quarterback Gerry Bohanon to the program. Bohanon started 12 games for the Big 12 champions last season, firing for 2,200 yards and 18 touchdowns, complemented by kick of mobility. Bohanon’s presence ignites hope in an offense which ranked 100th nationally in points per game and inspires his colleagues in terms of work ethic and preparation.
“One of our staff members came up here on Memorial Day and there was only one car in the parking lot and that was Gerry,” Scott said. “He was up here watching video on Memorial Day, so those things lined up from what we heard from the Baylor staff about him. Hearing from our players and from our strength staff about the way he has meshed and the way he has become a leader in his lifting group, I’ve been very pleased with the early observations and feedback we’ve gotten since Gerry’s gotten here.”
Changing the culture in Philadelphia was the No. 1 task this offseason for Temple. After obtaining five consecutive winning seasons from 2015 through 2019, the Owls have posted a 4-15 record in the current decade. This offseason, they addressed this unwelcome trend by hiring Texas associate head coach and running backs coach Stan Drayton to his first head coaching gig. As he approaches unfamiliar territory, Drayton looks to carry with him the lessons he learned as an assistant on two national championship winning staffs (2006 Florida, 2014 Ohio State).
“I try to take everything. I wish I can take those rings we won at some of those places (laughs),” Drayton said on what he plans to implement at Temple from his previous stops. “Working for championship coaches — Urban Meyer, Jim Tressel — you just take a little bit of everything from those guys. Urban Meyer was notorious for o-linemen and that was the way we were able to win at Florida and Ohio State... Linemen is definitely a critical thing for us and also building a team that truly loves and wants to play for another. Those would be our two major pillars on how to win ballgames here at Temple.”
Temple ranked in the bottom 15 in sacks allowed last year, so righting the ship on the offensive line is certainly one of the priorities for the team. The Owls return a fifth-year starter in right guard Adam Klein who assumes a leadership role in implementing Drayton’s culture during this transition season. Klein believes injecting a sense of toughness into the program is the key to guiding Temple back to what it was in the late 2010s.
“It starts in the winter workouts with our strength coaches and our strength staff,” Klein said. “That’s been established early in our program now with Coach Drayton. He got his message to us real clear right away. He wanted us to get back to that ‘Temple Tough’ mentality and he wanted us to be great from the beginning.”
Tulane Green Wave
The results of the 2021 Tulane season were shocking. The program appeared to be on the rise when qualifying for three consecutive bowl games in 2018 through 2020. But after nearly knocking off Oklahoma in a Week 1 thriller, the Green Wave crashed the tune of a 2-10 record. After witnessing a 31-point victory and three one-score losses to quality teams in November, Fritz believes the fight Tulane showed to conclude 2021 can be channeled into a conference championship caliber program this fall.
“We just got in a little bit of a tailspin and had a hard time coming out of it last year,” Fritz said. “One thing I was proud of is how our guys competed from the beginning of the season to the end of the season. I really had no problems. Our guys kept the high-character standards that we want to have here at all times. Certainly, we’re disappointed in our record. We want to compete for a conference championship and we really believe we can do that.”
Tulane returns a significant fraction of its starters, so the leadership regime in the locker room should remain similar. Among those veteran leaders is inside linebacker Nick Anderson, who was introduced to a full-time starting role last fall and capitalized to the fullest extent. On the field, he produced 56 tackles, 9.5 tackles for loss, and four sacks. Off the field, he takes an active role in community service. Given the combination, he is one of the nominees for the 2022 Wuerffel Trophy watchlist, which recognizes the dual-nature of greatness on the field and impact in the community.
“It’s a blessing to be recognized for the things I try to help around the city of New Orleans,” Anderson said. “We’re very adamant about community service — getting out there and helping children, the homeless, churches, and different things like that. It’s not just a reward for myself, but also a recognition of how we carry this program and the things we try to instill in our guys on a day-to-day basis, on and off the field.”
Tulsa Golden Hurricane
Tulsa was one of three AAC programs to bring home bowl hardware last December, completing an impressive turnaround by winning each of its final four games. It was a tale of two seasons for Tulsa, but some of those trials and tribulations from the early slate are expected when first breaking in a new quarterback. Now that Davis Brin has a year of experience behind him, Tulsa is excited where the redshirt senior can lead the program.
“Year two is different for a starting quarterback,” head coach Philip Montgomery said. “To get a year underneath your belt, you’ve seen a lot of different things, you’ve been in a lot of battle, you have things to draw back on. He is much more comfortable in what we’re doing now. I think the amount of time he’s been able to spend not only in the film room but on the field with receivers — it’s gonna pay dividends for us.”
While the offense moved the ball at the second-highest rate in the AAC, not all aspects went smooth for Tulsa on that side of the ball. Only four teams in the FBS committed more turnovers than the Golden Hurricane, and lopsided turnover margins were evident in several one-score losses. By limiting these giveaways, Tulsa has potential to display one of the nation’s most explosive offensive attacks.
“The biggest thing I’ve been focusing on lately is taking care of the ball,” Brin said. “Turnovers is definitely gonna help, but something we want to do is be really explosive and put a lot of points on the board. Also, just finishing in the red zone and getting seven points instead of kicking a field goal for three — that’s gonna be a big emphasis.”
In the Josh Heupel era, UCF built a brand based on the speed of its offense. The team spread its personnel from sideline to sideline, time between snaps was minimal, and the quickness of its players was otherworldly. When Gus Malzahn was hired during the 2021 offseason, UCF elected to continue running the offense at full throttle — at least until former quarterback Dillon Gabriel suffered a season-ending injury in Week 3. After slowing down the unit for the remainder of the season, Malzahn hopes to insert that dose of speed back into the system for 2022.
“That’s probably the biggest thing I inherited in our players was a group that’s used to playing fast,” Malzahn said. “That made my job a lot easier once I came in here. Now, if you take back to last year, the first three games when we were healthy, we were playing extremely fast. Then we had to insert a true freshman quarterback who was 18 years old, so we kind of slowed things down as we were learning him and his strengths. But a big goal of ours this year is to play faster.”
That 18-year old quarterback, Mikey Keene, is now a year riper with 10 starts under his belt. But the program brought in Ole Miss transfer John Rhys Plumlee to battle Keene for the starting job heading into a new season. The conductor of this high-tempo offense is yet to be determined as Malzahn affirmed the competition is “as even as it can get.” But whoever emerges on top will be gifted with an array of talent at the skill positions. Among those returning stars are running back Isaiah Bowser, who broke 150 rushing yards in the opener and finale of 2021, and Ryan O’Keefe, who won MVP of the Gasparilla Bowl for accruing 195 yards from scrimmage.
“In the receiver room, we understand we have two guys we can win with either way,” O’Keefe said regarding the quarterback competition. “Each brings something different. JR (Plumlee) brings that running component that teams gotta honor. And then you have Mikey whose very knowledgeable about the game. He understands the best way to approach the game, the best way to read defenses. I low-key learned from him last year in coverages and stuff.”