We’re just about that AACtion, boss.
The American Athletic Conference race is heating up. A series of contenders are emerging, while bowl hopes are put on life support for other teams. Week 8 was a notable one for the conference, which launched the slate with nationally televised Thursday and Friday night games before concluding with a busy Saturday schedule.
The theme of the weeknight AAC games was Texas-sized victories. On Thursday, Rice stormed into Tulsa and dominated the Golden Hurricane, 42-10, to secure its most lopsided FBS victory since 2013 (recap). Then in a standalone Friday game, SMU made a statement on national television by eviscerating Temple, 55-0, for what is now the fourth-largest margin of victory this season and the Mustangs’ most dominant showing against FBS competition since 1978 (recap).
Saturday treated AAC fans to a 4-game conference slate and a pair of non-conference outings. In one non-conference matchup, South Florida erased a 21-10 fourth quarter deficit to knock off an upset-hungry UConn 24-21. The Bulls are now 4-4 showcasing their best start since 2018. In the other non-conference clash, Navy nearly faced a shutout to Air Force — one of nine remaining undefeated teams in the country. The Midshipmen scored their lone touchdown with 50 seconds remaining to fall 17-6 to the Falcons, as the signature “service academy under” hit again in Vegas.
Here are notes from the four conference matchups Saturday:
Tulane 35, North Texas 28
Tulane survives major scare against up-and-coming Mean Green squad. This one was a tale of two halves. The first half at Yulman Stadium was utterly dominated by Tulane on both sides of the ball. The Green Wave defense forced three fourth down stops and a fumble, while the ground-based offense established a 21-0 lead. In fact, some of the same issues which plagued the Mean Green also affected the Green Wave in early going, as Tulane fumbled near the goal line, failed a fourth down conversion deep into North Texas territory, and tossed an interception.
But once halftime concluded, the game swung entirely in the opposite direction. Led by quarterback Chandler Rogers and his 343 yards, North Texas’ offense started to sustain drives. The Mean Green piled on three third quarter touchdowns to slice the deficit to seven. In between the second and third touchdowns was a monumental onside kick recovery which denied Tulane’s offense of a key possession. But North Texas’ defense — which is sixth-to-last nationally in yards allowed — carried some weight too by forcing a pair of second half three-and-outs. One Tulane three-and-out provided the Mean Green the opportunity to knot the ballgame at 28-28, and that, they did. Rogers sent in the tying touchdown pass with 9:08 remaining to raise his totals to 14 touchdowns and zero interceptions in his last six outings.
However, North Texas was trailing next time it possessed the ball. Tulane methodically ran the ball down the field, exhausting 6:34 of clock in a 13-play, 75-yard sequence. The Green Wave escaped with a 35-28 victory and rose to No. 22 in the rankings — winning their ninth-straight game quarterbacked by Michael Pratt. However, North Texas is clearly on the rise and the Mean Green proved they have the offensive potency (and enough defensive improvement) to sneak up on another contender. The opportunities for that signature win exist, as North Texas’ next three contests are against Memphis, UTSA, and SMU.
Memphis 45, UAB 21
UAB runs out of steam in turnover laden second half. The Blazers had the odds stacked against them, operating without starting quarterback Jacob Zeno — who ranks second in the AAC in passing yards and totes an extremely-efficient 74.4 completion rate on the season. But the Blazers came out guns a-blazing Saturday with backup Harrison Barker, holding designation as the first team to score points in the noon ET slate. UAB wide receiver Tejhaun Palmer hauled in a beautiful 32-yard air delivery from Barker just 56 seconds into the contest. Feeling bold, head coach Trent Dilfer went for two and claimed an 8-0 lead.
Then, an offensive shootout broke out. Memphis scored, and UAB’s offense went right back to work with a 78-yard drive to create a 14-7 advantage (failed two-point attempt). And the Blazers remained tight with Memphis through halftime, entering the break deadlocked at 21-21 — thanks to a huge performance from running back Jermaine Brown Jr.
But the luster soon wore out. The exhilarating 21-point first half was followed by a goose egg in the second half. UAB’s Zeno-less offense quickly became plagued by turnovers. Barker tossed a critical pick-six to Malik Feaster in the first half to hand Memphis its first lead of the afternoon at 21-14. Then, nearly the same thing occurred in the third quarter when a different quarterback — Landry Lyddy — was intercepted by Simeon Blair who was eight yards short of the end zone on a prosperous return. That second half was simply marred by giveaways for UAB, which lost the turnover battle 4-0 thanks to a pair of second half interceptions and a lost fumble.
The Blazers out-gained a talented Memphis squad, 381-352. But the 45-21 separation could have been substantially smaller had they not coughed the ball up regularly. It was otherwise a strong offensive showing by Dilfer’s squad, but now at 2-6, UAB is in danger of missing bowl eligibility for the first time since the program returned from hiatus in 2017.
Charlotte 10, East Carolina 7
Biff Poggi earns his first FBS win as head coach. In the first iteration of this new AAC rivalry, the underdog 49ers emerged victorious. Both Charlotte and East Carolina entered this matchup with identical 1-5 records, looking to secure their first win of the 2023 campaign. Charlotte wound up triumphant in a low-scoring defensive struggle as East Carolina kicker Andrew Conrad barely missed a 48-yard field goal in the final minute.
It’s been a difficult adjustment for East Carolina, which lost all but one offensive piece who started the majority of contests during last year’s 8-5 season. The Pirates continued their two-quarterback system in Charlotte, rotating between Alex Finn and Mason Garcia until a spark was found. East Carolina never scored into the fourth quarter, and those points occurred because the 49ers muffed a punt on their own 10-yard line. The failure to establish anything on the ground plagued the Pirate offense, which attained 39 rushing yards on 19 attempts.
Charlotte was far more productive offensively, out-gaining its new in-state rival 323-127 in the yardage department. With mobile quarterback Jason Jones leading the charge, Charlotte ran the ball exceptionally well with 179 yards as a team. But turnovers were the ultimate equalizer keeping Mike Houston’s Pirates within reach. The 49ers lost the turnover battle 2-0 and forced one fourth stop while converting two themselves offensively.
Once Conrad’s field goal missed the uprights, it was celebration for the visiting 49ers. First-year head coach Biff Poggi notched both his first FBS win and first conference win at the helm, celebrating at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium in his iconic sleeveless cut-off shirt. It was a remarkable win for Charlotte, which was selected to finish 14th of 14 in the preseason AAC media day poll — separating itself from a legacy conference member.
UTSA 36, Florida Atlantic 10
Roadrunners prove status as AAC contenders after sluggish non-conference start. This was a matchup between teams sharing near-identical résumés. Florida Atlantic and UTSA are responsible for four of the last six Conference USA titles. The former CUSA titans rose to the AAC this offseason, and although both were marred by disastrous 1-3 non-conference records, they subsequently rose to contention status, flaunting 2-0 AAC records prior to Saturday. But UTSA demonstrated significant separation on the gridiron during a road trip to Boca Raton, leaving no doubt in a 26-point thrashing.
The Roadrunners’ offense led by veteran quarterback Frank Harris remained sharp, averaging 42 points per game in conference play. UTSA was highly multidimensional, igniting the run game with 176 collective yards while its defense limited Florida Atlantic to 20 yards on 0.7 per carry on the ground. As suggested by those rushing numbers, UTSA gained major ground in the trenches, accumulating five sacks and tackles for loss while the Owls failed to take Harris down the backfield once. Potential AAC Defensive Player of the Year Trey Moore continued to be a masterful pass rusher, increasing his conference-leading total to 9.0 sacks on the year with 1.5 in Week 8.
For the second-straight conference game, UTSA checked every box. The Roadrunners saw commendable offensive production while the defense created ample pressure, forced stops, and created turnovers. Florida Atlantic’s offense didn’t even score a single touchdown, as the Owls’ lone end zone appearance was courtesy of a first quarter pick-six by Latrell Jean. After such a showing against a hot Florida Atlantic team, UTSA has firmly thrust itself into the mix of AAC Championship Game contenders with Tulane, SMU, and Memphis. The Roadrunners take their 3-game winning streak back into the Alamodome against 1-6 East Carolina next Saturday — a golden opportunity to improve to 4-0 in league play.