College football has been a world filled with parody over the last few years. It’s just everywhere we go and the AAC is no different. After winning the 2020 and 2019 American Athletic Conference championships, the big question coming into 2021 is who can defeat Cincinnati? The Bearcats have been the king of the hill for quite some time now, and are looking really good once again. They are the only ranked team in the conference and should be top 10 when the official polls come out, making them the clear-cut best group of five team as well. Besides Cincinnati, we have several other programs on the rise in this conference that are always fun year-round. With no divisions, the AAC can become a tossup if teams get upset and we hope to see a lot of that this year.
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Top Conference Players
This section could just be highlighted by one name: Desmond Ridder. Ridder is the defending player of the year in the conference, the obvious favorite for the award this year, and a Heisman finalist. Aside from Ridder, his two Bearcat teammates Ahmad Gardner and Coby Bryant make up the second-best cornerback duo in the country. Looking past Cincinnati, UCF quarterback Dillon Gabriel is making a strong push to be a top 10 quarterback in the country, while SMU wide receiver Reggie Roberson Jr. is looking to be a high selection in the NFL draft next year. Memphis’ Dylan Parham is another sneaky good name to watch out for on their offensive line as well.
Coaches on the Hot Seat
When Dana Holgorsen left West Virginia for Houston back in 2019 it was believed to be a great hire. Now, it’s not looking anywhere near that. He’s only 7-13 since arriving and took a huge swing and a miss with uber-talented quarterback D’Eriq King. A lot of the pieces seem to be assembling for Holgorsen this year with his quarterback Clayton Tune coming back along with transfers Ta’Zhawn Henry and KeSean Carter coming in. The Cougars also do not play UCF or Cincinnati in conference play this year, so a mediocre season is practically unacceptable. Let’s hope for Holgorsen’s sake that he finally gets it together and gets Houston over the proverbial hump.
Three Conference Games to Watch
Since its inception in 2013, the AAC has really yet to form any major rivalries. The war on I-94 between UCF and USF has been exciting in the past, but USF finished just 1-8 last year, so they will most likely lose to UCF once again. Otherwise, this is not a conference for the traditional, but still can big high-flying shootouts throughout the regular-season slate.
UCF vs Cincinnati
This is the most obvious game to be on here, the two top teams face off in Cincinnati in a game with massive implications. We can expect some really high flying offense here in a game that could turn into a shootout. This matchup also brings in the marquee matchup of Ridder and Gabriel, the two most tailored quarterbacks in the conference, and potentially in the group of five. Outside of the quarterbacks, it seems the Bearcats will just have too much talent for UCF and take this one, but if UCF can land an upset, then the AAC will see a major shakeup.
Memphis vs UCF
One week after UCF plays Cincinnati, they then have to immediately turn around and face what is the third or fourth-best team in the conference in Memphis. If we thought a lot was on the line in the UCF, Cincinnati game, there could be more here. Memphis misses Cincinnati on their schedule, and there’s a real possibility they come into this one undefeated. This should be a pretty tight game, but Memphis needs to watch out for a UCF explosion on offense. If they allow momentum to build, then they will be in some serious trouble. Overall, UCF at home should be taking this one but it will be a thriller with so much on the line.
SMU vs Cincinnati
The theme developing here has got to be the top teams going up against each other. This one takes place in the second to last week of the regular season and obviously could mix some things up in the standings. SMU has got the talent to win this conference. On paper, they are the second most talented team in this conference but they have a grueling schedule. If they can come out from games against Memphis, UCF, and Houston all in a row alive to face Cincinnati here, this would be huge. One of the teams would probably be booted from the championship game with a loss. Once again, the home-field advantage will help Cincinnati here, and they should be winning this game, but we’ve got to keep our eye on this one.
One Bold Prediction
Tulsa gets back into the championship game. After being a bit of a surprise in the game last year, Tulsa has a bit of a tough road back, but it’s doable. The first order of business here is to rebuild some of the defense. They have some key guys to replace, but it just needs to do its job for the offense. Every single weapon is back on the offense and if new quarterback Davis Brin can live up to expectations, they’ll be a high-flying unit. The schedule could be better, and big-time wins will be needed, but this is a team who seemingly played everyone closely last year, and has a serious shot of getting back.
Dark Horse Teams
A lot of teams in this conference are underrated, like Memphis and SMU. However, some are true dark horses. The first to discuss is Tulane. This team runs through their offense. Quarterback Michael Pratt is a top-four quarterback in the conference and can even contend for offensive player of the year. Another contender who can contend is running back Cameron Carroll. Looking past these two, almost all pass catchers are back for the Green Wave and the offensive line will be way better than last year because of experience. Another team to watch out for is Houston. We’ve mentioned the need for Holgorsen to win now, and they have the talent to do it. The schedule is super easy for the Cougars and this team could legitimately finish with one or two losses only.
- East Carolina
Looking at all the teams on paper, and then looking at where a lot of them are placed, these standings are a bit surprising. Houston gets the second spot because of the easiest schedule in the conference. Memphis falls all the way to seven because of the roster turnover and tough schedule. UCF drops to four with some predicted upsets and a potential loss to SMU. Overall though, the top dog stays at the top and will square off with an elated Holgorsen in the conference championship.
Conference Championship Matchup
Houston will come into this one as heavy underdogs unless they’re something like 11-1, which is doubtful. To upset Cincinnati, they’ll have to control the ball. Time of possession is key here. The Cougars cannot let Ridder hurt them both ways, if he does, it’s all over. Containing the Bearcat offense, while scoring early and often is a very daunting task, and at the end of the day, it looks like it will be too much for Houston to complete, Cincinnati win.
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