Team Previews: American Athletic Conference (AAC)

The American has been the leader of the Group of Five for the majority of the College Football Playoff (CFP) era, and with Cincinnati cracking the glass ceiling to reach the national semifinal, that point was only further proven.

With UCF, Cincinnati, and Houston leaving for the Big XII next season, the American will lose a lot of its luster and have to compete with the growing Sun Belt as well as the Mountain West for Group of Five superiority.

In this preview, we’ll take a look at each team’s projected SP+ rankings and Returning Production Percentage to analyze their recent recruiting, returning production, and overall program health heading into the 2022 season. We’ll also have conference predictions and early game-by-game picks.

UCF Knights

2021 Record: 9-4 (5-3 AAC)
Bowl Result: Gasparillo Bowl vs Florida (W, 29-17)
Returning Production: 69%
SP+ Ranking: 9.5 (3rd AAC, 39th Nationally)

Season Prediction:
W vs South Carolina State
L vs Louisville
W @ FAU
W vs Georgia Tech
L vs SMU
W vs Temple
W @ East Carolina
L vs Cincinnati
W @ Memphis
W @ Tulane
W vs Navy
W @ South Florida

Record Prediction: 9-3 (6-2 AAC)

UCF returns a decent amount of defensive talent and was able to land Ole Miss transfer QB John Rhys Plumlee, who will be continuing his football AND baseball careers for the Knights. The early season home game against Louisville will be a telling sign for how this team will fare in conference play.

Cincinnati Bearcats

2021 Record: 13-1 (8-0 AAC)
Bowl Result: CFP Semifinal: Cotton Bowl Classic vs #1 Alabama (L, 27-6)
Returning Production: 60%
SP+ Ranking: 16.8 (1st AAC, 11th Nationally)

Season Prediction:
L @ Arkansas
W vs Kennesaw State
W vs Miami (OH) (Paul Brown Stadium: Cincinnati, OH)
W vs Indiana
W @ Tulsa
W vs South Florida
W @ SMU
W @ UCF
W vs Navy
W vs East Carolina
W @ Temple
W vs Tulane

Record Prediction: 11-1 (8-0 AAC)

The Bearcats lose a ton of talent at key positions with QB Desmond Ridder, RB Jerome Ford, WR Alec Pierce, and star CBs Coby Bryant and Sauce Gardner all hoping to make an NFL impact. Much of the offensive and defensive front lines are returning with a bulk of the load being placed on QB Evan Prater, who may assume the starting role.

East Carolina Pirates

2021 Record: 7-5 (5-3 AAC)
Bowl Result: Military Bowl vs Boston College (Game Canceled)
Returning Production: 71%
SP+ Ranking: -2.2 (8th AAC, 81st Nationally)

Season Prediction:
L vs NC State
W vs Old Dominion
W vs Campbell
W vs Navy
L @ South Florida
W @ Tulane
W vs Memphis
L vs UCF
L @ BYU
L @ Cincinnati
L vs Houston
W @ Temple

Record Prediction: 6-6 (4-4 AAC)

Even the games that the Pirates lost last year, they managed to hang around for a while. A lot of that offensive production was lost after the season, which concluded with a Military Bowl cancelation. The Pirates have a tough test against ACC upstart NC State at home and a rough stretch of games towards the end of the season with UCF, BYU, Cincinnati, and Houston (all of whom will be in the Big XII in 2023).

Houston Cougars

2021 Record: 12-2 (8-0 AAC)
Bowl Result: Birmingham Bowl vs Auburn (W, 17-13)
Returning Production: 64%
SP+ Ranking: 8.2 (4th AAC, 44th Nationally)

Season Prediction:
W @ UTSA
W @ Texas Tech
W vs Kansas
W vs Rice
W vs Tulane
W @ Memphis
W @ Navy
W vs South Florida
L @ SMU
W vs Temple
W @ East Carolina
W vs Tulsa

Record Prediction: 11-1 (7-1 AAC)

The Cougars are coming off a conference championship game appearance and are looking to take advantage of the holes in Cincinnati’s lost star power to possibly win the conference this season. Luckily for Houston, they avoid Cincinnati again in the regular season and return fifth-year QB Clayton Tune.

Memphis Tigers

2021 Record: 6-6 (3-5 AAC)
Bowl Result: Hawai’i Bowl vs Hawai’i (Game Canceled)
Returning Production: 69%
SP+ Ranking: 4.0 (5th AAC, 59th Nationally)

Season Prediction:
L @ Mississippi State
W @ Navy
W vs Arkansas State
W vs North Texas
W vs Temple
L vs Houston
L @ East Carolina
L @ Tulane
L vs UCF
W vs Tulsa
W vs North Alabama
L @ SMU

Record Prediction: 6-6 (3-5 AAC)

After the disappointing cancelation of last year’s Hawai’i Bowl, the Tigers will be looking to build on a mediocre season in a top-heavy American. The stability of the team is there with four starters returning on the offensive line, but Memphis needs to find some weapons to compete with the other offenses in the league.

Navy Midshipmen

2021 Record: 4-8 (3-5 AAC)
Bowl Result: N/A
Returning Production: 53%
SP+ Ranking: -12.2 (10th AAC, 113th Nationally)

Season Prediction:
W vs Delaware
L vs Memphis
L @ East Carolina
L @ Air Force
W vs Tulsa
L @ SMU
L vs Houston
W vs Temple
L @ Cincinnati
L vs Notre Dame (M&T Bank Stadium: Baltimore, MD)
L @ UCF
L vs Army (Lincoln Financial Field: Philadelphia, PA)

Record Prediction: 3-9 (2-6)

Navy has the ultimate offense to keep any game close, as they showed in 2021. They controlled the clock well and made few mistakes. An abundance of close losses doomed the Midshipmen, but a season-ending victory over Army was a good consolation prize.

SMU Mustangs

2021 Record: 8-4 (4-4)
Bowl Result: Wasabi Bowl vs Virginia (Game Canceled)
Returning Production: 73%
SP+ Ranking: 10.9 (2nd AAC, 33rd Nationally)

Season Prediction:
W @ North Texas
W vs Lamar
W @ Maryland
L vs TCU
W @ UCF
W vs Navy
L vs Cincinnati
W @ Tulsa
W vs Houston
W @ South Florida
W @ Tulane
W vs Memphis

Record Prediction: 10-2 (7-1 AAC)

SMU returns QB Tanner Mordecai and has the 17th offensive production ranking in the nation, which is tops in the American. Out-of-conference games against Maryland and cross-town rival TCU will be pivotal to SMU’s season. SMU has to go through the top of the conference against Cincinnati, Houston, and UCF in order to have a shot at the conference title.

South Florida Bulls

2021 Record: 2-10 (1-7 AAC)
Bowl Result: N/A
Returning Production: 85%
SP+ Ranking: -5.2 (9th AAC, 89th Nationally)

Season Prediction:
L vs BYU
W vs Howard
L @ Florida
L @ Louisville
W vs East Carolina
L @ Cincinnati
W vs Tulane
L @ Houston
W @ Temple
L vs SMU
L @ Tulsa
L vs UCF

Record Prediction: 4-8 (3-5 AAC)

The Bulls have a rough nonconference slate of games between BYU, Florida, and Louisville, leaving little room for confidence boosting heading into conference play. They also draw the entire top half of the conference with Cincinnati, Houston, SMU, and UCF. With the second most returning production in the country, a push for a bowl game is still possible.

Temple Owls

2021 Record: 3-9 (1-7 AAC)
Bowl Result: N/A
Returning Production: 66%
SP+ Ranking: -14.2 (11th AAC, 118th Nationally)

Season Prediction:
L @ Duke
W vs Lafayette
L vs Rutgers
W vs UMass
L @ Memphis
L @ UCF
L vs Tulsa
L @ Navy
L vs South Florida
L @ Houston
L vs Cincinnati
L vs East Carolina

Record Prediction: 2-10 (0-8 AAC)

Temple was dead last in the conference last season and had one of the worst offenses in college football. With minimal returners, a new HC in Stan Drayton, and a difficult conference slate, it could be another rough season for the Owls.

Tulane Green Wave

2021 Record: 2-10 (1-7 AAC)
Bowl Result: N/A
Returning Production: 71%
SP+ Ranking: 0.2 (6th AAC, 71st Nationally)

Season Prediction:
W @ UMass
W vs Alcorn State
L @ Kansas State
W vs Southern Miss
L @ Houston
L vs East Carolina
L @ South Florida
W vs Memphis
L @ Tulsa
L vs UCF
L vs SMU
L @ Cincinnati

Record Prediction: 4-8 (1-7 AAC)

Getting into bowl eligibility this season would be a massive upgrade from a team who finished with two wins in 2021. With a young backfield returning to an offense that ranks 41st in SP+, there could be signs of further improvement down the road.

Tulsa Golden Hurricane

2021 Record: 7-6 (5-3 AAC)
Bowl Result: Myrtle Beach Bowl vs Old Dominion (W, 30-17)
Returning Production: 57%
SP+ Ranking: -1.5 (7th AAC, 79th Nationally)

Season Prediction:
W @ Wyoming
L vs Northern Illinois
W vs Jacksonville State
L @ Ole Miss
L vs Cincinnati
L @ Navy
W @ Temple
L vs SMU
W vs Tulane
L @ Memphis
W vs South Florida
L @ Houston

Record Prediction: 5-7 (3-5 AAC)

Tulsa was a pesky team in 2021. After their opening loss to FCS UC Davis, they took Oklahoma State and Ohio State to the fourth quarter in both of their next two games. Notably, they nearly forced an overtime against Cincinnati on the road, which certainly would have derailed the Bearcats’ playoff chances. With a lot of production now gone, Tulsa could fall behind in the top-heavy American.

Conference Standings Prediction

RANKTEAMRECORD
1Cincinnati Bearcats11-1 (8-0)
2SMU Mustangs10-2 (7-1)
3Houston Cougars11-1 (7-1)
4UCF Knights9-3 (6-2)
5East Carolina Pirates6-6 (4-4)
6Memphis Tigers6-6 (3-5)
7Tulsa Golden Hurricane5-7 (3-5)
8South Florida Bulls4-8 (3-5)
9Navy Midshipmen3-9 (2-6)
10Tulane Green Wave4-8 (1-7)
11Temple Owls2-10 (0-8)

Conference Championship Game:
Cincinnati: 52
SMU: 42

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