The American Athletic Conference takes on a new look this season.
Gone are UCF, Cincinnati, and Houston, who left for riches in the Power 5 world to the Big 12. The AAC had added six teams from Conference USA, led by two-time defending champion UTSA. The other newcomers are Florida Atlantic, UAB, North Texas, Rice, and Charlotte. The top two teams in this 14-team conference will compete in the AAC championship.
Tulane is the defending champion, going from 2-10 to 12-2, the biggest improvement in NCAA history. The Green Wave beat UCF 45-28 in the AAC title game, and for good measure, defeated USC 46-45 in the Cotton Bowl.
Despite several key losses to graduation, Tulane won’t relinquish its title easily. There should be plenty of contenders as at least the top four expected teams (UTSA, Tulane, SMU, and Memphis) should be considered title contenders, and don’t sleep on newcomers Florida Atlantic and UAB, along with Navy, either.
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Best Players in the AAC
TOP OFFENSIVE PLAYER: Michael Pratt, Tulane QB — A fourth-year junior, Pratt came into his own last season, completing 63.6% of his passes for 3,009 yards, 27 touchdowns, and just five interceptions. He also rushed for 478 yards (3.7 avg.) and 10 touchdowns. Pratt played best in the biggest games. He was named the Most Outstanding Player of the AAC title game by completing 20 of 33 for 394 yards, four touchdowns, and one interception. He also rushed for 48 yards and a touchdown on six carries. In the Sugar Bowl win over USC, he completed 8 of 17 for 234 yards, two touchdowns, and no interceptions and rushed for 83 yards (5.5 avg.). With players such as RB Tyjae Spears now in the NFL, more will be put on Pratt’s shoulders.
TOP DEFENSIVE PLAYER: Layton Jordan, Temple LB — A graduate student, Jordan (6-2, 220) made the successful transition from defensive end to outside linebacker last season. In his first game of the season, which was also his first career start, Jordan had eight tackles, including 2.5 tackles for loss in a 30-0 defeat at Duke. For the season he had 53 tackles, 18.5 tackles for loss, and nine sacks. Jordan also forced three fumbles, had three passes defended, and two interceptions, both of which he returned for touchdowns.
TOP NFL DRAFT PROSPECT: Marcus Bryant, SMU OT — While Pratt is a candidate for this, SMU senior OT Marcus Bryant (6-8, 315) gets the nod here. A three-star recruit by 247sports.com and two-star by Rivals.com, Bryant has continued to progress each year. Pro Football Focus named him a second-team All-AAC choice last year. He will need a big senior season to boost his stock. Right now websites such as NFLdraftscout.com, list him as either a seventh-rounder or high priority free agent.
HERO Sports’ AAC Predicted Order of Finish
5. Florida Atlantic
8. North Texas
9. East Carolina
13. South Florida
AAC Championship Prediction Pick
As stated above, there should be many contenders for this championship.
SMU is seeking its first conference title since sharing the Southwest Conference title with Houston in 1984. What also helps the Mustangs is that they don’t face either of the other top two contenders, Tulane and UTSA in the regular season. Even though redshirt sophomore Preston Stone started just one game last season, he is considered among the more highly regarded AAC quarterbacks. The Mustangs also did well in the transfer portal, including signing six players from Miami, where second-year SMU coach Rhett Lashlee was an offensive coordinator before taking over last season. RB Jaylan Knighton is among the key newcomers from Miami. Safety Jonathan McGill, a transfer from Stanford, is already considered among the defensive leaders.
UTSA might have been the favorite, but the Roadrunners had some key defections to the transfer portal. Still, the Roadrunners will be a major threat, led by seventh-year QB Frank Harris, who threw for 4,063 yards and 32 touchdowns (with nine interceptions) and rushed for 602 yards (4.6 avg.) and nine touchdowns.
Tulane is the defending champion and with Pratt leading the way, should be a serious contender. A regular-season finale home game against UTSA could have major conference ramifications. CB Jarius Monroe, a first-team all-AAC selection last year, will be the defensive leader.
Memphis will have one of the top QBs in Seth Henigan, who has thrown for 6,486 yards and 45 touchdowns in his two seasons as a starter. Toledo transfer DeMeer Blankumsee, who had 41 receptions for 512 yards and three touchdowns, should add to the offensive arsenal.
Just outside the main contenders are FAU, Navy, and UAB.
The AAC isn’t naturally expected to be as strong without Cincinnati, Houston, and UCF, but there are enough quality teams to keep its standings as the top G5 conference.