For the first time in a few years, there is plenty of suspense as the American Athletic Conference enters the final month of regular season play.
Cincinnati’s 25-21 loss on Saturday at UCF opened up the door for plenty of teams. Before getting to the race, it’s important to point out how much Cincinnati has owned the AAC over the previous two years.
Here’s a look at the Bearcats’ dominance:
2021: 8-0 regular season, beat Houston 35-20 in the AAC final.
2020: 6-0 regular season, beat Tulsa 27-24 in the AAC final.
The Bearcats won their first three conference games this year, giving them a 19-game AAC win streak (counting regular season and postseason games) before UCF ruined things.
The top two in the 11-team AAC will compete in the league championship game and good luck trying to figure out who will be left standing.
In demonstrating the lack of suspense the previous two seasons for the top two spots, last year Cincinnati and Houston were 8-0 in the regular season in conference play and the next closest team had three losses.
During the COVID-shortened 2020 season, Cincinnati and Tulsa were both 6-0 in the regular season in AAC play and the next closest team had three losses.
Here is how crazy the AAC has been.
A week after losing 34-13 at East Carolina, UCF defeated Cincinnati 25-21 this past week. The good news for UCF fans is that in his two seasons, Knights coach Gus Malzahn is 7-0 in AAC home games. The bad news is that just one of the final four will be in Orlando.
Even before the loss to UCF, Cincinnati was not exactly mashing opponents.
The game before losing to UCF, the Bearcats escaped with a 29-27 win at SMU. The game before that was a 28-24 home win over South Florida, a team that is not exactly a contender.
Right now, Tulane is the only unbeaten team.
Here are the bunched-up standings:
Tulane, 4-0; Cincinnati 3-1; UCF 3-1; Houston 3-1; East Carolina 3-2; Navy 3-3; SMU 2-2, Memphis 2-3, Tulsa 1-3, Temple 0-4, South Florida 0-4
Here is a look at the contenders and their final remaining games:
Tulane (4-0): at Tulsa, SMU, UCF, at Cincinnati.
Cincinnati (3-1): Navy, East Carolina, at Temple, Tulane
UCF (3-1): at Memphis, at Tulane, Navy, at South Florida
Houston (3-1): at SMU, Temple, at East Carolina, Tulsa
East Carolina (3-2): at Cincinnati, Houston, at Temple
SMU (2-2): Houston, at USF, at Tulane, Memphis
Houston (5-3, 3-1), the team we previously criticized for all of its close losses, is now very much in the race. And the Cougars have a hot quarterback, always handy for the stretch run. Quarterback Clayton Tune has thrown nine touchdown passes in the last two games. He now leads the AAC with 21 TD passes.
East Carolina is a team that nobody should relish facing. In its last two games, the Pirates have won by three touchdowns against UCF and last week earned a 27-24 victory at BYU, not the easiest place to win a game.
ECU sophomore running back Keaton Mitchell is starting to take it to another level, having run for more than 100 yards in three straight games. He is the only running back in the AAC averaging more than 100 rushing yards per game (107.9) and he’s averaging 7.1 yards per carry.
Quarterback Holton Ahlers, who seems like he has been at ECU for 10 years, is second in the AAC with 18 touchdown passes.
After a bye this week, the Pirates have a chance to knock off two major contenders by facing Cincinnati and Houston in successive games. We’re sure that given the choice, teams wouldn’t be lining up to face the Pirates at this point.
Cincinnati has an inconsistent offense and quarterback Ben Bryant (16 TD passes, 6 INT) has at times looked great and at others not so hot
The league is so balanced that none of the remaining contenders have an automatic W on the schedule.
OK, well maybe Temple comes close to being an automatic W.
Even 0-4 South Florida has had its moments against the contenders. Besides the aforementioned four-point loss to Cincinnati, the Bulls trailed Tulane 31-24 after three quarters before losing 45-31. USF trailed Houston 28-21 past the midway point of the third quarter before losing 42-27. That final game of the season at home against UCF, known as the War on I-4, could have real meaning.
So it should be a great final month, with suspense returning to the AAC race after a two-year hiatus.