We’re just four weeks away from UCF Football kicking off its final season in the American Athletic Conference. The Knights began play in the AAC by winning the league’s inaugural championship in 2013. They won the conference again in 2014, 2017 and 2018. Can the Black and Gold bookend their time in the AAC with another trophy and potential New Year’s Six bowl bid?
On Episode 85 of The Pegasus Podcast, we broke down the AAC landscape heading into 2022 by categorizing each team into tiers: Title Contenders, On the Cusp, Mid and Bad. Going in alphabetical order, here’s how things shook out, including our predictive order of finish.
Cincinnati (13-1, 8-0 AAC last year)
The defending conference champions and College Football Playoff semifinalists lost a lot of their top contributors to the NFL. Replacing your quarterback, top rusher and top receiver at the same time is no easy task. Neither is replacing two high-end cornerbacks like Sauce Gardner and Coby Bryant.
Still, Luke Fickell’s Bearcats will figure into the conference championship picture again. Whether it’s Ben Bryant or Evan Prater taking over at quarterback, they’ll have a veteran offensive line in front of them and plenty of talent to work with in the backfield and out wide. And while the Cincinnati defense may not be as prolific as it’s been for the last few years, there’s no reason to expect a major collapse.
Tier: Title Contenders
East Carolina (7-5, 5-3 AAC last year)
The Pirates took a major step forward in 2021, getting back to bowl eligibility for the first time since 2014. Can they get to the next level in 2022? Quarterback Holton Ahlers is back for his fifth season (doesn’t it feel like more? And did you know his dad is ECU’s PA announcer?). He’ll be helped by a veteran offensive line and a backfield that features Keaton Mitchell and Rahjai Harris, as well as a talented receiving corps – some of which is made up by transfers. Defensively, the Pirates are expected to be solid once again. So, why can’t they leap up to the top tier of the AAC in 2022?
Mike Houston’s team may still be a year away. There’s a solid chance for another season of seven or eight wins, but Ahlers hasn’t proven to be a championship-level quarterback. Not to mention, the team faces a brutal five-game stretch from October to November that will likely keep it from contending for a trophy. It starts with home games against Memphis and UCF before a trip out west to face BYU. Then, after a bye week, the Pirates head to Cincinnati before the stretch wraps up with a home game against Houston. Three wins out of those five games is probably the best-case scenario there.
Tier: On the Cusp
Houston (12-2, 8-0 AAC last year)
This is shaping up to be the Cougars’ year. After going 12-2 last year and appearing in the AAC Championship Game, Houston returns a lot of its roster. Quarterback Clayton Tune is back, as is All-AAC receiver Nathaniel Dell, who caught 90 passes for 1,329 yards and 12 touchdowns last year. And despite losing Logan Hall and his 13 sacks from a year ago, “Sack Avenue” really might not skip a beat. The Cougars look to be a pretty complete team, one that could win the program’s first conference title since 2015.
The schedule also sets up extremely nicely, as Dana Holgorsen’s team avoids both Cincinnati and UCF. Road games at Memphis, SMU and ECU might be the only real in-conference tests. There’s a reason why Houston was picked to finish atop the conference before heading off to the Big 12 in 2022 alongside the Bearcats and Knights. The Cougars’ combination of returning talent and favorable conference slate should have them in the title game at the end of the year.
Tier: Title Contenders
Memphis (6-6, 3-5 last year)
In the last two years, Memphis hasn’t quite been the Memphis of 2017-2019. It might be more of the same for the Tigers in 2022, even if it’s their destiny to run the AAC once Cincinnati, Houston and UCF are gone. Quarterback Seth Henigan threw for 3,322 yards and 25 touchdowns to eight interceptions as a freshman last year, but that promise came with Calvin Austin III breaking the 1,000-yard mark. He’s now gone, and Memphis has a new offensive coordinator in the mix. An experienced secondary featuring all-AAC safety Quindell Johnson returns, and overall, the Tigers should be competitive in Ryan Silverfield’s third year as head coach.
Memphis might be an outside threat, but they don’t appear to be on the same level as the top contenders this year. Plus, a stretch that includes games at home against Houston, at ECU, at Tulane and home against UCF within five weeks may limit the Tigers’ ceiling. Another average year of six to eight wins might be in store for Silverfield’s team, leaving them somewhere between Mid and On the Cusp. Memphis is a good program, so it gets the benefit of the doubt.
Tier – On the Cusp
Navy (4-8, 3-5 AAC last year)
The Midshipmen lost four games by one score last year, so you might say they were a hard-luck 4-8 team. But they probably overperformed in some ways, too, including in their win over UCF. Quarterback Tai Lavatai made some big strides last year and should be reliable again this year. But an option team coming off of a year in which it constantly shuffled its offensive line might not be in the best shape. Not to mention, Navy enters the season with questions at the fullback position. Ken Niumatalolo’s team loses three-time all-AAC linebacker Diego Fagot and will start the year with an unproven secondary. The Midshipmen don’t appear set up for a lot of success in 2022.
Navy’s schedule is also a major obstacle. The Midshipmen have a tough go of it in general, but closing the season with a game at Cincinnati, a matchup with Notre Dame and a visit to the Bounce House before their annual matchup with Army won’t be kind to them. Add in the fact that the service academies are finding themselves on the unfortunate end of the shifting college football landscape (with the transfer portal and NIL, specifically), and the outlook isn’t good for Niumatalolo and his team.
Tier – Bad
SMU (8-4, 4-4 AAC last year)
The Mustangs have felt so close to being in the top-of-the-AAC conversation for some time now. And just when they looked primed to reach that status, they were hit with a coaching change. Sonny Dykes skipped town — well, kind of — for TCU. He’s been replaced by Rhett Lashlee, who inherits quote the roster in 2022. Whether highly touted recruit Preston Stone takes over the reins or returning quarterback Tanner Mordecai fends him off, SMU will be a problem for opposing defenses this year.
Defensively, SMU has some questions in the secondary. But the Mustangs may very well be able to use their firepower on offense to simply outscore teams this year. A five-game stretch that sees them play at UCF and host both Cincinnati and Houston might keep them from reaching the next level this year, but with the right breaks, they really could get there in the end. Consider SMU a dark horse pick to win the conference, but next year is a safer bet for Lashlee’s team.
Tier: On the Cusp
South Florida (2-10, 1-7 AAC last year)
The Bulls need to figure out whether or not Jeff Scott is their guy. He’s 3-18 in two seasons as South Florida’s head coach and there was little improvement in 2021. It may not be a hot seat year for Scott, but there needs to be some significant steps forward this year. How do the Bulls take those, though? They’ll first need to decide whether Timmy McClain is the right quarterback of the future, or if Baylor transfer Gerry Bohanon should lead the way this year. Whoever plays quarterback will have the team’s top three targets from last year to throw to. Jaren Manham is a force out of the backfield, too. Nine starters return on defense, including top linebackers Antonio Grier and Dwayne Boyles.
So, what’s to stop South Florida from improving this fall? Truthfully, the Bulls may improve on the field without the results to show for it. A non-conference slate that includes BYU, Florida and Louisville is tough enough. Then, Scott’s team faces a tough October in which it’ll face ECU, Cincinnati (away), Tulane and Houston (away). And there’s little chance of the Bulls reversing their fortunes against the Knights in November, when the two teams will meet for potentially the last time – at least for a while.
Tier – Bad
Temple (3-9, 1-7 AAC last year)
The 2016 season probably feels like a decade ago for the Owls. They won the AAC Championship Game over Navy that year and finished 10-4 after a loss to Wake Forest in the Military Bowl. A seven-win season and two eight-win seasons followed, then came the downfall. Temple went 1-6 in 2020 and 3-9 last year, which led to Stan Drayton replacing Rod Carey. And while Drayton seems to be the right guy to bring back the “Temple Tuff” swagger the Owls used to be known for, there’s little reason to expect much of a turnaround this year.
Temple is rebuilding all over the place, which is bound to happen when you win four games in two years. The Owls scored more than 14 points in just three games last year and often looked helpless on defense. A three-week stretch with games at Houston and at home against Cincinnati and then ECU to close the season probably won’t offer much optimism heading into 2023. But perhaps before long, Drayton will have Temple as one of the contenders in the new-look AAC.
Tier – Bad
Tulane (2-10, 1-7 AAC last year)
Is it insane to say the Green Wave were better than 2-10 last year? Maybe. But they lost a five-point game to No. 2 Oklahoma and lost four other games by one score. Michael Pratt returns as the team’s quarterback in 2022, and he’ll have four returners on his offensive line and a deep running back room led by Tyjae Spears. There’s talent at receiver, too. The Tulane offense really should be better this year, but the pressure falls on the defense to improve. That unit allowed 5.81 yards per play last year and gave up more than 30 points in seven games. It’s hard to win a lot of games that way.
Willie Fritz will expect more this year. With Pratt, the Green Wave should be competitive. But there’s a clear ceiling for them in 2022, and that’s bowl eligibility. They may get to six wins, but their schedule features a game at Houston and then a final stretch that includes games against UCF, SMU and Cincinnati (away). That’s not exactly favorable, but six wins would be a success for a team that lost 10 games just a year ago.
Tier – Mid
Tulsa (7-6, 5-3 AAC last year)
Tulsa quietly won seven games last year. Perhaps the Golden Hurricane overperformed a bit, but they appeared in the AAC Championship Game two seasons ago and made another bowl game last year. Is the arrow still pointing up for Philip Montgomery and the Tulsa program? Well, it’s hard to say. Two offensive linemen are gone to the NFL, and running back Shamari Brooks is gone. Quarterback Davis Brin returns after an up-and-down 2021 season that saw him throw for 18 touchdowns and 16 interceptions. On defense, the Golden Hurricane have standout cornerback Tyron Davis, as well as a trio of veteran safeties.
There’s little to suggest that Tulsa will be downright bad in 2022. But is there anything that tells us they’ll be any better than a six- or seven-win team? Probably not. The Golden Hurricane play Ole Miss and Cincinnati in back-to-back weeks to end September and start October, which isn’t great. They’ll also play SMU a short time later. So, a three-week stretch against Tulane, Memphis (away) and South Florida will decide their bowl eligibility. Win two of those games and you’re in good shape. But when fighting for a bowl game is your ceiling entering the year, there’s only one tier for you.
Tier – Mid
UCF (9-4, 5-3 AAC last year)
Given the level of talent they have on their roster, the Knights should feel confident about competing with anybody in the AAC this year. But it’s all about piecing that talent together in year two under Gus Malzahn. Both Mikey Keene and John Rhys Plumlee should be able to lead the way at quarterback. UCF is stacked at the skill positions, with returners like Ryan O’Keefe, Isaiah Bowser and Johnny Richardson in the mix with newcomers like Auburn transfer Kobe Hudson, Alabama transfer Javon Baker and freshman Quan Lee. Plus, the offensive line is experienced, talented and deep.
Defensively, Travis Williams’ group expects to build off a 2021 season in which it got better and better as the season went on. There’s a lot of strength up front, as well as some major playmakers in the secondary. Figuring out the quarterback and linebacker positions is the key for UCF in 2022. But factor in a favorable schedule that includes nine games in the state of Florida and the toughest games coming inside the Bounce House, and you can see why the Knights may very well be playing for a trophy on the first weekend of December.
Tier: Title Contenders
Final Tier Rankings:
Title Contenders – Cincinnati, Houston, UCF
On the Cusp – ECU, Memphis, SMU
Mid – Tulane, Tulsa
Bad – Navy, South Florida, Temple
Projected Order of Finish:
- South Florida