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American Athletic Conference Football 2018 Predictions

McKenzie Milton, UCF Knights Football

McKenzie Milton, UCF Knights Football

The American Athletic Conference is the top Group of 5 league and won't lack for intrigue in 2018. UCF is back for another run at a spot in a New Year's Six bowl, as new coach Josh Heupel hopes to pick up where Scott Frost left off last fall. The Knights are Athlon's pick to win the league in the 2018 American Athletic Conference predictions, with Temple and USF rounding out the next tier in the East Division. The top of the West Division isn't as clear. There's very little separation at the top between Memphis, Houston and Navy, with Tulane and SMU also poised to play a factor in which team wins the division title.

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Another Undefeated Season for UCF?

UCF is Athlon's pick to win the AAC again in 2018 but are likely to fall short of last year's undefeated record. New coach Josh Heupel arrives after building one of the nation's top offenses at Missouri and inherits standout quarterback McKenzie Milton and plenty of talent at the skill positions. However, Heupel is a first-time head coach and Missouri's offense averaged only 18 points a game against teams with a winning record in 2017. Can Heupel keep this offense performing at a high level while tweaking the scheme to fit his preferred style? Heupel doesn't have to make many changes to the offense, but he and coordinator Randy Shannon have a few holes to plug on defense. The Knights lose standout linebacker Shaquem Griffin and cornerback Mike Hughes and are transitioning to a 4-3 scheme. The schedule features non-conference games against Pitt and North Carolina, along with road trips in conference play to Memphis and USF. With Milton at the helm, UCF should claim its second AAC title in a row. However, with a first-year coach and a defense likely to regress from last season's totals, the Knights will face a tough battle to claim the New Year's Six bowl spot in 2018.

Can Temple or USF Challenge UCF in the East?

Probably not. After winning four out of its last five games last season, Temple is trending up under coach Geoff Collins. The Owls are Athlon's pick to finish second in the division, and there's optimism this team can take another step forward in 2018. Quarterback Frank Nutile sparked the offense late in the year, and five returning starters provide a strong foundation on defense. Charlie Strong's second season in Tampa will hinge on how quickly the Bulls find a replacement for quarterback Quinton Flowers. Sophomore Chris Oladokun and Brett Kean left spring ball locked into a tight battle for the top spot, with Arizona State graduate transfer Blake Barnett set to join the team this summer.

Memphis, Navy or Houston: Which Team Wins the West?

This was the toughest decision in Athlon's American Athletic Conference prediction meeting. All three teams are worthy of consideration for the top spot, but Memphis eventually emerged as the pick. Replacing quarterback Riley Ferguson and receiver Anthony Miller isn't going to be easy. However, sophomore David Moore and transfer Brady White are promising options under center, and sophomore Damonte Coxie is a rising star at receiver. Until Moore or White settles in at quarterback, look for the Tigers to lean on a deep group of running backs and a standout offensive line to lead the way on offense. Also, Memphis catches key conference games against Houston and UCF at home. Houston is the biggest wild card team in the division. The Cougars have the league's top player in Ed Oliver, and the defense is bolstered by three Power 5 transfers (Deontay Anderson, Darrion Owens and Isaiah Chambers). D'Eriq King should thrive under new coordinator Kendal Briles, but Houston has a tough crossover (Temple and USF) and catches Memphis and Navy on the road. The Midshipmen had to navigate a couple of key injuries and had a minus-eight turnover margin in AAC contests in last year's 7-6 record. Quarterback Malcolm Perry is poised for a breakout season in his first full year as the team's starter. Navy's biggest obstacle to a division title might be the schedule. The Midshipmen host Memphis but catch UCF and Tulane on the road. Additionally, Navy has an early bye week (Sept. 29) and plays Memphis on Sept. 8 after a long road trip to Hawaii for Week 1.

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Can SMU or Tulane Break into the Top Three for the West Division?

As indicated in our conference predictions, we think Tulane is the bigger threat to the top three in the West Division. The Mustangs have a new coach (Sonny Dykes) and will transition to new schemes on both sides of the ball. Quarterback Ben Hicks and a talented backfield should keep the offense performing at a high level, but the passing game is going to miss receivers Trey Quinn and Courtland Sutton. Kevin Kane was a strong hire on the defensive side, and the Mustangs can't get much worse than last year's defensive totals (36.7 ppg and over 200 rushing yards a game allowed). A few transfers from Power 5 teams will help, but this unit still has a ways to go. Tulane has made steady improvement under coach Willie Fritz and is poised to earn a bowl trip in 2018. After averaging 217.2 total yards a game in his first year on campus, quarterback Jonathan Banks is poised to rank among the league's top signal-callers in 2018. Supporting Banks will be a solid group of playmakers on the outside, along with one of the league's top offensive lines. The defense is a work in progress for Fritz, but Tulane has enough firepower to win at least six games – and potentially upset one of the West Division's title contenders.   

Will Tulsa Rebound After Last Year's 2-10 Record?

Expect some improvement, but the Golden Hurricane are likely a year away from a winning record. Tulsa had bad luck on its side last season with injuries and close losses (six by 10 points or less). With better fortune and a return to the top of the conference in offense, the Golden Hurricane should double its win total from last fall. Quarterback Luke Skipper needs to take a step forward in his development, and coach Philip Montgomery is searching for the right answers on a defense that gave up 37.5 points a game. The strength of this team remains up front on the offensive line and at running back, as Shamari Brooks is poised to rank among the league's best at his position.    

AAC 2018 Unit Rankings

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American Athletic Conference 2018 Football Predictions

AAC 2018 Superlatives and Season Predictions

 

Steven  Lassan

Mitch Light

Mark Ross

 

@AthlonSteven

@AthlonMitch

@AthlonMarkR

Offensive POY

McKenzie Milton QB, UCF

McKenzie Milton QB, UCF

McKenzie Milton QB, UCF

Defensive POY

Ed Oliver DL, Houston

Ed Oliver DL, Houston

Ed Oliver DL, Houston

Coach of the Year

Mike Norvell Memphis

Mike Norvell Memphis

Mike Norvell Memphis

Coach on Hot Seat

Scottie Montgomery East Carolina

Scottie Montgomery East Carolina

Scottie Montgomery East Carolina

Top Freshman

Holton Ahlers QB, ECU

Holton Ahlers QB, ECU

Holton Ahlers QB, ECU

Top Newcomer

Noah Fisher OL, Tulane

Jordan Cronkrite RB, USF

Antonio Gibson WR, Memphis

Sleeper Team

Tulane

Tulane

Tulane

Key Position to Watch

UCF DL

Memphis WRs

Memphis WRs

Best Coordinator Hire

Kendal Briles OC, Houston

Kendal Briles OC, Houston

Kendal Briles OC, Houston

Hardest Team to Evaluate

Houston

Navy

SMU

Coach on the Rise

Mike Norvell HC, Memphis

Andrew Thacker DC, Temple

Mike Norvell HC, Memphis

Must-See Game

UCF at  Memphis

UCF at  Memphis

UCF at  Memphis

Breakout Player

Malcolm Perry QB, Navy

Malcolm Perry QB, Navy

Malcolm Perry QB, Navy

Comeback Player

Hudson Sullivan LB, Navy

Manny Bunch S, Tulsa

Shamari Brooks RB, Tulsa

Podcast: Athlon's Editors Discuss 2018 Conference Predictions