The 2020 American Athletic Conference predictions feature a three-team battle at the top, as little separates the trio of Cincinnati, UCF and Memphis. The league also has a different look this season. With UConn departing, the AAC will continue as an 11-team conference with no divisions. The lack of divisions makes the middle of the league tough to sort out, as very little separates the teams picked from five to nine. SMU is a clear fourth with quarterback Shane Buechele returning, while Tulane, Navy, Houston, Temple, and Tulsa each have a chance to finish in the top five. USF and East Carolina are picked at the bottom of the league, but neither program will be an easy out in 2020.
Athlon Sports has released its preseason magazine for 2020, and now it's time to preview and predict the conferences. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, uncertainty surrounds non-conference play and the exact start time for the upcoming season. Below are Athlon's picks and projections for the American Athletic Conference in 2020:
American Athletic Conference 2020 Predictions
It’s a close call between Cincinnati, UCF and Memphis for the top spot in the AAC for 2020. The Bearcats get the edge in Athlon’s AAC picks, as coach Luke Fickell’s team has posted back-to-back 11-win seasons and returns 10 starters off a defense that held teams to just 20.6 points a game last fall. Some retooling is needed at linebacker, but the defensive line and secondary rank as the best in the AAC. Cornerback Ahmad Gardner is a rising star, and safety James Wiggins returns after missing all of 2019 due to a knee injury. Cincinnati has room to improve on offense after averaging 29.6 points a game last season. Quarterback Desmond Ridder was banged up at the end of last year and a return to full health should help the offense get back on track. A replacement for standout running back Michael Warren must be found, but Alabama transfer Jerome Ford, Gerrid Doaks and Charles McClelland is enough to keep the ground game performing at a high level. An inconsistent offensive line should be significantly better with Michigan transfer James Hudson anchoring the group at left tackle. The Bearcats have to play at UCF but host Memphis. With a standout defense, even just a small amount of improvement on offense should boost Cincinnati to be the top Group of 5 team in 2020.
The Knights have won at least 10 games in each of the last three years, and coach Josh Heupel’s squad should be in the mix to rank as the top Group of 5 team once again in 2020. UCF’s high-powered offense generated 43.4 points a game and 6.9 yards a snap last fall. A repeat of those totals is likely, as quarterback Dillon Gabriel is primed for an even better sophomore campaign. Gabriel won’t have big-play threat Gabriel Davis to throw to, but the receiving corps is in good hands with Tre Nixon, Marlon Williams and tight end Jake Hescock in place. A deep stable of running backs is headlined by versatile senior Otis Anderson and former 1,000-yard back Greg McCrae, and the line brings back three starters, including Parker Boudreaux and standout guard Cole Schneider. While UCF’s offense is prolific and generates most of the attention in Orlando, the defense shouldn’t be overlooked. The Knights held teams to 23 points a game and allowed just 4.6 yards a snap in 2019. Coordinator Randy Shannon has to replace standout linebacker Nate Evans, but all three units are in great shape for 2020. Safety Richie Grant and cornerback Aaron Robinson led the way for a secondary that held teams to a completion rate of 52.4 percent, while tackle Kenny Turnier (13.5 TFL) anchors the defensive line. The showdown against Cincinnati in Orlando in late November could decide which team hosts the AAC title game.
New coach Ryan Silverfield inherits a team that went 12-2 and made an appearance in the Cotton Bowl after finishing 2019 ranked as the top Group of 5 team. Make no mistake, former coach Mike Norvell is going to be missed. However, Silverfield – a first-time coach – surrounded himself with a good staff and returns 13 starters. An offense that averaged 40.4 points a game in 2019 is in good hands with quarterback Brady White, running back Kenneth Gainwell and receiver Damonte Coxie in place. White’s supporting cast is strengthened by the return of receiver Pop Williams and tight end Sean Dykes from injuries, and three starters are back to anchor one of the top offensive lines in the AAC. New defensive signal-caller Mike MacIntyre is one of the top Group of 5 assistant hires for 2020. The Tigers showed improvement on this side of the ball last season, and with seven starters back, more progression is expected. A healthy year out of cornerback T.J. Carter will make a big difference in the secondary, while O’Bryan Goodson and Joseph Dorceus provide a strong foundation up front. The conference slate features a home game against UCF, but Memphis has to play SMU, Cincinnati, Navy and Tulane on the road.
The Mustangs took a big step forward in coach Sonny Dykes’ second year in Dallas. After a 5-7 mark in 2018, SMU finished 10-3 – the program’s first double-digit win season since 1984 – on the strength of an offense that averaged 41.8 points a contest. Quarterback Shane Buechele threw for nearly 4,000 (3,929) yards last fall and is the top Group of 5 signal-caller for 2020. James Proche will be missed at receiver, but Reggie Roberson (43 catches) and tight end Kylen Granson headline a group of talented playmakers on the outside. The team’s top two running backs – Xavier Jones and Ke’Mon Freeman are gone – but four starters provide a strong foundation up front. Expect SMU to be involved in its share of shootouts once again, as the defense enters 2020 with plenty of question marks after allowing 33.4 points a game last fall. This unit suffered key departures up front and in the secondary, with the linebacker unit returning as the strength with Richard McBryde, Delano Robinson and Richard Moore in place. A favorable home schedule – Memphis, Navy, Houston and Cincinnati all visit Dallas – and the return of Buechele gives Dykes’ team a chance to compete for a spot in the AAC title game.
Tulane has reached new heights under coach Willie Fritz, winning 14 games over the last two years and claiming back-to-back bowl victories for the first time in program history. A third postseason trip is within reach, as the Green Wave return one of the league’s top defenses behind linebacker/end Patrick Johnson and one of the AAC’s top lines. The secondary is anchored by Jaylon Monroe – one of the AAC’s top cover corners – and safeties Larry Brooks and Chase Kuerschen. Replacing quarterback Justin McMillan tops the list of offseason priorities for coordinator Will Hall. Keon Howard – a talented transfer from Southern Miss – played well last year and will get the first opportunity to replace McMillan. Dynamic running back Corey Dauphine was granted an extra year of eligibility but suffered a torn Achilles this summer and will miss 2020. The Green Wave are still in good shape in the backfield with Amare Jones, Cameron Carroll, Stephon Huderson, Tyjae Spears and Ygenio Booker forming a deep corps of options. Oklahoma transfer Mykel Jones and tight end Tyrick James top the list of weapons for the new quarterback on the outside, while three starters form a strong foundation up front. Tulane’s schedule is favorable in league play. Fritz’s squad hosts Navy, Temple and Memphis and doesn’t have to play Cincinnati.
The Cougars should be better in coach Dana Holgorsen’s second season. Last year, injuries and decisions by a couple of key players (including QB D’Eriq King) to take a redshirt year limited Houston to a 4-8 record. Quarterback Clayton Tune (1,533 yards and 11 TDs) showed promise in a tough spot last fall and should take a step forward with more reps as the starter. There’s no shortage of weapons to deploy, as running backs Kyle Porter (616 yards) and Mulbah Car (375) are back, along with one of the AAC’s top receiving corps, led by Marquez Stevenson (907 yards). Houston surrendered 35 sacks last season but better luck in the health department would help the offensive line provide better protection. Defensively, the Cougars have work to do after giving up 34 points a game and 6.8 yards a snap in 2019. Seven starters return, and a handful of transfers have arrived to provide instant help or depth in 2020.
Related: College Football Top 25 for 2020
Replacing quarterback Malcolm Perry (2,017 rushing yards) is a tough task for coach Ken Niumatalolo, but don’t expect the Midshipmen to slip too far in the AAC. With teams bunched together after the top tier, the outcome of a couple of different games could play a huge role in shaping the middle of the league. For the Midshipmen to finish in the top half of the conference, sophomore Perry Olsen, senior Dalen Morris or converted receiver Chance Warren have to take control under center. While Perry’s production on the ground will be missed, the rushing attack still has options with the return of Jamale Carothers (734 yards), Nelson Smith (571), and CJ Williams (298). Three new starters need to be found up front, but Peter Nestrowitz and Billy Honaker is a good foundation to build around. Niumatalolo’s decision to hire Brian Newberry as defensive coordinator paid big-time dividends for the group last season. Navy allowed 6.5 yards a snap and 33.5 points a game in 2018 but cut those totals to 5.3 per play and 22.3 a contest last fall. Losing striker Jacob Springer to transfer was a setback, but seven starters are back, including linebacker Diego Fagot, cornerback Michael McMorris and end J’arius Warren. After improving from three wins in 2018 to 11 last fall, Navy’s path to the top five in the AAC hinges on the quarterback position.
As mentioned a couple of times in the AAC team write-ups here, there’s not much separation in the middle of the league. Temple had one of the conference’s top defenses last season, limiting teams to 25.9 points a game and 4.93 yards a play. However, just four starters are back, with key seniors departing in linebackers Sam Franklin, Shaun Bradley, Chapelle Russell, as well as defensive backs Benny Walls, Harrison Hand and Ayron Monroe. Additionally, All-America end Quincy Roche transferred to Miami. Coach Rod Carey’s defense still has a good foundation in place, so a steep drop-off shouldn’t be expected. However, for the Owls to have a chance to push for a finish in the top five of the standings, the offense probably has to pick up more of the slack. The good news: Quarterback Anthony Russo (2,861 yards and 21 TDs) is back, along with receiver Jadan Blue (1,067 yards) and running back Re’Mahn Davis. The Owls also have the makings of a solid offensive line with three starters back. Temple’s conference schedule features matchups against the projected top four – Cincinnati, UCF, Memphis and SMU – and road games at Tulane and Navy.
The Golden Hurricane were better than last year’s 4-8 record suggested. Of the team’s eight defeats, five came by 12 points or less. With a little better luck behind a high-powered offense, coach Philip Montgomery’s squad should push for a bowl in 2020. Quarterback Zach Smith (3,279 yards) leads a group that averaged 26.4 points a game in 2019 and is poised for a big jump in production thanks to the return of running backs Shamari Brooks and Corey Taylor, receivers Sam Crawford and Keylon Stokes, and four starters in the trenches. Concerns remain about a defense that surrendered 31.3 points a game in 2019. Seven of the team’s top 13 tacklers are gone, including linebacker Cooper Edmiston and end Trevis Gipson (eight sacks). Just one starter is back in the secondary and more pass rush is needed after generating just 14 sacks in 2019. Tulsa misses Memphis in conference play and hosts SMU, Tulane and East Carolina in key swing games for bowl eligibility.
New coach Jeff Scott is a good hire, but the former Clemson offensive coordinator may need a year or two to rebuild the program back into bowl contention. Both sides of the ball enter 2020 with question marks to address. The new staff inherits an offense that ranked 11th in the AAC in scoring, while the defense gave up 28.9 points a contest. Former North Carolina quarterback Cade Fortin will battle with Jordan McCloud for the starting nod under center. Whichever quarterback wins the job won’t be operating with an empty cupboard, as the ground game features Kelley Joiner (364 yards) and Johnny Ford, along with transfer Darrian Felix (Oregon). Tight end Mitchell Wilcox is gone, and a go-to receiver must emerge, but there’s experience back in the receiving corps thanks to the arrival of transfer tight end Mitchell Brinkman and the return of receivers Randall St. Felix, Eddie McDoom and Bryce Miller. Improvement is desperately needed up front after allowing 45 sacks in 2019. Six starters are back on defense, including shutdown cornerback K.J. Sails and linebacker Dwayne Boyles. A line that struggled to stop the run in 2019 is under construction.
11. East Carolina
Mike Houston has East Carolina trending in the right direction. The Pirates finished 2019 playing their best ball of the season, losing by a combined 11 points against Cincinnati and SMU. Another step forward is likely in 2020, but Houston’s squad will need to simply outscore a lot of teams to overcome some of the defensive concerns. East Carolina gave up 7.3 yards a play in AAC games and surrendered 33.7 points a contest. Departures hit the defensive line hard, but the arrival of Appalachian State transfer Chris Willis should help. The outlook for the back seven is better, as linebacker Xavier Smith will contend for all-conference honors, and the secondary is anchored by standouts Ja’Quan McMillan (cornerback) and Tank Robinson (safety). Alabama transfer Nigel Knott is another name to watch in the secondary. Scoring points won’t be hard thanks to the continued development of quarterback Holton Ahlers and one of the AAC’s top receiving corps. Arkansas transfer Chase Hayden will help to bolster a ground game that averaged only 3.8 yards per carry in 2019, while NC State transfer Justin Chase adds to an offensive line that returns just two starters.
Cincinnati over UCF
*Indicates team projected to reach bowl eligibility in 2020
AAC 2020 Projected Top Unit Rankings
Top RB Units
Top WR Units
Best OL Units
Best DL Units
Best LB Units
Best DB Units
AAC 2020 SUPERLATIVES AND SEASON PREDICTIONS
Pick by Steven Lassan: Shane Buechele, QB, SMU
Pick by Ben Weinrib: Kenneth Gainwell, RB, Memphis
Pick by Mark Ross: Kenneth Gainwell, RB, Memphis
Pick by Steven Lassan: Patrick Johnson, DL/LB, Tulane
Pick by Ben Weinrib: Diego Fagot, LB, Navy
Pick by Mark Ross: Ahmad Gardner, CB, Cincinnati
Coach of the Year
Pick by Steven Lassan: Luke Fickell, Cincinnati
Pick by Ben Weinrib: Willie Fritz, Tulane
Pick by Mark Ross: Ryan Silverfield, Memphis
Pick by Steven Lassan: Tyjae Spears, RB, Tulane
Pick by Ben Weinrib: Jerome Ford, RB, Cincinnati
Pick by Mark Ross: Patrick Paul, OL, Houston
Pick by Steven Lassan: James Hudson, OL, Cincinnati
Pick by Ben Weinrib: James Hudson, OL, Cincinnati
Pick by Mark Ross: JoVanni Stewart, S, Houston
Pick by Steven Lassan: Tulane
Pick by Ben Weinrib: Tulane
Pick by Mark Ross: Houston
Key Position to Watch
Pick by Steven Lassan: Cincinnati WR
Pick by Ben Weinrib: UCF DL
Pick by Mark Ross: Cincinnati RB
Best Coordinator Hire
Pick by Steven Lassan: Mike MacIntyre, DC, Memphis
Pick by Ben Weinrib: Glenn Spencer, DC, USF
Pick by Mark Ross: Mike MacIntyre, DC, Memphis
Hardest Team to Evaluate
Pick by Steven Lassan: Navy
Pick by Ben Weinrib: SMU
Pick by Mark Ross: USF
Coach on the Rise
Pick by Steven Lassan: Will Hall, OC, Tulane
Pick by Ben Weinrib: Rod Carey, HC, Temple
Pick by Mark Ross: Mike Houston, HC, East Carolina
Pick by Steven Lassan: Cincinnati at UCF
Pick by Ben Weinrib: Notre Dame at Navy
Pick by Mark Ross: Cincinnati at UCF
Pick by Steven Lassan: Holton Ahlers, QB, East Carolina
Pick by Ben Weinrib: Dillon Gabriel, QB, UCF
Pick by Mark Ross: Clayton Tune, QB, Houston
Pick by Steven Lassan: James Wiggins, S, Cincinnati
Pick by Ben Weinrib: Johnny Ford, RB, USF
Pick by Mark Ross: James Wiggins, S, Cincinnati