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American Athletic Conference Football 2021 Predictions

Complete preview of the American Athletic Conference for 2021
Desmond Ridder, Cincinnati Bearcats Football

Desmond Ridder, Cincinnati Bearcats Football

The projected No. 1 team in the 2021 American Athletic Conference predictions shouldn’t come as a surprise. After winning the conference title and earning a trip to the Peach Bowl, Cincinnati ranks as Athlon’s team to beat in the AAC this fall. The Bearcats are once again projected to be the top Group of 5 team in the top 25. UCF under coach Gus Malzahn checks in at No. 2, while Houston leads a group of teams that includes Tulane, SMU, Tulsa and Memphis in a tight battle in the middle of the conference. East Carolina and Navy should both improve in ’21, while USF and Temple hope to show progress after a combined 2-14 record last year.

Athlon Sports has released its preseason magazine for 2021, and now it's time to preview and predict the conferences. Below are Athlon's picks and projections for the American Athletic Conference in '21:

American Athletic Conference 2021 Predictions

1. Cincinnati

The Bearcats are the top Group of 5 team once again, but coach Luke Fickell’s program has its sights set on something bigger – the CFB Playoff. With a veteran and loaded roster, along with road games versus top-25 teams in Indiana and Notre Dame, Cincinnati will have a chance to state its case for the four-team playoff.

Previewing the Offense

Strength: An offense that averaged 37.5 points a game and led the AAC in yards per play (6.7) should be strong once again. Quarterback Desmond Ridder is primed for a huge senior year, and Jerome Ford will easily fill the void left behind by Gerrid Doaks at running back. Tight end Josh Whyle is a rising star.

Concern: How well Cincinnati replaces tackles James Hudson and Darius Harper is the biggest question mark surrounding this team for 2021. The Bearcats could also improve in the red zone after finishing eighth in the AAC.

Incoming Transfers: OL James Tunstall

Previewing the Defense

Strength: Everything. This is one of the top defenses in college football. Cincinnati limited teams to 16.8 points a game and finished first in the AAC versus the run, fewest yards per play allowed (4.6) and in pass efficiency defense. The cornerback tandem of Ahmad Gardner and Coby Bryant is one of the best in the nation.

Concern: Not much. Cincinnati gave up a few big plays (10 of 40-plus) and lost both starting safeties. Neither are huge concerns, however.

Incoming Transfers: DL Jowon Briggs; DL Harrison Hill

Related: Athlon Sports' College Football Top 25 for 2021

2. UCF

Gus Malzahn’s arrival at UCF has added another layer of intrigue to one of the top Group of 5 programs in college football. Malzahn plans to keep the Knights’ high-powered offense on track, while bringing needed improvement to a defense that struggled in 2020. UCF will have plenty of fireworks to begin the Malzahn era with Boise State coming to Orlando in the opener.

Previewing the Offense

Strength: UCF has ranked first or second in the AAC in most yards per play in four consecutive years. Also, the Knights averaged at least 40 points a game every season from 2017-20. Quarterback Dillon Gabriel is among the best in the nation and will be supported by an experienced line. Malzahn’s work in the transfer portal bolstered the skill positions, which already included big-play threat Jaylon Robinson at receiver.

Concern: How will Malzahn’s offense and Gabriel’s talent mesh in 2021? UCF has room to improve up front in pass protection.

Incoming Transfers: WR Jordan Johnson; RB Isaiah Bowser; WR Nate Craig-Myers; RB Mark-Antony Richards; WR Brandon Johnson

Previewing the Defense

Strength: UCF gave up 33.2 points a game last season but has the pieces in place to turn things around in 2021. The line received a boost from the addition of transfers Big Kat Bryant and Ricky Barber, and the secondary should improve with an offseason to gain experience. The Knights allowed only five plays of 40-plus yards in ’20.

Concern: The unusual nature of the 2020 season likely hurt the development of this defense, so some improvement should be anticipated. However, how far can coordinator Travis Williams take it one offseason? Both the rush and pass defense need to show marked development.

Incoming Transfers: CB Marco Domio; DL Ricky Barber; DL Big Kat Bryant

3. Houston

High expectations surrounded the Dana Holgorsen hire at Houston, but he’s just 7-13 through two seasons. The 2021 campaign is a good opportunity for Holgorsen to deliver a winning record, especially with the Cougars missing UCF and Cincinnati in conference action.

Previewing the Offense

Strength: The Cougars have the pieces in place to improve on last year’s production (30 ppg and 5.5 yards per play). Quarterback Clayton Tune is back after throwing for 2,048 yards and 15 touchdowns last fall, and there are plenty of intriguing options at running back and receiver, including transfers Ta’Zhawn Henry (RB) and KeSean Carter (WR). Louisiana Tech transfer Kody Russey is a big boost the line.

Concern: Overall improvement is needed, and Houston has to cut down on the turnovers (16). More big plays are needed after generating just three of 40-plus yards.

Incoming Transfers: WR/TE Seth Green; C Kody Russey; WR Jaylen Erwin; WR KeSean Carter; OL Tank Jenkins; RB Ta’Zhawn Henry

Previewing the Defense

Strength: New coordinator Doug Belk returns nine starters and added two key players through the transfer portal. Houston gave up 5.8 yards per play last season but that was an improvement off the 6.8 mark from 2019. A healthy Donavan Mutin will help the linebackers, while cornerback Marcus Jones is one of the top defensive players in the Group of 5 ranks.

Concern: Houston only forced six turnovers, ranked near the bottom of the AAC in red-zone defense and gave up too many big plays. The Cougars also allowed 32 points a game, ranked eighth in the AAC in pass efficiency defense and surrendered nearly 170 rushing yards a contest. There’s a lot of work ahead for Belk this offseason.

Incoming Transfers: DL Latrell Bankston; CB Alex Hogan

Order a Copy of Athlon Sports' 2021 College Football National and SEC Preview Editions

4. SMU

The Mustangs are 17-6 over the last two years under coach Sonny Dykes, and another bowl trip should be in the cards for 2021. However, SMU needs a quick transition under center to contend for a spot in the conference title game.

Previewing the Offense

Strength: SMU doesn’t lack for skill talent. Receivers Reggie Roberson, Rashee Rice and Danny Gray are back, while transfer Grant Calcaterra should be an impact addition at tight end in the passing game. On the ground, Ulyssess Bentley IV headlines arguably the deepest backfield in the conference. All five starters return up front. Breaking in a new quarterback isn’t easy, but Dykes has two interesting options in Oklahoma transfer Tanner Mordecai and freshman Preston Stone.

Concern: Can Mordecai or Stone quickly claim the job and play close to the level Buechele did to keep SMU’s offense firing on all cylinders (38.6 ppg in 2020)?

Incoming Transfers: TE Grant Calcaterra; QB Tanner Mordecai; OL Thalen Robinson; K Blake Mazza; RB Tre Siggers; TE Nolan Matthews; WR Jordan Kerley; TE Simon Gonzalez

Previewing the Defense

Strength: Jim Leavitt was a strong hire as defensive coordinator and has seven returning starters to deploy in 2021. The Mustangs did a good job at limiting big plays by opposing offenses, held teams to 5.64 yards a snap and finished fourth in the AAC in pass efficiency defense.

Concern: Leavitt has work to do after SMU gave up 30.9 points a game and finished sixth in the league in rush defense. Also, cornerback Brandon Stephens won’t be easy to replace. The Mustangs finished ninth in the AAC in third-down defense last season.

Incoming Transfers: CB Jahari Rogers

5. Tulane

The Green Wave set a school record with their third consecutive bowl trip last season, and coach Willie Fritz should have this program back in the postseason for 2021. The offense will rank among the best in the AAC, but Tulane has holes to fill if it wants to contend for a berth in the conference title game.

Previewing the Offense

Strength: The Green Wave averaged 34.7 points a game last season, which was the highest mark under Fritz. New play-caller Chip Long inherits one of the AAC’s top quarterbacks in Michael Pratt, and a deep backfield featuring Cameron Carroll and Tyjae Spears, to build around in 2021. The offensive line is poised to take a step forward and nearly everyone who caught a pass in ’20 is back.

Concern: The Green Wave need to improve in pass protection after giving up 35 sacks last year. This offense can bump its per-play average a bit (5.7) and needs to be better on third downs (eighth in the AAC). The receiving corps could use more consistency.

Incoming Transfers: RB Devin Brumfield; TE Tyler Lamm; WR Cyron Sutton

Previewing the Defense

Strength: New play-caller Chris Hampton can build his defense around one of the top linebacker units in the AAC, and cornerback Jaylon Monroe is back to anchor the secondary. Tulane needs to retool a bit up front, but this unit ranked second in the conference in rush defense last season and returns all-conference candidate Jeffery Johnson in the middle. 

Concern: Tulane gave up nearly 30 points (29.9) in AAC games last year. The defense also gave up the most plays of 40-plus yards (19) in the conference. The Green Wave finished ninth in the AAC in pass efficiency defense and surrendered 30 passes of 30-plus yards. Replacing the production of Patrick Johnson and Cameron Sample in the trenches isn’t going to be easy.

Incoming Transfers: DL Joseph Dorceus; CB Derrion Rakestraw; DB Lance Robinson

Related: Athlon Sports' College Football Top 25 for 2021

6. Tulsa

Defense and a timely offense led Tulsa to the AAC title game in 2020. Coach Philip Montgomery has to replace a couple of key cogs on defense, but the Golden Hurricane’s offense should be enough to keep this team in the mix for a repeat trip to the conference championship.

Previewing the Offense

Strength: The Golden Hurricane have a deep stable of running backs, which includes Shamari Brooks after he missed 2020 due to a knee injury. Tulsa should have one of the top offensive lines in the AAC. The top five wide receivers are back, including all-conference candidates in Keylon Stokes, JuanCarlos Santana and Josh Johnson. New quarterback Davis Brin is promising.

Concern: Tulsa averaged just 27.1 points a game and 5.6 yards per play last year, so there’s room to improve. While Brin has showed plenty of promise, he has only 29 career pass attempts. The offense generated only seven plays of 40-plus yards in 2020. The Golden Hurricane have to cut down on the lost turnovers (18).

Incoming Transfers: OL Will Farniok; WR Ezra Taylor; RB Steven Anderson; OL Bryce Bray

Previewing the Defense

Strength: Tulsa had one of the AAC’s top defenses last year. This unit limited teams to 4.7 yards per play and 21.6 points a contest. Eight starters are back to form a strong foundation at every level.

Concern: The starters departing this defense were instrumental to its success. Linebacker Zaven Collins and cornerbacks Allie Green IV and Akayleb Evans won’t be easy to replace.

Incoming Transfers: LB Jon-Michael Terry; DB Travon Fuller; DL Elijah Taylor

7. Memphis

Ryan Silverfield had a solid debut last season by directing Memphis to an 8-3 record and the program’s seventh consecutive bowl trip. The Tigers have a few key losses to replace on offense this offseason and overall roster attrition is a concern going into 2021.

Previewing the Offense

Strength: Receiver Calvin Austin III is one of the AAC’s top returning playmakers after catching 63 passes for 1,053 yards and 11 scores last year. The top four rushers are back, and the Tigers have a couple of intriguing candidates to replace Brady White at quarterback. Also, a solid foundation is in place up front and help is on the way from the transfer portal.

Concern: White won’t be easy to replace under center. Which quarterback claims the job? Memphis needs to do a better job at limiting turnovers (19 last season) and find more pop from the ground game (4.03 per carry). Also, the receiving corps needs more targets to emerge after Tahj Washington transferred to USC earlier this offseason.

Incoming Transfers: QB Grant Gunnell; QB Peter Parrish; OL Jakari Robinson; OL Austin Myers; WR Shamar Nash; OL Devontae Dobbs

Previewing the Defense

Strength: Memphis ranked third in the AAC in fewest points allowed a game (27.9) and limited offenses to 5.7 yards a snap. The Tigers ranked fourth in the AAC against the run and third in pass efficiency defense. With nine starters back, this unit should be even better in 2021. Also, cornerback La’Andre Thomas is back after opting out of ’20, which adds to one of the top defensive backfields in the conference.

Concern: The Tigers didn’t lose much in the way of personnel on this side of the ball, but linemen Joseph Dorceus and O’Bryan Goodson leave big shoes to fill in the trenches. This unit also gave up 12 plays of 40-plus yards last season.

Incoming Transfers: P Joe Doyle; DL Devon Robinson; CB Julian Barnett

8. East Carolina

The Pirates have made small improvements under coach Mike Houston over the last two years and aim to breakthrough in 2021.

Previewing the Offense

Strength: Holton Ahlers is one of the top returning signal-callers in the AAC, and the Pirates don’t lack for weapons on the outside with Tyler Snead, C.J. Johnson and Audie Omotosho in the mix for 2021. The Pirates also averaged 173.8 rushing yards – the highest for the program since ’07 – behind a pair of promising backs in Rahjai Harris and Keaton Mitchell last fall.

Concern: The line has to play better for East Carolina’s offense to take the next step. The Pirates allowed 23 sacks over nine games and rushers managed only three runs of 40-plus yards. The depth and talent is improving up front, so more progression here should equal more points on the scoreboard. The offense has to do a better job of holding onto the ball after losing 21 turnovers in 2020.

Incoming Transfers: WR Tyree Saunders; RB G’Mone Wilson; WR Ray Rose; OL Rob Vanderlaan; WR Jhari Patterson; TE Aaron Jarman; TE Ryan Jones

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Previewing the Defense

Strength: East Carolina lowered its per-play average allowed from 7.3 in AAC games in 2019 to 6.2 last year. Also, after giving up 41.6 points in conference action in ’19, the Pirates cut that total to 33.8 last fall. With 10 starters back, more improvement should be a reasonable expectation. Xavier Smith and Bruce Bivens headline one of the better linebacker units in the AAC, while cornerback Ja’Quan McMillian is a second-team all-conference selection for ’21 by Athlon Sports. Also, a full offseason to develop under coordinator Blake Harrell should help this group.

Concern: How far can the Pirates improve on this side of the ball in 2021? Improving against the run is a must after allowing 201.3 rushing yards a game last fall. Also, the defense has to find more of a pass rush (14 sacks in ’20).

Incoming Transfers: LB Bryant Pirtle; S Devon King; S D.J. Ford

Related: AAC 2021 All-Conference Team

9. Navy

Losing seasons are rare for Navy under coach Ken Niumatalolo, which is why this program is poised to rebound after last year’s 3-7 mark. After a 3-10 record in ’18, the Midshipmen finished 11-2 the following year. In other words, don’t be surprised if this is one of the most-improved teams at the Group of 5 level in ’21.

Previewing the Offense

Strength: Track record. Even though Navy struggled on this side of the ball last year, coordinator Ivin Jasper should be able to get this unit back on track in 2021. Xavier Arline is the favorite to start under center, but Tai Lavatai also showed promise in the spring. Receiver Mychal Cooper is underrated.

Concern: After averaging 6.8 yards per play in 2019, the offense regressed to 4.5 a snap last fall. Also, the scoring average dipped from 37.2 to 16.6. Improvement is expected, but how big of a jump can this group deliver? Navy averaged only 3.9 yards per rush in league games last fall, and the top four rushers departed after Jamale Carothers was dismissed after spring ball. The line was a weak spot last year and returns just two starters.

Incoming Transfers: None

Previewing the Defense

Strength: The Midshipmen held each of their last three opponents to 19 points or less in 2020. With eight starters back, this group is expected to improve in ’21. Linebacker Diego Fagot is one of the top defenders in the AAC, and the secondary brings back three starters after finishing fifth in the conference in pass efficiency defense.

Concern: The Midshipmen need to get better versus the run after giving up 204.7 yards a contest last fall. Also, an improved pass rush is needed after generating just six sacks in 2020. Navy also gave up 10 plays of 40-plus yards and ranked last in the AAC in red-zone defense.

Incoming Transfers: None

Order a Copy of Athlon Sports' 2021 College Football National and SEC Preview Editions

10. USF

First-year coaches had a difficult task in 2020 with the limited offseason and unusual week-to-week nature of the regular season. Now with a full offseason to work with the roster and develop schemes, USF should improve under second-year coach Jeff Scott.

Previewing the Offense

Strength: The numbers weren’t pretty last year (23.1 ppg and 5.1 a play), but nearly everyone is back to provide optimism. Scott has a couple of promising quarterbacks in transfers Cade Fortin (North Carolina) and Jarren Williams (Miami). The backfield also has potential, while most of the receiving corps returns with added help through the transfer portal. All five starters return along the offensive line.

Concern: Can the pieces fall into place for a jump on the scoreboard? Getting consistent play from Fortin or Williams would be a good first step. The line has to protect better (30 sacks allowed), while more punch (3.97 per carry) is needed from the ground game. USF also lost 17 turnovers in nine games last fall and ranked last in the AAC in third-down offense and inside the red zone.

Incoming Transfers: RB Jaren Mangham; WR Yusuf Terry; WR Demarcus Gregory; QB Jarren Williams

Previewing the Defense

Strength: After allowing 39.9 points a contest and 6.1 yards per play last season, USF can only go up in 2021. A normal offseason to jell under the new staff will help right away, and Scott added help through the transfer portal. The defense did a nice job of limiting big plays (nine of 40-plus yards) last year. The linebacker unit features a couple of all-conference candidates in Antonio Grier and Dwayne Boyles.

Concern: How far can USF’s defense improve in one offseason? The Bulls have to do a better job of getting stops on third downs and must generate a better pass rush after recording only seven sacks in 2020.

Incoming Transfers: CB Timarcus Simpson; DL Xander Yarberough; CB Will Jones; DL Jamari Stewart; CB Christian Williams; DB T.J. Robinson; DB Matthew Hill

11. Temple

Unusual might be an understatement when reviewing Temple’s 2020 season. The Owls didn’t start until Oct. 10 and dealt with COVID-19 issues on and off all year. After winning at least six games for six consecutive seasons, last year’s 1-6 mark might be an aberration.

Previewing the Offense

Strength: Georgia transfer D’Wan Mathis is a big boost to an offense that lost starting quarterback Anthony Russo to Michigan State. Transfers at running back and receiver will help to fortify the skill positions, while Jadan Blue and Randle Jones are two proven options on the outside for Mathis. The line should be solid with four starters back.

Concern: The Owls need to find a spark on offense after averaging only 19.9 points a game and 4.65 yards a snap. Also, Temple needs to find a way to generate more big plays.

Incoming Transfers: QB D’Wan Mathis; OL Luke Foster; WR Amad Anderson; RB Ra’Von Bonner; RB Iverson Clement; WR Nazir Burnett

Previewing the Defense

Strength: Temple allowed 25.9 points a game in 2019, so last year’s jump to 37.1 could be due in part to the unusual nature of the ’20 season. Every level of the defense returns some experience and help is coming through the transfer portal.

Concern: Everything. While last season’s dip in production could be due to the circumstances surrounding 2020, the Owls still ranked last in the AAC in pass efficiency defense and gave up 208.6 rushing yards a game. The pass rush was sluggish (13 sacks) and key contributors in end Arnold Ebiketie, linebacker Isaiah Graham-Mobley and tackle Khris Banks all transferred to Power 5 programs.

Incoming Transfers: CB Cameron Ruiz; DL Lancine Turay; DL Xach Gill; DL Will Rodgers III; DL Jerquavion Mahone; CB Keyshawn Paul

AAC Championship: Cincinnati over UCF

AAC 2021 SUPERLATIVES AND SEASON PREDICTIONS

Offensive POY

Pick by Steven Lassan: Desmond Ridder, QB, Cincinnati

Pick by Ben Weinrib: Dillon Gabriel, QB, UCF

Pick by Mark Ross: Desmond Ridder, QB, Cincinnati

Defensive POY

Pick by Steven Lassan: Ahmad Gardner, CB, Cincinnati

Pick by Ben Weinrib: Morris Joseph, DL, Memphis

Pick by Mark Ross: Ahmad Gardner, CB, Cincinnati

Coach of the Year

Pick by Steven Lassan: Luke Fickell, Cincinnati

Pick by Ben Weinrib: Gus Malzahn, UCF

Pick by Mark Ross: Luke Fickell, Cincinnati

Top Freshman

Pick by Steven Lassan: Preston Stone, QB, SMU

Pick by Ben Weinrib: Jaiden Francois, DB, UCF

Pick by Mark Ross: Preston Stone, QB, SMU

Top Newcomer

Pick by Steven Lassan: Kody Russey, C, Houston

Pick by Ben Weinrib: Jakari Robinson, C, Memphis

Pick by Mark Ross: Grant Calcaterra, TE, SMU

Sleeper Team

Pick by Steven Lassan: Tulane 

Pick by Ben Weinrib: Tulane 

Pick by Mark Ross: East Carolina

Key Position to Watch

Pick by Steven Lassan: Cincinnati OL

Pick by Ben Weinrib: Memphis QBs

Pick by Mark Ross: UCF DBs

Best Coordinator Hire

Pick by Steven Lassan: Jim Leavitt, DC, SMU

Pick by Ben Weinrib: Jim Leavitt, DC, SMU

Pick by Mark Ross: Jim Leavitt, DC, SMU

Hardest Team to Evaluate

Pick by Steven Lassan: SMU

Pick by Ben Weinrib: Navy

Pick by Mark Ross: Navy

Coach on the Rise

Pick by Steven Lassan: Luke Fickell, HC, Cincinnati

Pick by Ben Weinrib: Joseph Gillespie, DC, Tulsa

Pick by Mark Ross: Luke Fickell, HC, Cincinnati

Must-See Game

Pick by Steven Lassan: Cincinnati at Notre Dame 

Pick by Ben Weinrib: Cincinnati at Notre Dame 

Pick by Mark Ross: UCF at Cincinnati

Breakout Player

Pick by Steven Lassan: Jerome Ford, RB, Cincinnati

Pick by Ben Weinrib: Jerome Ford, RB, Cincinnati

Pick by Mark Ross: Jerome Ford, RB, Cincinnati

Comeback Player

Pick by Steven Lassan: Reggie Roberson, WR, SMU

Pick by Ben Weinrib: Tyjae Spears, RB, Tulane

Pick by Mark Ross: Reggie Roberson, WR, SMU

Podcast: AAC Preview and Predictions

Photo of Desmond Ridder courtesy of Cincinnati Athletics