Cincinnati and Houston ended 2021 as the top teams in the American Athletic Conference and not much has changed for '22. The Bearcats and Cougars lead the way in the AAC predictions and picks for this fall, with UCF, SMU and East Carolina headlining the next tier. Both Cincinnati and Houston should make a run at double-digit wins once again. The middle of the league is tough to predict, as Memphis returns quarterback Seth Henigan, Tulane should improve after a disappointing 2-10 record, and Tulsa brings back quarterback Davis Brin and an offense with high-scoring potential. USF seems ready to take a step forward in coach Jeff Scott's third year. Navy and Temple are projected at the bottom of the AAC, but both teams have the potential to exceed their preseason expectation.
How does Athlon Sports project the American Athletic Conference for 2022? Steven Lassan predicts and ranks the AAC for this fall:
American Athletic Conference 2022 Predictions
Despite the departure of several key players from last year’s team that made the CFB Playoff, the Bearcats are still Athlon’s pick atop the AAC. Coach Luke Fickell has recruited well and with a strong track record of talent development, Cincinnati should be among the top 10-15 teams once again. Ben Bryant and Evan Prater will battle to replace Desmond Ridder under center, but the rest of the supporting cast is strong. The Bearcats return the AAC’s top offensive line, added LSU transfer Corey Kiner to a capable group of backs to replace Jerome Ford, while Tre Tucker and Tyler Scott anchor a receiving corps already featuring tight ends Josh Whyle and Leonard Taylor. A defense that limited opponents to 16.9 points a game and 4.5 yards per play must replace seven full-time starters, including standouts and NFL draft picks Myjai Sanders (end) and cornerbacks Ahmad Gardner and Coby Bryant. However, the next wave of stars is ready to emerge, including linebackers Deshawn Pace, end Malik Vann and defensive backs Arquon Bush and Ja’von Hicks. If Cincinnati pulls off an upset at Arkansas in Week 1, another 12-0 regular season is within reach.
Related: College Football Top 25 for 2022
The Cougars jumped to 12-2 in coach Dana Holgorsen’s third year at the helm, and with Cincinnati losing a handful of key contributors, the door is open for Houston to close the gap a little more in ’22. A high-powered offense (35.9 points a game in ’21) returns projected first-team All-AAC quarterback Clayton Tune, along with an All-America candidate at receiver Nathaniel Dell (90 catches for 1,329 yards and 12 TDs). Running back Alton McCaskill was lost indefinitely due to a torn ACL in the spring, but Ta’Zhawn Henry and USC transfer Brandon Campbell should be an effective one-two punch in the backfield. Holgorsen supplemented Dell and the receiving corps with a handful of transfers, including Cody Jackson (Oklahoma), Joseph Manjack (USC) and Samuel Brown (West Virginia). An offensive line that allowed 38 sacks and cleared the way for rushers to average 3.9 yards per carry must replace three starters. Houston’s defense showed big-time improvement under coordinator Doug Belk last fall. After giving up 32 points a game in ’20, the Cougars cut that total to 20.4 in ’21. This unit ranked first in the conference against the run, third against the pass, and led the way in sacks (43). Replacing lineman Logan Hall and cornerbacks Marcus Jones and Damarion Williams tops the list of priorities for Belk. Another run to 10-plus wins is within reach, as the Cougars open at UTSA and catch winnable games at Texas Tech and Kansas (home). There’s also no matchup against Cincinnati or UCF in the regular season.
Despite injuries to a couple of key players (including quarterback Dillon Gabriel), coach Gus Malzahn guided the Knights to a 9-4 season capped by a win over Florida in the Gasparilla Bowl for his debut in Orlando. UCF is stocked for another run at nine (or more) wins thanks to a favorable schedule and 13 returning starters. Ole Miss transfer John Rhys Plumlee and Mikey Keene will battle for the starting job under center, with standout skill talent returning in the form of running back Isaiah Bowser, receiver Ryan O’Keefe and transfers Kobe Hudson (WR) and Kemore Gamble (TE) adding more weapons to the mix. Three starters return up front and Virginia transfer Ryan Swoboda is likely to start at one of the tackle spots. UCF held opponents to 5.1 yards per play and 24.8 points a game in AAC games last fall and should be strong on defense once again. The line and secondary should rank among the best position groups in the conference, alleviating some of the concern about turnover at linebacker. UCF has winnable non-conference matchups against Louisville and Georgia Tech, catches Cincinnati at home and won’t face Houston in the regular season.
New coach Rhett Lashlee inherits a team ready to win right away. The Mustangs started 7-0 but lost four out of their final five games under previous coach Sonny Dykes. Three of those four losses came by one score and the other defeat came at Cincinnati, so the Mustangs weren’t far from a push at double-digit wins. The coaching switch adds some uncertainty to this team, but Lashlee worked at SMU from 2018-19 and the overall transition should be seamless. A high-powered offense (38.4 points a game) returns two capable quarterbacks – Tanner Mordecai and Preston Stone – along with talented weapons at the skill spots (Tre Siggers and Camar Wheaton at running back and Rashee Rice and Beau Corrales at receiver). A couple of transfers (Owen Condon and Joe Bissinger) bolster a line already slated to return three starters. Scoring points likely won’t be a problem for SMU, but last year’s concern (the defense) is still the biggest question mark. New coordinator Scott Symons inherits seven returning starters, but the Mustangs gave up 31.1 points a game in AAC play, allowed too many big plays, and struggled against the pass (eighth in AAC in pass efficiency defense). Linemen DeVere Levelston and Elijah Chatman and linebacker Turner Coxe headline the list of key returners. The schedule does break a bit in SMU’s favor. The Mustangs will host both Cincinnati and Houston and catch TCU at home as well.
5. East Carolina
After winning seven games in his first two years at the helm in Greenville, coach Mike Houston matched that total last season (7-5) in a breakthrough ’21 campaign. ECU was close to something bigger too, as four of the team’s five defeats – including games versus South Carolina and Appalachian State – were decided by one score. The bulk of last season’s squad returns, including quarterback Holton Ahlers (24 total TDs) and running backs Keaton Mitchell and Rahjai Harris. Leading receiver Tyler Snead must be replaced, and the Pirates have some retooling along a line that allowed 35 sacks last fall. After averaging 29.7 points a game and 5.8 yards per play in ’21, the returning pieces give Houston’s offense a chance to reach another level. East Carolina took a step forward on defense last fall, holding teams to 26.3 points a game (down from 35.4) and 5.98 yards per play (lowered from 6.21). Also, the Pirates showed improvement against the run and ranked fifth in the AAC in pass efficiency defense. Even with cornerback Ja’Quan McMillian departing, more progress should be notable in ’22, especially with a front featuring linebackers Jeremy Lewis and Xavier Smith along with linemen Rick D’Abreu, Immanuel Hickman and Elijah Morris.
The Tigers took a step back from an 8-3 mark in 2020, finishing 6-6 and 3-5 in the AAC. Making a jump into the top tier of contenders for a trip to the conference title game will require a quick transition with new coordinators on both sides of the ball, as well as improvement out of both units. Quarterback Seth Henigan (3,322 yards and 25 TDs) is the biggest reason for optimism, and the addition of Northern Illinois transfer Jevyon Ducker should boost a ground game that averaged only 3.3 yards per rush in AAC games last fall. Henigan does need a new No. 1 target to emerge after Calvin Austin III departed to the NFL. New defensive coordinator Matt Barnes (previously at Ohio State) inherits four returning starters, including standout safety Quindell Johnson (105 tackles) and linebacker Xavier Cullens. This unit struggled to stop the run (167.4 ypg allowed) and surrendered 32.4 points in AAC games. Additionally, the Tigers ranked last in the AAC in third-down defense. Cleaning up the turnover margin (minus-four in ’21) would help Memphis (lost four games by one score) narrow the gap in close matchups.
The Green Wave entered 2021 with high expectations but slumped to the worst season (2-10) under coach Willie Fritz. Even though Tulane is a tough job, don’t expect this program to be down for long. After going 0-5 in one-score games with a minus-nine turnover margin, Fritz’s team is likely due for a little better luck in ’22. Also, Michael Pratt (26 total TDs last fall) should be among the top quarterbacks in the AAC, with Tyjae Spears (863 yards) poised for a big season being a year removed from a major knee injury in ’20. New offensive coordinator Jim Svoboda could use more playmakers to emerge on the outside to join tight end Tyrick James and Shae Wyatt. Five starters return up front, but the Green Wave need better play up front (32 sacks allowed). Tulane’s defense took a step back under first-year coordinator Chris Hampton last fall, surrendering 34 points a game and 5.8 yards per play. This unit also struggled to stop the pass (10th in the AAC), gave up too many big plays and had issues getting off the field on third down. However, Hampton coaxed some improvement out of this group down the stretch, so there’s optimism that with seven returning starters this defense will take a step forward.
A four-game winning streak to close 2021 helped coach Philip Montgomery’s team reach the postseason for the second year in a row. Tulsa may need to win a few toss-up games to make a bowl in ’22, as only nine starters return from last year’s squad and the schedule features treks to Wyoming, Ole Miss, Navy, Memphis and Houston. Quarterback Davis Brin (3,244 yards and 18 TDs) returns to anchor an offense that averaged six yards a play last fall. He’s joined by a deep group of running backs – led by Deneric Prince and Anthony Watkins – and the receiving corps gets a boost with the return of Keylon Stokes, who missed nearly all of ’21 due to injury. Gerard Wheeler anchors a rebuilt line (just two returning starters) that is the biggest concern on offense. The defense not only lost several key players, but the staff is also in flux after coordinator Joseph Gillespie left to take over as the play-caller at TCU. The Golden Hurricane limited conference opponents to 25.9 points and 5.4 yards per play last fall and will have to lean on lineman Anthony Goodlow to help replace Jaxon Player (transferred to Baylor), while the linebacker unit should be a strength with Justin Wright and Jon-Michael Terry leading the way. Safety Kendarin Ray leads a rebuilt secondary.
With a 3-18 record in his first two years at USF, it’s no secret coach Jeff Scott needs to show some progress in ’22. With 18 starters back, improvement should be attainable. An offense that averaged 23.2 points a game last season might be the biggest reason for optimism. Sophomore Timmy McClain showed potential at quarterback last fall, but the staff added Baylor transfer Gerry Bohanon late in the spring. Scott and coordinator Travis Trickett should feel good about their quarterback options, and there’s a lot to like about the skill talent with running back Jaren Mangham and receivers Xavier Weaver, Ajou Ajou (Clemson transfer) and Jimmy Horn in the mix. All five offensive line starters return. After giving up 34.7 points a game last season and finishing 10th in the conference against the run and allowing seven yards per play, Scott hit the reset button on defense. Veteran (and former Penn State and Vanderbilt defensive coordinator) Bob Shoop will handle the play-calling duties in ’22, working with a group that returns eight starters. Scott hit the portal for help at all three levels and this group certainly appears deeper on paper. Linebacker Antonio Grier (92 tackles) is one of the AAC’s top defensive players.
Outside of an 11-2 finish in 2019, the Midshipmen are 10-25 in their last four seasons. However, although Navy was 4-8 last fall, the team won its last two games and lost four others – including matchups against Cincinnati, Houston, SMU and East Carolina – by one score. Turning those close defeats into wins in ’22 will require a step forward by the offense, especially quarterback Tai Lavatai (371 rushing yards) and a ground game that has averaged less than four yards per carry in each of the last two seasons. The team’s top four backs from last year are gone and just two starters return along the line of scrimmage. The outlook on defense is just as cloudy. Six starters are back, but standout linebacker Diego Fagot departed. Linebacker John Marshall, safety Rayuan Lane III and nose guard Donald Berniard Jr. return to anchor a unit that allowed 28.2 points per game last fall. If the Midshipmen improve on offense, there’s enough talent and optimism on defense to push for six wins and a return to the bowl scene.
New coach Stan Drayton inherits a team that went 3-9 and won just one conference game (Memphis) in league play last fall. The Owls are just 4-15 over the last two seasons, which snapped a streak of six consecutive non-losing records (2014-19). Getting the program back on track requires major improvement on both sides of the ball. Temple averaged 16.3 points a game last fall and returns quarterback D’Wan Mathis, receivers Jose Barbon and Amad Anderson Jr., along with running backs Darvon Hubbard (Texas A&M transfer), Edward Saydee and Iverson Clement. Just two starters return in the trenches. The outlook on defense was just as iffy last fall. The Owls surrendered 37.5 points a game, ranked 11th in the AAC against the run, and allowed 6.2 yards per play in conference games. This unit has concerns again up front, but the secondary is likely to be a bright spot with cornerbacks Cameron Ruiz and Keyshawn Paul returning to anchor the pass defense.
AAC Championship: Cincinnati over Houston
AAC 2022 Superlatives and Season Predictions
Offensive POY: Nathaniel Dell, WR, Houston
Defensive POY: Deshawn Pace, LB, Cincinnati
Coach of the Year: Dana Holgorsen, Houston
Top Freshman: Matthew Golden, WR, Houston
Top Offensive Newcomers (Transfer): Camar Wheaton, RB, SMU/Jevyon Ducker, RB, Memphis
Top Defensive Newcomer (Transfer): Jason Johnson, LB, UCF
Sleeper Team: East Carolina or USF
Key Position to Watch: Houston OL and Cincinnati QBs
Best Coordinator Hire: Bob Shoop, DC, USF
Hardest Teams to Evaluate: Tulane and Memphis
Coach on the Rise: Doug Belk, DC, Houston
Must-See Game: Cincinnati at UCF (Oct. 29)
Breakout Player: Tyjae Spears, RB, Tulane
Comeback Player: Keylon Stokes, WR, Tulsa