The American Athletic Conference is college football's top Group of 5 league, so it's no surprise some of the best quarterbacks at this level reside in the AAC. The top of the American Athletic Conference features three of the best Group of 5 quarterbacks in college football, as SMU's Shane Buechele, UCF's Dillon Gabriel, and Memphis' Brady White return for 2020. Cincinnati's Desmond Ridder and East Carolina's Holton Ahlers headline the next tier, with Temple's Anthony Russo, Tulsa's Zach Smith up next.
Ranking the quarterbacks by conference or nationally is no easy task. To help compile the rankings, there was some projection involved for 2020. This was not a ranking of quarterbacks only based on accomplishments so far or pro potential. All factors — pure talent, supporting cast, having a clear hold on the No. 1 position, previous production, 2020 projection and scheme changes (just to name a few) — were considered and projected to rank the quarterbacks in the American Athletic Conference for 2020.
Ranking American Athletic Conference QBs for 2020
11. Dalen Morris, Navy
Perry Olsen was the projected favorite to win the job earlier this offseason, but Morris pulled ahead this fall. Considering the successful track record from Navy’s offense and quarterbacks like Malcolm Perry and Keenan Reynolds, it’s safe to assume the Alabama native will outplay this ranking – if he holds onto the job all year. Morris has played in four games over the last two years and recorded five carries for 20 yards. The senior hasn’t attempted a pass in that span but has a good supporting cast in place to ease his development into the starting role.
10. Jordan McCloud, USF
McCloud gets the nod here, but transfers Cade Fortin (North Carolina) and Noah Johnson (Alcorn State) are also in the mix for new coach Jeff Scott. McCloud paced the USF offense with 1,429 yards and 12 passing scores and finished third on the team with 283 rushing yards last fall. The Tampa native threw for 267 yards in a near-upset over Cincinnati and threw three touchdowns in a victory against UConn in 2019. With USF transitioning to a new staff and scheme – especially in a limited offseason – the 2020 season will require some patience and growing pains from the offense.
9. Keon Howard, Tulane
Howard started his career at Southern Miss and transferred after two seasons to Tulane. From 2016-17, Howard threw for 1,564 yards and nine scores and added 331 more yards and two touchdowns on the ground. The Mississippi native worked as the backup to Justin McMillan last fall and received playing time in four games. Howard showcased intriguing potential in his limited stint, connecting on 13 of 18 throws for 208 yards and two scores. Additionally, as he showed at Southern Miss, Howard is a capable runner, giving coordinator Will Hall a talented dual-threat option to deploy in 2020. If Howard builds on the promising snaps from 2019, the senior would be a good pick to break out this fall.
8. Clayton Tune, Houston
Tune gained valuable experience last season after D’Eriq King opted to take a redshirt year. After playing in five games (with two starts) in 2018, Tune started seven of Houston’s final eight contests last fall. During that stretch, the Texas native connected on 59.2 percent of his throws for 1,533 yards and 11 scores to nine picks. Seven of those interceptions came in two contests – Navy and Cincinnati – so Tune has to play better against top competition for Houston to climb in the AAC. With a full offseason to work as the starter under coach Dana Holgorsen, Tune should take a step forward in his development for 2020.
Related: Ranking All 130 Teams for 2020
7. Anthony Russo, Temple
When Russo ranks No. 7 among quarterbacks in the AAC, you know it’s a deep league for signal-callers in 2020. After throwing for 2,563 yards and 14 touchdowns in his first year as the starter in 2018, Russo improved on those totals and guided Temple’s offense to an average of 26.3 points a game. The Pennsylvania native threw for 2,861 yards and 21 scores over 246 completions last fall and connected on five passes of 50-plus yards. Russo is the first quarterback in Temple history to post two games of at least 400 or more passing yards. Lowering the interceptions tossed (26 over last two years) is a priority this season.
6. Zach Smith, Tulsa
Smith sat out the 2018 season after transferring in from Baylor, and as expected, made a significant impact on Tulsa’s offense last fall. The Golden Hurricane jumped from 11th in the AAC in passing offense to fifth, as Smith threw for 3,279 yards and 19 touchdowns. Tulsa’s passing attack averaged nearly a yard more per attempt with Smith at the helm (7.6 in 2019 to 6.7 in ’18) and increased its passing plays of 40 yards or more by six (11 in 2019 to five in ’18).
5. Desmond Ridder, Cincinnati
Injuries prevented Ridder from reaching his full potential in 2019, but after a full offseason to heal, there’s plenty of optimism for the junior to make a big leap in ’20. During his redshirt freshman campaign in 2018, Ridder started 11 games for the Bearcats and threw for 2,445 yards and 20 scores. However, as a sophomore last season, Ridder’s yards (2,164), touchdowns (18), and completion percentage (62 to 55) dropped. The Kentucky native increased his rushing yardage (650 to 583 in 2018) and has 10 scores on the ground over the last two years. A healthier 2020 campaign should translate into more (and better) production out of Ridder this fall. Cincinnati’s offensive line should also improve with the addition of Michigan transfer James Hudson at left tackle, but the receiving corps features a handful of new faces stepping into key roles.
Related: AAC Predictions for 2020
4. Holton Ahlers, East Carolina
Ahlers showcased his potential with a fast finish to the 2019 season and is a big reason why East Carolina is expected to take a step forward in coach Mike Houston’s second year in Greenville. The Pirates averaged 37.3 points over their final four contests, with Ahlers throwing 14 of his 21 total touchdowns in that span. For the season, Ahlers ended 2019 with 3,387 passing yards and 359 yards and six scores on the ground. After posting a 48 percent completion percentage in 2018, he increased that total to 60 in ’19. Ahlers also increased his yards per attempt from 6.8 to 7.7.
3. Brady White, Memphis
Mike Norvell’s departure to Florida State is a big loss, but Memphis’ offense shouldn’t fall too far on the stat sheet. Offensive coordinator Kevin Johns joined the staff in 2019 and was promoted to play-caller for ’20. White should benefit from the continuity, as he leads an offense that averaged 40.4 points a game and 6.85 yards a snap last fall. White started his career at Arizona State but transferred as a graduate to Memphis in 2018. Over the last two seasons, White has played in 28 contests for the Tigers and passed for 7,310 yards and 59 touchdowns. He’s also connected on 63 percent of his throws in that span and finished 2019 by averaging 9.6 yards per attempt. White led the nation with 26 completions of 40-plus yards in 2019.
2. Dillon Gabriel, UCF
UCF’s high-powered offense continued to thrive last fall. The Knights led the AAC by averaging 43.4 points a contest and 6.92 yards a snap. Gabriel wasted no time directing coach Josh Heupel’s offense, as he started 12 games as a true freshman and threw for 3,653 yards and 29 touchdowns. The Hawaii native tossed only seven picks and averaged 9.2 yards per attempt – the second-best mark by a quarterback in the AAC. Gabriel finished second among AAC quarterbacks with 21 completions of 40 yards or more and connected on five passes of 70-plus yards, which tied for second nationally. Gabriel is only a sophomore, and he’s primed to take his performance a notch higher with a full offseason to work as the starter in 2020.
Related: Ranking the AAC Coaches for 2020
1. Shane Buechele, SMU
Buechele tops the AAC rankings and is the top Group of 5 quarterback for the 2020 season. With Sam Ehlinger entrenched at Texas, Buechele transferred to SMU for a chance to start in 2019. And as a result of his arrival, the Mustangs showed drastic improvement in the win column (went from 5-7 to 10-3), and the offense increased its scoring average from 30.4 points per game to 41.8 last season, good for seventh nationally. Buechele started all 13 games for coach Sonny Dykes, ending the ’19 season with 3,929 yards and 34 scores. The Texas native tossed just 10 picks over 490 passes, averaged eight yards per attempt and tied for first among AAC quarterbacks with 37 completions of 30 yards or more last fall.
Podcast: Breaking Down College Football's QB Rankings for 2020