2017 AAC predicted order of finish, champ, overrated and underrated, bold predictions

Power Five or Power Six? If you ask the American Athletic Conference, it's the latter. Ever since the breakup of the former Big East Conference, the AAC has put its best foot forward to prove it belongs among the big boys in college football. Though it is still considered a Group of Five conference and therefore still has to fight for a New Year's Six berth each season, the AAC has put forth some of the nation's best teams over the last few years.

Houston and Navy in particular have impressed with big-time national wins, Memphis has made amazing strides overall, and South Florida this season has the legitimate potential to go undefeated in the regular season behind new coach Charlie Strong. Keep on reading to see the CBS Sports college football team's unique takes on the AAC entering the 2017 season. 

Most overrated team

Houston: The Cougars are coming off of a roller coaster of a season that saw the highs of wins over Oklahoma and Louisville but the lows of three conference losses and a missed opportunity at the College Football Playoff. All-American defensive lineman Ed Oliver returns, which is great, but Houston lost QB Greg Ward Jr. and -- more importantly -- coach Tom Herman.  Herman's offensive coordinator, Major Applewhite, takes over and will try to keep things on track, but first year struggles for a new coach are more common. -- Jerry Palm (and Chip Patterson)

Temple: It's somewhat nitpicky, sure, but this isn't as much a statement about Temple being overrated as much as it's about me having some doubts about the Owls. First of all, Matt Rhule left to take the job at Baylor, and I have a hard time overlooking the loss of the man that helped build the program these last four years. What's left behind is a team without much returning experience and a difficult schedule. I just think the Owls are going to struggle this year. -- Tom Fornelli

Memphis: I'm sorry, but I don't buy into the Memphis hype. The defensive front was atrocious last year with only 11 of the 23 sacks coming from linemen. Pressure is key in every conference, and I'm not sure that Memphis can get it this year. That's something you can work around if you have a talented defensive backfield that knows where to be and how to get on the same page, but attrition in the secondary coupled with the inability to get pressure up front is a recipe for defensive disaster that will make it hard for an offense led by quarterback Riley Ferguson to overcome. -- Barrett Sallee

South Florida: Sterlin Gilbert has been an offensive coordinator in college football for five years. In those five years, the starting quarterback that had the highest single-season rushing total under his guidance was Shane Buechele last year with 151 yards. He's never coached someone like Quenton Flowers. Flowers and his 1,600 yards rushing last year have never played in an offense like Sterlin Gilbert's. There's an adjustment period here that a lot of people are overlooking. It took Willie Taggart a few years to figure things out at USF, so why do we suddenly assume that the guy that has the worst win percentage of any coach in Texas' long history can lead USF to an undefeated season? I think this USF team is good but so is the rest of the conference. Don't expect the Bulls to give the College Football Playoff Selection Committee any tough decisions. -- Barton Simmons

Navy: Ken Nuimatalolo could coach anyone, anytime. But the Middies slipped back toward the end of last season. Zach Abey is the least experienced quarterback to take over since 2012. The defense was just bad. All of it could be a symptom of playing "up" in the American. I only see four can't-lose games on the schedule. This has a chance to be the worst Navy team since 2011 (5-7). -- Dennis Dodd

UCF: Hand it to coach Scott Frost. He took the Knights bowling in Year 1 when they went 0-for the year before. Still, it feels like UCF is being pumped up a little too much because of the quick turnaround. The offense left a little bit to be desired a season ago -- completely understandable given the coaching change -- and the AAC has some great offensive-minded teams. A big jump would be needed in Year 2. Also, road games at SMU, Navy and Temple will be difficult. Even the road game to Cincinnati should be more difficult. Then there's the end-of-season game against preseason AAC favorite South Florida. None of this is including games against Maryland and Georgia Tech in back-to-back weeks in nonconference play. Make no mistake: Frost should have this team bowling again, but there are a ton of tough games sprinkled throughout the schedule. -- Ben Kercheval 


Most underrated team

SMU: The oddsmakers have set SMU's win total between 5 and 5.5, but I'm looking at a schedule that sets up for a 4-1 start. Waco native Ben Hicks threw 19 touchdowns in 11 starts last season and has one of the best targets in the country with CBS Sports All-America pick Courtland Sutton at wide receiver. But the reason to like SMU as a bowl team -- and one that could potentially spoil a conference title run for someone else in the league -- is a strong pass defense that will need come up big in make-or-break games against the likes Tulsa, UCF and Memphis. -- Chip Patterson (and Barton Simmons)

Navy: The Midshipmen have a lot to replace, and they're coming off a bad finish to 2016 after losing their final three games. So I understand where the skepticism is coming from as we enter 2017. I just also understand that Navy is still led by one of the best coaches in college football in Niumatalolo, and I fully expect this team to be competitive yet again -- more so than most others seem to believe. -- Tom Fornelli

Houston: Why isn't Houston getting the benefit of the doubt? Because Herman and Ward left? That's not a good enough reason for me. The Cougs have plenty of offensive punch with running back Duke Catalon, wide receiver Linell Bonner and former Texas A&M quarterback Kyle Allen operating under new coach Applewhite's scheme. Oh, and the defense is still experienced an anchored by Oliver, who is one of the best players in the entire country regardless of level. This Houston team was picked a distant second in the AAC West? Nah, they should be the unquestioned favorite. -- Barrett Sallee

Memphis: Mike Norvell has found his groove as one of the nation's best young offensive minds. He is going to be a hot commodity coming off an eight-win season. Riley Ferguson might be the best AAC quarterback not named Quinton Flowers. There is no one better at receiver in the conference than Anthony Miller (1,434 yards last season). These Tigers are going to fun to watch. -- Dennis Dodd 

Tulsa: Philip Montgomery's offense at Tulsa is one of the most explosive in the nation.  While they will have to replace some key skill position players, most of their offensive line returns.  The defense is led by freshman All-American linebacker Craig Suits and was an underrated key to the team's success during last year's 10-3 season.  Tulsa has a very favorable schedule with Houston, Memphis, Navy and Temple at home. They are set up to be the surprise team -- again -- in the AAC. -- Jerry Palm

Tulane: This likely isn't Tulane's year to win the AAC West. That division is too stacked and the schedule is too demanding. Those road games at Navy, at Memphis, at SMU and at Oklahoma in nonconference play are absurd. But it feels like we're sleeping on the Green Wave a bit. Willie Fritz is a coaching name to know and he has a history of making a Year 2 jump. And now that the offense actually has quarterback experience, the offense should be improved. Whether Tulane finishes on the right side of .500 remains to be seen, but this team could give opponents all kinds of trouble and maybe force an upset. -- Ben Kercheval 


Bold predictions

  • Dennis Dodd: South Florida will be the only undefeated team in the country.
  • Barton Simmons: Houston's Ed Oliver will be in meaningful Heisman Trophy discussions late in the season.  
  • Jerry Palm (and Tom Fornelli): USF has a decent chance at an undefeated season but does not play a good enough nonconference schedule to make a case for a CFP berth.
  • Chip Patterson: SMU will go bowling for the first time since 2012.
  • Ben Kercheval: Tulane will beat South Florida and Memphis in back-to-back weeks.  
  • Barrett Sallee: Scott Frost will establish himself as one of the best coaches in the country, bringing UCF back to national relevance. The USF/UCF game will decide the division.

AAC predicted order of finish

East Division
West Division

AAC champion

South Florida: Gilbert's addition brought instant improvement to the Texas offense, leaving enough of an impression on Strong to make him one of the first hires to his USF staff. The offense that Strong and Gilbert inherit is among the most explosive in the country, and instead of breaking in a freshman, they have a senior star in Flowers. Adding Strong to a team that won 10 games a year ago makes USF an easy pick to win, but it's important to note that this prediction comes with expectations that the Bulls defense will be able to get off the field better than they did a year ago. Houston, Tulsa and UCF all field dynamic offenses capable of winning in a shootout with Flowers and Co., but I like the Bulls' draw and think they'll best Frost and the Knights in a battle for the AAC East in the regular season finale and get it done in the conference title game. -- Chip Patterson (and Dennis Dodd, Jerry Palm, Tom Fornelli, Barrett Sallee)

Memphis: In a brutally competitive conference, this is simply the best team. It is the most experienced team in the AAC. It has the second-best quarterback in the conference behind Quenton Flowers. It has one of the best offensive weapons in the conference in Anthony Miller at receiver. It has an offensive line that is morphing into a strength after being simply sufficient last season, and it has a defense that boasts one of the best linebacking units in the conference. Plus, Mike Norvell has stacked two really talented recruiting classes on top of each other and both of those groups are poised for major contributions in 2017. -- Barton Simmons (and Ben Kercheval)

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