2018 AAC expert picks: Overrated, underrated teams and predicted order of finish

The American Athletic Conference has steadily been on the rise since its reformation in 2013, and following a couple tremendous seasons by Houston and UCF over the last few years, appears to be poised once again for a lot of success in 2018. Whether that includes another" national champion" or not remains to be seen, but there is plenty of exciting college football from the AAC ahead in the coming months.

Will UCF remain on top with Scott Frost off to Nebraska? Perhaps Memphis can finally make it to the top of the league, or South Florida find its way to the top of the league in Year 2 under Charlie Strong. Navy remains a fierce challenger for the top spot, as does Houston with defensive tackle Ed Oliver, the CBS Sports Preseason Player of the Year. Keep on reading to see the CBS Sports college football team's unique takes on the AAC entering the 2018 season.

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Graphic illustration by Michael Meredith

Most overrated team

UCF: The fans have to get over themselves. Look, I was one of those supporting the Knights' contention for a national championship. It was great. I loved it. They deserved it. There are SEC superpowers that are claiming championships on paper only. Why not? But to think the Knights are going to come anywhere near 13-0 is ludicrous. You've got a first-time head coach, lots of losses in the lineup from last year and a natural letdown. McKenzie Milton is a fine quarterback, but his team will have to win 10 games to get a Heisman Trophy invite. That ain't happening. -- Dennis Dodd (also Barrett Sallee)

Houston: The Cougars arguably have the best player in college football in Oliver, but he cannot return Houston to prominence by himself.  When Major Applewhite was hired to replace Tom Herman, Rena Khator, the president of the university, said that 10 wins was the expectation and joked that, "We'll fire coaches for 8-4."  Joke or not, the Cougars were 7-5 last year and controversially hired former Baylor assistant Kendall Briles.  It's starting to seem like desperate times in Houston. -- Jerry Palm (also Ben Kercheval)

South Florida: With the departure of QB Quinton Flowers, 67 percent of USF's 2017 offensive production is gone. Much of the front seven on defense is out the door as well. Last year was also one of the least impressive 10-2 records you'll ever see (no offense to Stony Brook). In an improved AAC East, I don't see USF being a dominant force unless Blake Barnett actually becomes the five-star QB he was billed to be out of high school. -- Barton Simmons

Navy: When I say Navy is overrated, I don't mean it in the classical sense that people think a bad team is good. Navy's good. It's going to a bowl game. I just don't think Navy will be as successful this season as many assume it will be just because it's 18-6 in the AAC since joining the conference. I wouldn't be surprised if Navy finishes fourth in its division this season thanks to a demanding schedule and a young, inexperienced roster. -- Tom Fornelli

SMU: While a lot of the pieces are still in place for new coach Sonny Dykes, I'm not sure that his arrival will automatically keep the offense humming. A slight step back from a bowl year seems likely, instead of a continuing Ascension through the AAC. -- Chip Patterson


Most underrated team

Navy: I'm sorry, did we forget about the injury issues last year? A fully healthy roster with Malcolm Perry under center is not only one that can win the Commander-in-Chief's trophy back but threaten for double digit wins. The 2017 season was the anomaly, and I think we see the correction this year. -- Chip Patterson (also Dennis Dodd, Jerry Palm)

Tulane: OK, color me green (wave). I've been a fan of Willie Fritz and was fully on board the Tulane train in 2017 -- not to win the AAC West or anything, but to unexpectedly win a game or two it shouldn't have. Ultimately, Tulane came up literally inches short of becoming bowl-eligible. In Year 3, Fritz's team may finally get over the hump. The offense, starring QB Jonathan Banks, is made up almost entirely of juniors and seniors. However, the defense is still a question mark. With a difficult start to the season, a bowl-bound Tulane could be considered underrated. If Fritz can get this team to six or seven wins, which as a proven program-builder he most certainly can accomplish, then Tulane may not just be the most underrated team in the AAC. It might be one of the more underrated teams nationally. -- Ben Kercheval (also Barton Simmons, Tom Fornelli)

Temple: It doesn't seem like anybody is talking about the Owls because, hey, it's Temple. But QB Frank Nutile is back after taking over late last year and helping the Owls win four of their last five games. With a deeper roster this year, a defense that is well-coached under head coach Geoff Collins and his staff and an offense that's in good hands, Temple should at least contend for the AAC East crown. -- Barrett Sallee


Bold prediction

  • Dennis Dodd: Ed Oliver will become the most decorated defensive lineman in history by winning the Outland, Nagurski, Bednarik Awards, while also becoming a Heisman Trophy finalist.  
  • Chip Patterson: Temple exceeds expectations in 2018. There was a lot of confidence in Collins when he was hired, and I think the Owls will see a big step forward as a program this fall. They probably won't be playing for the conference title but could be dangerous enough to keep someone else from playing for it.
  • Barrett Sallee: South Florida quarterback Blake Barnett will finally realize the potential he had coming out of a high school as a blue-chip recruit, and emerge as the best quarterback in the AAC.
  • Tom Fornelli / Jerry Palm / Barton Simmons / Ben Kercheval: Even though it's been the best Group of Five conference in the College Football Playoff era, the AAC won't be getting this year's automatic berth in a New Year's Six bowl. 

AAC predicted order of finish

East Division
West Division

AAC champion

Memphis: Can we just admit that what Justin Fuente put in place, Mike Norvell has carried on. The Tigers are averaging more than nine wins since 2014. Norvell is 18-8 in his first two seasons as a coach. I can't explain why he didn't get the Arkansas (or Ole Miss) job. I just know that Memphis is better off with him in his third season. The Tigers should hold off Navy, win the West and obviously have a shot at their second conference title in five years. -- Dennis Dodd (also Tom Fornelli, Chip Patterson)

UCF: Scott Frost has moved back to Nebraska, but the cupboard isn't exactly bare. Milton is back to lead a prolific offense, and while the Knights may not be able to claim a national title this season, they should be good enough to take another conference title. -- Jerry Palm (also Ben Kercheval)

Houston: The return of D'Eriq King at quarterback and the arrival of Briles at offensive coordinator means the Houston offense takes a big step forward in 2018. Houston already has the most dominant defender in college football with Oliver, but that defense also gets high level additions from TCU's Isaiah Chambers and Ole Miss' Deontay Anderson. This is not going to be a fun team to play. -- Barton Simmons

South Florida: Everyone's going to write off South Florida after Flowers moved on. But Barnett is there to take control, the offensive line has plenty of experience, there are playmakers outside and Florida transfer Jordan Cronkrite has been getting rave reviews during camp in the backfield. The War on I-4 will decide the East again, but this time the Bulls finish off UCF. -- Barrett Sallee

CBS Sports Writer

Barton Simmons has been involved in college football and recruiting since 2000, first as a player and then as a reporter and analyst. As a player, he was a two-time All-Ivy League safety at Yale before... Full Bio

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