There's no arguing that the American Athletic Conference is one of the most competitive leagues in all of college football, but UCF's recent run has called parity into question. Back-to-back years without a regular-season loss and two consecutive AAC title game victories have propelled the Knights into the cross-hairs of the college football world. In response, Memphis is paying Mike Norvell big-boy money; SMU and Houston have poached Power Five coaches in the last two years in Sonny Dykes and Dana Holgorsen respectively; East Carolina went and got the best coach in FCS football. All the while, Luke Fickell is emerging at Cincinnati as one of the best coaches in FBS. 

Familiar conference faces like McKenzie Milton, Darrell Henderson and Ed Oliver are absent this season in the AAC, but get to know Houston quarterback D'Eriq King, Cincinnati running back Michael Warren and Memphis cornerback T.J. Carter as the stars of the league hunting down UCF.  Read on as our CBS Sports college football experts provide picks and predictions for the AAC ahead of the 2019 season.

Graphic by Michael Meredith

Most overrated team

SMU: The Mustangs may end up in a bowl, but a favorable schedule may be a big factor in their success. All of their toss-up games are at home. -- Jerry Palm

Cincinnati: The Bearcats went 11-2 last season, and nobody can take those wins away, but what was their best win? Was it the 35-23 win over a South Florida team that went 7-6, or the 35-31 win over a Virginia Tech team that finished 6-7? I think the opinion of Cincinnati heading into 2019 is based more on the 11 wins than how the Bearcats played. According to advanced metrics like S&P+, even at 11-2, the Bearcats were the No. 50 team in the nation last season. Oddly enough, I think Cincinnati might be better in 2019, but odds are its record won't reflect that.  -- Tom Fornelli

Memphis: Early season struggles in 2018 gave a glimpse into a program that has achieved great success in the division while still showing some inconsistencies that are not usually associated with perennial contenders. Placing Memphis back in the AAC title game is, for many, following muscle memory. I think 2019 is where we see them get bounced from the top spot in the West. -- Chip Patterson

USFThere has never been a more fraudulent 10-2 record than USF's in 2017. There has never been a more fraudulent 7-0 than USF's 2018 start. Those were both exposed in a six-game losing streak to end 2018. While I don't think anyone is expecting world-beaters in 2019, there still seems to be some misperception about where this program is as Charlie Strong enters his third season. I'm in prove it mode. Strong needs to prove it. His quarterback Blake Barnett needs to prove it. His defense needs to prove it. In an AAC that is on the rise, USF is heading in the wrong direction. -- Barton Simmons

UCF: It seems like the party line is that the Knights are going to waltz through the season and into the AAC Championship Game as not only the unquestioned best team in the AAC, but the Group of Five as a whole. That's not going to be the case. With McKenzie Milton and Darriel Mack out, the entire offense will fall on the shoulders of Notre Dame graduate transfer Brandon Wimbush. He completed just 49.5% of his passes as a starter for the Fighting Irish in 2017, and 55.3% in three games last season before being benched for Ian Book. Will that suddenly change now that he's facing an easier schedule? Maybe. But is that enough to ensure that the offense will click on all cylinders for the entire season? Not at all. UCF will drop a couple of games and enter the War on I-4 with the AAC East on the line. -- Barrett Sallee (also Dennis Dodd)

HoustonSince I'm a fan of D'Eriq King, it was a difficult move for me to call the Cougars overrated coming into the season. However, King alone is not going to get Houston to the AAC Championship Game (or beyond), and there's a tough schedule to navigate with little margin for error if he gets hurt. Houston gets Oklahoma right out of the gates in Week 1 plus Washington State and North Texas before September ends. The Cougars also get Cincinnati and UCF in cross-division games. Make no mistake: Houston could (and probably will) win a couple of those games, but first-year coach Dana Holgorsen still has to prove he can overachieve. This is more likely to be a really, really fun 8-4 team. -- Ben Kercheval

Most underrated team

Memphis: Mike Norvell has won 18 games and played for the AAC title the last two seasons. Still, it's been easy to underestimate the Tigers with UCF dominating. Seven teams are favored in all their games this season. Memphis is one of them. Get past Ole Miss in the opener and a 12-0 season is possible. -- Dennis Dodd

Cincinnati: UCF and Memphis get most of the attention, but the Bearcats won seven more games in 2018 than the season before and get UCF at home this year. Luke Fickell got things turned around in a hurry.  -- Jerry Palm

SMU: Last season the Mustangs started 0-3 with losses to North Texas, TCU and Michigan. After that SMU won five of its last eight games including a win over Houston and an overtime loss to Cincinnati. I think this is a team that could take a step forward in 2019 in Sonny Dykes' second season and should prove to be the third-best team in the West behind Houston and Memphis. -- Tom Fornelli

Houston: Dana Holgorsen and D'Eriq King are going to make the Coogs must-watch TV this season, and more and more evidence suggests that changing the voice in the locker room at Houston is going to have a positive impact on the field. Holgo > Applewhite, and King should be considered a dark horse pick for some of the country's top quarterback awards.  -- Chip Patterson

East Carolina: They're not going to win the conference or even the division but ECU is done being a doormat. Sophomore quarterback Holton Ahlers was a three-sport athlete in high school that combined for nearly 11,000 yards of offense his junior and senior seasons. After getting his feet wet as a freshman, the lefty teams up with a coach in Mike Houston that has dominated FCS football to the tune of two national championship game appearances in the last three years. There's talent in place and things will get back on track quickly. -- Barton Simmons

USF: Now's the time for Charlie Strong and the Bulls to re-establish themselves as a Group of Five force. Senior quarterback Blake Barnett is back after an injury derailed his junior campaign, and he has eight other returning offensive weapons back as well -- including his top two running backs in Jordan Cronkrite (1,121 yards in 2018) and Swiss Army Knife slot receiver/rusher Johnny Ford (787 rushing yards in 2018). You have to have offensive experience and versatility to win the AAC. The Bulls have that now, and will make things really interesting in the East. -- Barrett Sallee

Bold predictions

  • Dennis Dodd: Memphis will go undefeated and play in a New Year's Six bowl.  
  • Chip Patterson: Cincinnati will knock off UCF and win the AAC East. Luke Fickell had the long-term plan in mind when his first team at Cincinnati was among the youngest in the conference, because now those freshman and sophomores are juniors and seniors fresh off a 10-win season looking to take the next step. The hype was at a fever pitch heading into last year's meeting with UCF but the Knights proved to still be operating on another level on both sides of the ball. I think the changing of the guard happens this year with that highly-anticipated showdown taking place in Cincinnati in early October.
  • Barrett Sallee: UCF's offense will struggle to find an identity with Brandon Wimbush taking the snaps. As a result, the AAC East will come down to the War on I-4 and the Bulls will win a classic.
  • Tom Fornelli: UCF will go undefeated in conference play and all its wins will be by at least two scores.  
  • Jerry Palm: Despite some decent competition immediately below them, UCF and Memphis will each win their divisions by at least two games.
  • Barton Simmons: Top to bottom, the AAC will have better quarterback play than the ACC.
  • Ben Kercheval: Three of the top 10 passers in college football will be from the AAC.

AAC predicted order of finish

AAC champion

Memphis: The Nov. 16 game at Houston will probably determine the AAC West champion, and what a game that should be. The Tigers lose Darrell Henderson, but still have plenty of firepower in the backfield and proven quarterback Brady White just received his, like, 10th year of eligibility this offseason. Since UCF is without star quarterback McKenzie Milton, this should be the year Memphis gets over the hump and finally takes home an AAC title after coming so close the past two years. -- Ben Kercheval (also Dennis Dodd and Barton Simmons)

UCF: I understand the UCF fatigue from many because they've been outstanding the last couple of years, and they've been very vocal about it. Still, I think picking anybody else to win the AAC this year is more wishful thinking than reality. This Knights team won't be as good as the Knights teams we've seen the last couple years, but this is still a program that has recruited at a level unto itself in the AAC, and I don't know that anybody else has done enough to close the gap yet. -- Tom Fornelli (also Jerry Palm)

Houston: The work and resources that have been put in place to make Houston's football program a big-time attraction in the area is going to find a happy marriage with the offensive fireworks in Dana Holgorsen's offense. It's a movement, and it's going to shake up the league when the Coogs win the conference title. -- Chip Patterson (also Barrett Sallee)