The American Athletic Conference has emerged as the strongest Group of Five conference in recent seasons. Its champion has played in a New Year's Six Bowl in each of the last three seasons, and four times in the six seasons since the College Football Playoff was created. In other words, it has sent more teams (UCF, Memphis and Houston) to a New Year's Six bowl than the rest of the Group of Five conferences combined.
The conference hopes to make it five trips in seven seasons in 2020, but which team will it be looking to send? It's too early to know for sure, but looking at the conference title odds from William Hill Sportsbook, it's not too early to try and find the value.
Best Bet -- Cincinnati (+400): The Bearcats won the East Division last year only to come up short against Memphis, 29-24, in the AAC title game. So we're dealing with a team that was a touchdown shy of winning the conference a year ago, and it's getting +400 odds. While I understand UCF having better odds overall, I don't think Memphis should have better odds than the Bearcats (more on that momentarily). At +400, the Bearcats only need to win the conference 20% of the time to break even on our play. While I think the team's overall results were slightly better than the team itself last season, that doesn't mean the Bearcats can't improve and meet the same standard in 2020. This was a team led by its defense last year, and most of that defense is back. Should an offense that was a bit inconsistent last year find a rhythm, this team should be a threat once again. It's also important to keep in mind that the AAC no longer has divisions, and this year's title game participants will be the two teams that finish at the top of the standings. I think that increases Cincinnati's odds since its biggest challenger was a team it used to share a division. If the Bearcats finish behind UCF this year, it doesn't eliminate them from the conference title game.
Worst Wager -- Memphis (+230): When we're looking for value this far ahead of the season starting, we want as few variables as possible. Well, when I look at Memphis, I see too many variables. Mike Norvell has left, and while the team replaced him with an in-house candidate, we still can't predict with accuracy what this team will look like in 2020. None of which isn't to say that Memphis can't keep chugging along -- they were in the same situation when Norvell took over for Justin Fuente, after all -- but I don't see enough value with these odds. At +230, Memphis needs to win the conference 30.3% of the time to break even. With the coaching changes and a schedule that includes quite a few tough conference games (the only two AAC teams they don't play this year are the two worst teams remaining in the conference based on last year's results), I don't see the right kind of value to recommend making this play.
Value Pick -- Houston (+1400): In my mind, this is a number that's a greater reflection on Houston's record in 2019 than it is on what Houston can be in 2020. The Cougars went 4-8 last year and 2-6 in the AAC. It wasn't a good year, but it's important to remember that the Coogs essentially tanked after a slow start. They redshirted a slew of players, including QB D'Eriq King. King has since transferred to Miami, but plenty of players who gained experience last season return. Houston ranks third in Bill Connelly's returning production metric over at ESPN.com. Returning starters and production is something that is often overvalued by some. Still, I believe it has a larger impact in a Group of Five conference than it does in a Power Five conference simply because G5 conferences have always been more volatile. Taking it a step further, one could also make the argument that UCF might be the only team in the AAC with more talent than Houston. I'm not predicting that Houston will bounce back from 4-8 to a team that reaches the AAC Championship Game, but it's not out of the question. At +1400, the Coogs only need to win the conference 6.67% of the time. That's well within reach.
Longshot -- East Carolina (+5000): The longest of long shots, ECU is tied with Tulsa for longest odds in the conference, and while I'm not recommending this play to you as one you should expect to hit, it's a shrewd play. The implied odds on +5000 are 1.96%, and those provide value. East Carolina is 8-32 in the AAC over the last five seasons, and last year it went 1-7 in conference. The lone win came against a UConn team that's no longer in the conference. In fact, half of the eight conference wins the Pirates have managed since 2015 came against UConn. But don't pay attention to ECU's overall season, look at how it finished. This is a team that improved late in the season in Mike Houston's first season with the team. In November, we saw the Pirates put up 94 points in consecutive games against two of the AAC's better teams in Cincinnati and SMU. They then beat UConn before losing to Tulsa in the season finale. The 2019 team was young and most of its key parts are back in 2020, as it ranks right behind Houston in Connelly's returning production metric and fourth nationally. This is a team poised to take a step forward in 2020. While the odds are very much against that step being large enough to win the conference, they're better than the +5000 suggests. Plus, can you put a price on it if it does happen? The ability to say "I told you so" on this one is worth more than the money you'd get back.