With the Big Ten and Pac-12 out of the picture for this season's College Football Playoff, could this be the year that a team from the American Athletic Conference finally breaks through? There are three quality candidates in Cincinnati, Memphis and UCF who are entering the year with lofty expectations, but their aspirations of undefeated seasons and CFP appearances will be challenged not only by each other but also by the league's hefty middle class.
Navy and SMU each reached double-digit victories last season, and Tulane and Temple continue to prove dangerous against the league's elite. With lowly UConn now an independent program, there will be few easy victories for AAC teams in 2020. Houston and ECU are each hoping to take a step forward in year two of their coaches' tenures, while South Florida gets a reboot under former Clemson offensive coordinator Jeff Scott. Even Tulsa, which has averaged just three wins per season over the last three years, could be dangerous as it returns a stable of offensive playmakers from a team that upset UCF last November.
Our CBS Sports college football experts have provided their picks and predictions for the AAC ahead of the 2020 season. Check them all out below.
Most overrated team
Cincinnati: When I call Cincinnati "overrated," it's not in the classical sense that it's bad, or it doesn't deserve to be ranked in the top 25 -- especially this year. It's more a reaction to the Bearcats being seen as a popular pick to win the AAC this year. The Bearcats had a great season last year, but they did so mostly by beating teams they were better than. Their three losses came to Memphis and Ohio State. And yes, there was that win over UCF to end the Knight's winning streak, but UCF turned the ball over four times in the game. Even then, despite all those mistakes, the Knights had a chance to win that game in the end, only losing by a field goal. I'm somebody who believes that Cincinnati will prove to be one of the better teams in the AAC but could have trouble returning to the conference title game. -- Tom Fornelli (also Barrett Sallee, Ben Kercheval)
UCF: The Knights are so good and the rest of the conference is so mediocre -- save Memphis and Cincinnati -- this is the only logical choice for this superlative. This does not mean UCF will not be good this season but rather that the Bearcats and Tigers are the top two teams in the league. Quarterback Dillon Gabriel is already a star. -- Dennis Dodd (also Jerry Palm)
SMU: I don't think there has been enough separation between SMU and the rest of the conference's middle-of-the-road teams. I have .500 expectations for the Mustangs and think they get a boost from preseason prognosticators with coach Sonny Dykes and 11th year quarterback Shane Buechele set for an encore of last season's prolific offensive performances. I do think SMU will be good offensively with no major adjustment on my end due to the departure of Rhett Lashlee, but think there are some big holes to fill in the defensive front that will prevent a repeat of last year's 10-win campaign. -- Chip Patterson
Temple: One national preseason publication predicted Temple to finish No. 4 in the AAC and another pegged the Owls at No. 5. So right off the top, there are expectations for Temple to improve on last season's sixth-place league finish. For a team that lucked out with a 5-1 record in games decided by 10 points or less last season, that seems like some misplaced optimism. The Owls are replacing all but four defensive starters, including star defensive end Quincy Roche, who transferred to Miami. There's reason for hope with the offense, but it's a stretch to assume this Temple team will have the firepower to do anything more than finish around .500 as part of the AAC's crowded middle tier. -- David Cobb
Most underrated team
SMU: Returning starters don't matter all that much leading up to most seasons. This isn't "most seasons," though. The Mustangs return Buechele, who has garnered plenty of buzz in NFL Draft circles. They have a star at wide receiver in Reggie Roberson, who had 803 yards and six touchdowns despite missing the last five-plus games of the season with an injury. Plus, four established offensive linemen are back to do the dirty work. Simply put, that offense under Dykes is going to be nasty due to talent and the fact that they didn't need much of an acclimation period once fall camp opened up. Toss in a veteran linebacking corps, Memphis and Cincinnati at home, and no UCF on the schedule and you have a recipe for success. -- Sallee (also Dodd, Palm)
Houston: If you took issue or offense to Dana Holgorsen's approach to year one at Houston, then any 2020 projections are already cast in a negative light. But if you look at the depth chart after the purging of transfers and influx of JUCO and fifth-year players, there's a group with a lot of talent and college football experience. I'm in on Clayton Thune as a difference-maker under center, and in total, the Cougars have one of the three most talented rosters in the conference. -- Patterson (also Cobb)
UCF: This is pretty simple. Too many people seem to be forgetting UCF exists. Memphis won the conference last year, and Cincinnati had a strong season. Meanwhile, UCF lost three games and it seems to have wiped out everything it accomplished in the seasons before. The three losses came by a grand total of seven points, and this is a team poised to bounce back in 2020. -- Fornelli
Tulsa: You are what your record says it is, right? Tell that to Tulsa. The Golden Hurricane went 4-8 last year but came within seven points -- combined -- of beating SMU and Memphis while also playing Cincinnati tight. That's three of the AAC's top four programs heading into 2020. It's been a minute since Tulsa was good -- it's last winning season was in 2016 when it went 10-3 -- but Philip Montgomery's program has quietly been rebuilding over the past few years. And while there hasn't been much to show for it, I don't believe this team is all that far from turning a corner. The offense has enough coming back to be formidable, especially in the run game, but the defense needs to take a step forward. Unfortunately, there's no warm-up. The Golden Hurricane really could start 0-4 after facing Oklahoma State, Arkansas State, UCF and Cincinnati with the first three on the road. But the slate eases up from there and the Nov. 14 home game against SMU is a good time to finally get over the hump. -- Kercheval
- Dennis Dodd: An AAC team will make the College Football Playoff for the first time.
- Chip Patterson: East Carolina's Holton Ahlers is a First Team All-AAC pick at quarterback. Ahlers saw his stock rise in Mike Houston's first year as his first full season as the starter saw him finish as a top-10 player in FBS for total offense. This year, the Greenville, North Carolina, native takes the next step and shines as the top signal caller in the league.
- Tom Fornelli: It will be neither Memphis nor Cincinnati but rather SMU squaring off against UCF in the AAC Championship Game. SMU hasn't won a conference title since 1984, and it's not going to win this one either, but it'll get closer than it has at any point since the NCAA death penalty.
- Barrett Sallee: Cincinnati and SMU will play in the AAC Championship Game with the winner having a legit shot at the College Football Playoff.
- Ben Kercheval: The AAC has always thought of itself as a "power" conference, even though it never received power conference treatment, especially regarding the CFP. That changes in 2020, and I'm calling my shot: The AAC champ gets the No. 4 spot in the field.
- David Cobb: A loss in the AAC title game -- its first defeat of the season -- will knock Cincinnati out of the CFP conversation.
- Jerry Palm: The AAC will put not one but two teams in the New Year's Six games
AAC predicted order of finish
Memphis: Cincinnati is the dark horse darling. UCF is in the conversation, too. But give me Memphis to repeat as AAC champs. No more Mike Norvell? Fine, but it's not like first-year coach Ryan Silverfield inherits a bunch of scrubs. This is an experienced team and the QB-WR combo of Brady White and Damonte Coxie is as dynamic as any in the country. (It would have better an even better playmaking trio if running back Kenneth Gainwell had not opted out of the season.) Getting UCF, Houston and Temple at home helps, too, and this team has been there-done that with road games at Cincinnati and SMU. And with the Big Ten and Pac-12 not participating in the fall season (we think), don't be surprised if the Tigers make an actual run towards the College Football Playoff. -- Kercheval (also Palm)
UCF: With limited capacity crowds at best in 2020, homefield advantage will be less noticeable than ever before. Because of this, I expect 2020 to be a season in which the talent advantage is a bigger factor than it already would be. Well, no team in the AAC has more talent than UCF. That will win out in the long run. -- Fornelli (also Patterson)
Cincinnati: In this truncated season, there is going to be an American team in competition for a CFP berth with only 76 teams playing. Coming off an 11-win season and with Luke Fickell being a national coach of the year candidate, this could be the year for the Bearcats. As scheduled, Cincinnati plays two potentially ranked teams (Memphis and UCF) in the second half of the season. -- Dodd (also Cobb)
SMU: Memphis' loss will be SMU's gain. The Tigers will not be the AAC force that they are supposed to be without Gainwell, their star playmaker, in the fold. I'm a big believer in Dykes' offense even without Lashlee calling the plays. More importantly, returning starters at quarterback are going to be huge in all of college football this season. The Mustangs, led by Buechele, will top Memphis and fall to Cincinnati only to get revenge on the Bearcats in the conference title game. The resurrection of the SMU football program will continue with its first outright conference title since 1982 -- five years prior to the NCAA "death penalty." -- Barrett Sallee