College football's greatest teams: The best season from every AAC program

The AAC prides itself on being a "Power 6" program, and it showed its power in 2017. UCF ran the table, topped Auburn in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl and elevated the conference to a height that it hasn't enjoyed since conference realignment.

Which year has been the best for each AAC team? Let's check it out.

Graphic illustration by Michael Meredith

Cincinnati (2009)

The 2009 season capped off a streak of three straight 10-plus win seasons for the Bearcats under Brian Kelly. They beat four ranked teams (No. 24 Oregon State, No. 21 South Florida, No. 23 West Virginia and No. 15 Pitt) en route to an undefeated regular season and a berth in the Sugar Bowl against Florida. The Bearcats were led by quarterback Tony Pike, but Zach Collaros filled in nicely in the middle of the season after Pike was sidelined with an injury. Wide receiver Mardy Gilyard had 11 touchdown receptions, two kickoff returns for touchdowns, one rushing touchdown and one punt return for touchdown on the year. 

Record: 12-1 (7-0 Big East) | Final ranking: No. 8
Coach: Brian Kelly | MVP: WR Mardy Gilyard
Championships won: Big East
Accolades: Home Depot Coach of the Year (Kelly)
NFL Draft picks on the roster: 9
Did you know? Cincinnati was the first team from a BCS conference to finish undefeated and be left out of the BCS Championship Game since Auburn in 2004. They finished the regular season ranked No. 3 in the BCS standings, and had Texas not hit a game-winning field goal to top Nebraska in the Big 12 Championship Game, could have moved on to play for the national title.

East Carolina (1991)

The Pirates have had a few years of moderate success, but nothing compares to the 1991 squad. After dropping the season-opener, coach Bill Lewis' squad ripped off 11 straight wins -- including at No. 15 Syracuse, vs. No. 23 Pitt and at Virginia Tech. Led by linebacker Robert Jones and quarterback Jeff Blake, the Pirates topped NC State in the Peach Bowl to cap off the only top 10 finish in program history.

Record: 11-1 (Independent) | Final ranking: No. 9
Coach: Bill Lewis | MVP: LB Robert Jones
Championships won: n/a
Accolades: AFCA Coach of the Year (Lewis), consensus All-American (Jones)
NFL Draft picks on the roster: 8
Did you know? The 1991 season marked the second time in program history that the Pirates finished in the final AP Top 25. The other season was in 1983, when Ed Emory's squad finished 8-3 and ranked No. 20. Those are the only two seasons in which East Carolina has finished ranked.

Houston (2015)

The Cougars have finished with better records than it did in 2015, but no season in program history compares to the season they re-emerged on the national scene. Under first-year coach Tom Herman, they rattled off 10 straight wins to open the season. Their only loss occurred on Nov. 21 to a UConn team that finished 6-6 in the regular season. Dual-threat quarterback Greg Ward thew 17 touchdowns, topped the 1,000-yard mark on the ground and emerged as one of the most electric players in college football. They finished off the season with an emphatic 38-24 win over No. 9 Florida State in the Peach Bowl.

Record: 13-1 (7-1 AAC) | Final ranking: No. 8
Coach: Tom Herman | MVP: QB Greg Ward
Championships won: AAC
Accolades: n/a
NFL Draft picks on the roster: 7
Did you know? Houston had a more prominent NFL Draft in 2016 than Florida State, Washington, Virginia Tech and Washington. Three Cougar players heard their names drafted, while those four FBS powers had two each.


Memphis (2014)

Justin Fuente's penultimate team with the Tigers grabbed a share of the AAC title, established coach Fuente as a rising star and gave fans hope after many, many years of frustration. Quarterback Paxton Lynch wasn't exactly stellar in 2013, but threw for 3,031 yards and 22 touchdowns as a sophomore in 2014 -- a season that earned him some buzz among NFL Draft analysts. The Tigers lost three of their first six, before winning seven straight games to close the season. The Tigers topped BYU 55-48 in a double overtime thriller in the Miami Beach Bowl to close out the season.

Record: 10-3 (7-1 AAC) | Final ranking: No. 25
Coach: Justin Fuente | MVP: QB Paxton Lynch
Championships won: Co-AAC
Accolades: n/a
NFL Draft picks on the roster: 6
Did you know? The 10-win season in 2014 was the program's first double-digit win season since 1938 when it was called West Tennessee State.

Navy (1926)

The late 1800's and early 1900's were the golden age of Navy football, and the 1926 Midshipmen were the best of the bunch. In Bill Ingram's first season as head coach, they won their first nine games of the season leading up to the rivalry with Army at Chicago's Soldier Field. An estimated 100,000 people saw the two sides battle to a 21-21 tie, in what's considered one of the greatest matchup's in the rivalry's history.

Record: 9-0-1 (Independent) | Final ranking: n/a
Coach: Bill Ingram | MVP: T Frank Wickhorst
Championships won: n/a
Accolades: Consensus All American (Wickhorst)
NFL Draft picks on the roster: n/a
Did you know? Four players on the roster earned All-American honors, with Wickhorst being the only consensus selection. Tackle D. Thomas Eddy, halfback Tom Hamilton and fullback Henry H. Caldwell joined Wickhorst as stars of the 1926 team.

SMU (1982)

Picking the best season ever for SMU is a little complicated given the ... interesting ... history of the program. But for the sake of this story, we'll ignore any NCAA-related problems and just focus on the actual team's success. With that said, the 1982 edition of the Mustangs was an incredible team that nearly won the national championship. Led by first-year coach Bobby Collins and running backs Eric Dickerson and Craig James, the Mustangs rattled off 10 straight wins before closing the regular season with a 17-17 tie vs. Arkansas. That loss dropped them from No. 2 to No. 4 heading into the Cotton Bowl, where they beat No. 6 Pitt. No. 2 Penn State topped No. 1 Georgia in the Sugar Bowl to give the Nittany Lions the national title over second-ranked SMU.

Record: 11-0-1 (7-0-1 SWC) | Final ranking: No. 2
Coach: Bobby Collins | MVP: RB Eric Dickerson
Championships won: SWC
Accolades: Consensus All-American (Dickerson)
NFL Draft picks on the roster: 15
Did you know? The 1982 season took place during a half-decade of rumors surrounding the program, which included the recruitment of Dickerson -- who was a Heisman Trophy finalist in 1982 -- by several schools. The ongoing scandal eventually forced the resignation of Collins following 1986 season. The NCAA levied the "death penalty" on the program, which cancelled the 1987 season and forced the program to cancel the 1988 season due to the lack of personnel on the roster.

South Florida (2007)

Despite back-to-back 10 win seasons in 2016-17, neither compares to the splash the Bulls made in 2007. Under coach Jim Leavitt -- the first coach in program history -- the 2007 edition of the Bulls ascended all the way to No. 2 in the rankings heading into its Oct. 13 game vs. rival UCF. The stretch of six straight wins to start the season included a Week 2 overtime win over No. 17 Auburn at Jordan-Hare Stadium, and a Week 4 win over No. 5 West Virginia in Tampa. The star of the Bulls was quarterback Matt Grothe, who finished the season with 14 touchdown passes and 10 rushing touchdowns. They didn't finish in the Top 25 in 2007 and did in 2016. But nothing compares to the magic Leavitt orchestrated in 2007.

Record: 9-4 (4-3 Big East) | Final ranking: NR
Coach: Jim Leavitt | MVP: QB Matt Grothe
Championships won: n/a
Accolades: Consensus All-American (DE George Selvie)
NFL Draft picks on the roster: 6
Did you know? The Bulls gave up just eight rushing touchdowns in 2007. The 0.6 rushing touchdowns per game were the second-fewest in FBS (Ohio State, 0.2).

Temple (2015)

The Owls have finished only one season ranked in the AP Top 25 (1979), but the 2015 version of the Owls was the best in program history. Led by coach Matt Rhule, defensive back Tavon Young and linebacker Tyler Matakevich, they won their first seven games and set up a nationally-televised, Top 25 matchup vs. No. 9 Notre Dame. They fell 24-20 in front of a raucous crowd at Lincoln Financial Field. The Owls fell to South Florida two weeks later, but won the AAC East. Despite losing to Houston in the American Championship, the seasons vaulted the program into the national spotlight and Rhule into rising star status in the coaching ranks.

Record: 10-4 (7-1 American) | Final ranking: NR
Coach: Matt Rhule | MVP: LB Tyler Matakevich
Championships won: AAC East
Accolades: Chuck Bednarik Award (Matakevich), Bronko Nagurski Award (Matakevich), consensus All-American (Matakevich)
NFL Draft picks on the roster: 8
Did you know? Matakevich finished eighth-nationally with 138 tackles, the Owls finished in the top 20 nationally in scoring defense (20.1 points per game) and total defense (337 yards per game). The emphatic 27-10 win over Penn State in Week 1 was the program's first win over the Nittany Lions since 1941.


Tulane (1939)

Red Dawson's Green Wave crew in 1939 won a share of the SEC title with a 5-0 conference record and suffered only one blemish in the regular season -- a 14-14 tie with North Carolina. Led by tackle Harley McCollum, the fifth-ranked Green Wave lost the Sugar Bowl in their own stadium top-ranked and eventual national champion Texas A&M. Polls were taken prior to bowl games in 1939, and the season marks the only time in program history it finished with a top five ranking.

Record: 8-1-1 (5-0 SEC) | Final ranking: No. 5
Coach: Red Dawson | MVP: T Harley McCollum
Championships won: SEC
Accolades: Consensus All-American (McCollum)
NFL Draft picks on the roster: 9
Did you know? Tulane posted five shutouts during the regular season, including a 13-0 win over No. 20 Alabama. The only other top 10 finish in program history was in 1998, when Tommy Bowden's team finished 12-0 and ranked No. 7.

Tulsa (1942)

The Golden Hurricane have had five double-digit win seasons in the program's history, and the 1942 season was the most prominent of them all. They won their first 10 games of the season under second-year coach Henry Frnka, including all five games against fellow Missouri Valley Conference opponents. The unblemished regular season record earned them the first Sugar Bowl berth in program history. The dream season came to an end in New Orleans, though, when they lost to Tennessee 14-7.

Record: 10-1 (5-0 MVC) | Final ranking: No. 4
Coach: Henry Frnka | MVP: QB Glenn Dobbs
Championships won: MVC
Accolades: n/a
NFL Draft picks on the roster: 19
Did you know? Tulsa posted six straight shutouts to open the season, winning by a combined score of 296-0.

UConn (2010)

The Huskies enjoyed success prior to joining FBS at the turn of the century, but the 2010 season has to be regarded as the best in program history. The Huskies tied for the Big East title with West Virginia and Pitt, earning the conference's berth in the BCS by virtue of head-to-head wins over the Mountaineers and Panthers. They were led by coach Randy Edsall and junior running back Jordan Todman all the way to the Fiesta Bowl, where they lost to Oklahoma 48-20.

Record: 8-5 (5-2 Big East) | Final ranking: NR
Coach: Randy Edsall | MVP: RB Jordan Todman
Championships won: Big East
Accolades: n/a
NFL Draft picks on the roster: 12
Did you know? UConn started the season 3-4 with losses to Michigan, Rutgers, Temple and Louisville. The overtime win over West Virginia kick-started its run to the conference title. In that game, Todman carried the ball a whopping 33 times and followed it up with 37 more carries the next week in the win over Pitt -- the two games that earned the Huskies the conference crown.

NCAA Football: Peach Bowl-Auburn vs Central Florida
Brett Davis / USA TODAY Sports

UCF (2017)

In case you hadn't heard, UCF went undefeated in 2017 under coach Scott Frost, quarterback McKenzie Milton and Shaquem Griffin. National title or not, the turnaround Frost orchestrated in two short years in Orlando was nothing short of remarkable. Frost took over a program that went 0-12 in 2015, and immediately made them a force among the Group of Five. The Knights navigated through a bizarre first month that included a postponed game vs. Memphis in Week 2 and a cancelled game vs. Georgia Tech in Week 3 due to Hurricane Irma. The Week 5 game vs. Maine was cancelled to make room for the makeup of the AAC game vs. Memphis. The Tigers entered the AP Top 25 on Oct. 7 and closed out the season with a bang with wins over No. 22 South Florida in the War on I-4, No. 16 Memphis in the AAC Championship and No. 7 Auburn in the Peach Bowl.

Record: 13-0 (8-0 AAC) | Final ranking: No. 6
Coach: Scott Frost | MVP: LB Shaquem Griffin
Championships won: AAC
Accolades: Archie Griffin Award (Milton), AFCA Coach of the Year (Frost), Eddie Robinson Coach of the Year (Frost), Home Depot Coach of the Year (Frost), Paul "Bear" Bryant Award (Frost)
NFL Draft picks on the roster: 4
Did you know? There probably isn't much you don't know about UCF's 2017 season. The Knights were declared national champs by the Colley Matrix, had its staff leave for Nebraska, had a parade at Disney World, etc. But what got lost in the dream season were stellar space-themed uniforms the Knights wore vs. East Carolina.

College Football Writer

Barrett Sallee has been a member of the sports media in various aspects since 2001. He is currently a college football writer for CBS Sports, analyst for CBS Sports HQ and host for the SiriusXM college... Full Bio

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