The American Athletic Conference is widely considered as the strongest Group of Five conferences in the country. That certainly should not change in 2021 as Cincinnati, UCF, Memphis, and Houston should all be improved this year. Having eight teams from this conference going bowling would not be a huge surprise. With that, let’s break down the 2021 American Athletic standings predictions.
11. South Florida
Jeff Scott enters his second season as the head coach for the Bulls. 2020 was a struggle as only The Citadel allowed South Florida to get a victory on the season. The offense improved as the season went on. But, Scott will break in a new quarterback which will likely be sophomore Cade Fortin. South Florida has this going in the right direction but might be favored in only two games this year.
The story is similar for the Temple Owls as Rod Carey is rebuilding the program. While still in a rebuilding mode, they do get Georgia transfer, D’Wan Mathis, as a clear improvement at the position. Similarly, Iverson Clement comes in from Georgia at the running back position. The Owls are the worst team in the conference on defense, but the infusion of offensive talent allows them to escape the basement.
The spread option is still in full effect for Tulane. However, they may be moving to the pass a little more with Michael Pratt at quarterback. He threw 20 touchdowns and only eight interceptions a year ago for an offense that averaged 35 points per game. The defense could be a concern as the Green Wave only return six starters.
The Naval Academy took a step back last year after only winning three games including losing five straight to end the season. They have 14 returning starters which is the most that they have had over the last five seasons. However, the schedule is tougher this season but if Xavier Arline can improve then they could spring some upsets.
Most will have the Mustangs in the top half of the American Athletic Conference. However, breaking in a new quarterback on top of a tough schedule we project SMU to take a step back. Oklahoma transfer Tanner Mordecai looks to take charge of the quarterback room and the defense returns nine starters. All road games on the schedule are tough especially ending the season with Houston, Memphis, and Cincinnati all in November.
6. East Carolina
20 returning starters have East Carolina as one of the most improved teams in the American Athletic Conference. Holton Ahlers is one of the steadiest quarterbacks in the conference and has some good returning playmakers at wide receiver. The Pirates could flirt with a bowl in Mike Houston’s third year at the helm.
The Golden Hurricane were the cardiac kids a year ago and rode that momentum all the way to the American Athletic Conference Championship Game. The good news is 10 starters return on offense, but must replace quarterback Zach Smith. However, Davis Brin looked good in a limited time last year. Replacing some key players in the back half of the defense will be critical.
The Tigers were fortunate to grab the biggest impact transfer in the American Athletic Conference when they secured the pledge of Arizona transfer Grant Gunnell. He should be a nice get to assist in the loss of Brady White. Memphis has made the conference championship game in three of the last four seasons and has the talent to get back.
Houston could be walking into a perfect situation in 2021 as there’s a lot to like about this team. They return 18 starters and could easily break through to make it to the title game. UCF is certainly more talented but the schedule sets up well for them. They miss both UCF and Cincinnati and get to host East Carolina, SMU, at Memphis.
The Knights come in as the best in the American Athletic Conference at every positional unit on the offensive side of the ball. Dillon Gabriel is a darkhorse Heisman contender and should eclipse 4,000 yards and 40 touchdowns this season. Can Gus Malzahn turn around the defense which progressively got worse under Josh Heupel?
The Bearcats believed they should have been part of the College Football Playoffs in 2020. They could become the first team to do so in 2021. With games on the road against Indiana and Notre Dame, if they go undefeated they may very well get that opportunity. The conference schedule is manageable so it would be a major upset not to see Cincinnati in the conference title game.
American Athletic Championship Game
Cincinnati vs UCF
This is the game we all thought that we would get last year, but we should get it this season. It’s such an intriguing contrast in styles with the American Athletic Conference’s best offense against the best defense. Cincinnati has too many weapons and will win the championship for the third straight year.