Top contenders, sleepers and championship picks

Over the past decade, the American Athletic Conference has usually been the strongest of college football’s mid-major conferences, commonly known as the Group of Five.

But entering the 2023 season and beyond, that may no longer be the case. The AAC was hit hard by conference realignment. Once the SEC raided Texas and Oklahoma from the Big 12, the Big 12 pivoted and added three of the AAC’s premier members — Cincinnati, Houston and UCF.

Since the Big East dissolved into the AAC back in 2013, one of those three teams has won outright or had a share of the conference championship in seven of 10 seasons. On top of that, each of those programs has played in a New Year’s Six bowl game with Cincinnati even reaching the College Football Playoff.

It was a major blow to the conference and its overall quality of competition. With those three schools gone, the AAC then did its own raiding and plucked away six members of Conference USA — Charlotte, Florida Atlantic, North Texas, Rice, UAB and UTSA.

Needless to say, the AAC will look a whole lot different in 2023, and a few of those new members could challenge defending champion Tulane for a conference championship.

Tulane quarterback Michael Pratt (7) throws during an NCAA college football game against Tulsa in Tulsa, Okla., Thursday, Nov. 19, 2020. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)

Tulane quarterback Michael Pratt (7) throws during an NCAA college football game against Tulsa in Tulsa, Okla., Thursday, Nov. 19, 2020. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)

What can Tulane do for an encore?

Tulane was one of the coolest stories in college football in 2022. On the heels of a miserable 2-10 2021 campaign that included being displaced by a hurricane, the Green Wave put together an incredible season.

Tulane upset eventual Big 12 champions Kansas State in Week 3 before an excellent run through the AAC that closed with wins over SMU, Cincinnati and then UCF in the conference title game. Tulane was the highest-ranked Group of Five champion in the CFP rankings, so it earned a spot in the Cotton Bowl vs. USC. The Green Wave miraculously overcame a 45-30 deficit in the final five minutes and pulled off a 46-45 victory.

It was the best season in program history and one of the biggest turnarounds — two to 12 wins — in college football history.

How can Tulane and head coach Willie Fritz possibly replicate that in 2023? Well, the return of star quarterback Michael Pratt and four offensive line starters will help. Big-time programs were pursuing Pratt behind the scenes, but he opted to remain at Tulane for another year. On the other hand, his top playmakers — running back Tyjae Spears and receivers Shae Wyatt and Duece Watts — have all moved on.

There will be a lot of new personnel in key roles for Fritz’s offense. The Green Wave have a significant amount of lost production on defense, too, particularly in the back seven.

Even with a lot of turnover on the roster, Tulane’s road to another AAC title will be easier with Cincinnati, Houston and UCF no longer on the schedule. Of the teams returning to the league, SMU and Memphis look like Tulane’s toughest competition. But one of the newcomers has the chance to ascend to the top of the standings right away.

UTSA built to compete for title in Year 1 in AAC

UTSA has had a rapid rise under head coach Jeff Traylor. The Roadrunners began FBS play in 2012 but had just one bowl appearance before Traylor arrived in 2020. UTSA went 7-5 in his first year and then went a combined 23-5 over the past two seasons with back-to-back Conference USA titles.

That level of play made UTSA an easy choice for the AAC, and the Roadrunners are built to compete for a championship in 2023. Though star receiver Zakhari Franklin left for Ole Miss, Frank Harris is back at quarterback and he’s got an experienced group to work with on offense. The defense has been up-and-down in recent years but has significant depth in the front seven and a few all-conference level players in the secondary, namely corner Nicktroy Fortune.

On top of that, the Roadrunners avoid both SMU and Memphis on their conference schedule. Frankly, it’d be a surprise if UTSA was not among the contenders for the AAC title.

UTSA quarterback Frank Harris (0) looks to pass against North Texas during the first half of an NCAA college football game for the Conference USA championship in San Antonio, Friday, Dec. 2, 2022. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

UTSA quarterback Frank Harris (0) looks to pass against North Texas during the first half of an NCAA college football game for the Conference USA championship in San Antonio, Friday, Dec. 2, 2022. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

The same can’t be said for the other newcomers in the conference. Of the other new members, Florida Atlantic looks equipped to be a bowl team as it begins play with new coach Tom Herman. Herman grabbed veteran quarterback Casey Thompson out of the transfer portal, and he should be one of the AAC’s top signal callers.

UAB was long one of the top teams in C-USA, but appears to be in line for a rebuilding year with former NFL QB and ESPN analyst Trent Dilfer now in place as head coach. North Texas also has a new coach — Eric Morris from Incarnate Word. Morris is a former Texas Tech receiver, so he comes from Mike Leach’s Air Raid tree. Whether he has the talent to unleash that offense at full capacity in 2023 remains to be seen.

And then there are Charlotte and Rice. Charlotte has just one winning season at the FBS level but made an interesting hire, bringing in former Michigan assistant Biff Poggi. Poggi was a longtime high school coach in the Baltimore area and his Charlotte roster is littered with transfers from his old stomping grounds.

Rice, meanwhile, is 16-39 in five seasons under Mike Bloomgren but notably has the well-traveled JT Daniels at quarterback via USC, Georgia and West Virginia. It’s his final season of eligibility.

Besides Tulane, which returning AAC schools can make noise?

Like with Tulane, the returning AAC schools should benefit from facing weaker competition. That’s especially true for Memphis and SMU. Both the Tigers and Mustangs have had flashes of success but haven’t quite been able to break through to the top of the AAC in recent seasons.

There’s an easier path now, but the two programs are in different places. SMU is entering Year 2 under Rhett Lashlee. The Mustangs went 7-6 last year and saw QB Tanner Mordecai transfer to Wisconsin and top receiver Rashee Rice go to the NFL. Despite those losses, highly rated QB Preston Stone looks ready to step in and lead a strong offense. There’s been an influx of transfers on both sides of the ball, but for SMU to compete for an AAC title, the defensive newcomers need to make an impact right away.

Memphis had some really good seasons under Justin Fuente and Mike Norvell but hasn’t been able to replicate that success under Ryan Silverfield. Silverfield is 21-15 overall with just an 11-13 record in AAC play. The Tigers went 6-6 in 2021 and 7-6 last year. If there isn’t improvement in 2023, don’t be surprised if Memphis is looking for a new coach.

Southern Methodist quarterback Preston Stone (2) is seen during an NCAA football game against North Texas on Saturday, Sept. 3, 2022, in Denton, Texas. SMU won 48-10. (AP Photo/Brandon Wade)

Southern Methodist quarterback Preston Stone (2) is seen during an NCAA football game against North Texas on Saturday, Sept. 3, 2022, in Denton, Texas. SMU won 48-10. (AP Photo/Brandon Wade)

Elsewhere, East Carolina is coming off back-to-back winning seasons but may be in for a rebuilding year after longtime starting QB Holton Ahlers graduated. And then there’s Temple. The Owls have a combined 7-24 record over the past three seasons but showed some signs of life last fall under new coach Stan Drayton.

Navy moved on from coach Ken Niumatalolo after 15 seasons and promoted defensive coordinator Brian Newberry to head coach. Newberry has a veteran team and will make his debut on a big stage when the Midshipmen face Notre Dame in Ireland in Week 0.

Tulsa and USF will also be breaking in new coaches. For Tulsa, it’s former Ohio State offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson while USF hired Alex Golesh following an impressive season as Tennessee’s OC. Both could be in for rough years.

Which AAC team is most overrated?

Sam Cooper: Memphis. This is a team that should benefit from UC, UH and UCF leaving, but I don’t expect much improvement from Memphis in 2023. The Tigers have an easier schedule and should get back to a bowl, but I don’t see this team realistically competing for an AAC title. I haven’t liked the trajectory of the program under Ryan Silverfield and the amount of roster overhaul this offseason was a bit alarming.

Nick Bromberg: East Carolina. This may be a rebuilding year for the Pirates. The offense lost a lot of talent and brings back just four starters. The defense should be solid, but a non-conference schedule that includes trips to Michigan and Appalachian State and a home game against Marshall is challenging. Throw in games against both UTSA and Tulane along with SMU and Florida Atlantic and this team could go 4-4 in the conference.

Which team is a sleeper to contend for the AAC title?

Sam: Florida Atlantic. I love the coaching hire of Tom Herman, who looks refreshed after a year out of coaching. Casey Thompson comes in at quarterback and should tear up most AAC defenses, especially with so many of FAU’s top skill position players returning. There’s also some intriguing returning talent on defense. From a schedule perspective, FAU gets Tulane and UTSA at home and avoids Memphis and SMU. The Owls could surprise.

Nick: Navy. Look, I think the gap between Tulane and UTSA and the rest of the conference is really large. One of those two teams is going to win the AAC. And SMU doesn’t qualify as a sleeper as it’s the No. 2 betting favorite to win the conference. Why not go with a Navy team that has almost its entire defense back and plays a unique style of football on offense? The Midshipmen could be reinvigorated after a coaching change and don’t have either Tulane or UTSA on the schedule.

What is your favorite AAC win total bet?

Sam: North Texas under 6.5 wins. UNT got to seven wins just once in its last four seasons in C-USA. Now, it’s going to get to seven wins in a better conference in its first year with a new coach? I don’t buy it. The Mean Green lost a bunch of their best players to Power Five teams and had a horrific defense last year.

Nick: Tulane over 9 wins. Even if Tulane loses to both Ole Miss and UTSA, the Green Wave has to lose one more time for a push. And the schedule is very manageable in a depleted AAC.

Who is your pick to win the AAC title?

Sam: SMU. The Mustangs have thoroughly upgraded their roster via the portal with many of those additions coming from Power Five programs. From a schedule perspective, SMU won’t have to face Tulane or UTSA and there’s a chance the Mustangs could be favored in all of their conference games. This sets up well for SMU to win the conference.

Nick: Tulane. RB Tyjae Spears is a big loss for the Tulane offense, but I have confidence in the run game with four starters on the offensive line returning. Michael Pratt is one of the two best QBs in the conference along with UTSA’s Frank Harris and I’m going with the defending champions to win back-to-back AAC titles.

  • Tulane: +250

  • SMU: +300

  • UTSA: +400

  • Florida Atlantic: +650

  • Memphis: +700

  • Temple: +2000

  • North Texas: +2500

  • Navy: +3000

  • East Carolina: +4000

  • Tulsa: +5000

  • South Florida: +5000

  • Rice: +6000

  • UAB: +6000

  • Charlotte: +15000

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