The Pi-Rate Ratings

August 17, 2021

American Athletic Conference Preview

Today, we preview the strongest of the Group of 5 conferences.  In a couple of years, we might be referring to the American Athletic Conference as the top of the “Tier 2” leagues.  It would not be surprising to see some of the Big 12 teams and some of the AAC teams merging into one league.

Until then, the AAC remains the conference where the top team is usually the leading contender for the guaranteed Group of 5 team in a New Year’s Six bowl.  Last year, Cincinnati ran the table in the abbreviated season and then beat Tulsa in an exciting game to move to 9-0 and earn the New Year’s Six bowl bid against Georgia in the Peach Bowl.  Playing basically a road game against the in-state school, the Bearcats had a chance to win the game and fell just short.

Bearcats coach Luke Fickell welcomes back a roster that has a little rebuilding to do, but the talent-level should be a little stronger thanks to some excellent recruiting classes bringing underclassmen to the roster.

UC has back-to-back games at Indiana and Notre Dame after beginning the year with winnable home games.  If the Bearcats can pick off the Hoosiers and Fighting Irish, they could find themselves in the same position as last year–in the hunt for a Playoff bid but probably looking at a #6 or #7 final rating and a repeat trip to a New Year’s Six bowl.

The Bearcats cannot be counted out this year against the big dogs on their schedule.  A defense that gave up 16.8 points and 325 yards per game last year, could be a little better in 2021.  The secondary coverage should be one of the five best in the nation, led by the top cover corner in the nation in Ahmad Gardner.

The only question for this year’s UC team is the offensive line, which must be rebuilt with more underclassmen than upperclassmen.  In a season where other teams might field 23-year old seniors, this could come to haunt the Bearcats.

Central Florida undergoes a big change as Josh Heupel and his up-tempo, high-powered spread offense have moved to Tennessee, while former Auburn coach Gus Malzahn brings his different style of spread offense to Orlando.  The former offense was driving on the interstate in open country, while the new offense will be like the old blue highway with winding roads and hilly terrain.  It won’t be as flashy, but the Knights could benefit by playing defense a lot less than they did in recent years.  This is going to benefit UCF’s young defense that must break in eight new starters, including four excellent defensive backs.

The UCF offense can become the team’s best defense if they can sustain long drives.  In Heupel’s time in Orlando, UCF had no trouble moving the ball, but they scored so quickly, the defense fatigued.  In the Knights’ three losses last year, second half defense was the reason they lost those games by eight to Tulsa, one to Memphis, and three to Cincinnati.

This is year three for Dana Holgorsen, and he’s 7-13 in two years at the helm.  This is a school that made it public that 8-4 records were grounds for divorce with its head coach, so Holgorsen better hope he can turn things around this year, or he might receive a lump sum alimony check with orders to vacate the premises.

An Air Raid style offense that struggles to pass the ball is an anomaly.  Houston also had a problem holding onto the ball in 2020, and the defense was overly tasked due to a lot of short offensive drives that turned the ball over via fumble, interception, or punt.  

What hurt the Cougars most last year was never knowing if they were going to play from week to week.  They were like understudies when the star had a cold.  They prepared all week and then found out on Friday that their game was cancelled.  It happened eight times!

Quarterback Clayton Tune has the potential to run the Air Raid.  Houston needs to have an extra receiver step up to complement Jeremy Singleton and Nathaniel Dell.  

Defensively, we expect the UH stop troops to show considerable progress this year, especially if the Cougars cut down on the turnovers.  They gave up slightly less than 400 yards per game and 32 points per game in 2020. With most of the top players returning, those numbers could drop to 350-370 yards and 25-28 points per game.  And, what might that bring UH?  Maybe an 8-4 record, and we know what that did to former coaches Major Applewhite and Tony Levine.

Tulsa was the big surprise of the AAC last year.  After multiple years languishing near or at the bottom of the standings, the Golden Hurricane discovered how to play defense.  TU surrendered 21.6 points and 333 yards per game, holding Oklahoma State to 16, Navy to 6, undefeated league champion Cincinnati to 27, and Mississippi State to 28 in the Armed Forces Bowl.

That defense returns 10 starters, so opponents are going to be in for a fight trying to score points on the Hurricane in 2021.  If the offense can live up to expectations, then TU might repeat with another trip to the AAC Championship Game.  Quarterback Davis Brin came off the bench as the backup last year against Tulane and led TU on three consecutive touchdown drives, and then led his team to an overtime victory.  If he can play an entire season like he did in that quarter and a half, Tulsa might be playing at Cincinnati in November with first place on the line.

Tulane has slowly improved year by year during coach Willie Fritz’s tenure in the Crescent City.  Now entering year six, Fritz has a minor defensive rebuild to perform, but the offense should remain potent after averaging 35 points per game and leading the league in rushing.  This is a team that may be a year away from contending for a spot in the conference championship game, and we expect the Green Wave to remain a .500 team this year.

East Carolina coach Mike Houston was the Nick Saban of FCS football during his tenure at James Madison.  Prior to that, he did the inevitable and won at The Citadel.  After a 4-8 record in year one at ECU, his 2020 shortened season record of 3-6 included consecutive wins over Temple and SMU to finish the 2020 season.  This just might be the year the Pirates cross the .500 threshold and return to a bowl for the first time since 2014.  10 starters return to both sides of the ball.  Houston’s short passing game is almost an aerial version of Woody Hayes’ three yards and a cloud of dust.  By spreading the field and throwing quick passes for 3 to 7 yards with an occasional run after catch of another 10-15 yards, it can be difficult to bend and not break for any defense.

The key will be the defense.  If the more experienced stop side can shave a touchdown off its 2020 average, that might be enough for the Pirates to break even in the league.  The problem is that ECU plays Appalachian State, South Carolina, and Marshall out of conference.

SMU enjoyed a 7-3 season that ended with a Frisco Bowl bid that never came to fruition due to Covid.  With nine starters returning to the attack side, one would think that the Mustangs are poised to top their 39 points per game average.  But, the biggest reason why this team moved the ball with relative ease last year is one of the two not returning.  Former Oklahoma backup Tanner Mordecai might be a talented passer, but he isn’t going to match what Shane Buechele did in Dallas.  With an expected drop in offense, and a defense that at best will be as good as 2020, expect the Mustangs to take a step backward this year, but they could still earn a bowl bid.

Since Justin Fuente won 19 games his last two years at Memphis and then took the Virginia Tech job, pundits have predicted the downfall of the Tigers’ fortunes.  Mike Norvell replaced Fuente and guided the Tigers to a Cotton Bowl berth before he took the Florida State job two years ago.  Ryan Silverfield took over last year, and during Covid, UM’s best offensive players opted out.  Memphis still managed to put together an 8-3 record that included a bowl win over Florida Atlantic.

Now, the Tigers face an issue at quarterback as former QB Brady White gambled on the NFL Draft, went undrafted, signed a free agent contract with the Tennessee Titans, and did not make it to the preseason.  Two transfers from Power 5 schools expect to vie for the starting QB job this year.  Former Arizona Wildcat Grant Gunnell and former LSU Tiger Peter Parrish are competing for the job, and we expect Gunnell to be under center when Memphis runs its first play of the 2021 season.  Considering that he had very little help at Arizona, as the Wildcats struggled to compete in the Pac-12, Gunnell looked decent enough to believe he can guide Memphis to a possible break-even or slightly winning record.

South Florida hired former Clemson offensive coordinator Jeff Scott to try to return the Bulls’ program to where it was in the prior decade.  Unfortunately, Scott couldn’t bring any of Clemson’s All-Americans to Tampa.  After going 1-8 with the lone win coming against FCS The Citadel, there is nowhere to go but up for the Bulls this year.  The offense has a chance to be improved this year, but there’s one small problem.  Scott still does not know who will be his starting quarterback as August practices have been underway for a week.  The defense is missing several key parts from a unit that was downright weak in 2020.  Against FBS competition, USF gave up 44.1 points and more than 450 yards per game.  

USF has a difficult schedule this year with games out of conference against North Carolina State, Florida, and BYU.  Winning three games would be considered a major advancement this year.

Navy was one of the most disappointing teams last year, but Coach Ken Niumtalolo failed to get the Midshipmen ready to play to start the season due to Covid concerns.  After an opening game pasting at the hands of BYU, Navy rebounded to get to 3-2, but then they dropped their final five games, scoring just 13 points in the last three.

The 2021 picture is anything but rosy for Navy.  The offense suffered severe losses, as players that would normally come back for an extra year at other schools are starting their military commitment.  When a triple option team has to break in a new quarterback, two new slotbacks, and three new offensive linemen, it is expected that the offense will suffer a drop in production.  Navy only scored 16.6 points per game and rushed for just 178 yards per game, an all-time low in Niumatololo’s 13 years.  Now, Navy embarks on a 2021 season with its toughest schedule in many years.  Marshall, Air Force, Notre Dame, and Army represent one of the toughest out of conference slates in all of FBS football, as all four should earn bowls this year.  This looks like a rough year in Annapolis.

After several really good years under Al Golden, Steve Addazio, Matt Rhule, and Geoff Collins, Temple looked like they pulled off a minor coup when they hired former Northern Illinois head coach Rod Carey to keep the good times rolling in Philly.  After an 8-5 season in 2019, Temple looked more like the 2003 and 2004 program that was kicked out of the old Big East Conference last year.  A 1-6 season almost became an 0-7 season, but the Owls benefitted from USF mistakes to pull out a 2-point win.

One would think that the program couldn’t be worse than last year, but the Owls have major rebuilding projects on both sides of the ball this year.

On the positive side, if you can call it that, Temple was one of the most affected teams by Covid last year.  They almost didn’t play at all and only played their first game in Mid-October, losing narrowly to a Navy team playing its fourth game of the season.  2021 should be another tough one at Lincoln Financial Field.

Here is how the American Athletic media voted at the preseason conference meetings.

2021 American Athletic Conference Preseason Media Poll

Team (First-Place Votes)Points
1.Cincinnati (22)262
2.UCF (2)241
3.SMU188
4.Houston181
5.Memphis168
6.Tulsa153
7.Tulane132
8.East Carolina85
Navy85
10.Temple46
11.South Florida43

The PiRate Ratings are not that different.

American Athletic Conference

Team

PiRate

Mean

Bias

Average
Cincinnati116.3115.3118.0116.5
UCF102.5101.2104.8102.8
Houston101.199.5101.6100.7
Tulsa100.2100.399.7100.1
Tulane98.897.5100.699.0
East Carolina95.394.396.295.3
SMU94.395.495.495.0
Memphis92.492.894.393.2
USF91.089.790.690.4
Navy90.890.090.390.3
Temple80.682.481.981.6

AAC Averages

96.7

96.2

97.6

96.8

The PiRate Ratings are not designed to predict won-loss records for a season, as they have a use by date of the next week’s games.  Nevertheless, we issue predictions just for the fun of it.

American AthleticConf.Overall
Cincinnati8-012-1*
Central Florida6-29-4
Houston6-210-2
Tulsa6-28-4
Memphis5-38-4
Tulane4-46-6
East Carolina4-45-7
SMU3-56-6
Navy1-72-10
South Florida1-72-10
Temple0-82-10
* Cincinnati picked to win AAC Championship Game

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