AAC expert picks 2021: Most overrated and underrated teams, projected order of finish, bold predictions

Written by on August 22, 2021

The 2021 college football season begins as the last few have for the American Athletic Conference with fans and media questioning whether this is the year — finally — that a Group of Five team earns a College Football Playoff berth. The AAC loves to purport itself as a “Power Six” conference, and there’s definitely something to that self-imposed moniker given the quality of talent and coaching in the league. Perhaps never more so than this season.

Cincinnati is the top playoff contender in the conference coming off a dominant 9-1 season with its lone loss coming in a tightly contested Peach Bowl game against Georgia. The Bearcats are -220 to win the AAC, according to Caesars Sportsbook. With Gus Malzahn now leading UCF after an up-and-down tenure at Auburn, there’s renewed optimism that the Knights will contend not only within the league but nationally despite coming off a disappointing 6-4 campaign last season. Dana Holgorsen enters with his best (and possibly last) chance to make waves at Houston, while the actual Green Wave hope to breakthrough with Tulane hovering around .500 for the last four seasons under Willie Fritz.

Our CBS Sports college football experts are here to provide their picks and predictions for the AAC ahead of the 2021 season. Check them all out below.

Most overrated team

UCF: Remember what happened the last time a fired Auburn coach in his mid-50s got a fresh start by replacing a coach known for high-octane offense? It didn’t go well for Tommy Tuberville at Texas Tech. You can argue Malzahn is a better coach than Tuberville, but his 66% winning mark at Auburn is comparable to Tuberville’s 68% with the Tigers. UCF is tasking an alleged offensive guru whose Auburn offense averaged 383 yards per game last season with at least maintaining a UCF offense that averaged 568 yards in 2020 under Josh Heupel. That’s a recipe for disappointment rooted in a perception of Malzahn that is stuck in 2013. — David Cobb (also Chip Patterson)

Houston: I’m beginning to sell coach Dana Holgorsen. He’s smart and can call plays with the best of ’em, but he’s not a recruiter and there doesn’t seem to be a lot of direction within the program. The silver lining of 2020 is that Houston can hit the reset button easily, and this team returns plenty of talent and experience. Plus, it misses Cincinnati and UCF altogether. But there are some tricky road games, and I need to see that next step from a Holgorsen-led team before I believe it. — Ben Kercheval (also Jerry Palm)

Navy: Navy may ride and fall more than most teams on quarterback play. With Keenan Reynolds and Ricky Dobbs, the Midshipmen were great or close to great. That puts a lot on sophomore Xavier Arline. The schedule is brutal out of the box — Marshall, Air Force at home, at Houston, then UCF, SMU, at Memphis, Cincinnati, at Miami and at Notre Dame. Navy hasn’t had consecutive losing seasons since 2002. After a 3-7 drop off, it will be hard to get above .500 this season. — Dennis Dodd

Memphis: I’m not trying to disrespect Memphis, but most of the preseason rankings I’ve seen — including our CBS Sports 130 — have the Tigers ranked well ahead of SMU and Tulsa, and I’m not entirely sure that’ll prove to be accurate over the season. I’m picking Memphis to finish fourth in the conference, but it could easily be fifth or sixth. Maybe even seventh. — Tom Fornelli

Cincinnati:  Look, I don’t think the Bearcats are going to be bad. In fact, I think that they’re going to be pretty darn good. But it seems like the entire college football world just assumes that they’ll waltz through the AAC and into their second straight New Year’s Six bowl game. UCF is in a perfect spot with Malzahn in the house to take advantage of the ultra-talented athletes on the roster. I don’t hate Cincinnati; it’s going to be solid. But it’s unfair to the rest of the AAC to just assume that the Bearcats are the new juggernaut after last season’s New Year’s Six appearance. — Barrett Sallee

Most underrated team

SMU: The loss of Shane Buechele might have some selling SMU stock, but I think that’s a mistake. Former Oklahoma quarterback Tanner Mordecai can hold down the position serviceably until four-star freshman Preston Stone is ready to take over, and the combination of the two gives a pretty high floor for Sonny Dykes and the offensive staff. The skill position rooms are impressive enough that SMU will be in the mix in most games, and if the Mustangs get better play in the trenches, they will contend for a spot in the AAC title game. — Patterson (also Fornelli)

Cincinnati: Even though Cincinnati opens in the top eight, its ceiling is much higher. Think undefeated, think playoff if the Bearcats win at Notre Dame and Indiana. It’s certainly doable. Desmond Ridder is the most ignored big-time quarterback out there. His 66% completion mark was better than Ian Book, D’Eriq King, Nick Starkel and Malik Willis last season. Only Clemson, Alabama, Ohio State, Notre Dame and Oklahoma have a better winning percentage than Cincinnati since 2018. — Dodd

UCF: Malzahn didn’t work out at Auburn because his system got stale and he was unable to adjust in a conference that has teams with comparable or better athletes. That won’t be the case at UCF. He has a perfect quarterback in Dillon Gabriel to run his system, speed all over the field, and he won’t have the pressure that he faced on an annual basis on the Plains. Malzahn with a dynamic quarterback and ultra-experienced offensive line equals success. — Sallee

Memphis: Losing longtime quarterback Brady White Ph.D is big and part of the reason why it seems like others are selling Memphis too quickly. Yes, replacing White will be important. Arizona transfer Grant Gunnell probably won’t put up the same numbers, but he flashed some potential. There are still lots of weapons in the receiving game and Calvin Austin III is a burner. The secondary returns some quality players so the pass defense should shore up a bit. The early-season test against Mississippi State could go a ways in telling us how good this team could be in 2021. — Kercheval

Houston: There are 11 teams in the AAC and each team plays eight conference games, which means there are two teams that each school does not face in a given season. Remarkably, the two that the Cougars miss this year are Cincinnati and UCF. So basically, it’s now or never as Holgorsen enters his third season sporting a dismal 7-13 record. With no glaring weaknesses within a roster full of returning players, the bet here is that this squad reaches 10 wins and finishes second in the conference. — Cobb

Tulane: The Green Wave flies under the radar in the American, and that is not without merit. Before coach WIllie Fritz arrived in 2015, Tulane had managed just one winning season since 2002.  Fritz has turned things around though and the Green Wave enter 2021 on a three-season streak of bowl appearances. They’re likely headed for a fourth.  While they may not be ready to compete for the conference title just yet, Fritz has done a good job of making Tulane football pretty competitive in the best of the Group of Five conferences. — Palm

Bold predictions

  • Dennis Dodd: Cincinnati will win at Notre Dame and Indiana, entering November ranked in the top five with a shot at the CFP. 
  • Tom Fornelli: Both Cincinnati and UCF will enter the AAC Championship Game with two losses, but the winner will still earn a New Year’s Six spot.
  • Chip Patterson: Cincinnati will win every conference game by double digits. The Bearcats are a well-rounded team that grade out at least a touchdown better than the next-best team, UCF, on a neutral field. The Bearcats are elite because they can get stops on defense. 
  • Barrett Sallee: The marriage between Malzahn and the elite athletes on UCF’s roster will result in another conference title for one of the Group of Five’s best. Malzahn is relaxed, no longer living in the Auburn pressure cooker and has Gabriel, who can do all of the things he asks his quarterbacks to do.
  • Ben Kercheval: Malzahn will get back to his roots with the ground game, allowing UCF’s Johnny Richardson to become the AAC’s leading rusher. 
  • David Cobb: Houston will reach 10 wins in Holgorsen’s third season after a 7-13 start to his tenure. With an incredibly manageable schedule that misses both Cincinnati and UCF in the regular season, the Cougars should be able to make the AAC title game.
  • Jerry Palm: Cincinnati will win at least one of its games at Notre Dame and Indiana. If the Bearcats win both and finish 13-0, they will legitimately be in the conversation for a playoff spot.

AAC predicted order of finish

AAC champion

Cincinnati: Last year’s Bearcats team was one of the best Group of Five squads in a decade. Cincinnati fielded a top-10 defense and got some impressive play during a midseason stretch from Ridder. While I acknowledge the thin margins for a team that has mostly won with defense in a league that’s packed with explosive offenses, the culture of winning has been fully installed throughout 31 wins across the last three seasons. Here in his fifth season, coach Luke Fickell has made championships the expectation, and I join his roster and staff in believing the Bearcats are years ahead a tier above the rest of the contenders in the American. — Patterson (also Dodd, Fornelli, Kercheval, Cobb, Palm)

UCF: Yes, the road game at Cincinnati on Oct. 16 will be the game of the year in the AAC, but the Knights will be coming off cruisers against East Carolina and at Navy with a bye week before the game against the Midshipmen. Their other road games within the conference are against SMU and Temple. The Knights will top the Bearcats and give themselves a big tiebreaker that, even if they suffer an upset along the way, will be enough to get them the title. — Sallee


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