The pre-spring version of the CFN 2021 rankings with a first look at all the American Athletic Conference teams.
2021 American Athletic Conference Rankings: Pre-Spring
1. Cincinnati Bearcats
Why To Be Happy: Star OT James Hudson and RB Gerrid Dokes are off to the NFL, but that’s about it for an offense that should be every bit as devastating, if not more so. The return of QB Desmond Ridder is everything and he has the parts around him to shine again. However …
What To Work On: Doaks was great, and WR Jayshon Jackson has hit the transfer portal. The defensive line loses a few main guys starting with Elijah Ponder, and the secondary has to replace enough key parts to matter with James Wiggins and Darrick Forrest two big-time playmakers who’ll be missed.
Bottom Line: It’s asking for the world to repeat all the success of 2020, but the Bearcats have the experience and enough main men back to demand nothing less than another amazing run.
2. Memphis Tigers
Why To Be Happy: How do you replace a quarterback who produced like Brady White did? You throw talent at the problem with Grant Gunnell coming in from Arizona and Peter Parrish adding some possible flash from LSU. This was a young, rebuilding team last year that now should be okay at quarterback and loaded everywhere else. There are a few losses, but not enough to be a killer.
What To Work On: The Tigers have to improve the pass defense with most of the starters back, the offense has to slow down with the turnovers, and the explosion needs to return. The O was more than fine, but getting back to 2019 levels would be huge.
Bottom Line: It’s all about being able to challenge Cincinnati, and the Tigers have the parts to do it. It’ll be a loaded fight at quarterback to replace White, more than enough talent is back to repeat the 2020 8-3-level success, and the expectations should be sky high.
3. UCF Knights
Why To Be Happy: The offensive line should be a rock. The Knights always fill in the parts at the skill jobs, and QB Dillon Gabriel is back, but start with the offensive front five that appears to be loaded and build from there. The defense might have had issues, but the front six/seven is loaded with veterans and now a little bit of depth.
What To Work On: There were a ton of opt-outs and missing parts before 2020, and there are a whole slew of losses to the NFL from the 2021 version. The underclassmen are sticking around, but RB Greg McCrae, S Richie Grant, WR/RB Otis Anderson and WR Tre Nixon are just the main guys who have to be replaced, and …
Bottom Line: UCF needs to find the new stars in a hurry. The Knights will be dangerous and explosive again, but Cincinnati might be even better and several other American Athletic Conference teams will be strong, but new head coach Gus Malzahn should have a great first season.
4. SMU Mustangs
Why To Be Happy: Shane Buechele is gone, and in comes Oklahoma transfer Tanner Mordecai to push for the starting quarterback job to keep the machine up and going. North Texas transfer Tre Siggers is a perfect-fit running back for the attack to go along with an already deep backfield, all five starters are retuning to the offensive line, and best of all, WR Reggie Roberson is back.
What To Work On: It might not seem like much, but losing PK Chris Naggar to the NFL matters. He was an all-star who hit 17-of-21 field goals for a team that won two games by three points each.
Bottom Line: The Mustangs have the pieces to challenge for the American Athletic Conference title, but they’ve had them for the last two years and weren’t able to pull it off. If the quarterback situation is solid right away, they’ll be a true challenger to Cincinnati.
5. Houston Cougars
Why To Be Happy: It’s time for this offense to start working already, and it begins with QB Clayton Tune returning along with most of the defense. Active in the transfer portal, getting WR KeSean Carter and CB Alex Hogan from Texas Tech matters, and landing DE Tre Williams from Missouri should help, but …
What To Work On: This is one of the biggest X factor teams in the AAC with so many parts in flux and in the transfer portal. Positive consistency has been non-existent for the program, and this year’s team will need to come together fast with several new parts to be any sort of a player in an improved league.
Bottom Line: Now is when the Houston program might actually get rolling under Dana Holgorsen – at least that’s the hope. The program all but opted out in 2019 to get ready for 2020, and 2020 never got going for obvious reasons. A quick fix would be nice.
6. Tulane Green Wave
Why To Be Happy: There’s not a whole lot of messing around with the transfer portal – the team appears to be relatively settled. That’s a plus considering the 2020 version needs more tweaking than overhauling. The few losses might be more like upgrades if the new parts are as good as expected. As long as QB Michael Pratt keeps improving, look out, because …
What To Work On: The passing game needs work. The addition of Utah transfer RB Devin Brumfield will help the ground game that pays the program’s bills, but there weren’t enough third down conversions – that’s where Pratt has to be better. The secondary needs to get stronger, too.
Bottom Line: The Green Wave might not lead the league in rushing again, but it’ll still be a dangerous team with the right blend of parts to hang with anyone. However, this team has got to figure out how to get off to good starts and needs to be far more consistent.