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Projecting the 2020 American Athletic Conference football season

We predicted the season would materialize. Now we offer some more bold forecasts.
Memphis receivers Damonte Coxie (10) and Calvin Austin III (84) celebrate after Coxie's 49-yard touchdown catch against SMU during the Tigers' 54-48 victory last season. Both are back for Memphis, a popular pick to repeat as American Athletic Conference champion.
Memphis receivers Damonte Coxie (10) and Calvin Austin III (84) celebrate after Coxie's 49-yard touchdown catch against SMU during the Tigers' 54-48 victory last season. Both are back for Memphis, a popular pick to repeat as American Athletic Conference champion. [ MARK HUMPHREY | AP ]
Published Sep. 9, 2020

Though three American Athletic Conference teams played non-conference games during Labor Day weekend, the league season begins in earnest over the next two weeks.

As it stands, the AAC is one of six Division I-A conferences opting to play this fall. Based on your COVID-19 viewpoint, Commissioner Mike Aresco and the league’s presidents are to be lauded or blasted for that decision.

Regardless, we see the conference getting through the season, with only a handful of postponements or cancellations along the way. The steady arrival of more rapid, efficient testing helps salvage this surreal autumn.

But that’s only one bold prediction we offer in our annual league preview. Here are the rest:

Team on the rise

Houston quarterback Clayton Tune showed promise in seven games last season, and Dana Holgorsen’s QBs typically flourish in the second year in his system.
Houston quarterback Clayton Tune showed promise in seven games last season, and Dana Holgorsen’s QBs typically flourish in the second year in his system. [ ERIC CHRISTIAN SMITH | AP ]

Houston. After an utterly disastrous debut season (4-8), which included quarterback D’Eriq King opting out before the term took on a COVID-19 connotation, second-year coach Dana Holgorsen should rebound nicely. King’s replacement, junior Clayton Tune, showed promise in seven games last season, and Holgorsen’s QBs typically flourish in the second year in his system. Holgorsen also replenished his beleaguered defense with a bushel of Division I-A transfers. After a daunting opening-night assignment at Memphis on Sept. 18, the schedule’s very manageable.

Team on the decline

Navy quarterback Dalen Morris (8) looks to throw as BYU defensive lineman Zac Dawe (99) rushes in during the first half of the Cougars' 55-3 rout Monday night in Annapolis, Md.
Navy quarterback Dalen Morris (8) looks to throw as BYU defensive lineman Zac Dawe (99) rushes in during the first half of the Cougars' 55-3 rout Monday night in Annapolis, Md. [ TOMMY GILLIGAN | AP ]

Navy. The Midshipmen aren’t as dreadful as Monday night’s nationally televised embarrassment against BYU indicated. Following that 55-3 home loss, coach Ken Niumatalolo acknowledged his team hadn’t engaged in live tackling since last season’s Liberty Bowl (a precaution against COVID-19). The Midshipmen will progress, and progress rapidly. That said, a mild regression is expected when you have to replace a talent such as quarterback Malcolm Perry (the 2019 AAC Offensive Player of the Year).

Player of the year

SMU quarterback Shane Buechele, seen scrambling against USF last season, passed for nearly 4,000 yards in 2019.
SMU quarterback Shane Buechele, seen scrambling against USF last season, passed for nearly 4,000 yards in 2019. [ OCTAVIO JONES | Times ]

Quarterback Shane Buechele, SMU. Despite a spotty season opener Saturday (367 passing yards, one TD, two picks), we’re still pegging Buechele over Memphis counterpart Brady White because White has a new head coach (Ryan Silverfield) and recently lost an NFL-caliber all-purpose weapon in tailback Kenneth Gainwell (who opted out). Buechele passed for nearly 4,000 yards in Coach Sonny Dykes’ QB-friendly Air Raid system last season and will be surrounded by veteran talent.

Comeback player of the year

UCF quarterback McKenzie Milton (10) is recognized on the field with his classmates during senior night ceremonies prior to the Knights' game against USF last season. Milton, who hasn't appeared in a game since suffering a horrific knee injury against the Bulls in November 2018, appears on track to return to action at some point this fall.
UCF quarterback McKenzie Milton (10) is recognized on the field with his classmates during senior night ceremonies prior to the Knights' game against USF last season. Milton, who hasn't appeared in a game since suffering a horrific knee injury against the Bulls in November 2018, appears on track to return to action at some point this fall. [ ANDREW J. KRAMER | ZUMAPRESS.com ]

Quarterback McKenzie Milton, UCF. If he manages only one snap this season in a victory formation, the Knights’ inspiring fifth-year senior still wins this honor going away. From what we’ve heard via Josh Heupel, Milton’s on track for a lot more than a mere cameo in 2020. Incredible, considering the guy darn near lost part of his leg after that grotesque 2018 knee injury.

Breakthrough player of the year

Gerrid Doaks, Cincinnati. This sturdy (6-feet, 230 pounds) Bearcats senior beat out Armwood alumnus Jerome Ford — among others — for the starting tailback job vacated by two-time 1,000-yard rusher Michael Warren. Doaks, who has posted a pair of 500-yard seasons during his injury-besieged career, also is considered a fierce pass blocker, which could keep him on the field darn near every down.

Clone of the year

Mitchell Brinkman, USF. Without question, the Bulls’ most uncanny story line of the summer was the arrival of Brinkman, darn near a dead ringer for his predecessor at tight end, Mitch Wilcox. A graduate transfer from Northern Illinois, Brinkman has the same first name, number (89), moderately cropped hairstyle and physical frame (6-4, 250) as Wilcox. The most glaring difference will be their offensive playbooks; Brinkman’s should be a bit more potent.

On the hot seat

Philip Montgomery, Tulsa. Since its 10-win season in 2016, Montgomery’s program has totaled nine victories. The Golden Hurricane appeared on the cusp last year, shocking UCF and losing to Memphis and SMU by seven total points, but the cusp no longer will cut it. Tulsa returns a ton of experience on offense, but lost nine practice days in August due to eight positive COVID-19 tests. If the Hurricane don’t catch better breaks this fall, Montgomery could be in trouble.

Five more bold predictions

1. Even with two Power Five programs not playing this fall (for now, anyway), the AAC still doesn’t get a team in the College Football Playoff.

2. The over-under on AAC coaches getting fired is 1. How can one reasonably get rid of a coach who guides a team through a pandemic? Moreover, the financial travails created by COVID-19 will leave many schools reluctant to dismiss anyone (and pay their buyout).

3. Tulane upsets Memphis at home on Nov. 27

4. Despite some game postponements and cancellations, the college football regular season will be completed.

5. Milton starts the Knights’ regular-season finale at USF on Nov. 27

Joey Knight’s predicted order of finish

1. Memphis

2. UCF

3. Cincinnati

4. SMU

5. Houston

6. Tulane

7. Temple

8. USF

9. Navy

10. Tulsa

11. East Carolina