AAC post-spring football rankings

Now that spring practice, and most of the ensuing transfers, are complete, time for some forecasts.
UCF Knights quarterback McKenzie Milton (10) works his way past South Florida Bulls linebacker Nico Sawtelle (54) for a touchdown during the first half of Friday’s (11/24/17) in-state rival NCAA football game between UCF Knights and the USF Bulls at Spectrum Stadium at the University of Central Florida (UCF).
DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times UCF Knights quarterback McKenzie Milton (10) works his way past South Florida Bulls linebacker Nico Sawtelle (54) for a touchdown during the first half of Friday’s (11/24/17) in-state rival NCAA football game between UCF Knights and the USF Bulls at Spectrum Stadium at the University of Central Florida (UCF).
Published May 15, 2018

In the spirit of the way-too-early 2018 college football projections that have inundated cyberspace, we're getting in on the premature prognostications.

Well, not that premature. Spring practices are in the books, and presumably, most of the 11th-hour transfers have been completed nationwide. As a result, we can make some hypotheses that are fairly educated, and/or fairly subject to derision.

Here then, are our American Athletic Conference post-spring rankings (teams listed with 2017 records).

East Division
1. UCF (13-0, 8-0)
The reigning national champs (at least in the Colley Matrix stratosphere) remain the class of this conference. QB McKenzie Milton, last year's AAC Offensive Player of the Year, returns every prominent skill guy except top receiver Tre'Quan Smith. The defense must replenish up front, but the back end remains pretty sturdy despite CB Mike Hughes' jump to the NFL. The glaring question is how effectively the Knights transition from Scott Frost to new coach Josh Heupel.

2. USF (10-2, 6-2)
The Bulls' fortunes hinge on their quarterback, whomever wins the job. Charlie Strong risked creating locker-room furor by bringing in graduate transfer Blake Barnett to compete against popular veterans Chris Oladokun and Brett Kean. That said, we believe Oladokun or Kean still starts opening day. The rest of the offensive skill spots are loaded, and the o-line is serviceable. Elsewhere, depth issues remain at linebacker and safety, and a kicker still must be found.

3. Temple (7-6, 4-4)
Arguably no league team is trending upward more profoundly than the Owls, last seen knocking FIU's Alex McGough out of the game in a 28-3 Gasparilla Bowl romp. QB Frank Nutile, who took over in Week Eight and went 4-2, is the unquestioned starter now. Top rushers David Hood and Ryquell Armstead (1,242 combined yards) return, as does leading receiver Isiah Wright (46 catches, 668 yards). Seven defensive starters are back, including all three linebackers.

4. Cincinnati (4-8, 2-6)
The long-term future appears solid for the Bearcats, who had the AAC's top-ranked recruiting class in '18 and No. 3 class in '17 (per 247Sports). The short term? Sketchy. QB Hayden Moore returns for what seems his 14th season, but currently he's the only QB on the roster who has thrown a collegiate pass. Nearly the entire starting offensive line must be replaced. So must LB Jaylin Minor, the leading tackler.

5. Connecticut (3-9, 2-6)
The Huskies will enter 2018 with a different starting quarterback (juco transfer David Pindell) and offensive coordinator (former Chicago Bears staffer John Dunn) from the '17 opener. Elsewhere, they may be even greener. Coach Randy Edsall said prior to spring practice he has only seven scholarship seniors, with 73 percent of the roster composed of underclassmen.

6. East Carolina (3-9, 2-6)
No AAC coach occupies a hotter seat than ECU's Scottie Montgomery, who recently said goodbye to the AD (Jeff Compher) who hired him. QB Gardner Minshew bolted for Washington State as a graduate transfer, leaving a newbie to navigate a schedule that features North Carolina, Virginia Tech and USF in three of the first four weeks. Seven starters return on defense, but considering the Pirates allowed 542.1 yards a game, we don't know if that should cause fans to grin or grimace.

West Division
1. Memphis (10-3, 7-1)
Coach Mike Norvell recently told a Jackson (Miss.) Rotary group that Tigers success "is here to stay." Based on what returns, it's tough to argue. The big question is at quarterback, where Arizona State transfer Brady White and redshirt sophomore David Moore are battling to replace QB Riley Ferguson. Kick-return extraordinaire Tony Pollard is back, as is top rusher Darrell Henderson (1,154 yards). The defense allowed nearly 490 yards a game in '17, but eight starters return.

2. Navy (7-6, 4-4)
The Midshipmen, last seen annihilating Virginia 49-7 in the Military Bowl, must replace seven starters on each side. That's easier to do when your system is sure-fire and your coaching staff annually remains intact. Converted slot-back Malcolm Perry (1,182 rushing yards in '17) is the projected starting QB, but veteran Zach Abey (11 career starts) also returns. Navy was 85th nationally in turnover margin last year. We see that number — and Navy's win total — improving.

3. Houston (7-5, 5-3)
Four of the Coogs' five defeats were by six or fewer points. Converted WR D'Eriq King, who torched USF in the second half last year, is the offensive focal point now, but there's minimal experience around him (2016 and '17 leading rusher Duke Catalon left the teamm for personal reasons). DT Ed Oliver, possibly the No. 1 overall pick in the '19 draft, leads a defense that could be among the league's best, especially now that S Deontay Anderson — an Ole Miss transfer — is eligible.

4. SMU (7-6, 4-4)
After its 51-10 Frisco Bowl embarrassment against Louisiana Tech, the Mustangs ran approximately 300 live reps in spring practice, new coach Sonny Dykes estimates. Veteran QB Ben Hicks will run Dykes' 'Air Raid' offense (a run-and-shoot variation) that will be coordinated by former UConn OC Rhett Lashlee. We tend to believe that Frisco fiasco was more an aberration, and that SMU will contend for a bowl again.

5. Tulane (5-7, 3-5)
The Green Wave return 15 starters from a squad that came within a whisker of bowl eligibility (three losses by three or fewer points). Arguably the most glaring concern is quarterback depth, where only veteran Jonathan Banks (2,389 total yards in '17) has taken a collegiate snap. If he remains healthy, Tulane appears capable of reaching its first bowl game in five years.

6. Tulsa (2-10, 2-6)
We were as stunned as anyone with how the Golden Hurricane bottomed out in 2017. As stands to reason, the roster was inundated with juco transfers and early enrollees over the winter, and a new strength staff was brought in. Sophomore QB Luke Skipper, who started five games last season, led TD drives on all four of his possessions in Tulsa's frigid spring game and appears the guy for now. This team may improve a bit, but we don't foresee any quantum leap.