College football offseason preview: American Athletic Conference, Part II

Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

Whether you subscribe to the "Power 6" branding or not, there's no question that at this point, the AAC is the shining light of the Group of 5 in college football. A G5 SEC, if you will. Per SP+, the AAC graded out 5.3 points per team better than any other G5 in 2019, and it's projected 8.4 points better this season.

It's not hard to see why: Among the conference's projected top five, four teams return their starting quarterbacks, two teams have accounted for the past three G5 New Year's Six bowl bids (UCF and Memphis) and another has won 11 games each of the past two seasons (Cincinnati). The firepower has been strong, and it doesn't appear that'll change in 2020.

The primary questions here: Can someone surpass Memphis and UCF? Is it Cincy's turn? Can SMU ride last year's improvement even further? Can Navy find a quarterback and roll once more?


SMU

SMU Head coach: Sonny Dykes (15-10, third year)
2019: 10-3 (6-2), 48th in SP+
2020 projection: 7-5 (4-4), 56th
Five best returning players: WR Reggie Roberson Jr., QB Shane Buechele, LB Richard McBryde, LT Jaylon Thomas, CB Ar'mani Johnson

In 2019, SMU fielded a roster that featured 60 new players, including 14 transfers from five-year schools. Former Texas starting QB Shane Buechele was the headliner, but the two-deep was plumped up considerably by guys looking to return home to Dallas and give the Mustangs a second chance.

With college football potentially allowing for free one-year transfer waivers to every player soon, this could both become the norm and set off a pretty incredible recruiting rivalry between Sonny Dykes' Mustangs and Dana Holgorsen's Houston Cougars, who are also dipping heavily into the "come back home to Texas" market.

With transfers in tow, Dykes made one hell of a second-year leap. SMU improved from 93rd to 48th in SP+ and from five to 10 wins. The Mustangs are maybe one unit away from potentially making another run in 2020; the defensive line has to replace five of last season's top six tacklers and isn't getting a transfer upgrade.

The defense in general could use a little sprucing up. While the offense took a huge leap last fall (from 105th to 30th in offensive SP+), the D improved only a little. In the Mustangs' three losses, they allowed 6.5 yards per play and 47 points per game, and they won five games while allowing 30-plus points as well. Coordinator Kevin Kane was able to create disruption -- the Mustangs were 20th in havoc rate and 19th in sack rate -- but at quite a big-play cost: They gave up 4.7 passes per game of 20-plus yards (128th).

The return of players such as linebacker Richard McBryde and sticky corners Brandon Stephens and Ar'mani Johnson should again assure high aggression levels, but the line is going to be reliant on newcomers for run support, and the two best pass-rushers (end Delontae Scott and linebacker Patrick Nelson) are gone.

Offensively, Dykes replaced coordinator Rhett Lashlee (now at Miami) with Appalachian State running backs coach Garrett Riley. It is an interesting choice -- Dykes, the air raid disciple, going in seemingly a run-friendly direction -- but Lashlee himself was a Gus Malzahn disciple, and SMU was actually extremely balanced in its run-pass rates, at least on standard downs.

The temptation to throw this season might be pretty high, however. Buechele, receivers Reggie Roberson Jr. and Rashee Rice and tight end Kylen Granson (combined: 1,927 yards, 11.3 per target) all return, while last season's leading rushers, Xavier Jones and Ke'Mon Freeman, don't. The line is experienced, and sophomore RB TJ McDaniel passed a 41-carry audition, but the passing game could be dynamite.

SP+ projects the Mustangs 56th, which makes the schedule a cascade of potentially close games. They start the year with three likely wins, then embark on a nine-game stretch in which eight are projected within 6.3 points. It gives SMU a 19% chance of going 9-3 or better and a 15% chance of going 5-7 or worse. Solid close-game execution and a defensive line that is merely average instead of bad could go a long way.

Navy

Navy Head coach: Ken Niumatalolo (98-60, 13th year)
2019: 11-2 (7-1), 31st
2020 projection: 7-5 (5-3), 55th
Five best returning players: LB Diego Fagot, FB Jamale Carothers, FS Evan Fochtman, SB CJ Williams, DE Jackson Perkins

From the moment the great Keenan Reynolds ran out of eligibility, Navy's football program found itself on a slide. Ken Niumatalolo's Midshipmen had gone 11-2 and ranked 29th in SP+ in 2015 but fell to 9-5 and 52nd, then 7-6 and 73rd, and finally 3-10 and 101st. The option offense directed by Niumatalolo and coordinator Ivin Jasper struggled post-Reynolds, and the defense was a mess: Its No. 114 ranking in 2018 was the worst of the Niu era.

Even great coaches can lose their edge and suffer for it. But great coaches can also find that edge again.

In 2019, Niumatalolo and Jasper handed the QB reins to Malcolm Perry, a utility guy who had played at just about every skill position and actually entered 2019 as Navy's leading returning passer, rusher and receiver. On defense, Niumatalolo replaced retired defensive coordinator Dale Pehrson with aggressive former Kennesaw State DC Brian Newberry.

The effects were dramatic. Perry was transcendent, posting 2,100 non-sack rushing yards while completing 48 passes for 1,084 more. He was drafted by the Miami Dolphins as a receiver. Navy surged from 82nd to 18th in offensive SP+.

The defensive improvement was even more surprising: Navy attacked the quarterback from all angles (18th in sack rate) and leaped to 53rd in defensive SP+, its best ranking on D since 2004. And despite overtures from Mike Leach and Mississippi State, Newberry elected to remain in Annapolis.

There's still plenty of turnover to deal with. There always is at service academies. Of the 18 players in the front seven with 90-plus snaps, 10 are gone, though the returnees -- middle linebacker Diego Fagot, end Jackson Perkins, tackle J'arius Warren and exciting sophomore linebacker Chelen Garnes -- are of high quality. The secondary should be sturdy: Safeties Kevin Brennan and Evan Fochtman and corner Cameron Kinley are all aggressive and exciting.

Offensively, it all comes down to the QB, and Niumatalolo and Jasper didn't get a full set of spring practices to figure out standouts in a crowded race to replace Perry. Sophomore Perry Olsen, junior Tyger Goslin and senior Dalen Morris all saw 2019 action, and slotback CJ Williams was Perry-esque, posting 298 rushing yards, 210 receiving yards and 90 passing.

The line gets thinned out by graduation, though potential all-conference tackle Billy Honaker is back. And the skill corps is loaded. Fullbacks Jamale Carothers and Nelson Smith (combined: 1,305 yards, 21 TDs) return, and if Williams isn't the quarterback, he and fellow slot Keoni-Kordell Makekau are dangerous on the edges. Every player who caught more than two passes is back, as well, including leading receiver Mychal Cooper.

There's just enough new blood to make you worry about slippage, and SP+ projects Navy to fall back to around 55th. But even there, the Midshipmen are favored, if slightly, in nine of 12 games. Strong close-game execution (which, of course, will require strong QB play) could make this another excellent season.

Cincinnati

Cincinnati Head coach: Luke Fickell (26-13, fourth year)
2019: 11-3 (7-1), 34th
2020 projection: 8-4 (5-3), 34th
Five best returning players: DE Myjai Sanders, DT Curtis Brooks, WR Alec Pierce, CB Ahmad Gardner, QB Desmond Ridder

Dec. 9, 2009, was almost the greatest day in the history of Cincinnati Bearcats football. Brian Kelly's team came back to beat No. 14 Pitt 45-44 in an all-time classic, and with Nebraska poised to upset Texas in the Big 12 title game, UC was positioned to likely remain decimal points ahead of TCU for the No. 2 ranking in the BCS standings. But Texas' Hunter Lawrence made a last-second field goal in another classic, and the Horns advanced.

Within five years, through no fault of their own, the Bearcats were a virtual mid-major. No team was exploited more by early-2010s conference realignment than Cincinnati, which won double-digit games five times in six years but couldn't find a P5 home.

It feels apt, then, that Cincinnati has become the Group of 5 team most acting like a P5 team on the recruiting trail: Luke Fickell has reeled in top-50 classes twice in three years now. He didn't wait for these recruits to drive success, either: In 2018-19, he went a combined 22-5 -- 0-4 vs. teams that finished with 12-plus wins and 22-1 against everybody else. And Fickell turned down Michigan State in February to remain at Nippert Stadium for a bit longer.

UC jumped to 36th in defensive SP+ in 2018, then 32nd last fall. The Bearcats return their top eight tacklers on the line -- including a dynamite duo of end Myjai Sanders and tackle Curtis Brooks -- and six of seven primary defensive backs. Former Ohio State linebacker Marcus Freeman, 34, has quickly become one of the best young defensive coordinators in the game, and he and Fickell could have their best UC defense yet.

The Bearcats have fallen short on offense, though. While UC improved from 103rd in offensive SP+ in his first year to 74th and 65th the past two, the passing game has been inconsistent: QB Desmond Ridder has produced a passer rating of 180 or higher seven times in his career and 115 or less 10 times. His production hit a snag due in part to injuries last season, but he was still inconsistent before that.

It'll be hard to generate more consistency with a new receiving corps. Five of the seven players targeted more than 15 times last season are gone, though the return of wideout Alec Pierce, the offense's most explosive player, helps.

Fickell has no problem leaning on the run game, though. Leading rusher Michael Warren II is gone, but between Alabama transfer Jerome Ford, senior Gerrid Doaks, sophomore Charles McClelland (who missed 2019) and recent star recruits Ryan Montgomery and Ethan Wright, the RB stable is still full. And that says nothing of the mobile Ridder or a line that returns six players with starting experience.

Despite the iffy passing game, this still should be another dynamite year. SP+ projects the Bearcats as favorites in nine games (the exceptions: trips to Nebraska and UCF and a virtual toss-up against Memphis). Fickell's building job isn't done, but the progress has been blatantly obvious.

Memphis

Memphis Head coach: Ryan Silverfield (first year)
2019: 12-2 (7-1), 17th
2020 projection: 9-3 (6-2), 22nd
Five best returning players: RB Kenneth Gainwell, WR Damonte Coxie, QB Brady White, DE/DT Joseph Dorceus, FS Quindell Johnson

It's really hard to make three straight A-grade hires. Think about it: Before Oklahoma hired Bob Stoops and Lincoln Riley, it hired John Blake. We might soon find that Ohio State has nailed it (Jim Tressel, Urban Meyer and too-early-to-tell Ryan Day). Hell, we might soon find that UCF has done the same, even if its first A-grade hire (George O'Leary) stayed too long. But Memphis is sitting at two straight A+ hires. No pressure, Ryan Silverfield.

Under Justin Fuente and then Mike Norvell, Memphis has either held steady or improved in SP+ for eight consecutive years. Since 2006, only WKU (2010-16), Alabama (2007-12) and Minnesota (2011-16) have come even close to that streak. After last season's performance -- the Tigers went 12-2 and finished 17th in SP+ -- it's going to be awfully hard for Silverfield to improve things further now that Norvell is off to Florida State. But he has got just enough personnel back to give it a go.

For starters, his two coordinators have impressive résumés: Kevin Johns is a Kevin Wilson disciple who helped Norvell steer the ship last season, while former Colorado head coach Mike MacIntyre did a decent job last year at Ole Miss.

The offense, which ranked eighth in offensive SP+ last season, returns a 4,000-yard passer (Brady White), 1,200-yard receiver (Damonte Coxie) and, in Kenneth Gainwell, one of the most unique and exciting utility men in college football. In 14 games, Gainwell combined 231 rushes with 61 pass targets and gained 2,069 yards with 16 touchdowns.

It doesn't stop there. The Tigers also feature junior Kylan Watkins, Auburn transfer Asa Martin and juco All-American Kalyn Grandberry at running back, and while the receiving corps got thinned out a bit, it returns two seniors (slot Pop Williams, tight end Sean Dykes) who missed 2019 with injury and junior Calvin Austin III, another big-play guy. There's not a lot of size here outside of Coxie, but the depth of speed is terrifying. Plus, three starters and last season's top two backups return on the line.

Memphis' offense has been excellent for a while, but last season's breakthrough was made possible by a defensive surge: The Tigers rose from 87th to 40th in defensive SP+, and they did so despite a lack of size up front and experience in the back. The former was exploited ruthlessly by Penn State in the Cotton Bowl and might not be rectified this year. But the secondary returns six of last season's top seven, including play-making safety Quindell Johnson and senior corners T.J. Carter and Jacobi Francis. MacIntyre's pass rush, led by senior end Joseph Dorceus, should be diverse and effective, but there could be some matchup issues here and there with the run defense.

Because of the seemingly sure-thing nature of the offense, SP+ is confident in Memphis' chances at another big season. It projects the Tigers 22nd, with three relative toss-ups (at Purdue, UCF, at Cincinnati) and nine likely wins. The Tigers are equipped ... if Silverfield is up for the job. He has got enormous shoes to fill.

UCF

UCF Head coach: Josh Heupel (22-4, third year)
2019: 10-3 (6-2), 14th
2020 projection: 9-3 (6-2), 18th
Five best returning players: RB Otis Anderson, QB Dillon Gabriel, DE Tre'mon Morris-Brash, WR Marlon Williams, LB Eric Mitchell

Over the past three seasons, UCF is an incredible 35-4 with an average ranking of 18th in SP+. In a time when tempo is becoming less of an advantage for most college football offenses, UCF has established a unique identity by figuring out how to go faster. Its best SP+ ranking came last season: 14th, higher than Pac-12 champion Oregon, near-CFP-qualifier Baylor, and either of the UCF teams that reached the New Year's Six. With a freshman quarterback, the Knights held steady at 14th on offense while jumping to 21st on defense.

That might run contrary to your own impressions. UCF lost more games last season than in the previous two combined, didn't it? Aren't the Knights now just 10-4 after their 25-game win streak?

Behold, the power of close games: UCF went 5-0 in one-score games from 2017 through the 2018 regular season, but it has lost four of five since. They lost at Pitt via last-second two-point conversion, then fell to Cincinnati and Tulsa by a combined six points despite winning the yardage battle by a total of 186. The god of randomness always settles the score; you just don't know when it'll happen.

Josh Heupel's Knights have to replace a couple of all-conference offensive linemen in 2020, plus 1,200-yard receiver Gabriel Davis and excellent defenders in linebacker Nate Evans and corner Nevelle Clarke. But that's almost literally it. And they might have two starting QBs back: sophomore Dillon Gabriel and senior McKenzie Milton, who missed all of 2019 after his catastrophic 2018 leg injury. But there's no pressure there -- if Milton still isn't healthy enough to be effective, this is still a potential top-15 team.

The UCF offense has its own Gainwell-type utility man in Otis Anderson, dangerous RBs in Greg McCrae and Bentavious Thompson, and a go-to receiver in Tre Nixon. Plus, having terrifying deep threats in the slot (Marlon Williams and Jacob Harris last year: 1,165 yards, 16.6 per catch) is a feature of the Heupel offense. Young potential stars like Amari Johnson, Oklahoma transfer Jaylon Robinson and incoming freshman Stretch Credle might have to wait until 2021 to get an extended run.

UCF's defense jumped to 21st in defensive SP+, and the progress started from the back. The Knights ranked second in passing success rate allowed and eighth in completion rate allowed. They had a solid pass rush -- one that might suffer without rush specialist Brendon Hayes -- and a secondary that rolled six deep. Safeties Richie Grant, Antwan Collier and Aaron Robinson return after combining for 13 tackles for loss and 32 passes defensed, and corner Tay Gowan is one of the best in the AAC. Even if the pass rush slacks, this is another top-40 defense on paper.

Barring a surprise here or there, UCF basically faces a three-game schedule: North Carolina in Week 1, at Memphis in mid-October, and Cincinnati in late November. How the Knights perform in these likely close games will determine whether they make another NY6 run or have to settle for another mere 10-win year.