The American Athletic Conference is the best of the so-called “Little Five” conferences—the leagues that compete for the one major bowl bid that the big boys will toss them. The American currently has three teams that are still undefeated. They’re the most likely league to get the major bowl spot if everyone in the Little Five has at least one loss. All of that means the winner of this league is likely to grace your television set over New Year’s. Here’s a snapshot look at the three contenders—Central Florida, South Florida & Cincinnati…
Central Florida: They got the New Year’s Six bid last year and then beat Auburn to cap an undefeated season and make clear they should have been in the Playoff. The Knights had to replace coaches, as Scott Frost went to Nebraska and Josh Heupel took over.
Frost was a former national championship winning quarterback (1997 Nebraska), as is Heupel (2000 Oklahoma), but the most important quarterback is McKenzie Milton. Milton finished eighth in last year’s Hesiman voting and is a classic dual-threat QB. Another player to keep an eye on is Gabriel Davis, Milton’s favorite target.
Milton completes a high percentage of his passes, stretches the field and is the team’s second-best rusher. UCF has a blowout win of Lane Kiffin’s Florida Atlantic and plays a notable game on Saturday at home against Pitt.
South Florida: Charlie Strong is getting his coaching career back rolling after the ill-fated stretch at Texas. The Bulls rely on a senior transfer at quarterback. Blake Barnett is on his third team, having left Alabama and Arizona State. So far he’s playing well and has a well-balanced corps of receivers.
Tyree McCants leads the team in catches and works the short-yardage game. Randall St. Felix and Darrell Saloman can stretch the field. South Florida’s also got playmakers in the defensive front seven with tackle Kevin Kegler and linebacker Nico Sawtell.
South Florida has knocked off Illinois and Georgia Tech, although having to escape the Illini 25-19 isn’t necessarily a good thing, power conference opponent or not. The Bulls also opened league play with a tight 20-13 win over East Carolina, another program on difficult times.
Cincinnati: Luke Fickell, the man who stood in as Ohio State’s interim coach in 2011, in between Jim Tressel’s firing and Urban Meyer’s arrival, is in his second year at Cincy. Last year was a tough 4-8 campaign, the same as in the final year of Tommy Tuberville’s tenure. But the Bearcats are off and rolling this season.
Cincinnati is the run-oriented tea m among these three contenders. Quarterback Desmond Ridder has only thrown 74 passes in the four games. The Bearcats like to give the football to Michael Warren II, who is averaging over 100 yards-per-game. This is another team with defensive playmakers, notably senior defensive tackle Cortez Broughton.
Cincy tried to challenge itself in non-conference play and played UCLA and Ohio. It’s debatable how good those wins look right now, although the Bobcats could turn it around in MAC play and make that victory shine a little brighter.
The schedule is ideally suited to build drama among these three teams. All three are in the American’s East Division, so there will be head-to-head matchups. And they come on the final three weeks of the season. November 10 is South Florida-Cincinnati, then the Bearcats play Central Florida on November 17. Six days later, on Black Friday, UCF and South Florida meet. Between now and then, it’s about consistency and getting yourself in position.
Central Florida is the team that’s ranked, but it’s just really tough to go undefeated two years in a row. Even Alabama doesn’t pull it off and the odds of college kids stumbling somewhere in a spot they shouldn’t is just very high. And in a league where offenses have free rein, I’m looking for a team that has the one or two defensive playmakers necessary to slow someone down just enough to win a shootout.
That’s why I lean Cincinnati. They have the defensive playmakers and their ability to run the football can take other offenses out of the comfort zone. If they win this league with a record no worse than 12-1, they’ll be on the New Year’s stage for the first time since Brian Kelly was here back in 2009.