Short-timers Cincinnati, Houston, UCF expected to lead the AAC

The Big 12 is skimming the top of the American Athletic Conference next season, changing the landscape for a second-tier conference that has struggled for some national respectability.

Last year’s AAC champion, Cincinnati (13-1, 8-0 AAC), became the first school outside of a major conference to reach the College Football Playoff. Second-ranked Houston (12-2, 8-0) beat Auburn in the Birmingham Bowl and was ranked No. 17 in the nation. Central Florida (9-4, 5-3) beat Florida in the Gasparilla Bowl.

All three will make a move in the Big 12 in 2023. First, they are expected to finish first in their final AAC campaign.

Cincinnati, on the back of transfers and recognized upperclassmen, had a strong 2021 season and advanced to the CFP, only to lose to Alabama in the semifinals.

The Bearcats saw nine players selected in the NFL draft, including quarterback Desmond Reeder, running back Jerome Ford and defensive backs Ahmad Gardner and Kobe Bryant.

“We lost a lot of big players and players that have been here for a long time,” Cincinnati coach Luke Fickell said. “I say life is different without Desmond Reeder and Kobe Bryant, but I think sometimes players are very excited in their own way to prove who they are and what they’ve done as leaders.”

No. 23 Cincinnati will look to replace Ridder, one of the nation’s top QBs a year ago, with either Ben Bryant, who was Ridder’s backup for two seasons before playing at Eastern Michigan last season, or sophomore Evan Prater. The Bearcats finished fall camp without announcing a starter.

The uncertainty is reflected in the AAC preseason media poll, which has Houston ranked No. 1 over Cincinnati by one point (243-242).

Houston coach Dana Holgarsen won’t believe it.

“I doubt they were counting on just those guys as part of their program,” Holgarsen said. “Probably, there are good players behind him. They haven’t lost a game in the conference the last couple of years, so (Cincinnati) would have to be my pick. They set the standard for what it takes to win at American.”

No. 24 Houston has one of the most experienced backs in Clayton Tunney, a fifth-year player who completed more than 68% of his passes and threw for 30 touchdowns in 2021. He started 30 games in college.

“I always believed in Clayton,” Holgarsen said. “I think he’s without a doubt one of the best quarterbacks in the country. Probably the biggest key is that we have the best parts around him right now.”

Tune’s weapons include Nathaniel Dell, who was one of the top receivers in the country last year.

Welcome back

At least seven other experienced quarterbacks are set to lead AAC teams in 2022: East Carolina’s Holton Ahlers; Seth Hennigan in Memphis; Davis Breen in Tulsa; Michael Pratt at Tulane; Ty Lavatai in the Navy; D’Van Mathis at Temple; and Tanner Mordecai at SMU.

Changing uniforms

The number of new players coming to teams through the transfer portal makes the AAC more unpredictable.

SMU, South Florida, Central Florida and East Carolina all brought in at least a dozen new players through the portal. UCF coach Gus Malzahn noted that eight of Orlando’s 16 transfers left Southeastern Conference schools to do so.

Ole Miss transfer John Reece Plumlee was named the starting quarterback at UCF, while Baylor transfer Jerry Bohannon was named the starting quarterback at South Florida.

New bosses

The AAC will have two new coaches in 2022. Rhett Lashley will replace SMU in place of Sonny Dykes, who moved on to become the head coach at TCU. Lashley returns to Dallas after serving as SMU’s offensive coordinator in 2018-19 before moving to Miami. Stan Drayton takes over at Temple after spending the past five seasons as the quarterbacks coach at Texas.

Only constant change

All the realignment leaves smaller conferences with a more uncertain competitive and economic landscape.

In 2023, the AAC replaces its top three teams with half a dozen mid-majors imported from Conference USA.

Athlete compensation, the transfer portal and the reorganization created a “perfect storm” for a troubled situation, AAC Commissioner Mike Oresca said.

“We can bemoan the reorganization all we want, but we have to deal with it,” Aresca said. “The realignment we’ve seen is certainly driven by money and competitive positioning.

“We all know this is a new and challenging era in college sports unlike any we’ve ever experienced,” he said. “These are troubled times.”

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