As decisions were made about the 2020 college football season due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the American Athletic Conference never seriously gave thought to not playing.
While still pushing for a seat at the Power Five table, the AAC was in lockstep with the Southeastern, Big 12 and Atlantic Coast Conferences to move forward and play this fall.
“If you can play, and if you feel like you can do it safely, why not play?” commissioner Mike Aresco said during an episode of “The Paul Finebaum Show.” “If there were concerns about health and safety, we would shut it down.”
The usual contenders (Central Florida, Memphis and Cincinnati) should again be in the mix, but the rest is a toss-up as the 11-team league goes to a no-divisions format.
Yes, it’s still a long shot, but this might be the closest a Group of Five team gets to a real crack at the four-team College Football Playoff. Even with the Big Ten and Pac-12 sitting out the fall, there will be no shortage of title contenders from the SEC (pick a school), Big 12 (Oklahoma) and ACC (Clemson and Notre Dame). UCF (No. 21) and Cincinnati (No. 22) begin the season in the USA Today coaches poll — the first time the AAC has had two teams in a preseason poll in the league’s eight-year history — and could make an argument if either goes undefeated. Toss in defending champion Memphis — and the fact the Mountain West won’t play this season — and the AAC is in position to at least grab a New Year’s Six bowl spot for the fifth time in the last six years.
Take away 40 percent of FBS schools, along with most of the FCS, and it was a mad scramble just to fill holes in the nonconference schedule. The AAC announced it would play an eight-game league schedule and give schools the option to play up to four nonconference games. The domino effect to find (or keep) games left the AAC with some tasty appetizers: Tulsa will play Oklahoma State; SMU managed to keep its Iron Skillet rivalry with TCU; Navy will play BYU and Army; UCF visits Georgia Tech; and the University of Houston will make a trip to BYU. The biggest losers to nonconference cancellations: A game between Navy and Notre Dame in Dublin was called off, marking the first time since 1927 the two schools will not play; South Florida won’t play Texas; and Temple had its entire four-game slate wiped out. UH and Rice officials continue talks to save this year’s Bayou Bucket.
In what continues to be a feel-good story, UCF quarterback McKenzie Milton this summer posted a video of himself doing agility drills less than two years after a gruesome injury nearly resulted in the amputation of his right leg. In late August, coach Josh Heupel said Milton, listed as a redshirt senior, continues to make encouraging progress. Milton’s status for 2020, however, remains up in the air. “It’s really just him continuing to push the envelope in his rehab process and where that leads us to this season and potentially next year,” Heupel told Orlando-area reporters.
With the departure of UConn, the AAC will feature 11 teams and no divisions this season. There is a clear pecking order at the top with UCF (10-3 in 2019), Cincinnati (11-3) and Memphis (12-2) considered the top contenders. A combination from within those three teams has reached the league championship game the past three seasons, and there’s no reason to think anything will change. Luke Fickell has led the Bearcats to back-to-back 11-win seasons and returns 10 starters from a defense that allowed 20.6 points per game. After averaging 43.4 points last season, UCF should again feature a high-powered offense behind quarterback Dillon Gabriel. Memphis will be seeking a fourth straight appearance in the AAC championship game but will have to do so with a new coach. Ryan Silverfield replaces Mike Norvell, who was hired by Florida State after leading the Tigers to a 12-win season and the Cotton Bowl. Memphis remains in good hands with 4,000-yard passer Brady White, 1,400-yard rusher Kenneth Gainwell and 1,200-yard receiver Damonte Coxie.
Take your pick. Under coach Willie Fritz, Tulane has momentum with back-to-back bowl victories. SMU is coming off a double-digit-win season for the first time since 1984 and returns quarterback Shane Buechele, who passed for nearly 4,000 yards. Temple could provide some headaches for teams, but the Owls’ defense must replace All-America defensive lineman Quincy Roche, who transferred to Miami. Navy’s triple-option will have a new leader with the graduation of Malcolm Perry, who led the AAC with 2,017 rushing yards last season. Don’t count out Houston, which features the pass-catch combo of Clayton Tune and Marquez Stevenson and should be improved on defense with the shift of tackle machine Grant Stuard from nickel to linebacker and a bunch of new faces in the secondary.
Joseph Duarte has been a sports reporter for the Houston Chronicle since August 1996. He currently covers college athletics, focusing on the University of Houston. Previously, he wrote about the Houston Astros from 1998-2002, Houston Texans from 2002-05 and the Texas Longhorns from 2005-09. He came to the Houston Chronicle as part of an internship through the Sports Journalism Institute in 1995.
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