(Photo by Julio Aguilar/Getty Images)

Predicting the AAC West Division

Rob Joyce
August 20, 2019 - 2:13 pm

As our countdown to UConn’s season opener on August 29 continues, it’s time to look around the league as the Huskies begin their final season in the American Athletic Conference. We’ll start with the West Division, where there have been three representatives in the four-year history of the AAC title game. And if all goes according to plan, similar names will be atop the standings this year once again.

1) Memphis:

(Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

The two-time division champs are again the favorites in 2019 under Mike Norvell, and there’s the potential for a special season. Quietly the Tigers have won 18 games the past two years, and with UCF not looking quite as daunting should the two meet again on December 7, a New Years’ Six bowl could be a possibility.

With most of the key starters returning on both sides of the ball – in particular, quarterback Brady White, running back Patrick Taylor and wideout Damonte Coxie on the offensive side – this is a team that’s going to score a ton, and perhaps improve enough on defense to be above-average. A season opener against Ole Miss is tricky, as are trips to Temple, Houston and USF. However, the Tigers might be the most underrated team in the Group of Five, if not the country.

2) Houston:

(Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images)

Memphis collected 15 first-place votes in the preseason media poll in the West, with UH narrowly behind at 14 votes. We think the gap between the two is slightly more than that, but it certainly doesn’t mean the Cougars can’t win the division. D’Eriq King is one of the best quarterbacks in the nation, regardless of conference. With Dana Holgorsen in as head coach, King could be a darkhorse Heisman contender, with the possibility of having a Lamar Jackson-esque 3,000 yard passing and 1,000 yard rushing season. He also brings back a 1,000-yard receiver in Marquez Stevenson, plus two other seniors in Keith Corbin and Courtney Lark.

Standing in the way of the Coogs making a return trip to the title game is a defense that, even with Ed Oliver, was downright bad in 2018. Many of those starters are gone, and there’s no time to break in a young D. Oklahoma awaits in the season opener, Washington State comes to town in Week 3, and then it’s AAC play. A difficult schedule – the cross-division portion includes hosting Cincinnati and heading to UCF – is ultimately the reason why UH won’t finish first.

3) SMU:

(Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

The Mustangs’ schedule leaves the potential for a young team to make it back to a bowl game. Four of the first five league games are difficult (a trip to USF, hosting Temple, traveling to Houston and Memphis), but there’s a good chance for a late-season surge, with ECU, Navy and Tulane being the closing three games. Similar to last year, when SMU started 0-3 but finished 5-6, Sonny Dykes could have his team peaking at the right time.

The offense could need some adjustment with either William Brown or Texas transfer Shane Buechele at quarterback, but the defense is young, talented and deep. They could trip up one of the bigger dogs in the league race.

4) Tulane:

(Photo by Julio Aguilar/Getty Images)

The Green Wave made strides last year, making it to a bowl game for just the second time since 2002 and winning the Cure Bowl. The defense has a chance to be pretty good, but the success or failure of the season will be on an offense that lacked explosiveness. In Willie Fritz’s option attack, there were mixed results whether it was Justin McMillan or Jonathan Banks under center, limiting the offense despite nearly 2,000 combined yards from the returning Darius Bradwell and Corey Dauphine.

The schedule features Auburn, Army, Houston, Memphis, and UCF. Realistically, that means the Wave must go 6-1 in its seven other games to get back to bowl eligibility. That might be too tall of a task.

5) Navy:

(Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)

Off its worst season since 2002, the Midshipmen should look more like a team that averaged 8.4 wins a year in Ken Niumatalolo’s first ten seasons than the one that bottomed out at 3-10 in 2018. However, don’t expect the 2016 West Division champs, either.

Offensively, Malcolm Perry is the guy at quarterback after a bit of a revolving door last year. If he can be even a marginal passer (he went just 9-for-25 all of last year) then the Mids will be dangerous. Defensively, though, things were a mess. Brian Newberry is in as the defensive coordinator and brings in a flexbone system that saw Kennesaw State last year be a force against the pass at the FCS level. To get back to a bowl, wins over Holy Cross, ECU, Tulsa and UConn are a must. After that, find two wins in games against Air Force, USF and SMU, because Memphis, Notre Dame, Houston and Army are probably losses.

6) Tulsa:

(Photo by Rob Foldy/Getty Images)

It’s Year Five for Philip Montgomery, and the days of Dane Evans and company are long gone. Five total wins the last two years means it could be a make-or-break season for the head coach. There’s a three-way battle for quarterback, but there are some skill players around whoever wins the job. On defense most of the starters are back on a unit that improved vastly last year after a miserable 2017. It’s probably not enough to get back to a bowl... but will it be enough to keep Montgomery around?