For the second straight year, Cincinnati and Memphis are the favorites to claim their respective divisions in the American Athletic Conference, according to the Congrove Computer Rankings at CollegeFoiotballPoll.com. Memphis has played, and lost, in the championship each of the past two seasons to UCF.
The Knights, who own FBS streaks of most consecutive conference wins (18), and most consecutive regular season wins (22), are picked second in the East. The Bearcats are a huge 11.39-point preseason favorite over UCF in their regular season showdown on October 4 at Cincinnati.
The Bearcats capped an 11-2 season a year ago by downing Virginia Tech in the Military Bowl, while UCF had its 25-game overall winning streak snapped in a 40-32 loss to LSU in the Fiesta Bowl. In their bowl games, the Knights were without QB McKenzie Milton after he suffered a horrendous leg injury in the regular season finale against USF. Darriel Mack, Jr. stepped up and led UCF to the conference championship game win and remained the starter for the bowl game. Mack was in a tight race with Notre Dame transfer Brandon Wimbush for the starting job this season until he broke his ankle in a non-football related accident in July. Now, Wimbush appears to be the solid favorite to start game one, though Josh Huepel had not yet made that official as of today (Sunday, August 11).
Desmond Ridder returns at QB for Cincinnati after a breakout year that saw the redshirt freshman complete 62.4% of his passes while tossing 20 TD passes against just 5 INT's. Ridder is 10-2 as the starter.
Cincinnati and UCF appear to be the only real challengers for the East division crown. Memphis looks like the only credible candidate in the West, with Southern Methodist, Houston and Tulane competing for 2nd.
Memphis hasn't skipped a beat since the transition from Justin Fuente as head coach to Mike Norvell. Fuente was 26-23 from 2012-2015, but 19-6 in his last two seasons of a rebuilding project. Norvell is 26-14 in his 3 seasons.
The Tiger offense will one again be led by QB Brady White after the Arizona State graduate transfer threw for 3,269 yards with 26 TD's and 9 INT's a year ago. Memphis will be without the services of RB Darrel Henderson, a senior who ran for just 2,000 yards a year ago and 3,545 yards in his collegiate career.
SMU will be without QB all-time passing leader Ben Hicks who opted to transfer after being told by head coach Sonny Dykes that there would be an open battle for the starting job this season. Hicks landed at Arkansas where he will likely start for his former SMU head coach, Chad Morris.
Ed Oliver is one of Houston's many top defensive starters that will be missing from the lineup in 2019. The Cougars return just 2 of their top 8 tacklers. They do, however, return their leading rusher (Patrick Carr) and starting QB (D'Eriq King).
Tulane went bowling last year for the first time since 2013 and pocketed the school's first bowl win since 2002. The Green Wave's Patrick Johnson returns to anchor the defense after he posted 10-1/2 sacks a year ago, but QB Justin McMillian and RB's Darius Bradwell and Corey Dauphine will be operating behind an offensive line that lacks depth and experience.as only 2 starters return and multiple backups are underclassmen.
The computer picked Navy to have a down year in 2018, saddling the Midshipmen with a 6-7 expectation. But Ken Niumatololo's troops staggered home with its worse season (3-10) since Paul Johnson's inaugural 2002 campaign (2-10). No turnaround is expected in 2019 with the computer projecting Navy to go 1-11 and winless in the conference.
Connecticut, East Carolina and Tulsa should all see some improvement this season. Those schools won a combined 7 games in 2018 while this year's forecast calls for a total of 11 wins between the three programs.
East Carolina - This may be the best candidate in the conference to see a huge turnaround from 2018. New head coach Mike Houston was the head coach at FCS member James Madison for the previous 3 seasons, winning the 2016 national championship, losing in the 2017 national championship game, and finishing 9-4 this past season for an overall record 37-6. He replaces Scottie Montgomery who was fired after going 9-26 overall and 4-20 in American conference games. The once-proud Pirate football program has gone 3-9 in each of the last 3 seasons.
Houston - Dana Holgorsen leaves West Virginia after 7 seasons to take the reins from Major Applewhite. It was viewed as a huge surprise that Holgorsen took a 'step down' from a Power 5 school to a Group of 5 school, but Holgorsen explained his Texas roots and desire to go back to Houston as leading reasons for his decision. It might also be the money, though, as Holgorsen is guaranteed $3.7 million this year and was given a pool of $4.5 million to spend on assistants, an amount that would rank third in the Big 12 behind Texas and Oklahoma (Holgorsen provides reasoning for decision to leave WVU for Houston). Holgorsen was the OC and QB coach under Kevin Sumlin in 2008-2009 when Case Keenum threw for over 10,600 yards in two seasons with 88 TD passes. His departure from Morgantown wasn't met with a lot of sadness as he posted not-so-spectacular records of 61-41 overall and 38-32 in conference play. This past year's 8-4 mark was actually his second-best season with the Mountaineers. During his tenure, WVU went 0-7 versus Oklahoma and 2-5 vs. Oklahoma State. As for Applewhite, his first head coaching gig ends with records of 15-11 overall and 10-6 in the American Conference. He was hired as an offensive analyst at Alabama where he first worked under Nick Saban as offensive coordinator in 2007. Butch Jones and Steve Sarkisian are two whom have recently filled the analyst role at Alabama, a position that is focused on breaking down film and preparing game plans.
*-Tie-breakers: Tulane beats Houston
*-Championship: Cincinnati over Memphis
First-place votes in parenthesis
1. UCF (19), 169
2. Cincinnati (11), 157
3. USF, 107
4. Temple, 101
5. East Carolina, 66
6. Connecticut, 30
1. Memphis (15), 165
2. Houston (14), 162
3. Tulane, 108
4. SMU, 87
5. Navy, 70
6. Tulsa, 38
Predicted Champion: UCF