By Eddie Melville
The American Athletic Conference (AAC) put on a show for college football in 2017. UCF, Memphis, and South Florida all finished in the top 25 in both the Coaches and AP Polls. The Knights finished 13-0 and knocked off SEC Powerhouse Auburn in the Peach Bowl, sparking a National Championship debate with Alabama. However, the finest moments for the American happened arguably not during the Peach Bowl but during UCF’s final two games which pitted them against South Florida and Memphis. Both games finished in the top 7 of ESPN’s Top 25 college football games of 2017. Who will ever forget this moment or that moment? With both games airing on ABC, the American was able to flex its muscles and make the argument that there ought to be a Power 6.
While most of the talking heads will acknowledge the American as the best of the Group of 5, elevating the conference to Power 6 status is not a position that is widely held. In the preseason Coaches Poll, UCF was ranked 1 spot behind Boise State of the Mountain West despite coming off a 13-0 season. That makes it telling that for respect to be given, an encore of the American’s 2017 is required. The P6 narrative could grow if the pieces fall into place during non-conference play. The following games are crucial to determine the AAC’s fate:
9/1: FAU at Oklahoma
Yes, this is not a game that actually features an AAC team, but don’t jump to conclusions just yet. The Lane Kiffin-led FAU Owls enter this year as one of the most hyped Group of 5 teams. If they were to upset the Sooners, or even just play them close in Norman, the noise surrounding FAU would only get turned up and it would raise the stakes of an actual American game that would happen 20 days later. Truth be told, the American needs its non-conference opponents to perform well when they’re not actually playing the AAC. This matchup is no exception.
9/1: Cincinnati at UCLA
When you think of the favorites of the AAC in 2018, Cincinnati does not typically come to mind. However, head coach Luke Fickell’s staff did land the top ranked recruiting class in the American this offseason. QB Hayden Moore returns to lead the Bearcat offense. This will be the debut for new UCLA head coach Chip Kelly. A close game or even pulling off the upset would have the Bearcats feeling really good about themselves and maybe even launch Cincinnati to a bowl-eligble season. Either way, the American needs an improved Cincinnati to help the overall outlook of the conference.
9/8: Georgia Tech at South Florida
What kind of USF program is going to show up in 2018? Gone is superstar quarterback Quinton Flowers. Heading into Saturday’s scrimmage, no starting quarterback has been named as the battle rages on between transfer Blake Barnett, redshirt sophomore Chris Oladokun and fourth-year junior Brett Kean. Georgia Tech comes off a disappointing 5-6 year in 2017. While it would be surprising to see the Yellow Jackets miss a bowl game back to back years, chances are this squad will be better in 2018. This game will be a good measuring stick for how good the Bulls will be this season and if they’ll have any chance of finding their way into the New Years Six convo. It will also be another chance for Bulls fans to avoid another embarrassment like this.
9/8: Arizona at Houston
The Cougars have a lot of hype surrounding them. It is not every day one sees a Group of 5 player featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated, but that is exactly what defensive tackle Ed Oliver pulled off. The reigning Outland Trophy winner should be up to the challenge of dominating for Houston. Second year head coach Major Applewhite will be tasked with getting the Cougars back to the explosive level of offense that they enjoyed under former coach Tom Herman. With the way the West Division is set up, Houston has to like its chances to make a push for the conference championship game and maybe more. A win over the Wildcats and Heisman candidate Khalil Tate would be especially impressive since Oliver called him out.
9/15: UCF at North Carolina
Can UCF make another amazing run? Many seem to have their doubts as the Knights are ranked outside the top 20 in the Coaches Poll, becoming the first squad that has happened to in the last decade. The return of McKenzie Milton and several key contributors on offense and defense is not enough for many who instead point to the loss of coach Scott Frost to Nebraska and stars like Shaquem Griffin and Mike Hughes to the draft as daggers to any hope for the Knights to bounce back. UCF should be 2-0 and largely untested heading into this matchup. A win on the road against the Tar Heels would be the first step towards proving the doubters wrong.
9/15: Houston at Texas Tech
This will either be the Cougars going for their second win in a row over a P5 school or trying to bounce back from a home loss to Arizona. If Houston is undefeated heading into this game, it is likely they would be ranked in both polls. Going on the road to Texas Tech will be no easy task, but if the Cougars find a rhythm on offense, Oliver and defense should do enough for them to leave Lubbock with a victory and put them in legit running for a NY6 bid.
9/21: FAU at UCF
If you enjoy fireworks, tune in! Sparks will fly and scoreboards will light up during this in-state matchup that takes place on a Friday night on ESPN. The Owls will want to punch the Knights in the mouth and prove that the Black and Gold aren’t the only Florida team with a high octane offense or NY6 aspirations. Meanwhile, UCF head coach Josh Heupel will want to prove himself as not only having the superior team but also being the better coach between him and Kiffin. UCF can only hope that FAU comes into this game with one loss or even undefeated with the Oklahoma win and that this turns into a ranked vs. ranked, winner is in the driver’s seat as the top G5 in the nation. The Knights must win this one to not only keep their playoff dreams alive but also to remind Florida recruits that there is no power shift in the Sunshine State. Also, considering the high stakes and it being a night game, a starry night may might an appearance.
9/29: Pittsburgh at UCF
The Panthers have a very difficult schedule leading up to this one, playing two ACC games and hosting Penn State (their opener is the exception against Albany). It’s possible they could be 2-2 or worse. On the flip side, if Pitt is 3-1 or even somehow found a way to upset Penn State, a 4-0 vs. 4-0 matchup would be crazy. Currently, the time for this game hasn’t been announced, but that would easily push it to night game status. The Knights will have that extra day of rest from the FAU game and should be able to use the Florida humidity to their advantage against this team from the northeast. UCF coming out of this game 5-0 or even 4-1 would be major not only for their NY6 bowl aspirations, but also for how the national media perceives them. With that said, be careful Knight fan: Pitt knows a thing or two about pulling the big upset.
10/20: Memphis at Missouri
How good Memphis will be with studs like Riley Ferguson and Anthony Miller gone? The Tigers will still have dynamic RB/KR Tony Pollard and were picked to win the West Division in AAC division poll. If Memphis lives up to those expectations, there could be a lot at stake against Mizziou. Hypothetically, if Memphis were to beat UCF one week before this game, there is a possibility of a perfect record being on the line, because the only other game the Tigers could be an underdog in would be at Navy on September 8. While Missouri isn’t expected to be great, record-setting QB Drew Lock returns, so they should be able to keep up with Memphis in a shootout. A win here followed by some big conference wins preceding this (UCF, Navy) would put Memphis right there for that coveted Peach Bowl bid.
10/27: Notre Dame at Navy
While it is hard to imagine the Midshipmen being undefeated at this juncture, they always have a chance to contend for the West Division title due to their great execution of the Triple Option. In addition, this game holds implications for the other contenders (UCF, Memphis, Houston). If any of those 3 hold a win over Navy, it is imperative that Navy win their other games and do well outside the conference. Stealing a game against long-time rival Notre Dame would help bolster the overall profile of the AAC and could potentially shake up the polls with this matchup being in late October.