The American Athletic Conference has established itself as the best league outside the Power Five in college football. And entering 2021, one team has emerged as a significant favorite to win the conference title.
That team, unsurprisingly, is Cincinnati and UC is listed at -225 to win the AAC at BetMGM. Only Clemson is a bigger favorite to win its own conference than the Bearcats, who won the AAC title last year and almost completed an undefeated season by upsetting Georgia in the Peach Bowl. UC had a 21-10 lead going into the fourth quarter, but ended up losing 24-21.
Before that loss, a 9-0 Bearcats team wasn’t given much consideration by the College Football Playoff selection committee. This year, with Indiana and Notre Dame on the schedule, Cincinnati deserves a much closer look if it continues its winning ways.
But will that be the case in 2021? There isn’t another AAC team ranked in the AP Top 25 besides the Bearcats, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t a slew of quality teams throughout the league.
(All odds via BetMGM.)
East Carolina: +8000
South Florida: +25000
Best bet: Cincinnati (-225)
I’m not sure the gap between Cincinnati and the rest of the AAC is as large as the oddsmakers have set the field, but UC is still very clearly the best team in the conference. About two-thirds of the starters from last year’s team return, led by Desmond Ridder at quarterback and cornerback Sauce Gardner, an All-American caliber player. If the defense continues to play at a high level and the offense takes a step forward, the sky is the limit for this team. The schedule works out in Cincinnati’s favor, too. UC’s toughest AAC games — UCF, Tulsa and SMU — are all at home. Odds of -225 aren’t the friendliest, but it’s by far the safest bet on the board.
Team to avoid: Memphis (+1200)
I faded Memphis a few times against the spread last year, and my inklings proved to be correct. The Tigers went a very respectable 8-3 overall, but were just 4-7 ATS. They barely beat a bad Temple team, lost by 39 to Cincinnati, needed a late comeback to beat a bad USF team, were only up six points at halftime against Stephen F. Austin, and then scored only 10 points against a bad Navy team.
Entering 2021, the Tigers return a lot of production on both sides of the ball and added a few plug-and-play transfers to the offensive line. At the same time, the offense needs a new quarterback and the running game was one of the AAC’s worst in 2020. Memphis is a bowl-caliber team, no doubt, but I don’t expect it to realistically contend for the AAC title.
Sleeper pick: Houston (+1200)
Expectations were high when Houston hired Dana Holgorsen away from West Virginia. His predecessor, Major Applewhite, was fired after going 15-10 over a two-year span. Over Holgorsen’s first two years, the Cougars have gone a combined 7-13.
There’s some peculiar context worth noting behind such a lackluster record, though. In 2019, UH decided to redshirt a bunch of its best players in an effort to maximize its 2020 season. That backfired when QB D’Eriq King transferred to Miami. In 2020, UH saw so many of its games postponed due to COVID-19 that it didn’t play until Oct. 8.
Where does that leave the Cougars entering 2021? Well, the large majority of their returning talent is back (18 starters in all) and the schedule is very easy. Houston avoids both Cincinnati and UCF and gets Memphis and SMU both at home. There’s a very realistic path to the AAC title game, and at +1200 odds the Cougars could be a longshot worth taking.
East Carolina: 5.5
South Florida: 3.5
Favorite AAC win total bets
UCF under 9.5 (-110)
Frankly, I think Gus Malzahn is an upgrade over Josh Heupel at UCF. At the same time, I’m very curious about how the Knights will look offensively this year. Dillon Gabriel, UCF’s third-year starter at QB, put up huge numbers in Heupel’s passer-friendly system. When Malzahn had the most success at Auburn, it was with a running quarterback. The pocket-passers he coached did not fare very well. Gabriel isn’t immobile, but that’s not his game. He has consistently killed AAC defenses with deep balls. Will Malzahn cater his offense toward Gabriel’s skillset? It’s an extremely intriguing pairing.
Additionally, UCF’s defense was quite bad in 2020. Some reinforcements via the transfer portal should help, but I’m not sure this unit is any better than middle-of-the-pack in the AAC. These factors, plus the presence of solid teams like Boise State and Louisville in the non-con schedule, make me skeptical the Knights get to 10 wins. I’m not saying UCF is going to have a bad year, but if they go 9-3 you win this bet.
SMU over 6.5 (-115)
I liked this better a few weeks ago when the number was a round six, but I still like it at 6.5.
Sonny Dykes has been a great fit at SMU. The Mustangs are 17-6 combined over the past two seasons and have 18 returning starters back from a very solid 2020 team that went 7-3. Though QB Shane Buechele is not one of those returnees, I really like the pieces on this offense. Oklahoma transfer Tanner Mordecai is the likely starting quarterback, Ulysses Bentley is one of my favorite running backs in the country and Grant Calcaterra (another OU transfer) could prove to be the AAC’s best tight end.
Other than a trip to TCU, the non-conference slate is a breeze. Drawing UCF and Cincinnati on the schedule is tough, but there’s a pretty clear path to at least seven wins in this schedule.
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