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Even though they fall just outside the lines of the Power Five conferences, the American Athletic Conference (AAC) has been stout since its debut in 2013. The American took the place of the Big East which in the Bowl Championship Series (BCS) days, would receive an automatic BCS bid. In the seven years of the college football playoffs, the American has almost put two teams into the mix.
In 2017 it was undefeated UCF who put the country on notice week in and week out, ultimately toppling Auburn in the Peach Bowl. Last year it was Cincinnati who came up just short against Georgia in the Peach Bowl as well. Maybe Cincy can get over the hump or possibly another team shows it’s grit nationally and competes for a playoff spot.
Either way, this conference has a ton of talent top to bottom. With this piece we’re going to look at the gems hiding on the offensive side of the ball.
Cincinnati Bearcats: RB Jerome Ford
When I watch Ford play, all I can think about is the old motto of “Built Ford Tough.” He runs so angry and it seems like every first tackle attempt is a broken one. His power is noticeable as he dives through the hole and comes out churning on the other side.
In the open field he has another gear that most running backs simply don’t have. Outrunning the whole Georgia defense on his 79 yard TD scamper was just one of the many times he showed that burst at the next level. It’s easy to see how he started his career at Alabama and why he’s so successful with the Bearcats. I’d be the least bit shocked if he goes for 1,500 yards next season.
East Carolina Pirates: WR Tyler Snead
He’s definitely a mighty mini out of the slot at only 5’7” but the man can ball. In 2019 he caught 19 passes in a single game against SMU and went for 240 yards. His short stature allows him to have great acceleration and still shut down routes quickly to find an open spot in the zone, or lose a man in coverage.
Not only can he impact the game as a wideout but also as a return man. He’s housed a kickoff return for a TD in each of his last two seasons, so he’s bound to do it again this year. This is such a fun player to watch because even as he’s a bush amongst trees, he still is incredibly dynamic.
Houston Cougars: H-Back Bryson Smith
The Cougars will continue to sling the ball around under coach Dana Holgorsen and quarterback Clayton Tune. The issue is that the four leading wideouts on last year’s squad have now moved on. That leaves a 94 reception, 1,315 yard and eight TD gap from only eight games played last year.
Smith being the H-back will be called upon to do double duty in the rushing and receiving game. He’s great in the slot on slants and corners, and is really good at working his way back to the quarterback if the pocket breaks down. For the Cougars’ offense to be successful, he’ll need to be getting 10-12 touches each game.
Memphis Tigers: WR Calvin Austin III
He’s a real blink and you’ll miss him player, as Austin III can absolutely fly. Even though he’s a bit undersized, he’ll challenge any corner on the edge with his speed. Speaking of Austin, he really reminds me of West Virginia era Tavon Austin with his breakaway speed and game changing ability.
Even though the Tigers will be replacing Brady White behind center, the show in Memphis will go on. Last year they had nearly 68% of their offense through the air and will likely end up around that same mark next season. All good news for Austin III, who will try and have back to back seasons where he goes over 1,000 yards.
SMU Mustangs: WR Reggie Roberson Jr.
Roberson Jr. is one of my favorite wideouts in the whole country for many reasons. He has speed for days in the open field and chugs along similar to Priest Holmes with the head bobs. Seldom do I use this to describe a players’ abilities but there’s not a straight jacket in the world that could contain him, he’s just that slippery.
Had it not been for a knee injury in the third quarter in SMU’s fourth game of the season, Roberson Jr. could have been in the Biletnikoff conversation. At that point in the game he had five catches for 243 yards and two scores. His season totals were well on pace to be at least 75 catches, 1,500 yards and 15 TDs.
To be honest, that’s probably lowballing it too because one of those games was against FCS for Stephen F. Austin. SMU blew them out 50-7 and Roberson Jr. barely had any need for production as he ended with only two grabs and 29 yards. Hopefully he stays healthy because not only is he a joy to watch, but could also be a Heisman candidate.
SMU Mustangs: TE Grant Calcaterra
It’s nice to see him back on the field after revisiting his medical retirement, even though I still do worry about him getting another concussion. Regardless, Calcaterra in his time at Oklahoma was fitting right into that mold of a pass catching tight end that has made former Sooner, Mark Andrews, such a threat for the Ravens. I’d say Calcaterra poses more of a vertical threat than Andrews who does most of his work over the middle, but he should still make it to the league with his route running and catch in traffic abilities.
The bonus for him is one of his former quarterbacks, Tanner Mordecai, has also made the trek from Norman to Dallas. There will already be chemistry there and since the defenses will be absolutely terrified to watch the aforementioned Roberson Jr. hit the home run, Calcaterra will get open. Just talking about these two guys has me hyped up about the Mustangs, who I think could really challenge for the AAC title.
Tulane Green Wave: QB Michael Pratt
For a freshman quarterback, Pratt’s level of play exceeded expectations. He showed a ton of pocket presence and was able to analyze the defense and zip the ball through throwing lanes. He boasted a total of 20 TDs through the air against only eight interceptions.
The Green Wave run a ton of RPO looks and even though Pratt doesn’t run for a ton of yards, his legs still put points on the board. He ran for another eight scores on the ground to bring his total to 28. If he can reduce the sacks from 33 to under 20, then it’ll help the Tulane offense play less from behind the sticks.
Tulsa Golden Hurricane: RB Shamari Brooks
After missing all of 2020 due to an ACL injury, it’ll be interesting to see what he can do. He was only 33 yards away in 2018 from having two career 1,000 yard seasons under his belt. Those numbers aren’t simply a fluke either.
Brooks has incredible vision and balance to find the slightest of creases, and the lower body strength to stay upright. If he can still maintain that burst after the knee being repaired, then he’ll be well on his way for another 1,000 yard season. Brooks will have plenty of opportunities to showcase his talent to NFL scouts as Tulsa plays Oklahoma State and Ohio State early in the season.
UCF Golden Knights: WR Nate Craig-Myers
Realistically anyone in the wide receiver room could be on this list, but there’s something awe inspiring about the sixth year senior Craig-Myers. He was a four star prospect out of high school that was the number six wideout in the class of 2016. He’s now had two different stints at Auburn and Colorado State that haven’t completely panned out.
Well, third time’s the charm as he returns to his home state of Florida and will play in Orlando, roughly two hours away from family. He’s still got plenty of size on the perimeter to go up and make plays at 6’2” and 205 lbs. He’ll get plenty of looks in the pass heavy offense behind the arm of Dillon Gabriel.