1 – What will the Cincinnati fall off look like?
Luke Fickell led the Cincinnati Bearcats to the single most successful season for a group of five school since the beginning of the College Football Playoff, achieving a birth and, ultimately, a loss to Alabama (no shame in that, Bearcat nation).
The biggest question heading into the 2022 season from the AAC is how bad will the fall off be for Cincinnati? The Bearcats lose multi-year starting quarterback and leader Desmond Ridder, standout cornerback Sauce Gardner, as well as a multitude of other key pieces like linebacker Darrian Beavers, corner Coby Bryant, pass rusher Myjai Sanders, and others.
As solid of a program as Cincinnati has become under Luke Fickell, they aren’t a standout program on the recruiting front like other Playoff contenders, meaning the reloading process isn’t fast. It will take time for new names and faces to move into key roles and ultimately perform up to Cincinnati’s new standard.
Here’s the good news, though. Within conference scheduling, the Bearcats have a very winnable schedule and one that gives them a solid chance at returning to the AAC Championship Game. They’ll miss fellow favorite Houston all together, and besides back-to-back road trips to SMU and UCF in October (though, that stretch comes after a bye week), every other team is very winnable. Outside the conference, Cincinnati will open with an Arkansas team that’s on the rise, but also face Kennesaw State, Miami of Ohio, and an unsteady Indiana team.
I suspect Cincinnati will still be a top 25 team this season. There is a good chance they lose week one against Arkansas, and I wouldn’t bet against at least one other loss somewhere down the line, but the most interesting storyline of the AAC season will be seeing how fast Luke Fickell and associates can retool after a dream season before heading to a much deserved promotion to the power five.
2 – Will Houston live up to the hype?
The group of five team garnering probably the most hype this offseason is the Houston Cougars. Only a few years removed from many questioning Dana Holgorsen’s decision to attempt redshirting players during a lost season, the Cougars find themselves a favorite in the AAC with a returning core featuring quarterback Clayton Tune and pass catcher Nathaniel Dell.
The unfortunate news for Cougar fans is that breakout star Alton McCaskill tore his ACL in spring practices, putting his 2022 season in serious doubts. McCaskill put up nearly 1,000 yards rushing and 16 touchdowns as a freshman last season.
But back to the good news. Defensive coordinator Doug Belk got a hefty raise to keep him in Houston after a standout 2021 campaign in which the Cougars defense finished top 20 in points, passing, rushing, and total yards per game. With a talented defense and an offense that should be able to put up points through the air, the Cougars look poised to finish with double digit wins and a potential conference championship before heading to the Big 12 next season.
Houston also has one of the more interesting opening schedules. They’ll open the season traveling to a fellow up-and-coming Texas school in UTSA, and then follow that up with another road trip to future conference rival Texas Tech. It gets a bit easier though with Kansas and Rice after, meaning that if Houston gets out of the gates quickly they could very well enter conference play 4-0. So what does conference play look like? Well, Houston doesn’t play either Cincinnati or UCF, and the only real test looks to be a road trip to SMU, though another road trip to a rising East Carolina team could pose a threat.
I’m not ready to commit to saying Houston will run the table like my colleague Justin Cripe, but the Cougars have the talent and schedule to make a favorable run at the AAC Championship as well as a New Years Six bowl appearance. Unfortunately, the schedule just isn’t there for a Playoff run even with an undefeated record.
3 – Is there a dark horse to win the American?
For most, Cincinnati and Houston feel like the odds on favorites to meet in the AAC Championship this season, but are there any dark horse teams that may be worth sprinkling some money on? I think there could be one:
The SMU Mustangs. Former Mustang and Miami offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee returns to Dallas to take over for departing HC Sonny Dykes and inherits a quarterback room with plenty of talent between Tanner Mordecai and touted prospect Preston Stone. Lashlee also brought in a five-star transfer from Alabama in Camar Wheaton who will get plenty of looks out of the backfield, and return standout receiver Rashee Rice. The question very much won’t be about the ‘Stangs offensive performance, it’ll be on the defense.
SMU finished in the bottom half of the country in points per game, passing yards, and total yards last season. On the plus side, they do retain several stat leaders from that side of the ball from the previous season. Scott Symons was brought in from Liberty to help improve the defensive side of the ball, something he was fairly successful with last season for the Flames.
Schedule wise, the Mustangs won’t have it easy. Within the conference, they get fortunate with Houston and Cincinnati both having to come to Dallas, however they also have an away matchup against UCF, so the Mustangs will have to face off with the other top tier teams in the conference. Outside the conference, they’ll matchup with Maryland and rival TCU in back-to-back weeks fairly early (weeks 3 and 4).
The odds are still not in SMU’s favor, but if things swing the right way for the Mustangs and they end up in the Championship, I wouldn’t be all that surprised.
4 – Predictions & Notes
5 Biggest Games
Cincinnati at Arkansas (Sept 3) – Fresh off a Playoff berth and a turned over roster, can the Bearcats keep up the momentum on the road against a rising SEC squad?
Houston at Texas Tech (Sept 10) – Houston has plenty of hype heading into the 2022 season, but an early trip to Lubbock against future conference foe Texas Tech could put a wrench in the season early on. Houston lost a close one to the Red Raiders last season.
TCU at SMU (Sept 24) – The Battle for the Iron Skillet gets a little bit of fresh storyline injection after Mustang head coach Sonny Dykes bolted in the offseason for the Horned Frog gig, allowing Dykes former offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee to take over at SMU. Things have been heated between the rivals in recent years, and will only get more heated this season.
Cincinnati at SMU (Oct 22) – Cincinnati will have a tough road test on the quest to win another AAC Championship on the way out, while SMU can use this as a chance to catapult themselves to the top dog spot in the future AAC rankings
Cincinnati at UCF (Oct 29) – A week after the tough test in Dallas, the Bearcats travel to Orlando to take on another tough contender in UCF.
Houston defeats Cincinnati
Predicted Final Standings
- East Carolina