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The American Athletic Conference heads into the 2022 college football season coming off a campaign in which Cincinnati made history as the first Group of Five program to earn a berth into the College Football Playoff. Coach Luke Fickell and the Bearcats rode an unbeaten season to a date with Alabama, eventually falling 27-6 in the Cotton Bowl semifinal.
While the accomplishment instilled confidence into the league that likes to boast its “Power Six” status, major changes are on the horizon as 2022 will serve as the final year of this iteration of the AAC. Cincinnati, Houston and UCF are off to the Big 12 in 2023, and the league will replenish its membership with six additions: UAB, FAU, Charlotte, North Texas, Rice and UTSA.
As the AAC prepares for the final season in its current form, eyes are once again on the league potentially producing a Cinderella playoff candidate. This time it’s not Cincinnati but rather coach Dana Holgorsen and Houston — favored to win the conference at +200, according to Caesars Sportsbook — who some believe can make a run at an undefeated season and potential CFP berth if things shake their way. Not far behind in the betting odds are the Bearcats (+240) and UCF (+260), the latter of which is looking to make huge strides in the second season of the Gus Malzahn era.
Our CBS Sports college football experts are here to provide their picks and predictions for the AAC ahead of the 2022 season. Check them all out below.
UCF: I love Gus Malzahn, and I love what George O’Leary, Scott Frost and Josh Heupel did before him — with the program. But the AAC has gotten deeper. UCF doesn’t have the soldiers to keep up this season (get back to me when the Knights go to the Big 12), while Cincinnati and Houston are simply too good. — Dennis Dodd (also Shehan Jeyarajah, Jerry Palm)
Cincinnati: I think the Bearcats probably have the second-best team in the conference, but their Preseason AP Top 25 ranking (23) is a little high considering the massive personnel losses. Cincinnati does not often have the kind of NFL Draft haul it had in 2022, and even though Fickell has done a good job of leveling up the recruiting, I think it’s going to be tough to maintain the level of success enjoyed over the past few seasons. — Chip Patterson (also Barrett Sallee)
Memphis: It’s hard to consider any team overrated in the AAC this season with Cincinnati, Houston and UCF all seen as clear favorites in the conference. When I call the Tigers overrated, I mean it more in the sense that this has been one of the better programs in the conference for a few years, but I expect it to fall behind SMU and possibly tumble to the bottom half of the league. — Tom Fornelli
Houston: This team is going to finish with another good record, but the idea that the Cougars are the best team in the AAC is rooted in a scheduling quirk. Houston does not play Cincinnati or UCF in the regular season, which makes its slate comically easy compared to everyone else’s in the league. The Cougars at least have a few road tests this season, though. If going on the road against those teams doesn’t expose Houston as a good but not great team, then the AAC Championship Game will. Cincinnati and UCF are still the teams to beat in the AAC. — David Cobb
Houston: Win at UTSA and Texas Tech, and the Cougs are staring down a 12-0 season. They are the 2022 version of Cincinnati in the sense they’re not just AAC favorites, but should also find themselves in line for a shot at the College Football Playoff. — Dodd
USF: There’s this notion out there that the Bulls are due for another dreadful season after a 2-10 record under Jeff Scott last year. Don’t fall into that trap. The Bulls return 19 starters, including five on the offensive line and their entire back seven on defense. Gerry Bohanon, who helped lead Baylor to the Big 12 title last year, transferred in to take over the quarterback duties. Is USF going to win the AAC? Probably not, but don’t be surprised if it has a big say on who does. — Sallee
SMU: The Ponies are going through a coaching transition, but don’t expect much to change on The Hilltop. Rhett Lashlee worked under Sonny Dykes for two seasons and helped lead SMU to its first 10-win season since 1984. The Mustangs boast the best collection of passing game personnel in the conference along with Alabama transfer Camar Wheaton, a former five-star running back prospect. The upside is off the charts. — Jeyarajah (also Patterson, Fornelli, Palm)
East Carolina: ECU took a big step forward last year by finishing above .500 for the first time since 2014. The Pirates are set to continue building off that 7-5 campaign with veteran quarterback Holton Ahlers, star running back Keaton Mitchell and a defense that is loaded with experience and continuity. The schedule may be the toughest in the AAC with nonconference games against NC State and BYU on the docket. AAC stalwarts Cincinnati, Houston and UCF are also on the slate. But this team narrowly missed upsets against Houston, UCF and South Carolina last season and has all the talent and experience needed to pull a couple surprises this season. — Cobb
Houston: While I expect Houston’s offense to be very good — Clayton Tune has been solid and wide receiver Nathaniel “Tank” Dell might be one of the best offensive players in the conference — this Holgorsen-coached team will be in position to win the league because of its defense. The defensive line boasts a Sack Avenue nickname, and that group’s ability to get to the quarterback should be the most impactful tool that Houston has to get an edge against every opponent on its schedule. Cincinnati is likely set up to again be the AAC title game foe, but I think a rematch would go the Cougars’ way with significantly less turnover on their side after both teams went 8-0 in league play last season. — Patterson (also Dodd, Fornelli, Jeyarajah)
SMU: Rhett Lashlee is widely known as one of the best offensive minds in the country and inherited the keys to a Group of Five Ferrari in quarterback Tanner Mordecai. He’s still technically in a battle for the top spot on the depth chart, which suggests that the Mustangs are in a really good place at the most important position on the field. They get Memphis, Houston and Cincinnati — three contenders for the AAC crown — at home, which is a huge piece of their championship puzzle. At the very worst, they’ll go 2-1 over that stretch and earn the inside track for the conference title game. At that point, the dynamic Mustang offense will seal the deal and give SMU the title. — Sallee
Cincinnati: The Bearcats were the class of the Group of Five last season, so much so that they became the first G5 team to be selected to the College Football Playoff. Repeating that feat, however, is too much to ask of a team that lost so much talent to the NFL. Cincinnati still figures to have the league’s best defense and will be strong up front on offense. It may take a couple of games for the offense to come together, but when it does, the Bearcats will be ready to repeat as conference champions. — Palm (also Cobb)
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AAC expert picks 2022: Most overrated and underrated teams, projected order of finish, bold predictions – CBS Sports