American Athletic Conference 2020 Preseason Superlatives
It's been a good run for the American Athletic Conference over the last few years. Wins over Power 5 teams and a national championship have all graced the resume of this conference in the last three seasons. Great coaching can be credited, but the talent brought in has exceeded expectations. Narrowing these superlatives down to just one provides a challenge for anyone, but let's give it a shot.
Best Offensive Player: RB Kenneth Gainwell, Memphis
Memphis' super sophomore accumulated 2,069 yards and 16 touchdowns last year, and he's back for more. After thriving under Darrell Henderson, the Tigers offense needed a new workhorse to lead to rushing attack. Gainwell not only did that, but added his unique pass catching abilities too. Most running backs aren't sent out as receivers to run route deep downfield, but Gainwell's route running and hands give Memphis a threat that not many teams get to enjoy.
Best Defensive Player: DE/LB Patrick Johnson, Tulane
Speaking of versatility, Johnson is basically the defensive equivalent of what Gainwell does for Memphis' offense. Johnson can line up and rush the passer one play, but head out wide to cover a receiver downfield. His production slid back a little in 2019 with his tackles, tackles for loss, sacks, and passes defended all shrinking, but that has more to do with the respect that teams give him. Offensive coordinator's must scheme around him, and that means the ball typically heads the opposite direction.
Most Pressure to Succeed: HC Philip Montgomery, Tulsa
Normally we'd stick a player in this spot, but Montgomery has the most pressure on him than anyone in this conference. After a 16-10 start in his first two years (including a 10-3 year in 2016), Montgomery's gone 9-27 in the last three. While the Golden Hurricane did take a step in the right direction last year, anything less than a bowl game should result in him heading out the door.
Top Newcomer: OL James Hudson, Cincinnati
Now that the drama with his transfer is over and Michigan doesn't have control, Hudson's ready to add to an already talented offensive line. Cincinnati's group up front needs a couple players to step up this year, and Hudson is a leading candidate to do just that. With new weapons needed at running back and wide receiver, a solid offensive line will help bring the Bearcats back to the conference championship, and might even take them to the top this year.
Comeback Player: S James Wiggins, Cincinnati
If you thought Cincinnati's secondary was promising coming into 2019, you should be even more excited about the group in 2020. Wiggins' injury early in the season forced other players to step up, and now he joins a group that's experienced and extremely talented. Darrick Forrest and JaVon Hicks stepped up in Wiggins' absence, giving Cincinnati tremendous depth on the back side of the defense. Wiggins returns a 2018 team high four interceptions, and he also finished tied for third on the team in tackles. It's the year of the defensive back, and the Bearcats get one of the best in the conference back.
Don't Forget About: CB Damarion Williams, Houston
Perception is reality, and Williams doesn't get the credit he deserves because the Cougars struggled so much last year. He seems to be a forgotten name around the country because of his team's struggles, but Williams is a stud against any matchup. He went toe-to-toe with Oklahoma's CeeDee Lamb, and faced a number of talented receivers last year. If his team can improve even a little this year, the recognition will come with it. Dana Holgorsen recruited a bunch of transfers for the secondary, so his game should elevate with that competition too.
Breakout Player: QB Holton Ahlers, ECU
We've seen glimpses of what a breakout season looks like for ECU and Ahlers, but we haven't seen a full season yet. This year feels like it's the one. His final four games give us hope that Ahlers will explode. In his final four games, Ahlers completed 65% of his passes for 1,715 yards with 14 touchdowns and just three interceptions. Put that blistering pace into a full season, and we could be looking at a year in which Ahlers throws for 5,145 yards and 42 touchdowns. Even if he comes up shy of that pace, it would still be a great season. If ECU's going to breakout under Mike Houston, this is the year.
Position Battle: UCF Quarterback
The return of McKenzie Milton has been one of the most anticipated returns in all of college football. His injury two years ago made a return seem impossible, but not were talking about Milton playing football again. With the chance that he might compete for the starting spot, that creates a quarterback competition for the Knights. Milton's absence in 2019 left an opening at the quarterback position, one that freshman Dillon Gabriel filled nicely. If Milton is healthy, Josh Heupel must find a way to put both on the field and cater to their unique skillsets. Milton's a dual threat (9,761 career total yards and 92 career total touchdowns) who's great at making something out of nothing, but Gabriel is the better passer.
Best Unit: Cincinnati Defensive Backs
Just like the rest of college football, defensive backs are a hot commodity throughout the country. Even within the AAC, the secondaries boast plenty of talent. UCF, USF, and Memphis return a number of talented players, and will challenge for this spot, but Cincinnati is top dog in this category. James Wiggins returns as we mentioned before, but it's his teammates that bring the Bearcats to this position. Darrick Forrest was Wiggins' partner in 2018, but became a leader in his absence. JaVon Hicks also benefited, and developed into a ball hawking safety. At corner, Coby Bryant got some help in the form of freshman All-AAC selection Ahmad Gardner. From taking away the deep ball to sending a message in the box, these guys can do it all. The biggest concern for defensive coordinator is finding a place for all five guys.
Sleeper Team: Houston
Last year wasn't what anyone saw coming for the Houston Cougars. The struggles of 2019 pushed the Cougars out of contention quickly, and now have some overlooking them this year. Dana Holgorsen's proven that his second seasons are lethal, and that's a big reason for the Coogs getting this honor. Clayton Tune's back with a plethora of talent at the skill positions, and Holgorsen injected transfer talent into the roster to help at key positions. With most of the attention on Memphis, UCF, and Cincinnati, Houston could sneak up on everyone this year.