East meets West: AAC championship predictions
The Cougars are eight weeks into the season, and we can already count them out to make any kind of impact in the conference standings — unless they manage to upset a favorite in the coming weeks. Although the championship match up is nowhere near decided, teams like Tulsa, Houston and ECU are already looking forward to a fresh start in 2018 after crashing and burning this year.
The American Athletic Conference Championship game, scheduled for Dec. 2, is still more than a month away, but The Cougar’s sports staff looked at the season so far and predicted who will likely face each other and who will ultimately win.
Sports editor Frank Campos
The East should reign supreme when all is said and done in the AAC. But with two undefeated teams through Week 8, the question still remains who will represent the East division in the conference championship.
Both Central Florida and South Florida look legitimate enough to go undefeated for the rest of the season, so the eastern representative will be chosen on Nov. 24 when USF goes on the road to face UCF in their last game of the regular season. UCF will bring its second-ranked scoring offense to face USF’s seventh-ranked rushing offense in a battle that will likely produce the conference champion.
The rest of the East division is so bad that they don’t stand a chance to catch up to either Florida team in time to make an impact in the standings.
The Western half of the conference is a different story. A couple of teams have a chance to represent the West, but Memphis could hold on to the top spot with only SMU to worry about on its schedule.
SMU is next in line but will go through a lot of tough opponents to end the season, including UCF, Navy and Memphis.
Both Navy and Houston could make a splash, but they face ranked opponents before the end of the season and will be lucky to walk away without a blowout loss.
I predict the conference championship game will be between UCF and Memphis with Central Florida walking away with the trophy.
Assistant sports editor Peter Scamardo
The Memphis Tigers. Plain and simple. All of Cougar Nation saw what coach Mike Norvell’s team can do. After struggling to an 8-5 record last year, the Tigers are 6-1 thus far. The key factor is that the Tigers have already played the toughest teams on their schedule.
With Tulane, Tulsa, SMU and East Carolina left, the Tigers can easily reach the conference championship.
What the Tigers did against the Cougars is exactly what they did against UCLA. The offense fought the entire game and found a way to win at the end. It did the exact same thing against Navy, when it eeked out a three-point victory and, of course, last Thursday against Houston.
The team’s one loss came against the now 6-0 UCF Knights. The Tigers will face either UCF or the South Florida Bulls in the championship.
Either match will be close, but if the Tigers’ defense can force turnovers late in the game like it did Thursday night, then quarterback Riley Ferguson and the offense have a chance to put the Tigers ahead.
Assistant sports editor Reagan Earnst
With all due respect to UCF and Memphis, South Florida has the best chance of being the 2017 AAC champions.
The Bulls’ roster is loaded with experience and has proven to be solid on both sides of the ball.
Senior QB Quinton Flowers has the Bulls smelling the roses and in line for a potential berth in a New Year’s Six Bowl or even in the College Football Playoff. The dual-threat QB is a challenge for even great defenses to stop, and he’s come up big in important games.
Add in senior running back D’Ernest Johnson who has nearly 600 rush yards and five TDs, and the Bulls have an offense that can not only move the ball but also control the time of possession.
Although the defense isn’t spectacular, multiple playmakers — specifically in the secondary — force turnovers on a routine basis.
Senior safety Devin Abraham has four interceptions already and will likely continue his career in the NFL next year.
The Bulls next take the field against the Cougars on Saturday in a game that could get ugly if Houston is not at its best.
Look for South Florida to win the AAC — and maybe more — this winter.