Since its inception, the American Athletic Conference has considered itself one of the “Power Six” conferences. There were certainly a couple of seasons in which UCF, the best team in the conference, did an excellent job of showing that the AAC could compete with the big boys. Well, even after seeing UCF take a step backward last year, the rest of the conference has begun to catch up.
While the AAC might not truly be on the level of the Power Five just yet, the gap seems to be getting smaller every year. A big reason for that is an influx of talent and development within the conference. All of this is good news for the AAC but bad news for me because it made putting this list together difficult.
Thankfully, this is the internet, and on the internet, we all agree with each other all the time. So, that said there shouldn’t be any controversy below as we reveal the 10 best players in the AAC entering the 2020 college football season.
1. Shane Buechele, QB, SMU
Texas has Sam Ehlinger right now, but you have to think there were some Longhorns fans watching Shane Buechele play for SMU last season thinking, “oh NOW you want to play like this.” Buechele led the American Athletic Conference in passing yards per game with 302.2 while throwing 34 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. While his accuracy was a bit touch-and-go at times, his on-target rate of 62.7% was second-best in the conference behind only Memphis’ Brady White. Where Buechele really shined was throwing downfield. On passes of 10 air yards or more, he had a rating of 127.6 (highest in the American Athletic Conference) with a touchdown rate of 12.4% and an interception rate of only 1.7%. Among 84 FBS QBs to throw at least 100 passes of 10 air yards or more, Buechele’s TD rate ranked 10th (tied with Trevor Lawrence) and his INT rate was 8th.
2. Dillon Gabriel, QB, UCF
I am barricading the doors and windows of my home in anticipation of UCF fans reacting to Gabriel being behind Buechele on this list. Don’t get me wrong, Gabriel was very good in 2020, and when you factor in that he was a freshman, his season was even more impressive. The difference between the two of them, looking at both the traditional stats as well as the more advanced metrics, was minimal in most areas. The only reason I put Gabriel second was that while he was really good pushing the ball down the field, Buechele was better on the shorter-to-intermediate routes. That said, Buechele will be a 22-year old senior if the season starts this fall. Gabriel will only be a sophomore in 2020. His ceiling is much higher, and he could easily prove to be the best QB in the conference this year.
3. Kenneth Gainwell, RB, Memphis
Not many people had heard of Kenneth Gainwell entering the 2019 season. They know who he is now, though. Gainwell burst onto the scene as a freshman, quickly silencing any concerns about how Memphis would replace Darrell Henderson. After rushing for 162 yards in the first two games of the season, Gainwell ripped off six consecutive games with at least 100 yards rushing. He finished the year with 1,459 yards rushing (104.2 per game) and 13 touchdowns, and was a threat in the passing game as well (51 receptions, 610 yards, three touchdowns). If he’s able to build on that performance in 2020, we’ll be a couple of years away from people wondering, “How is Memphis going to replace Kenneth Gainwell?”
4. Ahmad Gardner, CB, Cincinnati
Gardner is the third straight player on this list who was only a freshman last season. Gardner had 31 tackles and three interceptions in his debut season, and he housed two of the picks. As you’d expect opponents to do against a freshman corner, Gardner was picked on a lot. According to Sports Info Solutions, Gardner was targeted 60 times last year. Only SMU’s Brandon Stephens saw more passes come his way among AAC players. Well, of those 60 balls thrown Gardner’s way, only 22 were completed. Gardner’s QBR against of 24.86 ranked second among the 163 players to be targeted at least 45 times last season. Only Alabama’s Trevon Diggs was better, and he’ll be playing in the NFL in 2020. If Gardner keeps it up, he might follow him there.
5. Myjai Sanders, Edge, Cincinnati
Sanders ends the run of freshmen here, but don’t worry, he was only a sophomore in 2019. If you look at Sanders’ stats and nothing else, his 2019 season doesn’t stand out that much. His four sacks ranked in a tie for 17th in the AAC, and his seven TFL ranked 45th. If you look deeper, though, you saw the makings of a very good pass-rusher. Sanders finished fifth in the AAC in pressures with 42. The only AAC defender with more pressures last year who is still in college is Temple’s Quincy Roche (57), but he’s transferred to Miami. Sanders’ 33 QB hurries ranked third in the conference. While there are no guarantees, if Sanders improves in his junior season and the luck evens out a bit, he could have a double-digit sack season in 2020.
6. Richie Grant, S, UCF
Grant is one of the leaders of the UCF defense and could prove to be the first American Athletic Conference player taken in next spring’s NFL Draft. He finished the season with 78 tackles, and while he only had one interception, he did manage to take it to the house. So, bonus points there. He’s a defensive back that can help you against the run as well as in the passing game. Not only was he second on the team in tackles, but opposing QBs completed only 43.3% of passes thrown his way.
7. Damonte Coxie, WR, Memphis
There are a lot of good receivers in the AAC, and Damonte Coxie enters the 2020 season with an excellent chance to lead the league in receiving. He finished third in the AAC in receiving yards per game last year with 91.1, pulling in 76 passes for 1,276 yards and nine touchdowns. Coxie was also a handful after the catch. Among AAC receivers, his nine broken tackles trailed only Tulsa’s Keylon Stokes last season, and Coxie averaged an impressive 5.75 yards after the catch.
8. C.J. Johnson, WR, East Carolina
While I have Coxie ahead of Johnson, that’s more a nod to what Coxie has already accomplished. Given what Johnson did as a freshman for the Pirates last season (54 receptions, 908 yards, four touchdowns), he could prove to be the best receiver in the conference before he’s done. Johnson is a big-play threat for the Pirates in their passing game. He averaged 16.8 yards per receptions thanks to his effectiveness on deep balls, and his ability after the catch (5.69 YAC per reception).
9. Diego Fagot, LB, Navy
Of all returning American Athletic Conference defenders, only Cincinnati safety Darrick Forrest had more tackles (106) than Diego Fagot’s 100 last season. Of course, while 100 tackles is impressive on its own, it doesn’t tell the whole story with Fagot. According to Sports Info Solutions, Fagot allowed only two broken tackles. Of the 80 FBS linebackers with at least 50 solo tackles last season, that was tied for the fewest in the country alongside Clemson’s Isaiah Simmons. That’s great company to keep.
10. Reggie Roberson, WR, SMU
Roberson was en route to a terrific season last year before an injury cost him the final five games. Despite playing only eight games, Roberson still managed to finish second on SMU in receptions (43) and receiving yards (803). He’d been averaging 5.4 catches and 100.4 yards per game before going down, thanks largely to his improvement catching the ball. After transferring to SMU from West Virginia, Roberson had a drop rate of 10%, according to Sports Info Solutions. He cut that number to a much more tolerable 6.0% before going down last season. Given SMU’s offense and Shane Buechele at QB, Roberson will have a monster season if he stays on the field.
T.J. Carter (CB, Memphis), Zaven Collins (LB, Tulsa), Patrick Johnson (Edge, Tulane), Ifeanyi Maijeh (DL, Temple), K.J. Sails (CB, South Florida), Marquez Stevenson (WR, Houston), Marlon Williams (WR, UCF)