College Football is three weeks away. The wait is almost over! Today we will look at the AAC, where Cincinnati is looking to make it three straight years as champion.
Cincinnati came into the year with high expectations and delivered all across the board. They finished with a regular season record of 13-0, going 8-0 in conference play and securing the first playoff birth for the Group of 5. Cincinnati dominated in almost every metric. They won 11 of 13 games by double digits, including the conference championship 35-20 over Houston. Cincinnati ranked 13th in SP+ offense and 11th in SP+ defense. They were the only AAC team ranked in the top 50 in both units. They lost critical players to the NFL draft, including QB Desmond Ridder (3334 yards, 8.6 yds/att, 30 TDs, and 8 INTs) and top 10 pick DB Sauce Gardner.
Cincinnati’s +15 turnover margin (2nd overall) and 11th overall havoc rate will regress this year as they rank 107th in defensive returning production. Houston posted their best season under Dana Holgerson, going 12-2 overall and 8-0 in conference. They were the closest thing to Cincinnati in the AAC, with a ranking of 51st in SP+ offense and a ranking of 18th in SP+ defense. They posted the sixth-best overall Havoc Rate and, in turn, posted a +8 turnover margin. Houston’s success was tied to their ability to stay ahead of the chains on both sides of the ball, ranking top 30 in offense pass success rate, defense standard downs success rate, defense rush success rate, and defensive pass success rate. Houston will bring back a solid production profile, but they will likely regress in overall havoc rate and one-score games (4-0 record). Let’s dive into a couple of teams who have a chance to dethrone Cincinnati this year.
Houston is one of three AAC teams to have top 45 returning offensive and defensive production. The other two teams are East Carolina and Tulane, two teams who could improve this year but are unlikely to compete for a championship. Houston brings back an offensive returning production ranking of 25th paired with a 2021 SP+ ranking of 51st and a defensive returning production ranking of 41st paired with a 2021 SP+ ranking of 18th. The offense returns QB Clayton Tune (3546 yards, 8.4yds/att, 30 TDs, and 10 INTs). He led the team to several elite underlying metrics and produced some solid grades in numerous categories. Let’s dive a little deeper into the offense and QB Clayton Tune.
As you can see, we have a little Jekyll and Hyde-type consistency. The positive thing to see is the passing game is stable in success rate and explosiveness. This assures from that aspect, they can essentially keep the defense honest. Houston brings back a ranking of 63rd in OL Snaps% and a ranking of 24th in rush yards. They should see improvement in both rushing success rate and stuff rate this year. If those two categories even improve moderately, this will be a top 30 SP+ offense. QB Clayton Tune will look to improve upon his conference-best PFF passing grade and lead this offense back to another conference championship game.
The defense had an elite 2021 SP+ ranking of 18th overall. This was led by ranking 6th overall in Havoc Rate and excelling in several other categories. Let’s look more at this unit that has a defensive returning production ranking of 41st.
This unit has one weakness, and that’s allowing explosive plays. They are elite in every other category. Bringing back a solid production profile on top of these efficiency metrics will look to maintain and even improve to a possible top 10 defense. Even though they were sixth overall in Havoc Rate, they ranked 27th in takeaways. They will more than likely regress in overall Havoc Rate, but they have an opportunity to improve in takeaways and meet in the middle. This unit will determine how well Houston does and what they will achieve.
Houston has the best overall returning production profile for the entire AAC. QB Clayton Tune will command the offense and will look to improve them to a top 30 ranking. The defense is the lynchpin of this entire team. They were elite last year and for this team to contend will need to be elite again in 2022. They will regress in one-score games (4-0 in 2021) and overall havoc rate. Houston is the most talented team in the AAC and looks to turn that into their first championship since 2015.
SMU is often forgotten in the AAC, even though they are constantly competing with top teams. They have been looked over pretty much every year for Memphis, Cincinnati, and Houston. Last year they went 8-4 overall and 4-4 in conference. Three of their four conference losses were by one score. SMU has a respectable returning production profile. They bring back a ranking of 52nd in offensive returning production paired with a 2021 SP+ offense ranking of 18th and a defensive returning production ranking of 73rd paired with a 2021 SP+ defensive ranking of 71st. QB Tanner Mordecai (3628 yards, 8.0 yds/att, 39 TDs, and 12 INTs) returns to lead this elite offense. Defensively they are average across the board but do have some underlying metrics that show the potential for improvement. Let’s dive into both of these units.
SMU passes the ball at the 25th highest rate overall. This bodes well for the metrics you see above. Having a team that is high in passing success rate and passing explosiveness is hard to gameplan for. SMU is one of two teams in the AAC to rank top 20 in SP+ offense in 2021. The other team was Cincinnati. Every other team ranked 51st or lower. Only two AAC teams ranked top 20 in defensive passing explosiveness allowed. If SMU can improve moderately when it comes to running the ball, it will put defenses in quite a bind for 2022. SMU does lose significant receiving yard production, ranking 92nd in receiving yards returning production, but they will bring back six players with at least 10 receptions or more.
Defense is not SMU’s strength. They return average production (73rd) from an average defense (71st in SP+ defense). There are some areas that they did excel in, but there are areas they struggled in mightily. Let’s dive into this unit.
As I said, there are not a lot of bright spots in this unit. SMU defends the run very well from a success rate standpoint, but they are abysmal in allowing explosive plays. This unit is not needing to be elite for this team to succeed. They need slight improvement in allowing explosive plays and getting off the field. Both are within the realm of possibility as only one other team ranked top 20 in 2021 in SP+ Offense, and I can really only see one team making a big enough improvement to jump to that elite status.
SMU at +1000 has value simply because they will boast the best offense in the AAC. They arguably have the best QB next to Clayton Tune (Houston). They ended up 3-3 in one-score games and had a -4 turnover margin. They could easily see positive regression in both volatile categories. The defense needs to improve from allowing explosive plays, but they do not need to be elite for SMU to be a contender. Cincinnati will regress, and the other contenders have question marks such as records in one-score games and turnover margin. If the offense maintains its elite status, they will be contending for a conference championship.
Thanks for reading, and tune in next time for a preview of Independents who can possibly contend for the College Football Playoff.
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