Cincinnati’s College Football Playoff berth finally altered discussions about the conference’s previous inability to qualify for the sport’s top position. But with the changing landscape of the sport. Much of the focus was on the developments of conference realignment. This will be the final year with this Cincinnati, Houston, and UCF. The trio will depart for the Big 12 on July 1, 2023. In exchange for those three programs, the AAC will add six C-USA institutions to replenish the size of the conference.
The preseason conference rankings were also released. The 2021 runner-up Houston Cougars edged the two-time reigning AAC champion Cincinnati Bearcats by one point for the claim as the league’s favorite. Houston lost to UC in the AAC championship game last year. Cincinnati led all teams in first-place votes, but Houston and UCF also earned consideration.
The Bearcats broke through the glass ceiling as the nonpower five teams to crack the College Football Playoffs. While Cincinnati did not emerge victorious in the Cotton Bowl semifinal, Luke Fickell’s program garnered national attention for being trailblazers. However, the Bearcats ranked third among all colleges with nine selections in the 2022 NFL Draft.
Photo Cred: UC Football Twitter
“With exception to a couple of positions, I think we’ve got more maturity than people would know. Our leadership is more mature than it even had been with Desmond (Ridder) and Coby (Bryant),” Fickell said. “Our guys have come from different places and earned things differently. The uniqueness is a lot of these guys have played. We are not just a team that played 11 guys on defense and 11 guys on offense.”
Head coach Dana Holgorsen finally saw his vision come to fruition in year three as Houston won 11 consecutive wins and appeared in the conference championship. They closed the season with a win over SEC power Auburn in the Birmingham Bowl. One reason for the Cougars’ improvement was the play of quarterback Clayton Tune. From year two to year three, Tune raised his completion rate from 59.6 to 68.3 percent and his touchdown-to-interception ratio from 15-to-10 to 30-to-10.
Photo Cred: http://www.UhCougars.com
“He should be improved in every area of his game,” Holgorsen said. “I was very proud of how he improved last year. He overcame the beginning of the year where he didn’t play very well in the second half against Texas Tech, and then he got hurt two games later and had to battle that injury for three or four games. Probably the biggest key is we got better pieces around him now. We got a more experienced offensive line and one of the most dynamic receivers in the country (Nathaniel Dell).”
University of Central Florida
In the Josh Heupel era, the UCF brand is based on offensive speed. Gus Malzahn was hired during the 2021 offseason. UCF elected to continue running the offense at full throttle. After slowing down the unit due to Dillon Gabriel’s injury, Malzahn hopes to insert that dose of speed back into the system for 2022.
Photo Cred: http://www.UCF.edu
“That’s probably the biggest thing I inherited in our players was a group that’s used to playing fast,” Malzahn said. “That made my job a lot easier once I came in here. Now, if you take back to last year, the first three games when we were healthy, we were playing extremely fast. Then we had to insert a true first-year quarterback who was 18 years old, so we slowed things down as we were teaching him and his strengths.”