NEWPORT, R.I. – Memphis was once again the media’s choice in the West Division, while the UCF Knights, who bring a 13-game winning streak into the 2018 season, have been selected as the favorite to win the 2018 American Athletic Conference Championship in the conference’s preseason media poll.
UCF received 19 of a possible 30 votes to win the league title, while the Knights were listed first on 25 ballots in the East Division race.
The Tigers received 23 first-place votes and 171 points. Memphis was projected as the conference champion on seven ballots, while USF received three votes and Houston one for the league title.
UCF finished the 2017 season as the only unbeaten team in the nation (13-0) and celebrated a national championship after the Knights were ranked No. 1 in the final Colley Matrix of the season. The Knights were ranked No. 6 in the final Associated Press poll last year after capping the season with a 34-27 win against Auburn in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl. First-year head coach Josh Heupel, the former offensive coordinator at Missouri and Oklahoma, finds 14 returning starters from last season, including quarterback McKenzie Milton, who finished eighth in the Heisman Trophy voting in 2017.
USF, which ranked No. 21 nationally in the final 2017 polls, returns 11 starters from a team that went 10-2 and defeated Texas Tech in the Birmingham Bowl last season. Head coach Charlie Strong has gone 22-3 in two years as an American Athletic Conference coach, but will have to replace the production of the Bulls’ top three rushers, their all-time leading passer and their top receiver from last season, as well as three all-conference picks on defense. The Bulls received five first-place votes in the East Division projection.
Temple was third in the East Division in the preseason poll with 132 points. The Owls have reached a bowl game in each of the last three years as Temple overcame a 3-5 start to win four of its last five games in Geoff Collins’ first year as head coach. Temple has 13 starters back from last year, including safety Delvon Randall, who earned first team all-conference honors in 2017.
Cincinnati was picked fourth in the East Division with 91 points. The Bearcats had played in five straight bowl games between 2011-16, but look to end a two-year absence from postseason play in Luke Fickell’s second year on the sideline. Cincinnati is the only team in The American to return its leading rusher (Gerrid Doaks), passer (Hayden Moore) and receiver (Khalil Lewis) from last season.
UConn was fifth in the preseason poll in the East Division. Randy Edsall’s Huskies enjoyed their best offensive showing since 2003 in the first year of his return to the program as UConn averaged 415 yards per game last year. Many of the key players on offense return, including the team’s top three rushers and top five receivers from last season. The Huskies will be inexperienced on defense, however, with only two returning starters.
ECU was tabbed for sixth in the East Division. The Pirates have made eight bowl appearances in 12 years, but look to end a three-year postseason drought. Scottie Montgomery has 13 returning starters from last year, including wide receiver Trevon Brown, who enjoyed a 1,000-yard season in 2017.
Memphis was named as the favorite in the West Division for the second straight year as the Tigers claimed 23 of the 30 first-place votes for 171 points. Mike Norvell’s Tigers have 16 returning starters from last year’s team which won the West Division title and was ranked No. 25 in the final national polls. Running back Tony Pollard will be a key man on offense, but is a game-changer on special teams who averaged 40.0 yards and scored four touchdowns on kickoff returns on his way to back-to-back American Athletic Conference Special Teams Player of the Year honors.
Houston received four first-place votes and was picked for second in the West Division with 146 points. Major Applewhite welcomes 11 returning starters back from last year, including consensus All-America defensive tackle Ed Oliver. Oliver was tabbed by Sports Illustrated as the top player in the nation for 2018 following a sophomore season in which he registered 16.5 tackles for loss and had 73 tackles as he won the Outland Trophy as the nation’s top interior lineman.
Navy was picked third in the West Division with 129 points, including three first-place votes. The Midshipmen battled through injuries to key players to finish 7-6 last year, capped by a 49-7 win against Virginia in the Military Bowl. Coach Ken Niumatalolo has six returning starters on defense and turns the keys to his offense over to Malcolm Perry, who rushed for 1,182 yards and 11 touchdowns as a sophomore in 2017.
SMU was fourth in the West Division projection with 72 points. The Mustangs returned to postseason play last season for the first time since 2012, and new head coach Sonny Dykes has 12 returning starters from that group. Among the returnees is quarterback Ben Hicks, who threw for 3,569 yards and a school-record 33 touchdowns in 2017.
Tulane was projected fifth in the West after the Green Wave narrowly missed out on bowl eligibility last season. Head coach Willie Fritz has 15 returning starters, including eight from an offense that averaged 391.5 yards and 27.5 points per game last season. Quarterback Jonathan Banks threw for 1,797 yards and 12 touchdowns and ran for 592 yards and seven TDs.
Tulsa was tabbed for sixth in the West Division with 44 points. The Golden Hurricane looks to get back to its form of the 2016 season, when Tulsa won 10 games with a history-making offense. Head coach Philip Montgomery has 15 starters back, including a pair of all-conference offensive linemen (center Chandler Miller and guard Tyler Bowling) and an all-conference receiver (Justin Hobbs).
The fourth American Athletic Conference Football Championship will be played Saturday, Dec. 1, at the home site of the division champion with the best conference record.
2018 AMERICAN ATHLETIC CONFERENCE PRESEASON FOOTBALL MEDIA POLL
1. UCF (25) 175
2. USF (5) 140
3. Temple 132
4. Cincinnati 91
5. UConn 51
6. ECU 41
1. Memphis (23) 171
2. Houston (4) 146
3. Navy (3) 129
4. SMU 72
5. Tulane 68
6. Tulsa 44
(first-place votes in parentheses)