2021 AAC Bowls Preview

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2021 AAC Bowls
SOUTH BEND, IN - OCTOBER 02: Desmond Ridder #9 of the Cincinnati Bearcats scores a touchdown in the fourth quarter as JD Bertrand #27 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish defends at Notre Dame Stadium on October 2, 2021 in South Bend, Indiana. (Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images)

It’s the most wonderful time of the year! As we did in 2019 and 2020, let’s take a look at all 42 bowl games, plus the CFP National Championship Game. 18 matchups feature a first-ever meeting of programs.  

With how insane the coaching carousel has been, plus the full utilization of the Transfer Portal, we will try to keep up with all of the moving parts and put footnotes for notable players leaving. So, without further ado, time for the 2021 AAC bowls preview! 

2021 AAC Bowls Preview  

Myrtle Beach Bowl (December 20, 2:30 p.m., ESPN)
Tulsa vs Old Dominion 

Head-to-head: 0-0
Tulsa bowl record: 10-12 

Kicking off the 2021 AAC bowls are the Golden Hurricanes in the Myrtle Beach Bowl. Losers of four of its first five games (one of which against FCS foe UC-Davis…), Tulsa won five of its final seven matchups to barely earn bowl eligibility. Aside from that bad FCS loss, the 6-6 mark could be a tad misleading. Three of those losses were to teams slated for NY6 games. 

Only one player has attempted a pass for Tulsa in 2021: Davis Brin. Brin threw for 2,957 yards, which isn’t too bad, but had a perfectly-balanced touchdown-interception ratio with 16 each. Unfortunately, he led the nation with those 16 interceptions. By far, his favorite target is Iowa State transfer Josh Johnson who reeled in 74 passes for 958 yards and five touchdowns. 

Jaxon Player is the man on this defense. While he disrupted offenses all year to the tune of 13.5 tackles for loss and 4.0 sacks, he earned second-team All-AAC. As a unit, this defense is pretty hot and cold, but four interceptions from Tieneal Martin means the senior has been doing something right. 

This truly is a matchup of underwhelming teams. Old Dominion doesn’t move the needle, nor does Tulsa. Coin flip has Tulsa winning this one. If this were ESPN’s Bowl Mania based on confidence, this bowl game would be towards the bottom. 

Gasparilla Bowl (December 23, 7:00 p.m., ESPN)
UCF vs Florida 

Head-to-head: UCF 0-2 Florida
UCF bowl record: 5-7 

Now this is an eyebrow-raiser of a matchup. UCF and Florida couldn’t get a regular-season series finalized (mostly because Florida wanted a three-game series, two of which in Gainsville), so the college football bowl gods said “I gotchu.” The 2021 Golden Knights squad is far removed from the 2017 National Championship* team. They kicked off the year by beating Boise State but dropped its games against Louisville, Navy, Cincinnati, and SMU. 

Heading into the year, expectations were pretty high for a bounceback year. After the Louisville loss, third-year starter Dillon Gabriel decided to withdraw from the program and enter the Transfer Portal. Enter Mikey Keene, a true freshman. While he showed promise in his first year, there were growing pains. He only averaged 170 yards per game through the air. 

Regardless, this offense goes for 400 yards per game thanks to the addition of Isaiah Bowser (a Northwestern transfer), Johnny Richardson, and Mark-Antony Richards, an Auburn transfer.  

The middle-of-the-road defense is led by first-team All-AAC (and first-time All-America for best names in the game), Big Kat Bryant. He finished the regular season with 13 tackles for loss and 6.0 sacks and took over in the win over Memphis with a 3.0 tackle for loss, 2.0 sack effort. 

Before the year, one of these teams was hyped up to possibly be the team that ends Alabama’s reign on the SEC. Instead, here they are in the Gasparilla Bowl. UCF is a good team and if they had matched up against a team with as much as or less talent (such as another G5 team), they’d likey walk away with the victory. Even a bad Florida team is too talented, so UF gets the win here for the first loss of the 2021 AAC bowls. 

Transferring out: Dillon Gabriel (to UCLA, was starter in 2019, 2020) 

Hawai’i Bowl (December 24, 8:00 p.m., ESPN)
Memphis vs Hawai’i 

Head-to-head: 0-0
Memphis bowl record: 5-8 

Editor’s note: The Hawai’i Bowl was canceled due to injuries, transfers, and an uptick of COVID-19 cases within the Hawai’i program.

The third game on the 2021 AAC bowls slate pits Memphis against a 6-7 Hawai’i team that was a late selection. At 6-6 (5-6 against FBS teams), Memphis is all over the place. Three losses by three points each. A win over Mississippi State from the SEC. 105 combined points in a shootout victory over Arkansas State. Exciting games or no, this is a far cry from the team that appeared in the 2019 Cotton Bowl. 

Averaging 302 yards per game through the air, true freshman quarterback Seth Henigan has a bright future. His best game came in his second start where he went off for 417 yards and four touchdowns. A massive reason for his early success was due to senior receiver Calvin Austin III. No stranger to extreme productivity, the first-team All-AAC receiver posted his second-straight 1,000+ yard season to go with eight touchdowns. One more chance to end a great career and there’s no better place to do so. 

The weakness of this team is its defense. They allow just under 30 points per game and are gashed by offenses for just under 420 yards. JJ Russell is the star of this defense, logging an AAC-most 123 tackles on the year. Against most FBS teams, Memphis would fall. 

Hawai’i is not most FBS teams. Statistically, they are among the lower half and actually lost their quarterback to The Portal. Even then, they have the nation’s leading receiver, so this defense is going to need to buckle down. Memphis gets the win here, but it shouldn’t be easy. 

Military Bowl (December 27, 2:30 p.m., ESPN)
East Carolina vs Boston College 

Head-to-head: 0-0
ECU bowl record: 7-9 

Editor’s note: The Military Bowl was canceled due to an uptick of COVID-19 cases within the Boston College program.

Next up on the 2021 AAC bowls slate is the ECU Pirates taking on the Boston College Eagles. ECU was riding a four-game winning streak before running into CFP-bound Cincinnati and finished with a 7-5 record. Of those five losses, three were by one possession, so this team is a little better than most would think. Even then, if ifs and buts were candies and nuts, we’d all have a Merry Christmas.  

Fourth-year starter Holton Ahlers is a familiar face in Greenville, NC. Each year, he’s been solid, but 2021 has been just another great year. 3,129 yards and 18 touchdowns later and Alhers couldn’t earn any all-AAC honors. However, his favorite receiver, Tyler Snead (67 receptions, 860 yards, four touchdowns) earned second-team honors. 

COVID-Redshirt freshman running back Keaton Mitchell earned first-team honors with his 1,389 yards and 10 touchdowns off of 196 total touches. It took just three games for Mitchell to rush for over 100 yards, but his true breakout game came in a 222-yard, two-touchdown effort in a win over Tulane. Safe to say the future is very bright for this young running back. 

All-AAC second-teamers Ja’Quan McMillian and Bruce Bivens lead this Pirates defense. Bivens, a linebacker, earned the respect of his peers with just 4.0 tackles for loss and 2.0 sacks. His style of play elevated him and made the jobs of McMillian and Warren Saba easier. The two posted five (best in the nation) and four interceptions, respectively. BC will have a tough time getting it going against these two. 

Four games, four victories for the 2021 AAC bowls. ECU is a legitimate team and will be able to threaten anything Boston College is able to get going. At 4-0, the AAC will have its eyes set on having the best record throughout the bowl season. 

Birmingham Bowl (December 28, 12:00 p.m., ESPN)
Houston vs Auburn 

Head-to-head: Houston 1-5 Auburn
Houston bowl record: 11-16-1 

2021 was kind to Houston…for the most part. Sandwiched between its two losses to Texas Tech and Cincinnati in the AAC Title game, Houston won 11 games in a row, only three of which were by one possession. In that Championship game, Houston was giving Cincinnati all it had and was giving the Bearcats fits until UC rattled off 21 unanswered in the third quarter. 

The connection of Clayton Tune and Nathaniel Dell has been electric all year. 1,179 of Tune’s 3,263 yards went to Dell, as did 12 of his 28 touchdowns. Teams like Cincinnati went into the game knowing for certain that the offense runs through this connection and still failed to shut it down. Few teams can roll into a matchup where the opponent knows for certain what they’re going to do and still manage to get the job done. 

Home of three All-AAC first-teamers, Houston can play defense. The strength of this defense is the defensive line, featuring Logan Hall and David Ananih. This duo clogged running lanes and were massive reasons why the Cougars held defenses under 100 yards rushing in seven games. Considering the talent in the AAC at the skill position, this is impressive. As the 2021 AAC bowls unfold, this stat will only get more impressive. 

Houston is a very good AAC team. Auburn is a very not-good SEC team. The Tigers are 5-6 against FBS teams and will be without Bo Nix who is looking to transfer. Cougars win this and earn some pride points for the AAC even if Auburn “isn’t motivated.” 

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Fenway Bowl (December 29, 11:00 a.m, ESPN)
SMU vs Virginia 

Head-to-head: 0-0
SMU bowl record: SMU 7-9-1 Virginia 

Editor’s note: The Fenway Bowl was canceled due to an uptick of COVID-19 cases within the Virginia program. This makes the third AAC-involved bowl to be canceled due to COVID-19 within opposing programs.

Last year, SMU had one of the most explosive offenses in college football and 2021 is no different. In the penultimate guaranteed game of the 2021 AAC bowls, SMU travels to Boston, Massachusetts to take on Virginia. After jumping out to a strong 7-0 start, taking down North Texas, Louisiana Tech, and TCU, SMU dropped four of its last five games. Three of those losses were by one score, so the Mustangs were so close to earning a rematch in the AAC title game against Cincinnati. 

Oklahoma transfer Tanner Mordecai made good on his first season as a starting quarterback. As the lead signal-caller, Mordecai led the conference in completions (308), attempts (454), yards (3,628), and touchdowns (39). This SMU squad has been a pass-happy bunch for a long time and Mordecai was the right man to get them back on the winning track. As a unit, the offense scored 38.4 points per game, good for 11th-best in the nation. 

The defense, however, is not as spectacular. The only time SMU held its opponents under 200 yards through the air was against Navy. They were pushed around all year to the tune of over 417 yards each game. When you have an offense that can score the way Mordecai and company can, it’s not as concerning…until that same offense is stifled against Cincinnati and the defense is stuck attempting to shut down a CFP team. 

This is going to be a shootout. Both of these teams have athletes that can move the ball. Both of these teams field defenses that struggle to stop anything. The ACC is severely down bad this year, so the AAC will get the better of them here and move the 2021 AAC bowls record to 5-1 before the biggest game on the slate.

Also, how amazing is it that teams from Dallas, Texas and Charlottesville, Virginia get to play in a bowl game up in Boston, Massachusetts on December 29th?

CFP Semi-Final Cotton Bowl (December 31, 3:30 p.m., ESPN)
Cincinnati vs Alabama 

Head-to-head: Cincinnati 0-5 Alabama
Cincinnati bowl record: 8-9 

Finally! A Group of 5 team gets a shot at the whole thing! The crowning jewel of the 2021 AAC bowls is Cincinnati vs Alabama in the Cotton Bowl. While expectations were high and nobody within the building in Cincinnati is surprised, a perfect storm had to happen for the Bearcats to get their shot. Imagine what’s going to happen in these next few seasons before they make the move to the Big 12! 

Before the season, we looked at players you should know. Four of the five were massive reasons why Cincinnati is here. With Jerome Ford’s 1,051 rushing yards and 17 touchdowns, it’s obvious the Bearcats weren’t going to make the same mistake as last year’s Peach Bowl against Georgia. Feed the man! He’s going to be hungry to play his former team.

Desmond Ridder has been a darkhorse Heisman candidate all year. 3,000 passing yards and 27 touchdowns to go with 342 rushing yards and six touchdowns have certainly shown that he deserves plenty of praise. His 113 career touchdowns and 12,072 yards are most in American Athletic Conference history. Ridder has the highest passing efficiency rating in the conference (162.2) as well as passing yards per attempt (8.9) and adjusted passing yards per attempt (9.4). 

Receiver Alec Pierce is a big-play machine and Josh Whyle is going to be a name you hear a lot in the coming months when discussing the top tight ends in the 2022 NFL Draft class.  

The defense is the strength of the team. Opposing teams have been able to move the ball, but scoring has been at a premium as the Bearcats allow only 15.8 points per game, good for third-best in the nation. Deshawn Pace (4 ints), Ahmad Gardner (3 ints), and Curtis Brooks (11 TFL, 6.0 sacks) lead the way and Alabama is going to have a tough time moving the ball without one of its top receivers. All-American and Thorpe Trophy winner Coby Bryant has been up to the task all year opposite Sauce Gardner.

Over the last couple of years, readers have been graced with Cincinnati Bearcats hype pieces I’ve published. It would all be for naught if I don’t take this time to say…the University of Cincinnati Bearcats will win this game and move on the CFP National Championship Game! Hey, they said Ohio State had no chance in 2014, so why not UC? (Disregard last year’s CFP National Championship game, of course, UC won’t be covering a Heisman Trophy winner with an unathletic linebacker) 

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College Football Playoff National Championship (January 10, 8:00 p.m., ESPN)
Cincinnati vs ????? 

It’s an uphill battle for a non-blueblood to play for a National Title. Cincinnati sure has the tools to do so, not to mention a little luck. The dream continues for Cincinnati as they will play their way to the CFP National Championship game. 

But who will they face? Michigan or Georgia? Either way, it’s going to be new, up-and-coming team vs an old program who hasn’t made legitimate noise in decades. 

Enjoy it While it Lasts… 

In two years, the AAC will lose the three strongest programs in UCF, Cincinnati, and Houston to the Big 12. Who will replace them? Charlotte, Florida Atlantic, North Texas, Rice, UAB, and UTSA. In terms of football, the conference is going to take a step back, so will they continue the “Power 6” moniker? 

Regardless, it’s been fun in the short time of its existence. So enough with the Group of Five, the FBS Independents are up next! 

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