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AAC Football 2019-20: Milton Injury Brings Long-Shot Vegas Lines Into Consideration

AAC Football Logo With UCF Vs Cincinnati Bearcats

Brandon Wimbush is the perfect example of a college QB who is acknowledged to be successful on the NCAA level but cannot, and will not, succeed in the NFL as a signal-caller.

The NFL’s myth is that at its highest level of excellence, the game is only suited to drop-back passing teams and not dual-threat QB-runners. The excommunications of QBs like Tim Tebow and Colin Kaepernick served to realize such Holy Words in the eyes of the public.

You can make a case for certain long-term NFL passers who bring their college football skill-set to the table, like Cam Newton. But Newton is used as a grab-bag player by the Panthers and has lost his rhythm and dynamism as a positive-yards runner. Carolina’s struggles to meet past glory consist largely of Newton getting flat-footed and corralled in the backfield for huge losses, not supposedly such a big deal compared to a guy’s pure passing numbers, eh Pete Prisco and Boomer Esiason?

Why do the Panthers lose despite having the perfect rocked-armed machine at QB? Because Newton doesn’t think as he did as a dominant college player. Square peg, meet round hole.

Why do only pure passers tend to flourish in the NFL? Because the NFL is designed to strongly discourage anything else, just like the Canadian Football League is designed for play-making scramblers like Doug Flutie. (With 2 downs to make 10 yards, a CFL quarterback had better be a play-maker.)

The FBS is designed in a different way. The better a quarterback can handle himself while running with the ball; the better-off a Power-5 program tends to be.

Dabo Swinney replaced a decent scrambler with a great one at Clemson, and the proof is in the pudding. Swift-footed teenage gunslinger Trevor Lawrence and the Tigers didn’t just win the College Football Playoff in January; they made a laugher out of it. Tago Tagovailoa of Alabama could throw an 80-yard TD pass in the air, but he didn’t know how to play 11-on-11 when it counted most.

HC Josh Heupel of Central Florida must realize what an opportunity he’s got in 2019-20. In some ways, Wimbush could be an even more effective QB than McKenzie Milton has been for the Knights.

But only with the right game plan.

AAC 2019-20 Futures Betting: Ranking UCF Among CFB Elite

It’s too bad that UCF’s celebrated win streak came to an end against LSU in bowl season, and I don’t say that to cast the Central Florida Knights as faces and the Louisiana State Tigers as heels. It’s more to the point that the game resembled a pro-wrestling match of sorts.

It was brutal and ugly. The UCF student-athletes were as guilty as the SEC “baddies” of bending the rules and fighting dirty.

But my impression of UCF’s might under Heupel was already set in stone. It was a revelation to see the Knights, fresh off of Milton’s injury – a model for how a catastrophic wounding of the team leader can land a championship team in trouble – and embarrassing a Memphis squad led by Darrell Henderson in the 2nd half of the AAC Championship Game last fall.

UCF is not really in the “American Athletic Conference” any more than LSU is “in the SEC.” That’s because they both belong to a nationally-elite class of programs now. Don’t think of UCF as a mid-major team – think of it as an exceptional team that happens to be mid-major.

The Knights pounded the best in their (extremely strong) conference with a frosh backup QB in the worst possible circumstances. I wouldn’t have trusted Clemson’s chances to blow out any FBS conference finalist if Trevor Lawrence had gotten hurt and the starter was some new kid.

“Some new kid” was Darriel Mack Jr. in UCF’s case, who acquitted himself amazingly well under the circumstances. He’ll be back someday. Now, Heupel is working up a 2-year plan to install Wimbush and his South Bend resume as the starter and allow Milton a redshirt year to recover and practice.

How will each heralded QB adjust to his new role in Orlando?

A UCF Futures Betting Line Full of Anticipation…and Fear

UCF is a (+125) futures betting favorite to win the AAC at BetOnline, a number full of gamblers’ mixed psychology. Wimbush was a controversial Notre Dame QB, and there’s no doubt Ian Book is better-suited to Brian Kelly’s offense there.

But it helps to have a strong supporting cast, and Brandon’s got one. Adrian Killins Jr. is going to make a “killins” on an NFL contract someday, the run and pass-blocking should be excellent, and the WR corps is full of athletes. The defense will be young and inexperienced, however, and special teams is always cooking on a squad with fast LBs and speedy backup skill players.

Heupel must use Wimbush as a full-fledged Read Option quarterback and let his offense chew the clock. Coaches tend to forget to do that, so I cannot recommend gambling on the Knights at 1.25-to-1 to win another AAC Championship.

But there’s always a chance the light bulb will come on in the coaches’ room, and game plans will allow a defense to have its growing pains and still arrive in January.

UCF’s current (+25000) line-to-win the 2019-20 College Football Playoff at BetOnline is worth a red cent from my stake on that basis. I’m just not going for the sub-2-to-1 line in an underrated conference.

Here’s a look at 11 other teams in the AAC going into autumn ‘19, starting with UCF’s American East Division.

Important:

The futures odds, courtesy of BetOnline, are lines-to-win the AAC Championship Game on December 7th.

Cincinnati (+600)

The Bearcats may turn out to be a fantastic underdog against UCF when the teams meet on October 4th in Ohio. Cincinnati has a fearsome defense of the kind that might just stuff a Wimbush-led rushing attack and allow its offense to take advantage of any lack of chemistry on the opposing side.

Cincinnati’s linebacking corps is fantastic, led by senior Perry Young. The defensive line is the only real area of potential concern on an otherwise-dynamite D that could shine in the ACC, not just the AAC. Quarterback Desmond Ridder is still up and coming.

I’ll get right to the point on these guys since most partisan readers have been patiently scrolling through Central Florida Knights content and looking to get to the team handicaps for 2019.

But whoops – gotta bring up those Knights at least 1 more time.

I love the 6-to-1 line on the Bearcats thanks to the early-October timing and home-field advantage of the UCF-at-Cincy game.

Get through a tough division, and there could be clearer skies in the title scrum…unless Houston’s new-coach honeymoon period makes the Cougars hard for anyone in the FBS to defend in December.

Futures Lean: 2-Unit Bet at (+600)

South Florida (+850)

Charlie Strong South Florida Coach

USF’s bowl result – “Lost 38-20 to Marshall in the Gasparilla Bowl” has enormous comic potential as a 1-liner.

You know how they say, “my team had to play a tough schedule, while theirs played Little Sisters of the Poor.” Nobody means that there’s a football program from Little Sisters of the Poor. It’s just a catch-phrase that means “a slate of lowly opponents.”

I can imagine the same thing happening to “lost to Marshall in the Gasparilla Bowl.” A cocky SEC fan could say to another, “in 5 years, my alma mater will be winning national titles, while yours is losing to Marshall in the Gasparilla Bowl.”

The banality of the Bulls’ postseason underscores the frustration felt by fans in Tampa.

Following a 7-0 start in 2018, USF collapsed down the stretch to finish 7-6. Charlie Strong goes from being the toast of the Group-of-5 to the hot seat.

Health will be a major factor, as injuries to impact performers contributed to the downward spiral last season. Senior quarterback Blake Barnett completed 61.1 percent of his passes for 2,705 yards but he couldn’t stay healthy and couldn’t scramble with abandon.

Sophomore jinxes abounded on Strong’s squad, and the hexed junior class can look to a sophomore for help in ’19. Randall St. Felix was electric as a freshman WR.

Mitchell Wilcox is among the best pass-catching tight ends in the country, and the bulk of a lethal running attack that put up a 194-yard average on the ground will return.

Confidence – or the lack of it – will be paramount as South Florida faces Wisconsin to begin the season and UCF to end it. Gulp.

Futures Lean: Pass

Temple (+1400)

The Temple Owls were primed and ready to begin the Manny Diaz era…an era that never was. In a surreal offseason story, the former Miami Hurricane DC spent 18 days as the Temple head man before bolting back to his hometown for his dream job.

That’s not how you do a Bolt-for-Benjamins as a CFB coach. Diaz was supposed to coach for 1 successful fall campaign, promise ABC top recruits XYZ for 2020, tell bald-faced lies to the media while threatening any reporter who brings it up…then leave for Notre Dame (or wherever) without a word before bowl season.

Given Diaz’s unorthodox style of personal greed this summer, the resulting dilemma has put the Owl roster in a state of disarray, while remaining coaches are busy trying to retain the formidable recruiting class Diaz had secured.

If only Geoff Collins hadn’t left campus to turn Georgia Tech into Vanderbilt for the foreseeable future.

Student-athletes advocated for defensive coordinator Fran Brown, but former Northern Illinois head coach Rod Carey received the position instead. Carey, a competent and cunning FBS skipper if there ever was such a man, has signed to a long-term deal to ease the school’s worry of losing another coach to a Power-5 team.

Things could work out OK in the short term. The talented Carey inherits a program that has been to 4 straight bowl games. The team loses 1,000-yard rusher Ryquell Armstead but retains much of a defense that is among the scrappiest anywhere.

It won’t be like the Syracuse pass rush or anything, but Quincy Roche could end the season with over 20 career sacks. I’d take a flyer on the Owls at 15-to-1 or longer but not at this price.

Futures Lean: Reluctant Pass

East Carolina (+10000)

The Pirates begin year 1 of the Mike Houston era following a painful 3-9 season. Houston brings a championship background to Greenville after capturing the 2016 FCS title with James Madison.

(I won’t make any cracks about the skills involved in coaching a 1-man team to victory, but remember when William & Mary plays James Madison there’s a natural numbers advantage.)

Sophomore QB Holton Ahlers at least protected the ball during his freshman season with ECU. In fact, East Carolina was among league leaders in passing yards. But the tailbacks ran in the mud.

New DC Bob Trott has his work cut out for him trying to bolster a unit that allowed 37.3 points per game, ranking at the bottom of a top-heavy AAC when it comes to defense.

Futures Lean: Pass

Connecticut (+25000)

UConn looks competitive on the field in the AAC, but belonging and winning are 2 different things, and the program sank even lower to a 1-11 record in 2018.

The Huskies are headed into their final AAC season and expectations are not high. Coach Randy Edsall does have some pieces to work with on offense who could bother the conference elites.

Running back Kevin Mensah returns after rushing for 1,045 yards. Toledo transfer Art Thompkins brings a career 6.2 rushing yard average to complete at least a 2-headed monster.

Last season’s defense, however, laid an egg on the field in 12 straight games.

Futures Lean: Pass

American West Division Futures Odds and Team Previews

Memphis (+300) Odds-to-Win AAC Championship Game December 7th

I’ll get right to the point on the Tigers as well. I think the 3-to-1 AAC Championship Game victory line is way too short for a team that has lost Darrell Henderson to the NFL Draft.

Tony Pollard is gone too, and Patrick Taylor Jr. may not be as effective as some believe he’ll be in 2019-20, given that he’ll face more uphill carries as a starter.

Not that I think Memphis “loses” the rushing yards from last year’s explosive backfield. I never repeat that narrative. Teams don’t “lose yards” when runners graduate, they were taking carries that underclassmen could have had. The only question is whether things go down or up.

Brady White is back and will be throwing to Damonte Coxie, but there’s no guarantee a new OL will block as well as the last did. Henderson made the ’18 unit look good at times.

The front-7 will be solid, and the play of SEC transfer John Broussard will be key in an otherwise potentially-thin defensive backfield. I’m judging Memphis based on its merits against a (+300) futures line for an extremely-hard conference to play in. The Tigers are a good AAC bet if the line moves longer because a relative cupcake of an OOC schedule will leave them fresh for league games.

Pollard’s absence will be felt on special teams.

Futures Lean: Pass Current Price

Houston (+600)

A season filled with promise ended in utter humiliation for the Houston Cougars in 2018. Sideline peril and a humiliating 70-14 loss to Army in the Armed Forces Bowl has led to the firing of head coach Major Applewhite. He’ll probably never coach Texas now.

Former West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen steps in to take over the reins. Holgorsen has much to build upon following a season in which Houston finished 1st place in the AAC West.

I’m not a huge fan of the cocky, throw-it-around skipper, but I’ll give the Houston administration credit. It’s a marquee hire, and he fits the team’s talent.

Weapons on offense include dual-threat quarterback D’Eriq King and a receiving corps led by Marquez Stevenson, who recorded 75 catches for 1,019 yards and 9 touchdowns last season.

The defense is an Achilles heel that could hold Houston back, however.

Futures Lean: Pass

SMU (+3300)

Expectations are high around Dallas-Fort Worth with former UT quarterback Shane Buechele under center. Buechele brings in tons of experience to the table, having thrown for 4,636 yards and 30 career touchdowns with the Longhorns.

The new gunslinger will fire bullets (or more hopefully “balloons” as Joe Montana would point out) at receivers like James Proche. who neared the century mark with 93 catches for 1,199 yards and 12 touchdowns last season. Reggie Roberson Jr. is another fine WR.

Unlike some rivals in the league, the defense returns a lot of experience.

Futures Lean: 1-Unit Bet (+3300)

Tulane (+3300)

Tulane was a pleasant surprise in 2018 and fared extremely well in AAC match-ups, taking head coach Willie Fritz to a bowl for the 1st time. It was only the school’s 2nd postseason appearance in 16 seasons.

Coach Fritz has modified his old multi-headed option attack, however, presumably reasoning that it is too effective and not boring enough.

Smartly, though, the skipper has also welcomed numerous graduate transfers to give his roster and added boost heading into camp.

Former LSU quarterback Justin McMillan took over under center halfway into the season in 2018 and gave the offense a spark.

Last season’s young defense returns a solid front-7 led by DE Patrick Johnson.

Futures Lean: Pass

Tulsa (+4000)

The American West looks a little shaky at the top and even worse at the bottom.

In Tulsa, Philip Montgomery’s reign has taken a turn for the worse over the last 2 seasons. After an uplifting 10-3 record in 2016, the Golden Hurricane has fizzled.

With no clear direction at QB, a 3-way race will determine who gets the nod under center. Baylor transfer Zach Smith brings crucial experience and is who I’ll expect to see taking snaps.

2018’s defensive effort was better than the swiss-cheese approach of ’17, but the unit still allowed an average of 407.7 yards. Returning upperclassmen could reach for a higher ceiling this autumn. Linebacker Zaven Collins is one of the rising defensive stars of the FBS after earning Freshman All-America honors.

Tulsa will get beaten-up during an absurdly tough OOC schedule, and must play Cincy, Memphis, and UCF in a 4-week span.

Futures Lean: Pass

Navy (+5000)

One of the things a preview writer must do is offer info-by-omission, with the less relevant teams covered less. It feels sad to give Navy less of a thorough scouting report for 2019. But facts are facts. Navy could be destined to have a roller-coaster ride that lasts a while.

Roller-coaster rides have their ups as well as downs. Ken Niumatalolo is a wonderful coach when his squad is the underdog when he can use the team’s military discipline and cunning against an opponent that takes Navy lightly.

Not to say Army takes Navy lightly, but the Midshipmen were great as the underdog in what most (including me) expected to be a lopsided Army-Navy game in late 2018.

CKN’s genius offense either clicks, or it doesn’t, and the key is almost always the QB. Will Worth was the last in a long line of sturdy and dynamic QBs which has ended and left the Midshipmen without a dingy.

Navy will try Malcolm Perry, a diminutive sprinter who is too susceptible to injuries against burly defenses, in the quarterback slot again in 2019.

Futures Lean: Pass
ODDS+3300

MY PICK:
Take the Cincinnati Bearcats or SMU Mustangs to win the AAC at BetOnline.