The AAC will be undergoing a dramatic makeover following the 2022 football season, as three of its premier football brands — Cincinnati, Houston and UCF — are set to depart for the Big 12. The exit of those three will coincide with the arrival of Charlotte, Florida Atlantic, North Texas, UTSA, Rice and UAB from Conference USA. Collectively, the makeover will change the dynamics of the league, which has stood out in recent years from its Group of Five peers for success on the gridiron.
As the transition transpires, a void for coaching leadership within the conference will emerge. Cincinnati coach Luke Fickell, UCF’s Gus Malzahn and Houston’s Dana Holgorsen are each big names in the profession. The hole created by their absences could allow a new coach such as Jeff Traylor of UTSA, Bill Clark at UAB or Willie Taggart at FAU to come in and claim some early clout.
Before we get to the future of the AAC, though, there is still one more season to go under the league’s current configuration, and it will be coached by a mostly familiar group of men. Stan Drayton is in for Rod Carey at Temple and Rhett Lashlee has replaced Sonny Dykes at SMU, but the other nine coaches are familiar faces returning to the league.
So without further ado, here is how our staff at CBS Sports voted in a breakdown of the AAC coaches entering 2022. Voters used varying criteria that absorbs head-coaching history, recent on-field results, future potential and intangibles into one ranking.
1. Luke Fickell, Cincinnati
Fickell solidified his stranglehold atop the AAC coach rankings by leading Cincinnati to a College Football Playoff appearance last season. He is 44-7 over his last four years since posting a 4-8 mark in his debut campaign at the helm. As the first coach to ever guide a Group of Five school to the CFP, Fickell has been provided with opportunities to move up the ladder to the Power Five. Instead, he’s building a legacy with a program that will soon be moving on to the Big 12. 2021 AAC ranking: 1
2. Gus Malzahn, UCF
The fact that a 9-4 season felt somewhat disappointing for both Malzahn and UCF in their first year together tells you everything you need to know about the reputation of both parties. Both the former Auburn coach and his new program have done a lot of winning in recent years, and Malzahn’s place at No. 2 in this ranking is an endorsement from our voters of their future together. Without an injury to star quarterback Dillon Gabriel, Year 1 would likely have been a 10-win season. As it stands, knocking off the flagship Florida Gators in a bowl game was a great way for Malzahn to cap his first season with the Knights. 2021 AAC ranking: 3 (+1)
3. Dana Holgorsen, Houston
Holgorsen needed a breakthrough season in Year 3 last year and got it as the Cougars finished 12-2 and ended the year at No. 17 in the AP Top 25 following a win over Auburn in the Birmingham Bowl. The leap last season was partially the product of a light schedule that missed Cincinnati and UCF during the regular season. It was also a validation of Holgorsen’s slow build after he arrived with much fanfare from West Virginia following the 2018 season. With a ton of offensive production back, Houston could be in for another solid season. 2021 AAC ranking: 6 (+3)
4. Ken Niumatalolo, Navy
Niumatalolo remains the longest-tenured of the AAC’s coaches as he enters his 15th season leading the Midshipmen. In their seven years in the league under Niumatalolo’s guidance, Navy has gone 7-1 in AAC play on three occasions. But the lean years have been rough, and more common, as of late. After landing at No. 2 in the ranking in 2020 and 2021, Niumatalolo slipped a bit this year following his team’s 4-8 season. Since finishing 11-2 in 2019, the Midshipmen are 7-15 (6-9 AAC) since. 2021 AAC ranking: 2 (-2)
5. Willie Fritz, Tulane
Fritz’s body of work holds up pretty well, even after a 2-10 season in 2021. In six years with the Green Wave, he’s led the program to three bowl games. Prior to his arrival, Tulane had been to three bowls in 20 years. With a bunch of returning production and a much easier nonconference schedule than last year’s slate which featured Oklahoma and Ole Miss, don’t be surprised if the Green Wave find themselves in the hunt for bowl eligibility during a challenging final stretch against UCF, SMU and Cincinnati in November. 2021 AAC ranking: 5
6. Philip Montgomery, Tulsa
Montgomery is the second-longest tenured coach in the AAC as he enters his eighth season leading the Golden Hurricane. It’s been an up-and-down ride marked by the high of a 10-win season in 2017 and the lows of a 9-27 mark between 2018-20. The former Baylor offensive coordinator survived the rough patch and has led Tulsa to consecutive bowl games. He nearly orchestrated a couple of big upsets last season and did well to rally Tulsa from an 0-3 start. 2021 AAC ranking: 7 (+1)
7. Ryan Silverfield, Memphis
After debuting at No. 11 in his first season as coach in 2020 and sliding up two spots to No. 9 last year, Silverfield again rises two spots this year. Despite his upward trajectory in the rankings, Year 3 marks a critical juncture for Silverfield, who is following two stalwarts of the Memphis football resurgence in Justin Fuente and Mike Norvell. Silverfield is 14-10 (8-8 AAC) and coming off a 6-6 season. He’s kept the train on the tracks, but it’s unclear if the locomotive has the necessary chops to make the Tigers the class of a new-look AAC in the future. 2021 AAC ranking: 9 (+2)
8. Mike Houston, East Carolina
After posting a 37-6 record in three seasons at James Madison, including a 28-2 mark in his first two years, Houston’s build at ECU has been predictably slower. However, the Pirates made some major progress in 2021 by finishing 7-5 and snapping a six-year bowl drought in his third season. Given Houston’s winning track record at multiple collegiate levels and ECU’s present momentum, there is a case to be made that he should be higher on this list. 2021 AAC ranking: 10 (+2)
9. Rhett Lashlee, SMU
After getting the Mustangs ranked at some point during each of the past three seasons, Sonny Dykes left for TCU and opened the door for Lashlee to get his first head-coaching opportunity. The 38-year-old served as SMU’s offensive coordinator under Dykes in 2018 and 2019 and helped usher in the program’s best era since its return from the death penalty in the 1980s. Considering his familiarity with SMU and additional experience as the offensive coordinator at Auburn and Miami, Lashlee looks like a solid hire on paper. 2021 AAC ranking: N/A
10. Jeff Scott, South Florida
Scott is just 3-18 through two seasons after more than a decade on Dabo Swinney’s staff at Clemson, and only one of those victories is against an FBS opponent. The hope is that this can be a turnaround season, as the Bulls have tons of returning production and a big transfer class coming in, headlined by former Baylor quarterback Gerry Bohanon. But with nonconference games against BYU, at Florida and at Louisville, reaching bowl eligibility won’t be easy. If USF doesn’t show significant progress in 2022, it’s fair to wonder if Scott will get another season. This isn’t FSU, Miami, Florida or even UCF. But Scott’s predecessors have shown that South Florida is a school that can win at respectable levels. 2021 AAC ranking: 10 (+1)
11. Stan Drayton, Temple
After Rod Carey failed to get traction in three seasons following solid runs from Geoff Collins and Matt Rhule, the Owls are turning to a well-traveled college assistant in Drayton, who also brings some NFL experience to the job. Drayton spent the past five seasons as the running backs coach at Texas and has also worked at Ohio State, Florida, Syracuse, Tennessee and Mississippi State in addition to stops with the Bears and Packers. Given his lack of coordinator or head-coaching experience, Drayton’s identity as a head coach will be a mystery until the Owls take on Duke to begin the 2022 season. 2021 AAC ranking: N/A