AAC college football offseason preview, Part II

Cincinnati went 9-1 and finished in the top 10 for the second time in program history. Will the Bearcats reach even newer heights in 2021? Ian Johnson/Icon Sportswire

If the College Football Playoff committee is going to put a Group of 5 team in the top four (I remain unconvinced that they ever will), it's clearly going to follow a recipe like this:

  1. Enjoy a huge season and earn mainstream respect.

  2. Happen to have scheduled a couple of key, major opponents for the next season.

  3. Go undefeated that next season.

In 2020, Luke Fickell's Cincinnati Bearcats resoundingly checked box No. 1, going unbeaten in the regular season, putting together a legitimate playoff case, finishing 9-1 with a last-second loss to Georgia and enjoying their second top-10 finish in program history. They get to check box No. 2, as well, with a schedule that features perfectly-timed road trips to Indiana (Sept. 18) and Notre Dame (Oct. 2).

Now, we have to wait and see about box No. 3. SP+ gives the Bearcats about a 1-in-3 chance of beating both the Hoosiers and Fighting Irish, but they could stand to continue shoring up an offense that was both dangerous and glitchy last fall.

They also have to survive the AAC again. It helps that UCF, Tulsa and SMU all visit Nippert Stadium (and Memphis isn't on the regular-season slate), but the upside among these teams -- Tulsa on defense, SMU and Memphis on offense, UCF in top-to-bottom talent -- is fierce. Even this awesome Cincy team barely got by UCF and Tulsa late last season. The top of the AAC should offer plenty of resistance once more.

Every week through the summer, Bill Connelly will preview another division from the Group of 5 and Power 5 exclusively for ESPN+, ultimately including all 130 FBS teams. The previews will include 2020 breakdowns, 2021 previews and a brief history of each team in one handy chart. The series has thus far covered the Conference USA East and West, the MAC East and West, the MWC Mountain and West, the Sun Belt West and East and the bottom half of the AAC.

Jump to a team: SMU | Tulsa | Memphis | UCF | Cincinnati

SMU Mustangs

SMU has won 17 games in the past two seasons under Sonny Dykes, its most since 1983-84. Do the Mustangs have another leap in them in 2021?