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AAC Week 8 power rankings: 7 teams in the hunt for conference championship

22 October 2016: SMU Mustangs defensive lineman Demerick Gary (#10) and SMU Mustangs defensive lineman Deon Green (#98) celebrate a sack during the American Athletic Conference college football game between the SMU Mustangs and the Houston Cougars at Gerald Ford Stadium in Dallas, Texas. SMU won the game 38-16. (Photo by Matthew Visinsky/Icon Sportswire)
Matthew Visinsky/Icon Sportswire

Houston didn’t just lose to SMU. The game was never in doubt.

Prior to the shocking 38-16 upset in Dallas on Saturday, Tom Herman’s ring-chasing Cougars were No. 18 in Football Outsiders‘ overall S&P+ ratings and still were considered as the Group of 5’s best chance at receiving an invite to a New Year’s Six bowl.

SMU ranked 108th out of 128 teams in the nation. Yet it was the Mustangs that had the 28-7 halftime lead before finishing with a 22-point win for their first victory against a top-11 opponent since 1982. They held the once-explosive Houston offense to 303 total yards (4.46 per play) and elusive star quarterback Greg Ward, Jr. to three yards on 17 carries.

When the No. 1-ranked team in the conference power rankings loses to the last-place club, changes happen. Combine that with Navy’s win over Memphis and South Florida’s upset in Philadelphia, and you’ve got straight madness entering Week 9 with a wide open race for both divisions:

1. Houston (6-2, 3-2; Last week / “LW”: No. 1)
Last week: 
Lost at SMU, 38-16
Next up: vs. UCF, Saturday, Oct. 29

This is not what Houston had imagined after beating Oklahoma in a convincing Week 1 opener. With two losses in their last three games, the Cougars are searching for answers and can only hope they come sooner than later, as only four games remain on the schedule. The American’s most talented roster still plays in TDECU Stadium, but UH will need a little luck to come its way the next few weeks if it wants to return to the conference title game.

2. South Florida (6-2, 3-1; LW: No. 2)
Last week:
Lost at Temple, 46-30
Next up: vs. Navy, Friday, Oct. 28

Like Houston, South Florida was hit in the jaw with its 16-point loss to Temple over the weekend, where it surrendered 319 rushing yards and let the Owls have the ball for 39:07 — almost double its own time of possession. Playing on a Friday night in Philadelphia where there was about a 25-degree drop (in relation to Tampa, Fla.) isn’t easy, so I’m giving Quinton Flowers and the Bulls the benefit of the doubt here moving forward. But they’ll need to bounce back strong against a ranked Navy opponent.

3. Navy (5-1, 4-0; LW: No. 4)
Last week: 
Won vs. Memphis, 42-28
Next up: at South Florida, Friday, Oct. 28

Keenan Reynolds who? In wins against Houston and Memphis — its main competition in the AAC West — Navy senior quarterback Will Worth went 6-for-9 with 161 passing yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions. He shined as a runner, too, gaining 316 yards rushing and an additional four scores. Here’s something no one saw coming: The Midshipmen could lose a conference game and still make it to the AAC championship, thanks to another loss from UH and a head-to-head advantage over Memphis in its back pocket. But with great power comes great responsibility, and Navy must be careful not to get lost in the moment with six games left on the slate.

4. Temple (5-3, 3-1; LW: No. 5)
Last week:
Won vs. South Florida, 46-30
Next up:
vs. Cincinnati, Saturday, Oct. 29

Temple lost its regular season opener vs. Army by 15 points at home. Since then, it’s 5-2 with two seven-point losses on the road to Penn State and Memphis. With a remaining schedule that consists of four teams in the bottom five spots in the power rankings, the Owls have a realistic opportunity to finish 9-3 and control their own destiny in the East.

5. Memphis (5-2, 2-1; LW: No. 3)
Last week: Lost at Navy, 42-28
Next up: vs. Tulsa, Saturday, Oct. 29

Though quarterback Riley Ferguson has proven to be a solid follow-up for Paxton Lynch, Memphis’ offense has struggled to find a consistent running game, averaging 154.9 yards per game (9th in AAC). That, along with the inability to stop the run, is what gave the Tigers their first conference loss of the 2016 season when they left Annapolis with a 42-28 defeat.

6. Tulsa (5-2, 2-1; LW: No. 7)
Last week: Won vs. Tulane, 50-27
Next up: at Memphis, Saturday, Oct. 29

Tulsa is quietly enjoying its best season since an 11-3 mark in 2012, and with its 566-yard performance against Tulane, the Golden Hurricane’s offense has jumped into the top 25 with over 485 per game heading into a crucial Week 9 matchup with Memphis.

7. UCF (4-3, 3-1; LW: No. 6)
Last week: Won at UConn, 24-16
Next up: at Houston, Saturday, Oct. 29

Players on UCF’s starting roster had to have perked up when they saw Houston drop a stinker to SMU. Lest we forget the Knights are still very much in play for the AAC East despite its one-point loss to Temple two weeks ago. With games against UH, Cincinnati and rival South Florida still pending, not to mention the conference’s unexpected parity, who is to say Scott Frost’s crew can’t make some noise?

UCF Knights running back Jawon Hamilton. (Photo by Greg Thompson/Icon Sportswire)

UCF Knights running back Jawon Hamilton. (Photo by Greg Thompson/Icon Sportswire)

8. Cincinnati (4-3, 1-3; LW: No. 10)
Last week:
Won vs. East Carolina, 31-19
Next up: at Temple, Saturday, Oct. 29

Something weird happened in Cincinnati on Saturday night. Coach Tommy Tuberville gave Gunner Kiel the start under center — his first of the season. The result? Kiel threw for 348 yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions for what was easily the best performance from a Bearcats QB all year. What’s even weirder is that it took members of the team to stand up in Kiel’s favor for him to finally return to his post as the starter.

“Zach Edwards spoke up at a senior team meeting and said, ‘Coach, we want Gunner to play,'” Tuberville said, per ESPN. “So do I… I’m not going to give anybody a starting spot. I told the seniors we’ll give him his chance.

“I know everybody’s going to say, ‘I told you so.’ I’ll take that. I’m proud of Gunner.”

9. SMU (3-4, 1-2; LW: No. 12)
Last week: Won vs. Houston, 38-16
Next up: at Tulane, Saturday, Oct. 29

What’s next for SMU? The Massey Ratings are impressed by its colossal upset over Houston, but still projects the Mustangs to fall one game short of bowl eligibility with a 5-7 (3-5) record in 2016 with close losses to Memphis, South Florida and Navy. Anything more than that would be an exceptional accomplishment for coach Chad Morris in his second year.

10. UConn (3-5, 1-4; LW: No. 9)
Last week: Lost vs. UCF, 24-16
Next up: at East Carolina, Saturday, Oct. 29

UConn’s bowl chances are on life support after getting handed its fourth loss in five games. The Huskies will need at least three wins out of this bunch in order to finish at the .500 mark: at East Carolina, vs. Temple, at Boston College, at Tulane.

11. East Carolina (2-5, 0-3; LW: No. 8)
Last week: Lost at Cincinnati, 31-19
Next up: vs. UConn, Saturday, Oct. 29

Everyone knew it was going to be an uphill battle in Year 1 under new coach Scottie Montgomery, and that fans would have to take the good with the bad. Well, although the bad is easy to point out (ECU is on a five-game losing streak), the Pirates do rank 9th nationally in total offense with 513.7 yards per game.

12. Tulane (3-4, 0-3; LW: No. 11)
Last week: Lost at Tulsa, 50-27
Next up: vs. SMU, Saturday, Oct. 29

Until Tulane can get a quarterback that will elevate the players around him, it will have a difficult time keeping up with The American’s slew of quality teams. Sophomore signal-caller Glen Cuiellette is 14-of-49 (28.6 percent) with 181 yards (3.69 per attempt), a touchdown and an interception over the Green Wave’s last two games, which has had a hand in both losses.

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