2021 AAC Baseball Stock Watch: Which Programs Are Trending Up, Down?
How do you judge the 2021 season in the American Athletic Conference? On one hand, there’s little arguing the fact that it was a poor regular season for the league. East Carolina ran away with the regular-season title, there was no clear second-best team in the conference pecking order and no other team was really even in striking distance of an at-large bid to regionals.
But on the other hand, ECU and South Florida, which earned the conference a second bid by virtue of winning the AAC Tournament, made up for a lackluster regular season by both advancing to super regionals.
Chances are the disappointing regular season for the conference is nothing more than a bump in the road for a league that has consistently put three or four teams into the NCAA Tournament throughout its history. There are simply too many good programs present for it to essentially be a one-bid league that hopes to get a second team in via the conference tournament.
After ECU and USF went a combined 0-4 in super regionals, of greater concern should be the AAC’s continued attempts to get a team to the College World Series. That’s something it hasn’t done since Louisville went as a member of the conference back in 2014.
It seems a fairly safe bet that East Carolina will eventually get there if it keeps knocking on the door, but it would be beneficial for the conference if another team stepped up and became a consistent postseason threat, thus removing the need to put all of the eggs in the Pirates’ basket when it comes to CWS hopes.
Presented here is a team-by-team analysis for every program in the American Athletic Conference, as well as the trajectory of the program moving forward.
Central Florida (31-30, 18-14), no postseason ⬇️
Central Florida just simply couldn’t keep momentum going in the right direction in 2021. It began the season ranked in the Top 25 after it was one of the best teams in college baseball in the shortened 2020 season, but then it lost a series to Florida Atlantic right out of the gate. The Knights rebounded to win a series against then-No. 1 Mississippi the very next weekend, but celebrated that by losing four straight, including three in a sweep against Liberty. Ultimately, it all ended in an uninspired middle-of-the-pack AAC finish without a postseason appearance for the Knights.
The 2021 season was unique in many ways and there were certainly outliers in the results. It’s important that we keep that in mind, but with that said, UCF underperformed with a talented, veteran team last season, and it hasn’t been to a regional since 2017, which is a long time for a program that many assume should be among the most consistent in the conference. It continues to recruit well, and rising sophomore infielder Alex Freeland looks the part of an excellent building block, but after losing some key pieces this offseason, UCF will have to re-tool its roster quickly to challenge for the postseason in 2022.
Cincinnati (29-26, 18-14), no postseason ⬅️➡️
Cincinnati quietly had a solid season in 2021, finishing in a tie for fourth in the conference with an 18-14 record, a mark made all the more impressive when you consider that it began the AAC portion of its schedule by getting swept in four games on the road against East Carolina. It was the third consecutive season and fourth in five years that the Bearcats finished .500 or better in conference play after they began their time in the American with back-to-back 6-18 seasons.
It remains to be seen if the Bearcats will ever be year-to-year title contenders in the AAC, as evidenced by the fact that they are still looking for their first at-large bid as members of the conference. But the way the program has developed into a consistently solid outfit in a tough conference is impressive, and until we see otherwise, we have to assume that will continue.
East Carolina (44-17, 20-8), reached super regionals ⬆️
The Pirates really kept things rolling in 2021, quickly establishing themselves as the team to beat in the American on the way to winning the league's regular-season title for the second straight season and getting to the program’s sixth super regional. Other teams have had moments in the sun as members of the league, but there’s no mistaking who runs the AAC from a baseball standpoint right now.
A cynic would point to ECU once again getting eliminated in super regionals and use it as evidence to say that the program is in the same place it has been for a while. But that would fail to give the Pirates credit for the degree to which they have come to dominate the league and for arguably arriving in a place where the program is as successful as it has ever been. Sure, ECU is frustrated to have not cleared that last hurdle to Omaha, but that shouldn’t obscure a fantastic run for one of the most consistent programs going right now.
Houston (19-34, 7-21), no postseason ⬇️
There is no other way to put it than to say that the bottom just fell out for Houston in 2021, as the Cougars limped to a 7-21 record in conference play, placing them seventh in the eight-team league. A team batting average of .239 and a team ERA of 5.32, all after bringing in a large class of players from the junior college ranks and the transfer portal, was a recipe for UH’s toughest season since 2012, when it went 5-18-1 in Conference USA in coach Todd Whitting’s second season.
Change is afoot at Houston as the program tries to get headed back in the right direction. Full-time assistants Terry Rooney and Sammy Esposito departed for other jobs, with former Tennessee assistant Ross Kivett filling Esposito’s role and Kyle Bunn, formerly of Indiana and Middle Tennessee State, taking over as pitching coach. With what will likely be an inexperienced team in 2022, it’s tough to expect the Cougars to immediately bounce back and compete for the postseason, but Whitting has proven his ability to build a winner there to the point that you also have to imagine they won’t be down for too long.
Memphis (18-39, 7-25), no postseason ⬇️
Memphis struggled to a last-place finish in 2021, with its best result along the way a four-game split with Houston at home in May. Simply put, it was another season in which the Tigers weren’t really competitive in the league. Just once have they finished .500 or better in conference play as members of the American, and that was in 2015 when they went 12-12.
Memphis appears eager to engineer a quick turnaround, as it is in the process of reeling in a large class of players from the transfer portal, including additions from programs like Alabama and Oklahoma. That could help the Tigers in the immediate term, but the program has yet to find the formula for becoming more consistently competitive in the AAC, and that’s the long-term challenge this staff faces.
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South Florida (31-30, 14-14), regional super regionals ⬆️
After a fairly pedestrian regular season, save for playing East Carolina as close as anyone played it in a series split to end the regular season, South Florida got hot at the right time. Not only did the Bulls secure the AAC’s auto bid, but they carried that momentum into the Gainesville Regional, where they were able to take advantage of both Florida and Miami not being in top form and advance to a super regional. With that being USF’s first super regional appearance, it was nothing short of a breakthrough season for the program.
The icing on the cake of last season is that USF was actually a fairly young team in 2021, suggesting that more big success for the program could be just around the corner. Repeating as regional champions is a tall task for any team outside of an elite few in college baseball, but the returning talent in Tampa should provide confidence that USF will be a much improved regular-season team next season.
Tulane (31-24, 17-10) no postseason ⬅️➡️
Tulane came as close as any team in the conference to earning an at-large bid. After a series win over Houston in early May, the Green Wave sat 13-2 in the conference and had an RPI that would have at least put them in the conversation. But a series loss on the road against East Carolina followed, and two weeks after that, a sweep at the hands of Cincinnati to end the regular season torpedoed any remote hopes of an at-large bid.
There were a lot of positives for Tulane in 2021. Its 17-10 conference record was the best since winning the regular-season title under David Pierce in 2016. It had the best pitching staff it has had in a while and a young lineup, led by a freshman catcher in Bennett Lee, made strides as the season went along. But Tulane is still a program that measures success in postseason appearances and it came up short in that regard. The Green Wave feel very much on the cusp of achieving that goal again, but if it’s to happen in 2022, it will require the re-tooling of a pitching staff that lost a lot of talent to the draft.
Wichita State (31-23, 18-13), no postseason ⬆️
It didn’t end in a trip to a regional as coach Eric Wedge and the rest of the Wichita State program would have wanted, but the 2021 season was a solid follow-up to the Shockers getting out of the gate as one of the hottest teams in college baseball in 2020. It was the first time WSU finished over .500 as a member of the American and it’s the first time it had a better than .500 record in league play in general since 2014.
When Wichita State entered the AAC, there were questions about how well it would be able to compete in a conference that represents a step up from the Missouri Valley, which was also a league that WSU really wasn’t all that competitive in at the time, either. It took some time, but under Wedge, it appears that the Shockers are on the right track in the conference, with the obvious next goal of qualifying for the postseason for the first time since 2013.