WESTERN DIVISION

1. Navy: The Midshipmen have two 1,000-yard rushers returning at quarterback. If they beat Memphis at home in their AAC opener, they can win the division for the second time in three years.

2. Memphis: The Tigers have a plethora of big-play skill guys but will miss steady quarterback Riley Ferguson, falling short of a second straight division title.

3.Houston: The Cougars were up and down under first-year coach Major Applewhite, winning at then-undefeated South Florida but losing 45-17 to last-place Tulsa. The defense, with star tackle Ed Oliver, is better than the offense.

4.Tulane: The improved Wave opens conference play at home vs. Memphis and closes the season at home against Navy. A win in either game would be huge as Willie Fritz continues to change the culture.

5.Tulsa: The pick here to win the West in 2017, the Golden Hurricane circled the drain, going 1-7 with three losses by 21 or more. The defense can’t be as awful as it was a year ago, but coach Philip Montgomery needs a QB, too.

6. SMU: The Mustangs lost a ton of talent from a team that was lucky to finish .500 in the league. Coach Chad Morris then bolted for Arkansas, leaving replacement Sonny Dykes with a rebuilding project.

EASTERN DIVISION

1.Central Florida: Wunderkind coach Scott Frost is gone, but terrific QB McKenzie Milton leads a loaded backfield and the Knights have a friendly conference schedule. Look for a repeat championship.

2. Temple: The 2016 AAC champs went 4-1 in their final five games after a disappointing start to 2017. They will be among the league’s best defensively and found a winning quarterback down the stretch in Frank Nutile.

3. South Florida: The Bulls never totally clicked under new coach Charlie Strong. Still looking for their first conference title, they will have to make do without all-world QB Quinton Flowers.

4. Cincinnati: The Bearcats will be better in coach Luke Fickell’s second year, occupying a clear-cut spot between the three division contenders and the two bottom feeders in the East.

5. East Carolina: The defensively challenged Pirates get fellow cellar dweller Connecticut at home. That is the difference between fifth and sixth place.

6. Connecticut: The Huskies lost five in a row to end 2017 and return two defensive starters. Ouch. The best thing going for them is a crossover schedule that features Tulsa and SMU.

NOW TRENDING

TRENDING UP: Familiarity. The AAC is the only conference that returns its reigning offensive player of the year (Milton), defensive player of the year (Oliver) and special teams player of the year (Memphis’ Tony Pollard, who returned four kickoffs for touchdowns).

TRENDING DOWN: Top 25 matchups. UCF ended 2017 by beating No. 22 USF 49-42 and No. 16 Memphis 62-55 in double overtime in the AAC title game on its way to a No. 6 AP final ranking. The Knights check in at No. 23 in the preseason coaches’ poll, but no one else is near the top 25.

PICK TO CLICK: Oliver has lived up to all of his hype as a five-star recruit in his first two years. He was dominant in the middle almost every week in 2017 despite sustaining an MCL injury that forced him to play with a knee brace for five games. He could be the No. 1 pick in the 2018 NFL draft.

FOUR KEY GAMES

Memphis at Navy Sept. 8: The winner of this early-season clash will have a leg up in the West, particularly because both of them host fellow contender Houston.

Houston at Navy Oct. 20: Oliver helped hold Navy’s triple option to 79 yards in the second half of a 24-14 victory a year ago. That matchup will be intriguing again.

Memphis at Missouri Oct. 20: The AAC will not have many opportunities to draw attention out of conference, but Memphis can make a midseason statement by winning on the road against a rising SEC team.

Central Florida at South Florida Nov. 23: UCF ruined USF’s season in an instant classic last year while remaining undefeated. The Bulls hope to return the favor at home on a Friday night.

Follow Guerry Smith on Twitter, @guersmith