The American Athletic Conference is a league that was born from realignment. Now, a decade later, it’s a conference going through massive changes, once again due to realignment. During that first decade of play, the AAC went from being a BCS auto qualifying conference to the top-ranked Group of Five conference, consistently sending its top team to the New Year’s Six and even the College Football Playoff.
It takes a lot of great players to produce that type of success, especially at the quarterback position. Here are the five best:
Note: The following list is an opinion piece by one of our contributors.
Before becoming the greatest quarterback in Jacksonville Jaguars history (you know, probably), Blake Bortles was one of the best quarterbacks to come out of UCF. His final year at UCF came in 2013, which was also the first year that the AAC existed as a conference. Before that, he and UCF were competing in Conference USA.
That 2013 season was a great one for UCF. Bortles led them to an 11-1 regular season record, with wins at Penn State and a two-minute drill at eight ranked Louisville, which gave the Knights their first top-10 win ever. In a regular season where UCF won the first ever AAC Championship outright, the Knights’ only loss came at home to Steve Spurrier’s 12th-ranked South Carolina Gamecocks by a field goal.
Blake Bortles was the Fiesta Bowl MVP, First Team All-AAC, and was the 2013 AAC Offensive Player of the Year. A 67.8% completion percentage, 3,581 yards passing, and 25 touchdowns under George O’Leary’s old school system is no small accomplishment. On top of that, he added 272 yards rushing and 6 touchdowns on the ground.
He may have only had one year in the AAC, but it was an incredibly productive season. On top of that, his leadership and on-field success helped to solidify the AAC’s status as the top G5 conference. He would be drafted third overall by the Jacksonville Jaguars in the 2014 NFL Draft.
Navy is a difficult team to get a feel for. Because they run the triple option, they never match up with their peers statistically. Due to the athletes they recruit, and their service requirements, Navy has a history of doing more with less. Still, there are two Navy quarterbacks who deserve consideration for being in the top-5. Malcolm Perry is certainly one of them. However, the honor goes to Keenan Reynolds, arguably Navy’s best quarterback since Roger Staubach.
Much like Blake Bortles at UCF, Keenan Reynolds only played one year in the AAC. In Reynolds’ case, it wasn’t even his best season in college. Still, 1,373 yards rushing and 24 touchdowns on the ground is insane for a quarterback—even in the triple option. He also had 1,203 yards passing and 8 touchdowns on the year.
Keenan Reynolds was a Third-Team All American in 2015, First Team All-AAC player, 2015 AAC Offensive Player of the Year, and had his number 19 retired by the Naval Academy. It was a remarkable statistical season to cap off an outstanding career.
In 2015, Navy went 11-2, with their only losses coming on the road against Notre Dame and Houston. The Midshipmen won the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy and won the Military Bowl over Pitt. Six times, Navy scored more than 40 points, running the triple option. 9 times, they scored more than 30. It was a remarkable season.
In his career, Reynolds both ran and passed for more than 4,000. Over the course of his career, he was responsible for 119 touchdowns. Reynolds was drafted in the sixth round of the 2016 NFL Draft by the Baltimore Ravens. He had been moved to wide receiver before going to the NFL.
The end of D’Eriq King’s time in Houston has had a tendency to overshadow his career there. Four games into the Dana Holgorsen’s tenure at Houston, things weren’t going great. Tulane had just upset the Cougars, and they made a decision to take advantage of a new redshirt rule. The idea was that Houston would save its top seniors a year of eligibility, give them time to learn the new system, and come back with a vengeance. Then, the season ended and King transferred to Miami.
Still, his time with Houston was incredible. Second Team All-AAC in 2018, King had a tendency to be overshadowed by the two quarterbacks coming up on this list. His dual-threat and big play ability made him, arguably, the most breathtaking quarterback the conference has ever seen, though.
2018 was King’s best season at Houston, with 9.9 yards per attempt. Along with that, he threw 36 touchdowns to only 6 interceptions. Meanwhile, he had 674 yards and 14 touchdowns on the ground too. His Houston Cougars went only 8-5 that season, though, and Major Applewhite was fired.
At Miami, King briefly sparked life into the Hurricanes’ offense, before being derailed by injuries. In 2022, he signed with the New England Patriots as an undrafted free agent. If he is to have a future in the NFL, most people expect that he’ll have to move to wide receiver, like Keenan Reynolds.
D’Eriq King simply didn’t win enough to be ranked any higher than third on this list. Still, every time he touched the ball was exciting. He had every ability to make turn a broken play into a touchdown. It was can’t miss TV in the AAC.
The best quarterback in USF Bulls history is also the second-best quarterback in AAC history. Originally from Miami, Quinton Flowers showed promise in his freshman season at USF, before being named the starter ahead of his sophomore campaign in 2015. By the end of his senior season (2017) Flowers held the AAC record for total offense.
2016 and 2017 were both outstanding statistical seasons for Flowers. A dual-threat, he ran for more than 1,000 yards in both seasons. In 2016, he ran for more than 1,500 yards. He was excellent at throwing the football too, with better than 2,000 yards passing in each season as a starting quarterback.
2016 may have been USF’s best season in program history. Apologies to 2007, when the Bulls were ranked 2nd in the country for a week, before losing three straight and eventually being blown out in the Sun Bowl. Save for a tough loss to Florida State and future AAC Champion Temple, the Bulls put together a spectacular season, going 11-2 with a Birmingham Bowl win over South Carolina. It would be Willie Taggart’s last year with USF, as he took the Oregon job and was replaced by Charlie Strong.
Strong and Flowers looked to keep the magic going in 2017. For a while, it seemed like they were going to succeed. They started the season 7-0, before running into D’Eriq King, who put together an outstanding last minute drive to beat the Bulls. Later, they ran into McKenzie Milton and the UCF Knights in the middle of their national championship season. That game, annually referred to as the War on I-4, was one of the best in AAC history. It was a back and forth game, Flowers took the Bulls back from behind to tie the game late, before a special teams disaster cost USF the game late. It was a loss for USF, but they did go on to win the Birmingham Bowl again, making Flowers a two-time Birmingham Bowl MVP.
Quinton Flowers ended his career with 8,124 yards passing, 71 passing touchdowns, 3,672 yards rushing, and 41 rushing touchdowns. He was First Team All-AAC in 2016 and Second Team All-AAC in 2017. Flowers is the rushing and passing touchdowns leader in USF Bulls history. He was also AAC Offensive Player of the Year in 2016.
Make no mistake, McKenzie Milton was magic. One of Scott Frost’s earliest recruits to UCF, the Hawaiian-born quarterback wanted to be like Marcus Mariota, so he followed Mariota’s coach to Orlando. His first season was full of growing pains, but he still did manage to start the majority of his games as a freshman and turn the winless Knights into the 6-7 Cure Bowl participant Knights.
2017, his sophomore campaign, was when Milton turned into a living legend in Orlando. Milton led UCF to an undefeated season and a trip to the Peach Bowl, which UCF won over Gus Malzahn’s Auburn Tigers. Since Auburn had beaten the two teams playing in the national championship game, and UCF hadn’t been allowed into the College Football Playoff, UCF decided to declare itself national champions. Much to the dismay of “SEC, SEC, SEC” fans everywhere, it’s still in the NCAA record book too. To get there, Milton had to win some of the greatest games in AAC history, over USF and Memphis.
After the Peach Bowl, Milton said, “I guess you can go ahead and cancel the playoff, now.” Well, they didn’t cancel the playoff. So, in 2018 UCF began its quest to breakthrough the G5’s glass ceiling. The Knights marched through the regular season, unbeaten again. Other than a scare at Memphis, they faced little resistance, including under the lights of College Gameday against freshman Desmond Ridder and Cincinnati.
That is, until disaster struck. In the War on I-4 against USF, Milton ran to his right, before being hit low. It would be his last play in a UCF uniform. He suffered a massive knee injury that included nerve damage. It was something doctors typically only see in a car crash, and Milton had a 50/50 chance to lose his leg. UCF went out and won the AAC for Milton, with #10hona, combining his Hawaiian roots and number, becoming the team’s calling card. The journey ended with a loss in the Fiesta Bowl to LSU, but Milton’s legacy was secured. He was the greatest quarterback in AAC history.
What was remarkable about McKenzie Milton was his ability to create big plays. With just a flick of the wrist, he could deliver the ball downfield accurately. He could use his legs to create plays where there was nothing. Every play was a highlight reel opportunity.
Even more remarkable about Milton was his desire to get back on the field from an injury that nearly took his leg. He fought for two seasons to get back onto the field. When the time came to do so, he transferred to Florida State, giving his friend Dillon Gabriel the reigns at UCF. He found the field again against Notre Dame, nearly leading a storybook comeback if it wasn’t for special teams failures by the Seminoles.
McKenzie Milton’s best season was 2017 when he threw for 4,037 yards and 37 touchdowns. He also ran for 613 yards and 8 touchdowns. On his career, McKenzie Milton threw for 9,458 yards and 75 touchdowns, as well as running for 1,065 yards and 20 touchdowns. He was First Team All-AAC twice (2017, 2018), AAC Offensive Player of the Year twice (2017, 2018), Peach Bowl Offensive MVP, and 2017 AAC Championship Game MVP. He also finished top-10 in Heisman voting twice.
We can only imagine what would have happened in the Fiesta Bowl against LSU and Milton’s senior year at UCF if he hadn’t gotten injured.
Best of the Rest
Several AAC quarterbacks just missed making the top-5. Here are a few of them, in no particular order:
Shane Carden (ECU), Desmond Ridder (Cincinnati), Greg Ward (Houston), Malcolm Perry (Navy), Dillon Gabriel (UCF), Brady White (Memphis), Dane Evans (Tulsa), P.J. Walker (Temple), Paxton Lynch (Memphis), Ben Hicks (SMU), Shane Buechele (SMU), Riley Ferguson (Memphis), Teddy Bridgewater (Louisville), Davis Brin (Tulsa)
So, what do you think? Who should have made the list, but didn’t?