Updated: Jan 30
For one last year, the American Athletic Conference (AAC) remains intact with the same eight schools it fielded in 2022, but at the conclusion of the 2023 season, Cincinnati, Houston, and UCF will depart the AAC for the Big 12 and a new era will begin. Let’s dive into what promises to be an intriguing last year for several AAC teams.
2022 in the rearview
East Carolina won 20 games in AAC play in 2022 to win the regular season, six games better than UCF and seven games better than Houston. When the conference teams clashed in Clearwater in the final week of May, Houston advanced to the championship final by winning 3-of-4 games, including a split with UCF. The Cougars ran out of arms in the championship game and East Carolina rolled to another conference championship title and held The American’s single spot in the NCAA playoffs.
East Carolina earned a national seed at No. 8 and ultimately advanced to a Super Regional, where they hosted Texas. Despite jumping out to a 1-0 series lead, the Pirates could not close the deal as Texas rallied late to win game two and then the Longhorns destroyed the Pirates in a deciding game with multiple rain delays to advance to the College World Series.
In July, fourteen players were drafted from the conference.
2023: the same but different
While the same eight teams return for 2023, three of the teams have new, or nearly new, head coaches from the beginning of the 2022 season.
Memphis is under the guidance of a new head coach for the first time in 19 years as Kerrick Jackson replaces the retired Daron Schoenrock. In New Orleans, Jay Uhlman, who replaced Travis Jewett at Tulane late in the 2022 regular season, returns to begin his first full season as head coach. Finally, Eric Wedge departed from Wichita State in late October leaving the Shockers scrambling. Loren Hibbs will coach the team this spring with an interim tag by his name.
But the constant in the AAC remains Cliff Godwin's squad at East Carolina.
East Carolina is ranked No. 17 in the College Baseball Nation Preseason Top 50 and is the sole representative from the AAC in the poll. The Pirates were chosen to win the conference in the preseason conference coaches poll and it is hard to argue with that.
East Carolina only lost one roster player from 2022 to the draft in July. The result of this is that many of the young players that led the Pirates a season ago will return for 2023.
Starting pitcher Carter Spivey went 8-0 last season with a 2.83 ERA and 76 strikeouts in 76 1/3 innings pitched on his way to be named the AAC Pitcher of the Year. Jacob Jenkins-Cowart returns to Greenville after a stellar freshman season where he batted .330 with 65 RBI and 13 home runs. Jenkins-Cowart was named the Most Outstanding Player of the 2022 AAC Championship, leading the Pirates with five hits, three home runs, and ten runs driven in. Jenkins-Cowart will be joined by returning stars Lane Hoover, Cam Clonch, Alec Makarewicz, Garrett Saylor, and Jacob Starling to help solidify the loaded lineup.
The Fight for the Second Spot
The same coaches poll that put East Carolina as the favorite, has Houston and UCF standing alone in the next tier with Houston as a slight favorite.
Houston will have a tough rebuild of its pitching staff losing their Friday night starter to the draft, along with their dominant closer and one of their top long relievers. Two more pitchers transferred out. Houston also lost the services of slugger Ryan Hernandez who graduated and has no eligibility left. Though looking for a replacement for Hernandez at first base, Houston has solid players returning at the other three infield positions, including all-everything shortstop Ian McMillan. Behind the plate, Anthony Tulimero returns for one more season. The biggest question will be who takes the mound for the Cougars. For the second season in a row, Houston is likely to send pitchers to the mound to open the season and develop a rotation later as conference play approaches.
UCF, which finished second in the AAC regular season last year, lost three players to the draft in July, but they have two top pitchers returning in 2023. Starting pitcher Ben Vespi and relief pitcher Kyle Kramer headline the Knights pitching staff and both have received preseason recognition within the conference. Vespi made nine starts in 2022 and picked up two saves while posting a 3.56 ERA. He averaged a strikeout per inning with 66 in 65 2/3 innings pitched. Kramer pitched in 23 games last season and struck out 50 batters in 39 innings with a 3.69 ERA. Having two proven and recognized arms to bookend the pitching staff as the season opens is a huge advantage.
When The Fun Begins
East Carolina will open the conference schedule on the road at Houston on March 31 and hosts UCF the next weekend. The Pirates will have the opportunity to deliver a deafening blow to the conference before facing the rest of the league. Alternatively, Houston or UCF could shake things up and expose any weaknesses East Carolina might have and set the pace for what could be a closer contest to close out this era of AAC play.