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Martin Ifedi, Paul James among AAC's five biggest surprises

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The AAC was supposed to be Louisville's personal playground this season -- the Cardinals' lone season in the league before moving to the ACC -- and so far that has been the case.

The Cardinals are the only league team that is ranked, and quarterback Teddy Bridgewater has done nothing to change the minds of observers who think he will be the first pick in the 2014 NFL Draft.

Louisville could all but lock up the league title Friday, when it plays host to UCF, which looks like the second-strongest team in the league. Louisville already has beaten Rutgers, and the only team in the league other than UCF that appears to be capable of beating Louisville is the Cardinals themselves; that is, after the UCF game, unless Louisville commits three or four turnovers and plays bad defense, it will roll each AAC opponent.

Here's a midseason look at the league's five biggest surprises and disappointments among the players in AAC.

Five biggest surprises


Memphis DE Martin Ifedi: Ifedi is tied for third in the nation with 6.5 sacks and has keyed a surprisingly stout Memphis defense. Ifedi (6-foot-3, 265 pounds), a junior, had 7.5 sacks last season, his first at end after playing defensive tackle as a redshirt freshman in 2011. He also has 10 tackles for loss, showing his growth against the run.

Rutgers RB Paul James: James (6-0, 210), a sophomore, has missed the past two games with what the school has termed a lower-leg injury; he is expected back for Rutgers' next game, Oct. 26 vs. Houston. Before his injury, he was one of the most productive running backs in the nation, with 573 yards and six TDs through four games. James is a former walk-on who was supposed to be the third-team tailback. But he had a strong fall camp and had three 100-yard games before being hurt. He lacks breakaway speed but can turn the corner and looks comfortable running between the tackles.

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UCF RB Storm Johnson: Johnson was a backup last season, when he rushed for 507 yards and four TDs in his first season with the Knights after transferring from Miami. He has moved easily into the starting role and already has 455 yards and seven TDs. He keyed UCF's win at Penn State by rushing for 117 yards and a score. Johnson (6-0, 217), a junior, is a physical inside runner with a burst, and he also is a competent receiver. He had just 10 total carries in UCF's final five games last season but is averaging 17.4 carries per game this season.

SMU WR Jeremy Johnson: He was an honorable mention All-Conference USA selection last season but is making a bid to be a first-team All-AAC performer this season. He has 52 receptions for 635 yards (12.2 yards per catch) and four TDs, and ranks fourth nationally with 127.0 receiving yards per game. Johnson (6-0, 179), a senior, has excellent speed (he has been clocked as fast as 4.38 in the 40) and is a precise route runner; he likely could play in the slot as well as line up wide at the next level.

Louisville DE Lorenzo Mauldin: Mauldin also has 6.5 sacks and is tied for third nationally in that category. Not bad for a guy who was hospitalized in late August after the scooter he was riding was hit by a car. Mauldin (6-4, 243), a junior, had 4.5 sacks and 22 tackles as a part-time starter last season. He has added bulk and become an important cog in a solid defense this season.

Five biggest disappointments


Rutgers WR Brandon Coleman: Coleman (6-6, 220), a junior, has the size/speed combination necessary to become a first-round pick, but he hasn't been all that productive. He missed spring drills after what was described as "minor" knee surgery, and he seems a half-step slow. He still has a ton of potential and has 20 receptions, but nine of those came in the first game against Fresno State, and he has caught more than two passes in a game just one other time. In addition, his only two TD catches came in the opener. A guy with this much talent shouldn't have just 20 receptions six games into the season.

Cincinnati CB Deven Drane: Drane (5-11, 187), a senior, is in his third season as a starter. He was expected to contend for all-league honors but has just six tackles and one pick this season. His ability against the run always has stood out, but that's not the case this season. He had five picks and 16 pass breakups in the past two seasons; this season, those numbers are one and two, respectively. His dad, Dwight, is a former Buffalo Bills safety.

Louisville RB Michael Dyer: Dyer didn't enroll at Louisville until August and, frankly, has looked like a guy who didn't play football in 2012. Dyer twice rushed for 1,000 yards at Auburn, but had numerous off-field issues with the Tigers. He transferred to Arkansas State after the 2011 season but eventually was dismissed by that staff and spent last fall and this past spring earning an associate's degree at Arkansas Baptist College. He lacks his old burst and seems tentative. He has rushed for 220 yards and two TDs in six games. He had a 46-yard TD run in the opener against Ohio University, and that scamper accounts for 21 percent of his yardage total.

USF DE Aaron Lynch: Lynch (6-6, 244), a sophomore, was one of the more interesting prospects in the AAC heading into the season. He was a consensus national top-30 prospect when he signed with Notre Dame in 2011 out of high school in Fort Myers, Fla. Lynch started five games for the Irish in 2011, making 33 tackles and 5.5 sacks. He transferred to be closer to home after his freshman season and sat out last fall; he was expected to contend for all-league honors with the Bulls. Instead, he has managed just 14 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss and one sack. Three of the tackles came in the opener, a loss to FCS member McNeese State. For an end seen as a potential first-rounder, he has had a surprisingly minimal impact.

Rutgers G Antwan Lowery: Lowery (6-4, 310), a senior, was an All-Big East choice last season. But coach Kyle Flood was unhappy with his performance in spring practice and moved him to the second team, where he has remained behind a redshirt freshman. Lowery has been bothered by a nagging ankle injury, but his level of play has fallen a long way in one year.

Mike Huguenin can be reached at mike.huguenin@nfl.com. You also can follow him on Twitter @MikeHuguenin.

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