Under the leadership of third-year head coach Mike Norvell, the Memphis Tigers entered the American Championship with a record of 8–4, 5–3 in conference play. They started the season 3–2, with both losses in-conference (at Navy, at Tulane). They rebounded by annihilating Connecticut at home, but then lost to No. 10 UCF. Following a non-conference loss the following week, the Tigers improved on their 4–4 record by winning all four of their remaining games, giving them a four-game win streak coming into their American title game rematch with the Knights.
With first-year head coach Josh Heupel at the helm, the No. 7 Knights entered the American title game riding a 24-game win streak dating back to the start of their 2017 season. Prior to the contest, their record stood at 11–0, 8–0 in conference play. The Knights opened the season ranked 21st in the AP poll, but steadily improved with wins over Connecticut, Pittsburgh, Memphis, Temple, No. 19 Cincinnati, and South Florida. The Knights entered the AAC Championship with a 12–1 record all-time against the Tigers; Memphis won their first meeting in 1990 and UCF took every matchup since. However, they faced a potentially devastating blow when the quarterback who had led them through their ongoing winning streak, McKenzie Milton, suffered a catastrophic knee injury in the South Florida game.