Bearcats one win away from possible berth in College Football Playoff

FILE - In this Oct. 23, 2021, file photo, Cincinnati cornerback Ahmad Gardner watches a play develop during the first half of the team's NCAA college football game against Navy in Annapolis, Md. Gardner is nicknamed Sauce and is the Bearcats' best player. The long-armed lockdown corner from Detroit picked Cincinnati over Indiana, Kentucky and other P5s in 2019 and has developed into a potential first-round pick. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez, File)

Credit: Julio Cortez

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FILE - In this Oct. 23, 2021, file photo, Cincinnati cornerback Ahmad Gardner watches a play develop during the first half of the team's NCAA college football game against Navy in Annapolis, Md. Gardner is nicknamed Sauce and is the Bearcats' best player. The long-armed lockdown corner from Detroit picked Cincinnati over Indiana, Kentucky and other P5s in 2019 and has developed into a potential first-round pick. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez, File)

Credit: Julio Cortez

Credit: Julio Cortez

Undefeated Cincinnati hosts Houston on Saturday in AAC Championship game

CINCINNATI -- There’s little doubt that the University of Cincinnati’s football game against Houston in the American Athletic Conference championship game on Saturday on the Bearcats’ home turf at Nippert Stadium is the biggest in program history.

Playing on their home field, the Bearcats can improve to 13-0 for the first time in history and, they hope, secure a spot in the College Football Playoff – which won’t be known until the committee reveals its top four picks on Sunday.

Cincinnati, ranked No. 3 in the latest Associated Press Top 25 poll, faces a No. 16 Cougars team that has won 11 consecutive games after dropping its seasonopener to Texas Tech, 38-21. Houston’s average winning margin during the streak is 22.2 points. That includes a dicey 31-24 overtime home win over East Carolina team knocked off by Cincinnati, 35-13, last Friday on the Pirates’ home field in Greenville, N.C.

The Cougars are ranked first in the AAC with an average of 289.3 yards allowed per game and just ahead of Cincinnati’s 303.3 yards allowed per game. Led by junior cornerback, Ahmad “Sauce” Gardner, the AAC Defensive Player of the Year, the Bearcats lead the conference with an average of 15.8 points allowed per game, just ahead of the Cougars’ 19.3 points allowed per game. Houston also is allowing the fewest rushing yards per game among AAC teams, 97.3.

“Their front four is where they go on their defense,” Cincinnati fifth-year senior quarterback Desmond Ridder, named this week for the second year in a row as the AAC’s Offensive Player of the Year. “It’s backed up by good players behind them, but they don’t pressure much as far as blitzes. They like to get after the quarterback with their front four. . ... For me, it just means I have to get the ball out that much quicker, and when I do get the ball out, our playmakers need to make plays..”

Fifth-year Cincinnati coach Luke Fickell, the AAC Coach of the Year, said prepping for Houston’s aggressiveness on defense can be a challenge.

It’s hard sometimes to simulate the speed and the aggressiveness of what they do, especially with their guys up front,” he said.

Cincinnati is hoping to extend its home winning streak to 27 games, which also would mean a second consecutive conference championship and 17th in program history. The AAC championship game appearance is UC’s third straight. Houston is the third consecutive different opponent the Bearcats have faced after losing at Memphis in 2019 and beating Tulsa at Nippert in 2020

“This is everything that we’ve worked an entire year for,” Fickell said. “This is something that our guys have made an objective, and we’ve got to make sure that we are not denied nor distracted by all the different things, and there’s a lot of things – not just things with me, but with all of our guys. Obviously, Houston is a great football team. To me, as well-balanced of a football team as we’ve played all year, offense, defense, and special teams. You guys can look at the stats and see that stuff, they’re as complete a team as we’ve played all year, and that’s why it’s going to be huge. This is another opportunity for our seniors – not just our seniors. I always say our seniors, but for our entire program to play in front of an incredible crowd and student section with an opportunity to win a championship at home. Those things obviously don’t come around all that often, and to actually do it at home, obviously there aren’t a whole lot of conferences that have that.

“We have got a challenge – an 11-1 Houston team that lost game one and has run off 11-straight. It’s going to be an incredible challenge with a coach that I think has done as good a job all year as (Houston coach) Dana Holgorsen has. I don’t know where everybody had them picked and ranked to start the season, but what they have done this year, to watch them grow as a football team and program, is really impressive. We’ve got to make sure, no matter what, every one of our kids and every one of our coaches understands that this is what we’ve worked an entire year for and nothing, nothing, can keep us from doing what we need to do. That has a lot to do with not just playing on Saturday, but has more to do with the preparation it takes to win a championship.”

SATURDAY”S GAME

Houston at Cincinnati, 4 p.m., ABC, 700

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