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2020 Week 7 Preview: Cincinnati Bearcats @ Tulsa Golden Hurricane

A defensive showdown in the AAC between the current frontrunner and the emerging dark horse candidate

NCAA Football: Tulsa at Cincinnati Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

Author’s Update — 10/15/2020 at 3:14 p.m. ET

Saturday’s game between Tulsa and Cincinnati has been postponed due to positive COVID-19 tests for Cincinnati, as first reported by Justin Williams of The Athletic Cincinnati.

The game between the AAC opponents will be rescheduled for Dec. 5 at Tulsa, per Williams’ report. This is Tulsa’s second COVID-19 related schedule change within 75 hours of kickoff this season. Three weeks ago, the Golden Hurricane’s trip to Jonesboro, AR was canceled due to COVID-19 issues for Arkansas State.

The 12:00 p.m. ET kickoff between East Carolina and Navy will replace the Cincinnati-Tulsa game in the ESPN2 slot this Saturday.


Game Notes

Time and Date: Saturday, October 17 at 12:00 p.m. ET

Network: ESPN2

Location: Chapman Stadium — Tulsa, OK

Spread: Cincinnati (-3)

ESPN FPI: Tulsa has 59.3% chance to win

All-time series: Tulsa leads series 17-15-2 (Cincinnati leads 2-1 since programs joined AAC)

Last meeting: Cincinnati 24, Tulsa 13 — October 19, 2019


The Tulsa Golden Hurricane were handed a brutal deck of cards, but they’re thriving with what they’ve been dealt. Tulsa will become the first FBS team to play three top 15 opponents this season when No. 8 Cincinnati makes the trip out west for Saturday morning’s showdown. The Golden Hurricane nearly knocked off No. 11 Oklahoma State in their opener, shocked No. 11 UCF in Orlando two weeks ago, and return home for the first time this season.

In between the Oklahoma State and UCF games, the Golden Hurricane experienced a COVID-19 related cancelation, missing a valuable opportunity to play an Arkansas State team which knocked off No. 22 Kansas State. Thus, Tulsa has only played two games, but given the caliber of football Philip Montgomery’s team has exhibited on the field, the Golden Hurricane should be ranked. They’re currently four spots away from No. 25, receiving 61 votes in the latest AP Poll.

The Cincinnati Bearcats have yet to face a challenger as potent as Tulsa, but they’ve enjoyed a routine of quietly winning and riding the escalator to the top of the AP Poll. Currently No. 8 in the country with two months of football remaining, the reigning AAC runner-up is now a legitimate threat to snatch a College Football Playoff spot given the slew of upsets thus far in the 2020 season. This is the program’s highest ranking since the Big East days of 2009, when Brian Kelly led his group to an undefeated regular season and a Sugar Bowl appearance. But in order to achieve such a lofty feat again, Cincinnati cannot afford to become the second-straight ranked AAC team to fall victim to Tulsa.


Defensive stalwarts

What do Cincinnati and Tulsa have in common? Well, other than being the only AAC teams to knock off the conference’s perennial New Year’s Six contender UCF since 2017, the Bearcats and Golden Hurricane are very defensively sound teams. Saturday’s bout between the AAC foes should be low-scoring with plenty of turnovers and sacks forced by the teams’ numerous defensive playmakers.

Cincinnati

Cincinnati has demonstrated a strong defensive identity ever since former defensive-minded head coach Luke Fickell took over the program. The Bearcats have fielded the top scoring defense in the AAC two years and counting, and they currently rank sixth in the entire FBS by yielding just 12.3 points per game. In a 24-10 win over Army, the Black Knights’ triple option attack couldn’t even register a single offensive touchdown on the Cincinnati defense, proving Fickell knows how to adjust and dominate nearly every scheme.

Cincinnati is 14th of 76 teams in total yards allowed, continuing the tradition of strong tackling and excellent secondary play in the Fickell era. Also, Cincinnati led the conference in interceptions and total turnovers forced in 2019. This season, the team is fourth in the entire country, averaging 2.7 takeaways per game. Three Bearcat cornerbacks already have two interceptions to their name this season — Coby Bryant, Arquon Bush, and 2019 All-AAC First Team cornerback Ahmad Gardner. In the team’s last outing, the secondary destroyed South Florida’s passing attack, forcing a 51 percent completion rate, 5.1 yards per attempt, and five interceptions.

The Bearcats have been solid in stopping the run as well. They rank 16th in the FBS in tackles for loss, averaging 8.3 stops in the backfield per contest. Outside linebacker Jarell White and defensive end Myjai Sanders have particularly excelled in this facet of the game, combining for 7.5 tackles for loss through three games this season. All around, there is no glaring weakness on this defense, but Tulsa is a more powerful and versatile offense than anything Cincinnati has witnessed in 2020.

Tulsa

If the Heisman Trophy considered defensive players, Zaven Collins would already be booking a flight to New York. The outside linebacker has been one of the most dominant players in college football this year, and it’s not like he’s dominating weak offenses, but rather, imposing his will on up-tempo scoring juggernauts like Oklahoma State and UCF. Collins has been everywhere all over the field in Tulsa’s two games and his presence cannot be ignored. Against Oklahoma State, the junior registered six tackles and three sacks. In his follow-up act at UCF, Collins recorded an interception, managed 10 tackles, deflected two passes, and forced a safety with a takedown in the end zone. It’s hard to find a defensive player in college football right now with a more impressive résumé than the 6’4”, 260 pound linebacker.

Tulsa’s secondary has also played lights out — a major reason the Golden Hurricane held both Oklahoma State and UCF to just three points in a half this season. Allie Green IV is the leader of the group, and the 6’3” corner isn’t afraid of matching up against highly-physical receivers. The Austin, TX native has six solo tackles and an interception this season, holding his own in challenging matchups versus Tylan Wallace and Marlon Williams.

The Golden Hurricane, owners of the second-best scoring defense in the AAC, also have seen a vast improvement in stopping the run. They held UCF to under four yards per carry in their last outing and registered 10 tackles for loss against the Knights. In the prior matchup, Tulsa limited 2019 FBS rushing yards leader Chuba Hubbard to just 3.4 yards per carry. The Golden Hurricane defense hasn’t been shaken by some of college football’s strongest rushing attacks. Meanwhile, running the ball is an area Cincinnati must focus on improving before Saturday’s early showdown.


Which offense finds rhythm first?

Cincinnati

For an undefeated team that’s ranked No. 8 in the country, Cincinnati’s offensive production (26 points per game vs. FBS teams) has left a lot to be desired. Against South Florida, the Bearcats struggled to move the ball through the air and finished the afternoon with three interceptions. Not only has Cincinnati struggled with throwing picks this season — the team has fumbled six times in three games. When pitted against a talented defense employing Zaven Collins and a set of threatening cornerbacks, ball security will be of utmost importance.

Three-year starting quarterback Desmond Ridder must shake off the struggles from the South Florida outing and revert to the level of play from his freshman year campaign when he experienced career-highs in completion percentage, yards per attempt, and touchdown-to-interception ratio. Ridder also has been more cautious this year about escaping the pocket and making plays with his feet, and his rushing attempts have taken a tumble as a result. Still, the junior remains very mobile and the most dangerous rushing quarterback Tulsa’s defense has faced this season.

The Bearcats’ offense is still recovering from the loss of their star player from the past two 11-win seasons — running back Michael Warren. Senior halfback Gerrid Doaks is aiming to fulfill that role. Despite averaging 3.5 yards per carry, Doaks has been excellent in short-yardage situations this year, producing four rushing touchdowns. Additionally, he’s been one of the Bearcats’ leading receiving threats with 130 yards and two touchdowns on six receptions. Only wide receiver Jayshon Jackson has more receiving yards this season with 132 on eight receptions, and Jackson will hope to earn his first touchdown of the season against Tulsa’s stout secondary.

Tulsa

Tulsa’s offense looked non-existent through about six quarters this season. Then, Zach Smith launched a 48-yard pass to wide receiver Josh Johnson right before halftime against UCF. The Golden Hurricane then forced a fumble on the third quarter kickoff, and Smith immediately slung it to Sam Crawford Jr. in the end zone for a 34-yard touchdown. Finally, Tulsa’s offense officially arrived.

The Golden Hurricane offense took over the second half of that game to score 29 of the final 32 points. Even with starting running back Shamari Brooks suffering a torn ACL before the season, Tulsa’s offense looks solid in the rushing game as well with T.K. Wilkerson, Deneric Prince, and Corey Taylor II forming a three-headed monster in the backfield.

While Tulsa exhibits formidable running back depth, its receiving corps can be a nightmare matchup for opponents. The Golden Hurricane often draw mismatches in the slot with their deep receiving group, and Johnson and Crawford benefited from these mismatches against UCF. Cincinnati’s secondary will be the most talented unit the receivers have faced this season, but Keylon Stokes, Johnson, and Crawford (238 yards vs. UCF, 19.8 yards per reception) can counter if Zach Smith receives ample protection and places his throws on target.

Smith and the Tulsa offense overcame a disastrous sequence last week which involved an interception, two fumbles, and a safety in seven snaps. Cincinnati’s defense is capable of pressuring the Golden Hurricane into such situations again, but preventing turnovers will be the key for Tulsa in pulling off another upset.


Prediction

Last year’s clash between these two programs resulted in a 24-13 final score, and we should expect that low-scoring affair to reiterate come Saturday.

Tulsa’s offense finally emerged and entered a rhythm in the second half against UCF while Cincinnati is still awaiting a similar breakout moment. However, even though Cincinnati lacks offensive production, the Bearcats have been razor sharp on defense and not much gets past them.

With two defenses unwilling to cooperate with the opponent, the game comes down to which quarterback performs better — Zach Smith or Desmond Ridder — against a playmaking defense. Smith is more dangerous through the air but Ridder’s added dimension of mobility makes Cincinnati’s offense especially interesting. Points will be at a premium Saturday, so each score magnifies in value.

That being said, Tulsa has shown more offensive firepower than Cincinnati this season, and the Golden Hurricane look poised to win their 2020 opener at Chapman Stadium. It will certainly be close, and in 2020, no top 10 loss is shocking at this point.

Prediction: Tulsa 24, Cincinnati 19