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

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Three matchups to watch in the AAC Championship Game

The battle of the best in the conference features a number of great matchups that will shape the outcome.

Everyone expected Cincinnati to get to this point. After coming up short in 2019 including in the AAC Championship Game, the Bearcats were reloading for another run in 2020. They’ve made it to this point, and are hoping that they can add a trophy to their resume. In their way is a Tulsa team that no one saw making it this far, and the Golden Hurricane are motivated to play spoiler. Certain matchups play a huge role in determining the outcome. Tulsa might be the underdog, but there are a few matchups that could shift momentum in their favor.

For a quick preview of the game, click here.

Jarell White vs. Deneric Prince/Corey Taylor II

No T.K. Wilkerson means the Tulsa backfield is a little less crowded than normal. Prince (356 yards) and Taylor (329) lead the team in rushing, but haven’t had a game in which they exploded. It will be tough for Tulsa to move the ball through the air against Cincinnati’s secondary, so winning in the trenches becomes even more vital on Saturday.

Jarell White stepped up in a big way for the Bearcats defense this year. The only area of concern for the defense was at linebacker, and White eased them by leading the team in tackles. Cincinnati’s linebackers face a unique challenge when they try to stop the Tulsa rushing attack. Taylor is a tough runner who stays low to the ground and isn’t afraid to lower his shoulder. Prince is 6’1”, 214 pounds and doesn’t hesitate to run anyone over. It will be a physical test for this front seven, and guys like White will be called upon to make big plays against some physical runners.

Zaven Collins vs. Desmond Ridder

If there are two players that have helped themselves more than these two, I’d like to see them. Collins continues to be one of the best defenders in the country, stepping his game up to a level we haven’t seen from him before. He’s doing it in every facet of the game, from tackles to game winning interceptions. Given that Tulsa’s secondary will give Ridder everything he can handle throwing the ball, that means the Bearcats quarterback will look to run more than normal when he drops back to pass. Collins is the only linebacker athletic enough to contain Ridder, so it will be interesting to see how well he does tackling in space.

At one point, Desmond Ridder was in danger of getting benched. That was this season, and from that point on he’s elevated his game to a level that has him on the radar of NFL teams. His latest test includes identifying one of college football’s best players every play. Collins is a dynamic player capable of rushing the passer (7.5 tackles for loss, 4.0 sacks) and dropping into coverage (four interceptions, two returned for touchdowns). If he’s going to be a factor at the next level, his performance against Collins will be a boost to his draft stock.

NCAA Football: Cincinnati at Southern Methodist
Gardner has been elite all year, and that will continue against Tulsa.
Tim Flores-USA TODAY Sports

Tulsa secondary vs. Cincinnati secondary

While they might not be facing each other directly, there will be a competition to see which group can limit the others passing attack more. While there are some great matchups this weekend, none provide the talent that this game does. Cincinnati’s defense as a whole is incredible, and the secondary is one of the best in the country.

Ahmad Gardner and Coby Bryant shut down opposing receivers at corner, and both lead the team in interceptions (3). Gardner hasn’t allowed a touchdown in his career. Arquon Bush has taken the role of the nickel back spot and thrived covering some of the toughest matchups in the conference. Darrick Forrest and James Wiggins are physical safeties who show their versatility by dropping back in coverage one play and then making a tackle in the trenches the next. Cincinnati’s lucky to have such depth on the back end of the defense, but they’ll see another great group of defensive backs this weekend.

Tulsa might not turn the ball over as much as Cincinnati, but they sure know how to shut down a passing attack. Forcing more turnovers will be a big key for Tulsa to win the game, but for now they’ll just knock passes down. Allie Green IV and Akayleb Evans continue their physical play, something that should help them shut down Cincinnati’s receivers. If one of them gets matched up against Bearcats tight end Josh Whyle, be sure to pay attention. Kendarin Ray and TieNeal Martin also bring great size to the secondary and help Evans and Green negate any deep passes. Nickel back Christian Williams is the X-Factor of the group and plays with no fear. This could be a defensive battle between these two teams, and it’s exciting to see how the back end of both defenses perform.

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