Unblemished, unscathed, unparalleled — undefeated.
The Cincinnati Bearcats (9-0, 6-0 AAC) sustained their perfect season Saturday night at Nippert Stadium and clinched a conference title in the process. When Cole Smith’s 34-yard field goal split the uprights as time expired, Cincinnati defeated Tulsa 27-24 to secure its first American Conference title since splitting a share of the crown in 2014.
After coming up short against Memphis in the 2019 AAC Championship, Cincinnati finished the job, taking supreme control of the conference and capping their first undefeated regular season in 11 years.
Torrential downpour conditions at Nippert Stadium created a lawless slugfest in the conference championship game between the top two defenses in the AAC. Turnovers were abundant, as Cincinnati squandered two fumbles while Tulsa threw two interceptions. Field goals were missed, receptions and interceptions were dropped, and slipping on the wet surface of the fifth-oldest stadium in college football became commonplace. With the conditions altering the gameplay, the offenses were forced to rise up to the occasion. Desmond Ridder and the Bearcats did just that.
With the score tied at 24 apiece, Ridder captained a 12-play, 61-yard drive that ate up the final 3:41 of clock. The junior quarterback completed four passes for 41 yards on the final possession, piercing into Tulsa territory for the game-winning field goal opportunity. Ridder showed out with 269 passing yards, a team-high 83 rushing yards, and one touchdown in both facets of the game.
While Cincinnati ended the game on a long methodical possession, explosive touchdowns were the theme early on for the Bearcats. In the middle of the first quarter, Cincinnati launched the scoring effort on a 42-yard run by Alabama transfer running back Jerome Ford, who split a pair of Tulsa defenders en route to the end zone. The Bearcats followed it up with a field goal on their ensuing drive to secure an early 10-0 lead.
Tulsa quickly evaporated the double-digit deficit thanks to defensive tackle Jaxon Player scooping up a fumble resulting from a sack. But once the Golden Hurricane capitalized on the turnover to tie it at 10-10, Cincinnati managed to regain control with an explosive play.
Ridder established a special connection with Alec Pierce throughout the night, and the junior receiver tallied five catches in a standout performance. Pierce secured a career-high 146 yards in the victory, but no play was more significant than his 36-yard touchdown reception in the second quarter. He gained a step on cornerback Allie Green IV on a streak route, making the easy grab to put the Bearcats in front at halftime, 17-10.
Tulsa continued its ongoing game of catch-up, tying it once again in the third quarter due to the rushing efforts of Deneric Prince. The physical, downhill-style running back completed a 3-play, 55-yard drive by himself, landing in the end zone with 10 minutes remaining in the third quarter.
Cincinnati responded to adversity with fortitude Saturday night, and there was no better instance of this than the middle of the third quarter. With a tie ballgame and the momentum favoring Tulsa, Ridder guided Cincinnati back down the field while excelling as a dual-threat quarterback. The Bearcats banked on his arm to invade Tulsa territory, and upon reaching that destination, Ridder utilized his mobility to secure a 10-yard rushing touchdown.
The Bearcats’ top-five scoring defense provided additional opportunities to extend the 24-17 lead, but several of those chances were squandered. Cincinnati followed up an interception with a failed fourth down attempt from the 5-yard line. Then, the Bearcat defense forced a three-and-out, but Cole Smith’s 37-yard field goal attempt to follow it up was blocked by Jaxon Player with under seven minutes remaining.
Tulsa quarterback Zach Smith targeted wide receiver JuanCarlos Santana in the end zone for a critical touchdown on 3rd and 8 with 3:41 remaining, scoring a game-tying touchdown for the third time of the night. But the Golden Hurricane never held a lead, and the Bearcats’ offense deprived them of that opportunity in the waning minutes of the AAC Championship.
After maneuvering downfield, Cincinnati faced a 4th and 2 from the Tulsa 24 with 58 seconds remaining. Luke Fickell kept his offense on the field, relying on obtaining two yards as opposed to a 41-yard field goal in the rain. Before the Bearcats even snapped it, Tulsa jumped offsides on Ridder’s hard count — a crucial error which extended the drive.
Cincinnati ran clock after the Tulsa miscue and only three seconds separated the Bearcats from perfection. Lining up on the right hash of Tulsa’s 17-yard line, Smith trotted onto the field for a redemption opportunity. This time, his kick flew over the white helmets of the Tulsa defenders and comfortably sandwiched itself between the goalposts. The celebration ensued as the Bearcats won their first conference championship in the Fickell era.
Tulsa entered the night riding a 6-game win streak dating back to October, bereft of a single AAC loss. But the Golden Hurricane, no stranger to close finishes in fourth quarters, came up three points short of an outside shot at a New Year’s Six bid. Bowl season still remains more of a question mark than an exclamation point this year, but Tulsa — ranked No. 23 in the CFP poll — will receive an opportunity to extend its successful season if the program accepts a bowl bid.
The Bearcats, severely disrespected with a No. 9 ranking by the College Football Playoff committee, enter the postseason as one of five remaining undefeated teams in the sport. Cincinnati’s first major bowl appearance since 2009 is imminent, and the Bearcats will head to the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl if the committee spurns them from becoming the first AAC team to clinch a playoff berth.
Cincinnati will become the fourth different AAC program to participate in a New Year’s Six bowl since the current format was established 2014. Additionally, the Bearcats will extend the conference’s streak of qualifying for such bowls to four, following in the footsteps of 2017 UCF, 2018 UCF, and 2019 Memphis. This postseason, Cincinnati can strive for more history and become the fourth different team in the College Football Playoff era to finish with an undefeated record.
Until then, the Bearcats play the waiting game.