Saturday’s championship slate certainly features the most compelling American Athletic Conference title game in the conference’s young history. For the first time since the College Football Playoff era launched in 2014, an AAC team is situated in the top four headed into conference championship weekend.
No. 4 Cincinnati is one of two undefeated teams remaining, with No. 1 Georgia serving as the other team chasing perfection. Seven additional teams showcase 11-1 records, and Cincinnati’s AAC title opponent is one of them. After a Week 1 defeat against Texas Tech, Houston rebounded to win 11 consecutive games. Vaulting into the rankings at No. 21, the Cougars have an opportunity at their second New Year’s Six appearance in the modern CFP format.
The AAC Championship is one of six games this weekend between ranked opponents. With its teams combining for a 23-1 record, it is tied with the SEC for the best of any conference title game in 2021.
On the verge of CFP history
The 2021 Cincinnati Bearcats will be the fourth AAC team to enter conference championship weekend unbeaten. Unlike the previous three (2017 UCF, 2018 UCF, 2020 Cincinnati), the Bearcats are playing for more than an automatic New Year’s Six berth. Ranked No. 4 in the College Football Playoff rankings unveiled on Nov. 30, Cincinnati is the highest ranked AAC team in the CFP’s eight-year history. In all likelihood, the Bearcats become the first team from the league to crash the playoff, should they defeat Houston this Saturday.
“Dana (Holgorsen) and Houston will have a lot to say about that, but if (Cincinnati) does win, I would hope they would stay (in the top four). They would have earned it,” AAC commissioner Mike Aresco said. “They’re undefeated. And boy, that win over Notre Dame looks more and more impressive. I knew they would have a tough game with East Carolina on Friday. The adrenaline rush, it was enormous at the beginning, but they withstood that and they dominated that game and they showed why they’re so good.”
Cincinnati head coach Luke Fickell stresses the importance of winning championships to his players, but he prefers not to comment on College Football Playoff rankings — or the prospect of landing in the final four — as the Bearcats are on the verge of making history.
“We want to enjoy what it is that these seniors in particular have created this buzz on our campus and in our stadium, but we can’t allow it to change us,” Fickell said. “The challenge is to each and every individual is to find ways to eliminate the noise and make sure you know what it is that you have to be able to do.”
While the potential playoff-bound Cincinnati squad is hovering as 10-point favorites, the Bearcats have a more-than-worthy opponent in Houston. The Cougars are in the midst of an 11-game win streak and they check in at No. 21 in the latest CFP rankings.
“They are very, very, very aggressive and they play really hard,” Fickell said of Houston. “This is gonna be a real challenge for us. We’ve got our work cut out. Those guys up front... those guys are very aggressive and they’ve done a phenomenal job all year and pose a lot of problems for us.”
Future Big 12 matchup
In the AAC Championship Game’s seven-year history, this is the first matchup between Cincinnati and Houston. Unless the teams are on a collision course for a rematch in 2022, it is also probably the last AAC title game matchup between them. Cincinnati and Houston, along with fellow AAC member UCF and independent BYU, are all set to join the Big 12 in the foreseeable future. All four programs were officially admitted into the Big 12 in September.
“I was very vocal when I took the University of Houston job, my respect for the American Conference was pretty high, and after being in this league, it remains high,” said Holgorsen, comparing the league to his previous Big 12 experiences at West Virginia from 2012 to 2019. “There’s a difference in funding. There’s a difference in national coverage. There’s a difference in what the CFP views as good football and not good football... What’s the difference in my world? Not a whole lot.”
Regardless of Saturday’s result, the AAC will have a Big 12-bound champion for the fifth time in seven years. Commissioner Aresco commented on the matter that his conference’s championship features teams with one foot already out of the AAC doorstep.
“You can’t take it personally. You understand why teams do certain things, why they look for what they potentially think are greener pastures. So we just embrace the fact that they’re doing all this in our conference,” Aresco said. “We’re very proud of Cincinnati and we’re very proud of Houston. We hate to lose them down the road and we’re not sure when that’ll be, but this is a celebration of what this conference has accomplished over nine years.”
Cincinnati, the league’s reigning champion, its in search of its second outright AAC title and third overall since the conference launched in 2013. The Bearcats join 2017-19 Memphis as the only other team to record three consecutive AAC Championship appearances. On the other sideline, Houston is making its second appearance in hopes of capturing its first AAC crown since 2015. The Bearcats (2020) and Cougars (2015) both qualified for New Year’s Six bowls as conference affiliates, and there is still time to add to that legacy before the AAC membership expires.
“I just feel great about the fact that Cincinnati and Houston, with two great coaches, have achieved what they have achieved,” Aresco said. “It’s a legacy. Whatever happens down the road, they will have achieved this in our conference. Luke (Fickell) has said great things about the competition here. He sent me a lovely note when all this realignment happened. Dana, the same. Dana has talked about how good the conference is... Things change, you just can’t take it personally.”
Nippert, not neutral
All 10 FBS conferences feature championship games. However, the AAC is one of four leagues to host theirs on the campus of the team with the better record. Since Cincinnati and Houston both storm into the AAC Championship with identical 8-0 résumés in conference play, the Bearcats won the hosting sweepstakes due to a higher ranking in the College Football Playoff rankings.
“It’s never been about anything other than playing for a championship,” Fickell said. “To have it at home is another step and we’re excited about that — having our seniors play another home game in Nippert Stadium and we’re gonna continue to roll.”
The game’s location in Nippert Stadium provides a significant advantage to the Bearcats. Cincinnati has not lost in its home venue since Nov. 10, 2017 — Luke Fickell’s first season at the helm. Dating back to the 2017 finale, the Bearcats have rattled off 26 consecutive home wins, only trailing Clemson’s 34 for the longest streak in the country.
“I’m not gonna lie — I wish this was at a neutral site. They’re pretty good at home,” Houston head coach Dana Holgorsen said. “They hadn’t lost there in a while but it’s a big challenge. Outstanding football team, well coached, they have great senior leadership.”
While Cincinnati exhibits a spotless home record, Houston has been immaculate on the road. The Cougars’ lone slip-up of 2021 was in neutral site action. Thus, Holgorsen’s team enters Cincinnati boasting a 6-0 road record with an average margin of victory of 26.5 points.
“It’s no different than any other game you have to play on the road. We’ve been pretty good on the road this year. We got an older team, veteran team that knows how to travel,” Holgorsen said. “The other five leagues, they have neutral sites. I wish it was a neutral site. If that game was played here in Houston, I think they would say the same time. You would rather a neutral site opposed to being the visiting team, especially when both teams are 8-0, but that’s neither here nor there. That’s the cards we’ve been dealt.”