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2021 AAC Championship Game Preview: #21 Houston Cougars @ #4 Cincinnati Bearcats

For the first time in AAC Championship Game history, one team resides in the CFP Top 4.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 12 Cincinnati at Houston Photo by Leslie Plaza Johnson/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Game Notes

  • Time and Date: Saturday, December 4 at 4:00 p.m. ET
  • Network: ABC
  • Location: Nippert Stadium — Cincinnati, OH
  • Spread: Cincinnati (-10.5)
  • ESPN FPI: Cincinnati has 82.6% chance to win
  • All-time series: Houston leads, 15-12
  • Last meeting: Cincinnati 38, Houston 10 — November 7, 2020
  • Current streak: Cincinnati, 2 (2019-20)

Setting the scene

It’s the most anticipated AAC Championship Game in the seven years of the event. For the first time in history, one of the participating teams is positioned among the top four in the College Football Playoff rankings. With a victory, the No. 4 Cincinnati Bearcats (12-0, 8-0 AAC) likely become the first AAC team ever to secure a playoff bid. Standing in their way of perfection is the No. 21 Houston Cougars (11-1, 8-0 AAC), which ride an 11-game win streak and also scorched through league play unblemished.

Cincinnati, one of two remaining FBS unbeatens, enters its home environment at Nippert Stadium as considerable favorites. While the favorite is 5-1 in AAC Championships, the conference produces compelling games on an annual basis. Each of the last four featured a tie or lead change in the fourth quarter, and three of those games witnessed a go-ahead score in the final two minutes or overtime. In all likelihood, the AAC extends its 4-year streak of sending its champion to the New Year’s Six regardless of Saturday’s result.


How Cincinnati got here

Cincinnati was presented with the loftiest expectations of any team in AAC history. The Bearcats were two yards away from perfection in 2020, but a failed third down conversion kept the door ajar for a Georgia game-winning field goal in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl.

The Bearcats returned head coach Luke Fickell and a slew of their key contributors and checked in at No. 8 in the preseason AP Top 25 — one spot above 2013 Louisville for the highest AAC preseason ranking to date. Cincinnati didn’t take long to back up the hype. On its second play from scrimmage in the opener, Desmond Ridder launched a bomb to Tyler Scott for an 81-yard touchdown pass. The Bearcats scored three quick first quarter touchdowns and put away in-state rival Miami (OH) in 49-14 fashion.

Cincinnati overcame slow starts in its next two contests against Murray State of the FCS and Indiana, but winning those fourth quarters by a combined score of 36-0 led the Bearcats to 3-0 before their greatest challenge of 2021.

The AP Poll No. 7 Bearcats traveled to South Bend to battle No. 9 Notre Dame in one of the biggest regular season matchups in Cincinnati history. Despite Notre Dame poaching 2020 Cincinnati defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman in the offseason, it was the Bearcats’ defense which inflicted massive damage. In the first half, Cincinnati picked off two passes and forced five punts, resulting in a 17-0 advantage heading into the third quarter.

The Fighting Irish staged a mini comeback, but Ridder shut the door with a 6-play, 75-yard drive to hand Cincinnati a 24-13 lead. With massive fan support in South Bend, Cincinnati celebrated the 11-point victory. Notre Dame did not lose another game all season, and the Bearcats’ convincing win on that October afternoon is the main spark which ignited their playoff chances.

Syndication: The Enquirer
Cincinnati’s 24-13 win over an otherwise-undefeated Notre Dame team helped the Bearcats climb to as high as No. 2 in the AP Poll this season.
Albert Cesare / The Enquirer / USA TODAY NETWORK

Cincinnati cleared AAC play with an 8-0 record, but not all contests were decisive victories. While the Bearcats enjoyed 52-3 and 56-21 showings at home against Temple and UCF, respectively, to open league play, Navy presented Cincinnati its first one-score result of 2021. Two weeks later, the Bearcats hosted their first College GameDay episode in the show’s history, but they could not definitively dispose of Tulsa. Cincinnati’s defense required two goal line stands to fend off a feisty Golden Hurricane team and improve to 9-0.

After a four-game stretch of playing tight games in the first half, Cincinnati finally stomped on an opponent from the opening minute and never relinquished. The Bearcats jumped out to a 48-0 lead on SMU on senior day, securing their fourth consecutive regular season with an undefeated record at Nippert Stadium. With a 26-game home winning streak, Cincinnati trails only Clemson for longest in the FBS.

The final act to achieve perfection transpired in Greenville, NC against a much-improved East Carolina squad. Cincinnati trailed 3-0 heading into the second quarter but a 21-point explosion before halftime provided the Bearcats their 12th consecutive win. The 2021 iteration of Cincinnati joins 2017 UCF, 2018 UCF, and 2020 Cincinnati as the fourth team to enter the AAC Championship Game with a spotless record.


How Houston got here

Houston compiled a record of 7-13 across the first two years of the Dana Holgorsen era — the Cougars’ first back-to-back losing campaigns since 2001 and 2002. But the 2021 schedule played in Houston’s favor, the Cougars returned their major pieces, and COVID cancelations were no longer prevalent. Everything was set up for Holgorsen’s team to reach its full potential.

However, Houston could not capitalize coming out of the gate. In neutral site action at NRG Stadium, the Cougars held a 21-7 halftime lead over Texas Tech. Turnovers prevented Houston from maintaining its first half advantage, and the Red Raiders scored 31 unanswered second half points thanks to an onslaught of turnovers. Houston threw four interceptions in the loss, and the Cougars experienced a losing locker room for the only time in 2021.

Houston rebounded by throttling Rice and Grambling of the FCS by a combined score of 99-7. The Cougars then ushered in AAC play with an impressive comeback win by upending Navy 28-20 after trailing by double-digits in the late third quarter. But the night Houston found its identity as one of the nation’s top offenses and defenses transpired on a Friday on the plains in Tulsa.

The Cougars were pegged as road underdogs, but tossed that label aside to steamroll Tulsa, 45-10. Houston captured three interceptions in the lopsided victory and limited Tulsa to just 31 rushing yards. More of the same was witnessed from the Cougars the following Thursday when they traveled to Tulane. The defense produced eight sacks — a program-best since 2016 — to defeat Tulane, 40-22 and improve to 5-1 at the season’s midway point.

Adversity struck in the next two games in Houston’s home venue of TDECU Stadium, but the Cougars were able to escape with back-to-back clutch victories. Houston overcame possibly the longest weather delay in college football history (5 hours, 18 minutes) before kicking off against East Carolina. The contest came down to overtime and an instant Alton McCaskill touchdown run, followed up by a forced fumble, propelled the Cougars to bowl eligibility.

Seven days later, Houston emerged in one of the greatest finishes of the college football season. In a back-and-forth game against then-unbeaten SMU, the Cougars brought the fireworks in the final seconds. Star return specialist Marcus Jones fielded a kickoff in a tie game and returned it 100 yards to the house with 17 ticks on the clock. The win resulted in a field storm, an energized fanbase, and widespread belief that Houston could reach the AAC title game.

NCAA Football: Navy at Houston
Marcus Jones scored the game-winning kick return touchdown in Houston’s 44-37 win over SMU. Jones has nine special teams touchdowns in his career and was selected as a 2020 All-American.
Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

The Cougars won their last four games by double-digits with the most notable triumph occurring against Memphis — snapping a 5-game losing streak to the Tigers. By knocking off every AAC team in its path, Houston returns to the conference championship for the first time since 2015, when it defeated Temple to qualify for the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl.


Cincinnati players to watch

The Luke Fickell era has been defined by elite defenses and a certain quarterback who calls Louisville, KY his home. That quarterback is fourth-year starter Desmond Ridder, who has led the Bearcats to three straight AAC Championship Game appearances. The 2021 AAC Offensive Player of the Year saved his best for his senior campaign.

Ridder completed 66 percent of his passes in the regular season for a career-best 3,000 yards and 27 touchdowns. While still displaying the necessary mobility to keep defenses honest, Ridder placed less emphasis on his run game this year and focused on improving his pocket presence. That tradeoff paid off as Ridder delivered multiple touchdown passes in all but two outings.

His deep ball vastly improved, and a common recipient of it is Alec Pierce. The senior surpassed the 110-yard mark three times in 2021 en route to a team-best 802 receiving yards. Pierce’s average of 16.7 yards per reception demonstrates how lethal he can be as a downfield threat, and his partner in crime Tyler Scott also provides a similar skill set. While Pierce is the clear No. 1, Cincinnati has no issues distributing the wealth. Six different players have 20+ receptions, 260+ yards, and multiple touchdowns this season — including the sharp tight end pairing of Josh Whyle and Leonard Taylor.

In the running game, Jerome Ford is built tough. The Alabama transfer increased his stock with long touchdowns runs in the 2020 AAC Championship Game and in the Peach Bowl vs. Georgia, and he was promoted to the workhorse back as a result. Ford rushed for 110 or more yards four times in his first six games, including a 189-yard, 4-touchdown outburst against UCF (176 yards and all four touchdowns occurred in the first half alone). Ford held steady at the end of the year, but Cincinnati hopes for another UCF performance from Ford as it prepares to face Houston’s No. 8 ranked rushing defense.

NCAA Football: Central Florida at Cincinnati
Jerome Ford received First Team All-AAC honors for his 1,055-yard regular season. Ford ranks eighth in the FBS with 17 rushing touchdowns.
The Enquirer-USA TODAY NETWORK via Imagn Content Services LLC

While Cincinnati features plenty of firepower in its eighth-ranked scoring offense, the identity of this team resides on defense — similar to the 2018, 2019, and 2020 teams. Seven defensive starters, including the conference’s defensive player of the year, qualified for First Team All AAC. Not many cornerbacks are more feared by opposing quarterbacks more than Ahmad “Sauce” Gardner, who was lauded the conference’s top defender. The 2020 All-American has not allowed more than 60 passing yards his way in his last 22 games and he finished the year with three interceptions for the No. 3 passing defense in the country.

Gardner is just one piece in a star-studded secondary which landed three First Team All-AAC selections. Cornerback Coby Bryant picked off a pair of passes and finished with a team-best 11 pass breakups, while strong safety Bryan Cook produced 80 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss, and seven deflections.

Highly-touted pass rusher Myjai Sanders (13 sacks, 23.5 TFLs in his Cincinnati career), formidable run stopper Darrian Beavers (79 tackles, 9.0 TFLs, 2 forced fumbles in 2021), and veteran nickelback Arquon Bush (20 solo tackles, 3 INTs in 2021) are just several of the familiar faces on a defense which limits opponents to 15.8 points per game. But one name that played sparingly in 2020 helped the defense reach new heights — outside linebacker Deshawn Pace. Pace was everywhere this season, accumulating 79 tackles eight tackles for loss, and a team-best four interceptions to sustain the Fickell era tradition of strong linebacker play.

If there’s one concern for Cincinnati, it’s on special teams. The Bearcats have shuffled between three different kickers this year, and they combine to nail 7-of-16 field goal attempts. Cincinnati is 3-of-8 in the 30-39 range and 0-3 in the 40-49 range. Thus, recent history isn’t on the Bearcats’ side if this game is decided by a foot in the final seconds.


Houston players to watch

Similar to Cincinnati, the Dana Holgorsen era has been strongly associated with one quarterback. Clayton Tune is in his third year as the Cougars starting quarterback, and this go-around has been his best yet — by a landslide. Tune started the year with a rough 4-interception showing against Texas Tech, but the quarterback maintained his poise as one of the chief architects behind Houston’s 11-1 season.

Tune completed under 60 percent of his attempts in 2018, 2019, and 2020. That number skyrocketed to 68.7 percent this year. Tune’s accuracy has been demonstrated in his impressive 26-to-8 touchdown-to-interception ratio. The junior took excellent care of the ball during a 5-game midseason stretch where he didn’t toss a single interception, while delivering multiple touchdown passes in each of those outings. Houston’s offense relies more on the aerial attack and when needed most, Tune stepped up to the occasion. He totaled a career-best 412 passing yards and four touchdowns in Houston’s signature win over SMU on Oct. 30.

An early-season injury limited Tune’s mobility, but he’s increasing its utilization as the injury becomes more distant. But Houston’s running game is headlined by a true freshman halfback in Alton McCaskill who became a touchdown machine from the get-go. The youngster is ninth in the FBS with 16 rushing scores, and he improves with each taste of experience. Heading into the AAC Championship Game, McCaskill rides a four-game streak of rushing averages better than 5.5.

When it comes to the receiving group, there is a clear No. 1 target. Nathaniel “Tank” Dell registered 71 receptions, 1,027 yards, and 11 touchdowns in the regular season — the second place numbers in each category are 34 receptions, 470 yards, and five touchdowns. One-on-one man coverage doesn’t normally do the trick against Dell, and the star wideout has a knack for finding openings on third down. Saturday will be his greatest test of his career against Cincinnati’s top-tier secondary, so Dell hopes the production can sustain.

Other premier targets in Houston’s offense include wide receiver Jeremy Singleton and tight end Christian Trahan. Singleton is a quick slant specialist and vertical threat, with an eye-opening average of 18.1 yards per reception to go along with five touchdowns. Trahan is a reliable option often inhabiting the center of the field and he’s closing in on 1,000 receiving yards in his Cougar career.

Houston brands its defense as “Sack Ave.” and the team often wields a street sign depicting the nickname after victories. It’s a fitting moniker, as the Cougars rank third in the FBS in sacks per game with 3.58. The effort is primarily spearheaded by the defensive line as four players in that position group total between four and six sacks in 2021. D’Anthony Jones checks in at first on the unit, but Derek Parish and Logan Hall aren’t far behind. The latter two names combine for 22 tackles for loss this season on one of eight FBS run defenses to limit opponents under 100 yards per game.

NCAA Football: Houston at Tulane
Derek Parish was credited for a full sack in six of his 11 games this season. Parish has 10 tackles for loss and 47 tackles to complement his sack numbers.
Stephen Lew-USA TODAY Sports

One name to note in Saturday’s matchup is middle linebacker Donavan Mutin. A scary moment overwhelmed TDECU Stadium on Friday, Nov. 19 when Mutin suffered an injury which caused a lengthy delay. Although he was carted off the field, Holgorsen stated Mutin should be “good to go” in his Monday press conference. The linebacker leads all Cougars with 65 tackles and produced three forced fumbles this year — including one which sealed the win over East Carolina in overtime.

The Cougars’ secondary is rather sharp and it generated two All-AAC selections this year. Free safety Gervarrius Owens shined with 36 tackles and a pair of interceptions. But the headliner of the unit is somebody who should be generating Heisman buzz with his efforts in all three phases.

Marcus Jones is one of the best cover corners in the conference and he is currently tied for the FBS lead in interceptions with five — and all five interceptions were attained in a four-week span. Jones also leads the nation in special teams touchdowns. The electric return specialist ran back two punts and two kicks this year, including the game-deciding kickoff return touchdown to stun SMU. Lastly, Jones dipped his toes into the offense early in the season and accumulated 109 receiving yards and a touchdown.


Statistical comparisons

Scoring offense

  • Cincinnati: 39.6 points per game (8th in FBS)
  • Houston: 38.8 points per game (9th in FBS)

Total offense

  • Cincinnati: 430.9 yards per game (46th in FBS)
  • Houston: 421.8 yards per game (53rd in FBS)

Passing offense

  • Cincinnati: 253.6 yards per game (47th in FBS)
  • Houston: 272.4 yards per game (23rd in FBS)

Rushing offense

  • Cincinnati: 177.3 yards per game (51st in FBS)
  • Houston: 149.3 yards per game (81st in FBS)

Scoring defense

  • Cincinnati: 15.8 points per game (3rd in FBS)
  • Houston: 19.8 points per game (19th in FBS)

Total defense

  • Cincinnati: 302.3 yards per game (8th in FBS)
  • Houston: 290.3 yards per game (6th in FBS)

Passing defense

  • Cincinnati: 160.6 yards per game (3rd in FBS)
  • Houston: 192.0 yards per game (18th in FBS)

Rushing defense

  • Cincinnati: 141.8 yards per game (41st in FBS)
  • Houston: 98.3 yards per game (8th in FBS)

Prediction

Some of Cincinnati’s strongest starts this year transpired against its top competition. The Bearcats jumped to a 17-0 lead over Notre Dame, a 35-0 lead over 8-4 UCF, and a 48-0 lead over 8-4 SMU. Two of those contests were held in the confines of Nippert Stadium, where Cincinnati has not lost a game since November 2017. The backing of an electric home crowd with a College Football Playoff should bolster the Bearcats in this one — a luxury not enjoyed by teams in the six neutral site conference championship games.

Houston is a viable opponent, especially on the defensive side. Similar to Cincinnati, the Cougars are among the nation’s best in a multitude of defensive categories. The relentless defenses boasted by both AAC opponents should keep this one on the lower scoring end.

But the main matchup to watch in this one is Houston’s passing offense vs. Cincinnati’s passing defense. If the Bearcats sustain the dominance they’ve displayed all year in this area, they’ll be able to surge past Houston’s aerial-based offense and claim the win... and perhaps the AAC’s first-ever spot in the College Football Playoff. However, it will happen in close fashion as AAC Championship Games typically do.

Prediction: Cincinnati 24, Houston 19