- Time and date: Saturday, October 22 at 12:00 p.m. ET
- Network: ESPN
- Location: Gerald J. Ford Stadium — Dallas, TX
- Spread: Cincinnati (-3)
- ESPN FPI: Cincinnati has 60.1% chance to win
- All-time series: Cincinnati leads, 5-1
- Last meeting: Cincinnati 48, SMU 14 — November 20, 2021
- Current streak: Cincinnati, 3 (2018-21)
Setting the scene
Cincinnati has not lost to an AAC opponent — in the regular season or in a championship game — since Memphis defeated the Bearcats in back-to-back weeks at the tail end of 2019. The Bearcats have been the standard of the league ever since, rattling off 18 consecutive victories against AAC competition, including two triumphs in the conference title game.
Although SMU has been a rising challenger in the league in recent seasons, the Mustangs have been unable to shake Cincinnati. In the past two seasons, the Bearcats steamrolled quality SMU teams by an aggregate score of 90-27. Now the series shifts back to Dallas where the Mustangs hope for a better turnout under first-year head coach Rhett Lashlee. Lashlee’s team gained momentum after snapping its 3-game losing streak last Friday and it will look to carry that energy into a Saturday afternoon matchup on ESPN’s flagship network.
Cincinnati Bearcats outlook
Cincinnati (5-1, 2-0 AAC) rides a 5-game win streak entering this matchup, and at No. 21 in the latest AP Poll, it is the frontrunner for a New Year’s Six bowl bid. Yet, not all has been smooth for in AAC play. The Bearcats are fresh off a bye week, hoping to put their last game on the backburner. Even though it escaped victorious, Cincinnati went down-to-the-wire at home with a 1-6 South Florida squad — one of four teams without an FBS win in 2022.
Some of the issues that plagued the Bearcats in that showing included run defense, a lack of explosiveness in the passing game, and the inability to move the sticks on third downs. Against AAC opponents, the offense has converted on just 4-of-21 third downs this season, which is one aspect that must be improved. Although the close margin of the South Florida game was concerning, there have been many positives for a Cincinnati team which was forced to replenish nine NFL Draft selections this offseason.
Defense has always been the calling card of Cincinnati football in the Luke Fickell era, and that remains the case in 2022. The Bearcats currently rank first in the country in tackles for loss at 9.7 per game and third in sacks at 3.8 per game. Cincinnati partied in the backfield in the AAC opener at Tulsa, tying the conference record for 11 sacks in a single game. Thanks to the onslaught of sacks, the defense ranks fourth nationally in rushing defense.
The ringleader of it all is inside linebacker Ivan Pace Jr., who is one of the best transfer portal additions in the nation. The former Miami (OH) standout is the only FBS player to average more than two tackles for loss per game and he has five sacks and a forced fumble in his midseason All-American caliber résumé. In the trenches, it’s typically Jowon Briggs and Jabari Taylor getting to the quarterback, and the two defensive linemen combine for 5.5 sacks.
Establishing a pass rush against SMU’s rather stout offensive line (1.3 sacks allowed per game) is important, but the area on defense which will face the greatest test on Saturday is the secondary. Cincinnati’s pass defense has excelled — even after moving on from the All-American cornerback duo of Sauce Gardner and Coby Bryant — holding opponents to the third lowest completion rate in the FBS while ranking 19th in fewest passing yards allowed. Teams often avoid targeting Arquon Bush, the team’s newest lockdown corner, but opposing quarterbacks have seen a lot of Ja’Von Hicks. The free safety ranks fourth on the squad in tackles with multiple interceptions and three pass deflections in a stellar start to 2022.
Offensively, Cincinnati aims to make its passing game as potent as its pass defense. However, the status of the passing attack’s top two weapons is unknown. Quarterback Ben Bryant left the South Florida game with a concussion and No. 1 wide receiver Tyler Scott (team-high 500 receiving yards and six receiving touchdowns) is nursing an ankle injury. According to The Athletic’s Justin Williams, Fickell is hopeful both starters will be available for the SMU game, albeit no definitive update.
Bryant proved his ability to conduct the offense in an explosive manner by picking up 354 passing yards and four touchdowns against Indiana. If the starter isn’t available, Cincinnati will resort to Evan Prater, which shifts the gameplan. Prater logged playing time in the blowout win over SMU last November, and he presents more of a rushing threat than Bryant — picking up 196 rushing yards and three touchdowns on 8.9 per carry in his Bearcat career.
Outside of the potential contributions of Prater, Cincinnati’s run game will be spearheaded by a slew of running backs — Charles McClelland, Ryan Montgomery, and Corey Kiner. McClelland enjoyed a career showing to guide the Bearcats past South Florida with 179 yards and the go-ahead touchdown. Kiner missed the prior game but showed his mettle against Tulsa in a 106-yard performance. The Bearcats certainly have options at their disposal in the run game, which has picked up the slack during the struggles in the passing department in AAC play.
SMU Mustangs outlook
SMU (3-3, 1-1 AAC) remains grounded in Dallas for the second consecutive week, hoping its Friday night primetime win produces a ripple effect. The Mustangs snapped a 3-game skid by throttling Navy with 20 unanswered third quarter points, before a late backdoor cover by the Midshipmen made the 40-34 result look closer than the game actually was. SMU witnessed plenty of positives within its offense during that win, and that level of execution will be required when facing a juggernaut defense like Cincinnati.
Tanner Mordecai completed 20-of-27 passes for 336 yards and three touchdowns in his best showing since the season opener. Typically renowned a pocket passer, Mordecai also expanded his arsenal by bolting for a 60-yard touchdown run in the victory — forcing defenses to be wary of the zone read, which wasn’t previously a staple of the SMU playbook. The reigning AAC passing yards leader usually produces explosive plays through his arm, and he has surpassed 290 yards in all but one outing this year. With a bevy of viable downfield threats, expect Mordecai to target 15+ yards down the field on regular occasions to try to spark the offense against Cincinnati.
The main threat the Bearcats must defend is Rashee Rice, who is 20 yards shy of the FBS leader in receiving yards. Rice has corralled 49 receptions in six games and he’s an expert at converting those catches into long gains. Four of his outings have involved 120+ receiving yards and SMU will prioritize getting the ball to him early. On the first play from scrimmage last Friday, Mordecai hit Rice on a slant which wound up going for 68 yards. Rice should be the overwhelming No. 1 target, but Jake Bailey, Moochie Dixon, Jordan Kerley, Austin Upshaw, and Dylan Goffney all play important supporting roles in an offense which has an affinity to air it out.
SMU ranks fourth nationally in passing offense, but the run game is more of a work in progress. The Mustangs were without their top two rushers against Navy — Velton Gardner and Tre Siggers — who were both last-minute scratches for last Friday’s contest. As their statuses remain unknown for Saturday, SMU will work the jump-start the trio of Camar Wheaton, TJ McDaniel, and Tyler Lavine (13 combined carries for 33 yards against Navy) in order to keep the offense multi-dimensional.
Becoming more multi-dimensional on offense should be a focal point for this team, as the defense continues to look for answers at the midway point. The Mustangs rank 108th in total defense in the FBS by allowing 432 yards per game. Although facing Navy certainly skews the numbers, SMU’s achilles heel this season has been containing the run. Only eight teams yield more than the Mustangs’ 209 yards per game — a far cry from 2021 where run defense was one of the team’s strong suits.
SMU still has a bevy of talent up front by sending Elijah Chatman and DeVere Levelston out on the defensive line. With those forceful players causing havoc at the line of scrimmage, SMU produces 2.2 sacks per game, and Chatman is tied for the team-lead with 3.0 on the season. Other names to watch in the front seven are inside linebacker Isaac Slade-Matautia and outside linebacker Jimmy Phillips, who rank one and two on SMU’s defense in tackles with 34 and 32, respectively.
Every year, SMU seems to be a viable challenger to the Goliath that is Cincinnati. The Mustangs have fallen very short in the past two seasons, but the Bearcats have shown to be vulnerable at times in AAC play.
After South Florida generated several scoring drives on the Bearcats, SMU’s offense should be able to make a greater impact on the scoreboard this year when compared to prior matchups against the Bearcats. Even though Tanner Mordecai lights up opponents with regularity, Cincinnati possesses advantages on defense which will challenge Mordecai and the air attack — in a similar manner to how UCF did in that Wednesday night Week 6 matchup.
But if Ben Bryant and Tyler Scott are in the lineup, Cincinnati has the firepower to match SMU offensively, especially since solving its issues in the run game over the past few weeks. Combine that factor with its edge on defense and the result is a narrow Bearcat win in Dallas.
Prediction: Cincinnati 31, SMU 28