- Time and date: Saturday, October 29 at 3:30 p.m. ET
- Network: ESPN
- Location: FBC Mortgage Stadium (“The Bounce House”) — Orlando, FL
- Spread: UCF (-1.5)
- ESPN FPI: UCF has 60.4% chance to win
- All-time series: Cincinnati leads, 4-3
- Last meeting: Cincinnati 56, UCF 21 — October 16, 2021
- Current streak: Cincinnati, 3 (2019-21)
Setting the scene
The AAC championship race will likely be defined by the results of three games this season. One transpires Saturday afternoon at the Bounce House in the eighth meeting between Cincinnati and UCF. The other two pivotal matchups are Tulane’s upcoming bouts against the teams squaring off in Orlando this weekend.
Cincinnati and UCF have formed one of the AAC’s best rivalries in recent history, and this battle will prolong as the teams move to the Big 12 in July. UCF dominated the series in the late 2010s, especially when the Knights were in the midst of their 19-game win streak over AAC opponents. But for the last three seasons, the rivalry has swung into the Bearcats’ favor and Cincinnati currently rides an equivalent streak of 19 consecutive victories over conference opponents.
UCF has only dropped one game in a full capacity Bounce House since 2016, so the stadium will literally be rocking as the current kingpin of the AAC struts into town.
Cincinnati Bearcats outlook
The Bearcats control their own destiny for a New Year’s Six bowl, a prestigious honor they’ve become accustomed to over the past few seasons. Cincinnati enters Orlando in the midst of a 6-game win streak, along with its 17-game regular season AAC win streak, hoping to keep both in tact en route to another conference championship. But when factoring in UCF’s record and the environment, this will certainly be the toughest conference test for Luke Fickell’s team yet.
Cincinnati staved off a late SMU 2-point attempt last Saturday in Dallas in a 29-27 triumph over the Mustangs. Despite the tightly-contested finish on the scoreboard, the Bearcats were in control from start to finish in the wire-to-wire victory, leading by as many as 17 points. The inability to execute in the red zone caused Cincinnati to sink a school record five field goals in the win — a great sign of progress considering the Bearcats’ well-documented kicking struggles — but up until last week, the Bearcats had been one of the nation’s most reliable teams inside the 20-yard line.
To amplify the offense’s output in the red zone, Cincinnati will require a strong performance from quarterback Ben Bryant. The Eastern Michigan transfer started the season on a tear with three 320+ showings in his first four contests, but the Bearcats’ passing attack hasn’t posted the same numbers against AAC competition. Cincinnati has not eclipsed 200 yards through the air since Sept. 24, and the team is completing just 57.6 percent of passes since the dawn of league play.
The good news for Bryant is his top wide receiver Tyler Scott may return to the lineup after missing last Saturday. Scott is nursing an ankle injury, but per Justin Williams of The Athletic, Fickell “hopes” Bryant’s No. 1 option is available in Orlando. Scott is an ideal go-to on deep post and fly routes, and the speedster averages roughly 18 yards per reception with a team-high six touchdowns. Outside of Scott, Bryant’s main options at receiver are Tre Tucker and Jadon Thompson, but the quarterback also has a strong affinity of delivering to the tight ends. The powerful pair of Josh Whyle and Leonard Taylor combines for 32 receptions and four touchdowns this season.
While the passing game has taken its lumps in recent weeks, a lethal rushing attack has emerged. Charles McClelland, a longtime program veteran, has been the headliner with back-to-back 100-yard performances for his first time as a Bearcat. McClelland began the season buried in the depth chart, but after racking up 308 yards on 8.3 per carry in his last two games, he ranks second in the AAC in rushing yards. In addition to the breakout star, Corey Kiner and Ryan Montgomery will play supporting roles to keep Cincinnati’s backfield versatile against UCF’s 47th-ranked rushing defense.
Cincinnati may have lost six defensive starters in the NFL Draft, but the defense is as aggressive as ever. The Bearcats continue to find gems in their program, especially when it comes to invading the backfield. Last week, it was outside linebacker Jaheim Thomas stepping up to register 2.0 sacks for the only team in the FBS which average more than four per game. Cincinnati also stands supreme in tackles for loss, and these lofty rankings can be attributed to inside linebacker Ivan Pace Jr. The Miami (OH) transfer is on an All-American pace with 14.5 tackles for loss (most in FBS) and 7.0 sacks (third in FBS). Pace should always be the top focal point for opposing offensive lines because his constant backfield invasions can become a backbreaker for offenses.
Cincinnati’s high sack outputs allow the Bearcats to climb to 29th in the FBS when it comes to rushing yards allowed per game. As powerful as they are in that facet, the defense is just as skilled at defending against the pass, checking in at 18th in aerial defense. Arquon Bush has developed into a shutdown cornerback, limiting SMU star wideout Rashee Rice to just four receptions and 41 yards a week ago. Bush collected his second interception of the season and his lockdown coverage often pulls opponents’ No. 1 receivers out of the equation.
UCF Knights outlook
After a rare home loss to Louisville in Week 2, UCF diverted its trajectory. The Knights kicked their offense into a new gear and the result was a 4-game win streak and a spot right outside the AP Poll. UCF dropped 31 second half points on SMU in the Bounce House on a Wednesday night game rescheduled due to Hurricane Ian. Then, the Knights followed that act with a 70-point outburst against Temple in their home venue.
But the offensive struggles on display in Louisville and early in the season reappeared when UCF stepped foot in Greenville, NC. The Knights are fresh off an alarming 34-13 defeat at East Carolina — only their third AAC loss decided by multiple scores since the start of 2017. In that contest, UCF definitively lost the battle in the trenches which stalled the run game and forced quarterback John Rhys Plumlee to absorb four sacks and throw three interceptions. The Knights were efficient in moving the sticks, faring 8-of-15 on money downs, but a 4-0 discrepancy in the turnover margin ultimately caused them to post just 13 points on the scoreboard.
In order to power through a potent Cincinnati defense, UCF will need its best from Plumlee. The dual-threat quarterback has shown his capabilities before, firing for over 300 yards in four games and rushing for over 100 in three games this season. Getting Plumlee in rhythm from the get-go is essential, so UCF will need to run a series of quick slants and medium routes to stretch the field in order to unleash an effective deep ball.
The passing offense is usually the determinant in how well UCF performs offensively, because the running game is the more consistent area of this offense. Not only do the Knights field a mobile quarterback in Plumlee, who leads the team in rushing and is a skilled director of an option offense. UCF also utilizes a deep backfield featuring power back Isaiah Bowser (team-high 10 rushing touchdowns) and speed threats RJ Harvey and Johnny Richardson (both average over 7.0 yards per carry). In addition, Gus Malzahn’s offense features plenty of motions and oftentimes, the motion man is Ryan O’Keefe.
O’Keefe possesses significant speed and is a frequent recipient of jet sweeps, but the 2021 Gasparilla Bowl MVP also causes a problem for secondaries on deep post and fly routes. Other supporting components in the receiving game are SEC transfers Javon Baker and Kobe Hudson. Baker attacks with an impressive ability for gaining yards after the catch, while Hudson has become a more involved target over the past three weeks with 259 yards and two touchdowns over the time span.
Prior to last Saturday, the Knights rode a streak of holding nine consecutive opponents to 20 points or below. That snapped when East Carolina unearthed 34 points on UCF, so defensive coordinator Travis Williams hopes his unit can restart the streak in Orlando this Saturday. The inability to get pressure on Pirates’ quarterback Holton Ahlers allowed the quarterback to post a 30-of-36 showing on the Knights’ secondary, so UCF needs to assert more dominance in the trenches against Cincinnati.
Tre’Mon Morris-Brash (team-highs 9.0 tackles for loss and 4.0 sacks) and Josh Celiscar (4.0 tackles for loss and 1.0 sacks) are the engineers which typically manufacture the pass rush, and they’ll be instrumental to UCF’s defensive performance when pitted against a veteran Cincinnati o-line. More pressure can lead to higher takeaway numbers, which is something the Knights have been uncharacteristically struggling with this season.
With seven forced turnovers on the season (two interceptions, five fumble recoveries), UCF is tied for 10th-to-last in the category. If the Knights’ two-game stretch without a takeaway prolongs into Saturday, UCF must respond with great coverage from the secondary, which features plenty of talent in cornerback Corey Thornton and safeties Quadric Bullard and Divaad Wilson.
Cincinnati is still searching for the comfortable AAC win it desires, after failing to cover the spread against Tulsa, South Florida, and SMU. The No. 20 Bearcats are actually pegged as the underdog for this matchup in Orlando, and that spread may be eye-opening for some, but it feels like a nod to UCF’s long run of dominance at home.
This matchup comes down to whether UCF’s offense can get in rhythm. Cincinnati’s Ivan Pace-led defense will bring immense pressure, making the battle in the trenches a difficult one for the Knights. UCF must counter with a vertical passing game led by the arm of John Rhys Plumlee, as explosive playmaking is the key to pushing past the Bearcats’ highly-touted defense.
This one should come down to the final minutes, and the volatility of the Knights’ offense this year makes this hard to predict. Thus, Cincinnati’s defense should generate enough stops to extend the Bearcats’ streak to 20 consecutive wins against AAC competition.
Prediction: Cincinnati 30, UCF 24