- Time and date: Saturday, October 8 at 2:30 p.m. ET
- Network: ESPN+
- Location: Nippert Stadium — Cincinnati, OH
- Spread: Cincinnati (-27.5)
- ESPN FPI: Cincinnati has 96.8% chance to win
- All-time series: Cincinnati leads, 12-7
- Last meeting: Cincinnati 45, South Florida 28 — November 12, 2021
- Current streak: Cincinnati, 4 (2018-21)
Setting the scene
It’s time to say goodbye. Cincinnati and South Florida have been attached at the hip more than any two American Athletic Conference members. The Bearcats and Bulls have shared conferences for 20 consecutive seasons, dating back to their C-USA membership days in 2003. In 2005, both programs latched onto the Big East and stuck with the conference during its rebrand to the AAC in 2013.
During the first 19 years of shared conference membership, Cincinnati and South Florida never took a year off from facing each other. This 20th edition of the series will mark the final time these longtime conference mates settle things on the football field for the foreseeable future, as the Bearcats officially claim Big 12 status on July 1, 2023.
South Florida Bulls outlook
You can pinpoint the moment this season where South Florida looked poised for its long-awaited turnaround. The Bulls were knocking on the door of a massive upset at The Swamp, situated with a 1st and 10 from Florida’s 23-yard line. Two plays later, a backward snap flew 14 yards behind the line of scrimmage and stifled South Florida’s momentum. Then, a mishandled snap on the game-tying field goal denied the Bulls a shot at victory in overtime.
Since the narrow loss to the Gators, things have reverted to a very bleak state. In the following six quarters against Louisville and East Carolina, South Florida was outscored 82-10 and both opponents essentially put those games away by halftime. The Bulls permitted 540+ yards in consecutive weeks, and as a result, they rank fifth-to-last nationally in total defense, as well as 10th-to-last in scoring defense.
Defense has been a major issue for Jeff Scott’s team this season, and containing the ground and air have been equally difficult tasks. Applying pressure hasn’t been easy, and the lack of sacks and quarterback hurries has caused opponents to convert third and fourth downs at a relatively high clip. Not all as been dreary as some strong individual performances have been witnessed. Dwayne Boyles is one of the few Bulls remaining from their last winning team, and the veteran has enjoyed an excellent 2022 with a team-high 35 tackles to go along with four tackles for loss, an interception, and a forced fumble.
On the offensive side of the ball, things were quite promising in the second half against East Carolina despite being in a 41-7 hole at the break. Baylor transfer quarterback Gerry Bohanon delivered three touchdown passes on a season-high 253 passing yards while running for 74 yards and an additional score. That commendable second half could build confidence for the former Sugar Bowl champion, who tossed zero interceptions after entering that matchup with zero touchdowns and six picks since arriving in Tampa.
South Florida also ignited its rushing offensive last after a slow start. Brian Battie, who also doubles as one of the nation’s most prolific kick returners, chipped in 96 rushing yards on 6.4 yards per carry. With the help of a mobile Bohanon, Battie hopes to guide South Florida’s 53rd ranked rushing offense against a front seven which has invaded backfields at a terrifying rate.
Cincinnati Bearcats outlook
Cincinnati re-entered the AP Poll last Sunday after a 4-week absence — a rarity in the Luke Fickell era. The reigning AAC champions overcame a slow start against Arkansas to rattle off four consecutive wins, including a 31-21 road victory at Tulsa to open conference play. The Bearcats share the best overall record in the league with Memphis, Tulane, and UCF, hoping to separate themselves from the pack for the third straight season with eyes on the New Year’s Six.
The most impressive aspect of this Cincinnati team is how well the defense reloaded. The Bearcats witnessed a mass exodus last April when nine players from the 2021 squad heard their names called at the NFL Draft, including six defensive starters. Defense has been the Bearcats’ brand since Fickell took over in 2017, and it remains that way even in the midst of immense turnover. Cincinnati ranks first in the country in sacks (23), tackles for loss (50), and defensive touchdowns (4).
All three of these categories were on full display in the win over Tulsa. Thanks to a heap of pressure, outside linebacker Deshawn Pace provided the Bearcats their first points of the evening on a pick-six. Then, Pace’s brother Ivan led the charge in the pass rush as Cincinnati produced 11 sacks to tie an AAC record. Ivan is now on potential All-American pace with an FBS-best 12.5 tackles for loss to complement his 55 tackles, which ranks sixth nationally.
The secondary also showed out against the Golden Hurricane, as free safety Ja’Von Hicks batted three passes down while holding Tulsa to a 50 percent completion rate. Replacing the departed NFL talent in last year’s defensive backfield is no easy task, but Hicks and cornerback Arquon Bush have kept the unit fortified. Because of their ability to disrupt routes and blanket receivers, Cincinnati currently holds opponents to a 50.9 completion clip to rank fifth in the country.
Cincinnati’s offense has been most explosive through the passing game this year, courtesy of quarterback Ben Bryant and his three games with 320+ passing yards and multiple touchdowns. Tulsa provided the boomerang transfer his toughest challenge yet holding him to 166 yards, but Cincinnati’s offense adapted with the aerial attack stalling more than usual.
The Bearcats established a viable run game with Charles McClelland and Corey Kiner splitting the duties to combine for 193 yards on 25 attempts. The promise the backs showed against Tulsa could work wonders for Cincinnati this year, which didn’t get reliable results on the ground through the first quarter of the regular season. Now that they can keep defenses more honest, that provides Bryant more opportunities at deep shots to his favorite target Tyler Scott, who has 381 receiving yards and five touchdowns in his last three appearances.
Cincinnati has not lost in Nippert Stadium since year one of the Luke Fickell era in Nov. 10, 2017. Only Clemson rides a longer home winning streak than the Bearcats’ current run of 29 consecutive victories. Given the trajectory of Cincinnati and South Florida at the moment, this one has potential of getting rather lopsided.
The Bearcats haven’t been fast starters, but they usually pick things up in the second quarter. Expect Ben Bryant to take over the game by then to hand the Bearcats a comfortable lead at halftime. Meanwhile, Cincinnati’s defense is certain to bring pressure on the other end, which could force South Florida into countless third-and-long situations.
Cincinnati looks on track to improve to 2-0 in AAC play, but South Florida’s offense shows enough flare at the end for a backdoor cover.
Prediction: Cincinnati 45, South Florida 20