- Time and date: Friday, November 25 at 12:00 p.m. ET
- Network: ABC
- Location: Nippert Stadium — Cincinnati, OH
- Spread: Cincinnati (-2)
- ESPN FPI: Cincinnati has 58.0% chance to win
- All-time series: Tulane leads, 11-7
- Last meeting: Cincinnati 31, Tulane 12 — October 30, 2021
- Current streak: Cincinnati, 4 (2014-21)
Setting the scene
This is the AAC regular season game of the year. This is for all the marbles.
The winner of Friday afternoon’s matchup between Cincinnati and Tulane clinches a spot in the AAC Championship Game, and also receives hosting duties — which is essential considering the home team has won five consecutive conference title games in this league. The loser could lose out entirely on an AAC Championship Game bid, should UCF defeat South Florida in the final edition of the War on I-4 rivalry this Saturday.
A New Year’s Six bowl bid is also at stake in Friday’s bout. In Tuesday’s College Football Playoff rankings, three AAC teams — No. 19 Tulane, No. 22 UCF, and No. 24 Cincinnati — checked into the poll, laying down the red carpet for the league champion to participate in this year’s Cotton Bowl.
Cincinnati holds hosting duties, and the Bearcats have not lost at Nippert Stadium since November 2018. They currently ride a 32-game home win streak, an achievement which ranks second in the country and only trails Clemson’s stretch of 39 consecutive home victories. But Tulane is 4-0 on the road this year and the Green Wave enter this matchup rolling in the right direction after trouncing SMU in 59-24 fashion.
Tulane Green Wave outlook
Tulane (9-2, 6-1 AAC) got back on track five days after dropping its first conference game of 2022. The Green Wave throttled SMU in every sense of the word, jumping to a 49-7 lead in the third quarter in a nationally televised Thursday night battle. Tulane didn't need to pass much, or convert a single third down, but 310 rushing yards and five takeaways was enough for the Green Wave to regain confidence heading into their biggest regular season game of the 21st century.
As suggested by Thursday’s box score, Tulane doesn’t rely heavily on passing. Rather, Willie Fritz prefers to keep his offense grounded until the opponent finds a counter. This strategy becomes feasible with a bona fide star in Tyjae Spears leading the charge. The junior running back rides a five-game streak of 120+ rushing yards, and over this stretch he has exhibited his breakaway potential with an average of 8.9 yards per carry. But the backfield runs deeper than just the speedster, who only fields around 14 handoffs per game. Iverson Celestine and Shaadie Clayton-Johnson play crucial supporting roles which allow Tulane’s ground-oriented offense to rack up 190 yards per game on the ground.
Even quarterback Michael Pratt has bolstered his running ability this year with 317 rushing yards (second on the team) and nine touchdowns. But when called upon for a greater role in the offense, Pratt has no problem showcasing his ability. In his three games with 30+ passing attempts in 2022, he has seven touchdown strikes and zero interceptions, as well as a pair of 320-yard games to go along with those numbers.
One of the difficult elements to contain in Tulane’s passing game is the sheer amount of weapons Pratt utilizes. There is no clear-cut No. 1 target, but there are six receivers on the team with between 23 and 27 receptions this year — with wide receiver Shae Wyatt ranking first in yardage with 520 on 27 catches.
The defensive side of the ball is Tulane’s strength, and that unit manufactured the team’s most significant wins of 2022 — a 17-10 victory at Kansas State and a 24-9 takedown of East Carolina. Although the run defense looked more like an Achilles heel in the loss to UCF, this area of the defense has more often than not been a force for the Green Wave. The veteran linebacker duo of Dorian Williams and Nick Anderson is one reason this program finds itself in the top 20 for the first time since 1998. The aggressive run-stoppers, who rank No. 1 and No. 2 on the roster in tackles, combine for 12 tackles for loss, 5.5 sacks, and four forced fumbles in potential All-AAC campaigns.
Tulane’s passing defense typically operates in a shell style. The Green Wave are susceptible to allowing short underneath routes, but they rarely surrender the home run play to opposing receivers. This pass defense is 21st in the FBS in fewest yards allowed per game, and good tackling in the secondary is responsible for that ranking. Safeties Macon Clark and Larry Brooks are especially adept in this facet, and they’ll take on the challenge of limiting Cincinnati from its usual explosive plays in the passing game.
Cincinnati Bearcats outlook
Cincinnati (9-2, 6-1 AAC) is the current gold standard of the conference. Although the Bearcats’ streak of 19 consecutive wins over AAC opponents was snapped in October, they still find themselves in position to host the conference title game for the third consecutive year and continue their streak of New Year’s Six bowl appearances. Homefield advantage for a conference championship is especially important to Cincinnati, which hasn’t lost at Nippert Stadium in over four years. And fortunately for the Bearcats, their high-stakes regular season finale also transpires in the same venue they have won 32 consecutive matchups.
But Cincinnati still faces some uphill battles heading into this pivotal contest. Quarterback Ben Bryant suffered a foot injury in last week’s 23-3 win over Temple, causing Evan Prater to play the entirety of the second half. While Prater has seen enough action this season to fire away 25 passes and run 18 times, all 11 of Cincinnati’s games this year featured Bryant as the starter. Bryant, despite limited practice reps, was cited as a game-time decision in head coach Luke Fickell’s weekly press conference.
Bryant has thrived through the air this year with 2,732 passing yards, 21 touchdowns, and seven interceptions. Prater proved last week he can shine in the throw game with 127 yards and a 70.6 completion percentage on 17 attempts. But what the 6’4” sophomore offers is a more dynamic running game, as evidenced by his 6.3 rushing average this season.
Cincinnati’s rushing attack has been volatile in terms of performance this year, but the Bearcats have potential to gash opponents on the ground. Charles McClelland, Corey Kiner, and Ryan Montgomery have all taken turns as the No. 1 option, and the team typically rides the hot hand on a game-by-game basis. McClelland is the team-lead in rushing yards and touchdowns with 777 and six, respectively, and he helped Cincinnati escape two close October finishes with 179 and 129 yards against South Florida and SMU.
Tyler Scott and Tre Tucker carry the bulk of the load in the receiving department. Scott is one of college football’s most polished deep threats, and when he gets his gloves on the football, it’s often at least 20 yards away from the line of scrimmage. The deep threat averages 16.8 yards per reception this year and he ranks first among all Bearcats with nine touchdown receptions — with several on deep post and fly routes. Cincinnati isn’t shy about tight end usage either, and Josh Whyle and Leonard Taylor should play massive roles in short-yardage and red zone scenarios.
When it comes to Bearcat football, defense is always at the forefront. Defense was largely responsible for the team’s 2020 and 2021 AAC titles, and that unit must be on its game Friday in order to pull off the three-peat. Cincinnati is 21st in the FBS in scoring defense with an allotment of 19.7 points per game, and the team is 22nd in total defense, with a conspicuous ability to limit opponents through the air.
Cornerback Arquon Bush may not field the most impressive stat-line with two interceptions and four pass breakups on the season, but that’s because he isn’t targeted frequently — often blanketing the team’s No. 1 receiving option. Free safety Ja’Von Hicks is another proponent of Cincinnati’s stellar pass defense which ranks 12th in lowest completion percentage allowed. Hicks leads all defensive backs in tackling and also has a pair of interceptions under his belt in 2022.
Backfield pressure is another signature of this Cincinnati defense. The Bearcats are 10th in the country in tackles for loss and 13th in sacks, and likely All-American selection Ivan Pace Jr. is a major contributor to those lofty ranks. Only one college football player has more takedowns behind the line of scrimmage than Pace’s 19, and the middle linebacker also has 108 tackles and nine sacks to his name.
History suggests Nippert Stadium hasn’t been kind to opponents. But Tulane’s offense has been in quite a rhythm since October, and the Green Wave are fresh off an evisceration of SMU heading into this all-important matchup. Power running teams like UCF and Arkansas have provided Cincinnati some headaches this year, and Tulane fits the classification with its loaded running back room and a capable mobile quarterback in Michael Pratt.
On the flip-side, Cincinnati’s unclear quarterback situation could raise questions about its offensive output against a viable Tulane defense. But regardless of Ben Bryant’s status, the Bearcats haven’t cracked 30 points since October 1, so they’ll need to be on-the-money on defense in order to win this game. Explosive plays, typically in the passing game, are usually the saving grace of this unit, and Cincinnati will need a litany of those in order to escape a pesky Tulane squad. But will Tulane allow them, is the question.
Prediction: Tulane 31, Cincinnati 23