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2023 Week 11 Game Preview: Cincinnati Bearcats @ Houston Cougars

Two familiar AAC foes meet as Big 12 opponents for the first time.

NCAA Football: The American Athletic Conference Championship-Houston at Cincinnati Katie Stratman-USA TODAY Sports

Game notes

  • Time and date: Saturday, November 11 at 8:00 p.m. ET
  • Network: FS1
  • Location: TDECU Stadium — Houston, TX
  • Spread: Houston (-2.5)
  • Over/under: 53.5
  • All-time series: Houston leads, 15-13
  • Last meeting: Cincinnati 35, Houston 20 — December 4, 2021
  • Current streak: Cincinnati, 3 (2019-21)

Setting the scene

An old AAC matchup transitions into a battle between Big 12 teams.

Cincinnati and Houston aren’t the closest teams in proximity, but the Bearcats and Cougars share quite a history. They first met in 1957 as simultaneous members of the Missouri Valley Conference. The matchup then picked up again in the late 1990s when the teams shared Conference USA membership. Then from 2013-21, Cincinnati and Houston squared off seven times as AAC opponents.

The most notable meeting between the Bearcats and Cougars also happened to be the most recent. Cincinnati met Houston in the 2021 AAC Championship Game and clinched a College Football Playoff berth that night in a 35-20 victory at Nippert Stadium.

Now, the series continues in a new conference. Houston remains alive for bowl eligibility after picking up an overtime win at Baylor, while Cincinnati hopes to find a sign of life after dropping seven straight. It’s a primetime matchup under the lights at TDECU Stadium on Saturday night.

Cincinnati Bearcats outlook

The brutal transition from the AAC to the Big 12 continues for Cincinnati (2-7, 0-6 Big 12). The Bearcats lost their seventh consecutive matchup last Saturday against a UCF squad that had similarly fallen on hard times during the Big 12 transition. That Week 10 defeat was the official dagger which will hold Cincinnati out of bowl season for the first time since 2016, which is certainly an unfamiliar feeling for the veteran members of the team.

Under first-year head coach Scott Satterfield, Cincinnati hasn’t tasted victory since Week 2, but if there’s any silver lining of the 28-26 home loss to UCF, it was the closest the Bearcats have come to their first-ever Big 12 conference win. Most of Cincinnati’s Big 12 games have been of lopsided nature, as highlighted by one stat presented to Satterfield in this week’s press conference: the Bearcats have only taken 13 snaps with the lead in Big 12 play this year. Perhaps Cincinnati can leverage the progress from the UCF game into something greater when pitted against another AAC-turned-Big 12 program.

NCAA Football: Baylor at Cincinnati
Cincinnati QB Emory Jones has started all nine games for the Bearcats this year and ranks first among Big 12 quarterbacks in rushing.
Kareem Elgazzar-USA TODAY Sports

The Bearcats experimented with a mid-game quarterback change last week, testing sophomore Brady Lichtenberg following early offensive struggles. But ultimately, the team decided to place faith in Emory Jones — who has started all nine games this year — and Jones nearly guided the offense to a comeback, falling a 2-point conversion short. Jones likely remains the starter, and his rushing ability is one major reason he remains the centerpiece of the offense, even amidst a 7-game losing streak.

Jones is fourth in the Big 12 in touchdown passes (14) and first in interceptions (10) as a high-risk, high-reward style quarterback. But no quarterback in the conference has starred in the running game to a greater extent than Jones, who leads the position with 446 rushing yards on the year. Cincinnati also presents two running backs who rank among the Big 12’s top 20 rushers, allowing the Bearcats to rank fifth nationally in rushing yards per game. Corey Kiner is the feature back with two 100-yard outings in his last three games, averaging a stellar 5.5 yards per carry, while Myles Montgomery provides a strong supporting role with an average of 6.5 and two 90-yard performances in that same three-game stretch.

Dominant run games like Kansas State and West Virginia have succeeded against Houston this year, posting 41 and 39 points, respectively, but the Bearcats must remain multidimensional like those teams did in order for the run game to thrive. Cincinnati is a middle-of-the-road team through the air, but the receiver talent is evident. Xzavier Henderson and Braden Smith are the top options in this department, and they’ll look for memorable outings against a pass defense which ranks 113th.

The offense moves the ball well, but the turnover battle has been lethal to Cincinnati this year. The Bearcats are at a -6 on the year in this category, and they haven’t started a possession in plus territory since September — constantly forcing the offense to string together long drives.

NCAA Football: Baylor at Cincinnati
Cincinnati DT Dontay Corleone was a First Team All-AAC selection as a redshirt freshman in 2022 and a preseason All-American honoree this fall.
Kareem Elgazzar-USA TODAY Sports

Cincinnati’s defense is headlined by clear NFL talent up front in nose tackle Dontay Corleone. The 2022 First Team All-AAC selection may not pop off on the stat sheet with 4.5 tackles for loss and 2.0 sacks on the season, but the amount of attention Corleone requires and the amount of disruption he causes is a sight to behold. His presence is one reason Cincinnati generates tackles for loss on a routine basis, picking up 6.2 per game.

Linebacker/safety hybrid Deshawn Pace is first in this category with nine on the year. Also fielding a team-high six pass breakups, he is the versatile force who will be tasked with slowing down Donovan Smith and the Houston offense this weekend. The Cougars are a pass-happy unit and Cincinnati is 89th nationally in fewest yards allowed per game. The Bearcats do force a low completion rate of 54.9 percent, but they only have four interceptions on the year. Free safety Bryon Threats should play an instrumental role in coverage, looking to capture a third pick on the year in downfield coverage.

Houston Cougars outlook

Last Saturday in Waco was a much-needed victory for Houston (4-5, 2-4 Big 12). By edging Baylor in overtime on a walk-off two-point conversion, the Cougars became the first newcomer to earn a road victory over a legacy Big 12 program. Additionally, the odds of qualifying for a bowl game significantly amplified, as Houston returns their home den as favorites over the Bearcats — needing to win two of the last three.

It’s been a roller coaster season for Houston, featuring highs including a Week 1 win over a solid UTSA program, stunning West Virginia on a game-winning Hail Mary, and succeeding on an overtime gamble to beat Baylor. But the lows have featured a double-overtime loss to Rice and several Big 12 eviscerations — losing by 23 to TCU, 21 to Texas Tech, and facing a 41-0 shutout at Kansas State two weeks ago.

NCAA Football: Houston at Baylor
Houston QB Donovan Smith ran in the game-winning two-point conversion to defeat Baylor 25-24 in overtime last Saturday.
Chris Jones-USA TODAY Sports

Which version of Houston arrives at TDECU Stadium on Saturday, is the question. The Cougars have a strong offensive foundation with quarterback Donovan Smith leading the charge. Often described as “unflappable” by Holgorsen, Smith shows a recurring ability to play at a high level regardless of the flow of the game. That nature allowed Houston to erase a 28-0 deficit at Rice and a 21-0 deficit vs. Texas to tie both contests. Smith is second in the Big 12 in passing yards and has attained those numbers on decent efficiency, completing 65.9 percent of passes with 18 touchdowns and seven interceptions.

He also doubles as a potent runner. Houston utilized more designed runs for the 6’5”, 241 pound quarterback last week, increasingly relying on his frame and power to pick up first downs in short-yardage situations. When the game was on the line in overtime, Holgorsen trusted Smith to pick up 2.5 yards in a QB power and that decision paid off in the win column.

But as suggested earlier by those deficits Smith overcame, Houston’s offense rarely sees a strong start. The Cougars have one opening drive touchdown on the entire season and trail in first quarters by an aggregate score of 87-41. While Houston didn’t lead Baylor after the first quarter last week, the Cougars didn’t trail either. Instead, they unleashed their strongest defensive performance of Big 12 play and shut the Bears out until 2:20 remained in the third quarter.

Houston presents as loaded of a receiving corps as there is in the Big 12, but the unit is quite banged up at the moment. The conference’s leading receiver Sam Brown powered through a shoulder injury last week for a gutsy 9-catch, 86-yard showing, but Matthew Golden left the Baylor game in the first quarter after suffering a left foot injury. Golden’s status is unclear but Houston is expected to return Joseph Manjack IV after two weeks of absence due to concussion protocol. Manjack’s last outing featured a career-high 88 yards, and Houston hopes he builds on that momentum under the lights Saturday.

The Cougar defense returned an essential piece against Baylor which was severely missed in the Kansas State blowout. Defensive end Nelson Ceaser triumphantly re-entered the lineup and the result was the first 3-sack showing of his accomplished college career. Ceaser is now first in the Big 12 in sacks with 8.5, and his presence allows Houston to become more of a force in the pass rush.

NCAA Football: Texas-San Antonio at Houston
Houston DE Nelson Ceaser totaled three sacks against Baylor to increase his season total to 8.5, which ranks first in the Big 12.
Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Limiting the run will be essential against Cincinnati and Cougars that must step up against that effort include outside linebacker Malik Robinson and free safety A.J. Haulcy. Robinson is Houston’s most reliable run-stopper from the linebacker spot with 63 takedowns on the year while Haulcy is first in the Big 12 with 50 solo stops in 2023.

Similar to Cincinnati, interceptions have been hard to come by for the Houston defense but the Cougars generated one in crunch-time last week for the team’s second pick in six games. Cornerbacks Malik Fleming and Isaiah Hamilton hope to make plays on the boundary against a Cincinnati team, which could go a long way in reverting Houston back to a .500 record.


Outside of the Kansas State road trip, Houston has been playing solid football the past month. The Cougars knocked off West Virginia, went toe-to-toe with Texas until the final drive, and attained a road win over Baylor in a game they never trailed during regulation. Donovan Smith has emerged into the conference’s upper echelon of quarterbacks during this recent stretch, and Houston’s passing offense has taken a step forward as a result.

Cincinnati needs better turnover fortune in order to come out on top of this one. The offense has thrown picks at a high rate while the defense hasn’t been able to obtain them at a similar clip, and that’s plagued a team which moves ball respectably.

If Houston can finally start fast, that would be a game-changer as the Cougars usually get in a comfortable rhythm in the middle of games. But Houston’s prowess in the passing game and the defensive fortitude shown with Ceaser in the lineup are two elements which lift the Cougars to a second-straight victory.

Prediction: Houston 31, Cincinnati 20