The many critics of the College Football Playoff and the rankings by its selection committee weren’t exactly pleased after No. 9 Cincinnati fell one spot Tuesday from its ranking the week before, despite not having played the prior Saturday.
The Bearcats’ regular-season finale against No. 23 Tulsa was canceled due to COVID-19 issues. The two teams avoided playing in back-to-back weeks and turned their attention to the American Athletic Conference Championship Game, set for Saturday night in Nippert Stadium. The committee moved the undefeated Bearcats down one spot while Iowa State, which has two losses on the season, moved up one spot. Cincinnati saw the same adjustment within the top 10 of the rankings as Florida, which lost at home to LSU as a 24-point favorite. With three two-loss teams separating Cincinnati from even the No. 5 spot, the outrage focused solely on why the Bearcats were being penalized and whether it was a possible for a Group of Five team to ever make it into the top four.
That playoff outrage will be the backdrop on Saturday, but it won’t be the focus inside either locker room. That’s because Luke Fickell has Cincinnati playing of one its seasons in program history, and allowing the playoff chatter to cloud the focus on finishing with a championship would be a grave disappointment.
These two have been fairly equal in their histories against each other. Tulsa holds a slim lead in the head-to-head series at 17-15-2, but the two programs have only played three times this decade. The Bearcats scratched out a 24-13 win in 2019 after the Golden Hurricane edged them out 40-37 in 2016.
So while playoff outrage will surround the fringes of this game, the action in Nippert Stadium will be exclusively focused on finishing one of the best seasons in program history with a conference championship for the trophy case.
Cincinnati: One common thread through these three seasons of success for Cincinnati has been a dominant defense. The Bearcats rank No. 4 nationally in scoring defense with 15.0 points allowed per game, No. 2 in pass efficiency defense and No. 10 in total defense. That unit also currently holds the longest active streak in FBS with a forced turnover in 18 straight games and its done a great job of closing games out with just 18 fourth-quarter points allowed in its last five games combined. But a huge step has been taken in 2020 by quarterback Desmond Ridder, and as a result, the Bearcats’ offense as a whole. Ridder was named the American Athletic Conference Offensive Player of the Year after totaling 27 touchdowns (16 passing, 11 rushing), including a five-game stretch that saw him throw for 1,224 yards with 10 touchdowns and rush for 455 yards with 11 touchdowns. According to Cincinnati, the last FBS player to reach those marks over a five-game span was Lamar Jackson during his Heisman Trophy-winning season in 2016.
Tulsa: For all the talk about Cincinnati’s defense, credit must be given for the way defense has helped propel Tulsa into this title game. The Golden Hurricane are second in the AAC in both scoring defense and total defense, behind Cincinnati, and it comes at a unique time for Phillip Montgomery here in his sixth year as head coach. Montgomery arrived after a successful stint as the offensive coordinator at Baylor and his best season prior to this one (a 10-3 finish in 2016) saw the team score at least 30 points in every game except a loss to Ohio State. That 2016 season was also the last time that Tulsa made it to a bowl game, which contributed to why the team was picked No. 9 by the AAC media in the preseason poll. Not only has this stellar defense helped take down UCF, SMU, Navy and Tulane — all teams ranked ahead of Tulsa in that preseason poll — but it’s produced one of college football‘s biggest stars in Zaven Collins. In seven games of action, Collins has totaled 51 tackles, 11.5 tackles for loss, four sacks, four interceptions, two interception return touchdowns, one forced fumble, one fumble recovery and a safety. He’s a big-time player who steps up in key moments, with two of those four interceptions serving as game-clinching or game-winning plays.
Event: AAC Championship Game
Date: Saturday, Dec. 19 | Time: 8 p.m. ET
Location: Nippert Stadium — Cincinnati, Ohio
TV: ABC | Live stream: fuboTV (Try for free)
Cincinnati vs. Tulsa prediction, picks
Cincinnati has won 19 straight games in Nippert Stadium and I do not think that streak comes to an end here with the New Year’s Six and American Athletic Conference title on the line. However, this number is just a little bit too big for a game between two strong defensive teams. Tulsa might need a turnover or two to get points, but I think the Golden Hurricane can get to 10 or 14 and cover this number. Pick: Tulsa +14.5
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