Bearcats, Tigers meet for second time in as many weeks for AAC title, possible New Year's Six bowl berth
For the second straight week, the Cincinnati Bearcats will visit the Memphis Tigers. Only this time, the stakes have been raised considerably with the American Athletic Conference championship on the line, as well as a potential spot in the Cotton Bowl for the first time in either program's history.
The AAC has become accustomed to sending its champion to a New Year's Six bowl game in the College Football Playoff era, and it appears likely it could do so again. A win by Memphis over the Bearcats for a second consecutive week would all but lock up a spot in the big bowl game lineup, while Cincinnati may have to hope the selection committee feels they are worthy if it comes down to Cincinnati and Boise State, who will make their case at home in the Mountain West Conference Football Championship Game.
It is said that beating a team twice can be difficult. It doesn’t happen too often in college football, and it is even rarer to see teams play in consecutive weeks. Although Cincinnati already had its division wrapped up when they visited Memphis last week, the Bearcats still had plenty of reason to put forth their best effort with home-field advantage in this game on the line. After a few rough performances in the second half of the season, Cincinnati did seem to play a better game last week against the Tigers.
But how much might have been held back by Luke Fickell? Will that be one of the keys to a victory this week for Cincinnati? Or will Memphis simply be able to continue its winning ways and finally get over the conference championship game hurdle they have struggled to clear the past couple of years against UCF?
AAC Championship: Cincinnati at Memphis
Kickoff: Saturday, Dec. 7 at 3:30 p.m. ET
Spread: Cincinnati -9.5
When Cincinnati Has the Ball
There were some growing reasons to be concerned about Cincinnati’s offense down the stretch of the regular season. Back-to-back games against South Florida and Temple netted fewer than 300 yards in both games, which suggested the Bearcats may be in an offensive funk at the worst possible time. But in the regular-season finale against the Tigers, Cincinnati’s offense seemed to regain a bit of its mojo. Cincinnati did so without starting quarterback Desmond Ridder, who was out due to a shoulder injury.
Ben Bryant stepped in to lead the offense in his place, and he had his highs and lows with 229 passing yards and a touchdown but with two interceptions. Who plays quarterback for Cincinnati this week will be decided later in the week, but Fickell has stated Ridder is his team’s starting quarterback if he is healthy.
Regardless of who plays quarterback, Cincinnati will really want to get running back Michael Warren II in the flow. He did that last week with 21 carries for 122 yards and a touchdown. He will once again be a main cog in the Cincinnati offense, especially with Memphis relatively vulnerable on the ground. Cincinnati rushed for 178 yards as a team last week.
When Memphis Has the Ball
Brady White continues to have an impressive season throwing the football, which is a big reason why the Tigers are playing this weekend and doing so at home. White has passed for 32 touchdowns with just eight interceptions, putting him one touchdown behind SMU’s Shane Buechele for most thrown in the AAC and one interception behind UCF’s Dillon Gabriel, who threw just seven touchdowns for the fewest thrown by an AAC quarterback who appeared in 12 games. In other words, White is careful and efficient with the football.
White’s completion rate of 59.4 percent may have room for improvement, but he has one of the best receivers in the conference to make plays in Damonte Coxie. Senior Antonio Gibson will also be a factor in the Memphis passing game, although he is coming off a light performance against Cincinnati last week (two receptions for eight yards).
Passing game aside, Memphis has one of the top running backs in the conference to show off as well. Kenneth Gainwell leads all AAC running backs with 1,381 yards (only Navy quarterback Malcolm Perry had more with 1,500 rushing yards). Gainwell rushed for 87 yards last week and is looking to end his rushing touchdown drought of three games this week. If Gainwell gets in the end zone, that could bode very well for Memphis as they look to capture an elusive conference championship.
Anyone who watched last week's matchup between Memphis and Cincinnati likely saw a game that will play out in a similar fashion this week. Memphis has a more complete offensive unit that has all of its tools sharpened. Playing at home is also a nice luxury to have in a conference championship setting. In the brief history of the AAC Championship Game, home teams are 3-1. Memphis is 0-2 in the conference title game with back-to-back losses to UCF in 2017 and '18. But Memphis is playing at home this time, and the Tigers have only lost one game at home since the start of the 2017 season (again, UCF was the spoiler in a regular-season contest in 2018).
Memphis simply has better players on offense to make some plays when the team needs it the most. If Cincinnati’s defense can keep the Tigers in the 20s, that will give Cincinnati its best chance to score the upset victory for its first AAC championship since being a part of a three-way tie in 2014 (with Memphis and, naturally, UCF). The last thing Cincinnati will want to do is get in a track meet with the Tigers. Expect Memphis to come out firing right from the start and looking to capitalize on some big plays on offense. If Memphis gets off to a fast start and creates a buffer in the first quarter, then the Tigers can start making some plans to make a trip to the Cotton Bowl. After two consecutive conference championship setbacks, now is the time for the Memphis Tigers.
Prediction: Memphis 31, Cincinnati 23
— Written by Kevin McGuire, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. McGuire also contributes to College Football Talk and hosts the No 2-Minute Warning Podcast. Follow him on Patreon, on Twitter @KevinOnCFB and Like him on Facebook.