The stakes have never been higher for the American Athletic Conference. This weekend will see the biggest conference championship game in AAC history as the Cincinnati Bearcats (12-0, 8-0 AAC) look to make their final case for inclusion in the College Football Playoff, which would make Cincinnati the first school from outside of college football's power conference structure to break into the four-team playoff model.
All that stands in Cincinnati's way now is a home game against the Houston Cougars (11-1, 8-0), who would love nothing more than to spoil the fun for Cincinnati while also moving into position to go to a New Year's Six bowl game.
AAC Championship Game: No. 21 Houston at No. 4 Cincinnati
Kickoff: Saturday, Dec. 4 at 4 p.m. ET
Spread: Cincinnati -10.5
When Houston Has the Ball
It makes sense that so much attention would be paid to what Cincinnati has done this season, and maybe that will suit this Houston offense well. Houston has put together an impressive season with the offense leading the way under head coach Dana Holgorsen. Houston comes into the game with the conference's second-highest average scoring output of 38.8 points per game (the only team better has been Cincinnati with 39.6).
Quarterback Clayton Tune has been the arm behind one of the top passing attacks in the AAC with 26 touchdowns and just eight interceptions this season. Tune has passed for 3,013 yards, and he is coming off a four-touchdown performance in Houston's regular-season finale against UConn. Four of Tune's interceptions this season came in the season-opening loss to Texas Tech. Houston hasn't lost since, winning 11 games in a row behind a potent offensive attack.
Houston's ground game is led by Alton McCaskill, a freshman with 16 rushing touchdowns this season. McCaskill's touchdown total is good for second in the AAC (more on the leader in a moment). Houston's offense will face its stiffest defensive test of the year, however, as Cincinnati has allowed just 303.3 yards and just 15.8 points per game.
When Cincinnati Has the Ball
The success of Cincinnati this season begins with the confidence of senior quarterback Desmond Ridder. The AAC's top-rated passer has turned in a 3,000-yard season through the air (exactly 3,000 passing yards entering championship weekend, to be precise) with 27 touchdowns and eight interceptions. Other quarterbacks may have more passing yards than Ridder, but his decision-making and efficiency are some of the traits that have helped separate him from the rest.
Ridder also has tremendous help with a terrific offensive line giving him time to scan the field and for the running game space to move. Junior running back Jerome Ford led the AAC in rushing this season with 96.0 rushing yards per game (second in the AAC in total rushing yards with 1,056). Ford also leads the conference with 17 rushing touchdowns. So viewers can expect to see a fairly balanced offensive approach by Cincinnati against Houston.
Cincinnati also will be facing one of its toughest defensive tests of the season. Statistically, Houston has turned in a defensive performance this season that is close to on-par with what Cincinnati's defense has done. Houston has allowed 19.8 points per game this season, and the Cougars also lead the AAC with just 289.9 yards allowed per game. Houston has picked off 14 passes this season, with senior Marcus Jones's five leading the way.
Cincinnati's dream of a perfect season resulting in a breakthrough appearance in the College Football Playoff is nearly complete. And playing at home with the stakes as high as they are will give the Bearcats an advantage. But Houston will be dangerous and will hang around long enough to give Cincinnati a real battle. But in the end, head coach Luke Fickell's defense will clamp down on the Cougars and Ridder will make a clutch play to seal the deal for the Bearcats, who are about to be playoff-bound.
Prediction: Cincinnati 27, Houston 23
Podcast: Championship Weekend Preview and Predictions