A spot in a New Year's Six bowl game is likely on the line in this week's American Athletic Conference Championship Game. The Cincinnati Bearcats put their undefeated record on the line at home against the Tulsa Golden Hurricane, whose only loss this season came on the road in their opener against Oklahoma State. Defense could be the story of the game as Cincinnati and Tulsa each try to win their first AAC title in program history.
Cincinnati's bowl outlook appears pretty straight-forward. Win this weekend at home against the Golden Hurricane, and the spot in the New Year's Six bowl lineup as the highest-ranked Group of 5 champion will belong to them. But if Tulsa wins, it remains to be seen which school will get the seat at the big bowl game table. The Sun Belt Conference canceled its conference championship game this weekend, leaving the fate of Coastal Carolina hanging in the balance. But a Tulsa victory could impress the committee enough to give them the edge over the idle Chanticleers.
The bottom line, as always? Just win this game and let the selection committee do their job. Cincinnati hopes to make it an easy decision.
American Athletic Conference Championship Game: No. 23 Tulsa at No. 9 Cincinnati
Kickoff: Saturday, Dec. 19 at 8 p.m. ET
Spread: Cincinnati –14
When Tulsa Has the Ball
Tulsa has been getting by this season without doing anything too special on offense The offensive numbers for the Golden Hurricane float in the middle of the pack in the AAC in terms of total offense, rushing yards per game, passing yards per game, and points per game. That may be an area of concern against what has been the conference's best defense this season.
Quarterback Zach Smith must be more efficient with his arm if Tulsa is going to get a win on the road. In Tulsa's most recent game against Navy, Smith completed just 10 of 25 pass attempts for 168 yards. In his last two games, Smith's completion rate has not been greater than 40 percent, although he has not thrown an interception in either of Tulsa's last two games played after being picked off at least once in every game up to that point. Wide receiver Keylon Stokes is capable of making big plays happen if he gets his hands on the football, but Cincinnati will aim to take that away from Tulsa, as he is the Golden Hurricane's biggest offensive threat. Cincinnati defensive backs Coby Bryant and Ahmad Gardner will be active in the secondary.
When Cincinnati Has the Ball
Cincinnati should manage to control the football on the ground. Running back Gerrid Doaks is among the conference's leading rushers with an average of 82.5 yards per game and 660 total yards in eight games played this fall. He is a big reason for Cincinnati having the conference's top rushing offense. Quarterback Desmond Ridder is the other. Cincinnati's dual-threat signal-caller has rushed for 526 yards and a team-high 11 touchdowns this season.
In Cincinnati's last game played, a road win over UCF, Ridder passed for 338 yards and two touchdowns and ran for 57 yards and two more scores. He has two games with more than 100 rushing yards this season too. Tulsa's defense should be up to the task, coming into this week's championship game with the second-ranked defense in the AAC (trailing only Cincinnati). This is a defense that limited Oklahoma State to 16 points and Navy to just 153 yards of offense.
As good as Tulsa's defense has been, the Golden Hurricane should keep things competitive and close on the road against Cincinnati. But the Bearcats look to be poised for taking the conference crown and earning their seat at the New Year's Six party. Cincinnati has come up with impressive games all season long, including back-to-back blowout wins of SMU and Memphis and a road victory at UCF. The biggest concern for Cincinnati might be the layoff due to cancellations the past few weeks. But Cincinnati will handle business at home and start making plans for a big bowl game matchup down the line.
Prediction: Cincinnati 30, Tulsa 16
Podcast: Path to the Playoff + Championship Game Previews and Picks