Cincinnati and South Florida are in the midst of very different seasons, but the two American Athletic Conference teams will share a field on Friday night in Tampa. The Bearcats are a perfect 9-0 (5-0 AAC), in at No. 5 in this week's College Football Playoff Rankings and No. 2 in the AP Poll, but have not looked all that dominant in recent weeks. The Bulls are just 2-7 (1-4) but seem to be improving as the season goes on.
Since a statement win at Notre Dame and blowouts of Temple and UCF, the Bearcats have defeated Navy, Tulane, and Tulsa by a combined 34 points. Two of those contests were decided by just one score, including last week against the Golden Hurricane when Cincinnati needed a late goal-line stand to escape with a 28-20 victory.
South Florida recently picked up its first win over an FBS team in two years with a 34-14 rout of Temple. The Bulls also have been competitive with BYU, Tulsa, and Houston. Both BYU and Houston are currently ranked in the AP's top 20. The teams have split the last eight, meetings with Cincinnati winning the last three. That includes an easy 28-7 victory last season at Nippert Stadium.
No. 5 Cincinnati at South Florida
Kickoff: Friday, Nov. 12 at 6 p.m. ET
Spread: Cincinnati -23.5
When Cincinnati Has the Ball
Over its first six games, only Notre Dame held Cincinnati to fewer than 38 points. Over the last three games, however, the Bearcats haven't scored more than 31 points and are averaging 29.3 per game. Still, there is plenty of talent on this side of the ball, and that begins with quarterback Desmond Ridder. The battle-tested senior has 24 total touchdowns and just five interceptions so far this season. Five of Ridder's 20 touchdown tosses have gone to tight end Josh Whyle.
Outside of Ridder, the skill players to watch are running back Jerome Ford and wide receiver Alec Pierce. Ford ranks second in the American Athletic Conference with 888 rushing yards and third nationally with 15 rushing touchdowns. Pierce leads the team with more than 600 receiving yards and ranks third in the AAC in yards per reception at nearly 18 per catch. Cincinnati ranks fifth in the AAC in total offense (409), but only SMU and Houston score more than the Bearcats' 38.6 points per game.
If there is a weakness for Cincinnati, it's the kicking game. The Bearcats are just 6-for-12 on field goals this season, including 4-for-10 from 30 yards and beyond. Three different kickers have attempted at least one field goal for Cincinnati.
South Florida's defense has struggled mightily this season, but has held two of the last three opponents to under 30 points. That's something the Bulls were unable to do in any of their first five games against FBS competition. Teams have been able to run and throw the ball against USF, which is one of the reasons why the linebackers have been the strong point of this unit. Antonio Grier has 58 total tackles, three sacks, two interceptions, a forced fumble, a fumble recovery, and a defensive touchdown. He leads or is tied for the team lead in each of these categories. Fellow linebacker Dwayne Boyles has recorded 55 tackles and two picks. In the secondary, Mekhi LaPointe has been the best playmaker.
South Florida is giving up 5.8 yards per rushing attempt. That's the highest mark in the AAC, and the only FBS teams that give up more are UMass, Missouri, Kansas, and Arkansas State. Among AAC teams, only Tulane and SMU allow more yards per game through the air. So it should come as no surprise that the Bulls are tied for last nationally with just seven sacks.
When South Florida Has the Ball
USF has one of the worst statistical offenses in the AAC, but similar to the defense, this unit has taken steps forward since being NC State shut it out to open the season. The Bulls have scored at least 30 points in three of their last four games, including a season-high 42 in last week’s loss to Houston. Quarterback Timmy McClain has struggled for much of the year, but he threw for a career-high 289 yards and two touchdowns last week while adding a score on the ground. For USF to have a chance on Friday night, it will need more of the same from McClain.
South Florida's strength is on the ground with a running game that averages 176 yards per game. Jaren Mangham leads the team with 507 rushing yards and 13 rushing touchdowns. Kelley Joiner Jr. and Brian Battle are solid complementary backs. Xavier Weaver is the guy to watch out wide. Last week, he finished with six catches for 105 yards and a touchdown. He leads the team this season with 576 yards and is averaging 18 yards per reception, good for second in the AAC.
Once again, Cincinnati's defense ranks among the best in the country. The Bearcats are 12th in the FBS in total defense (312.4 ypg) and third in scoring defense (14.9 ppg). There are virtually no weaknesses on this side of the ball with Curtis Brooks and Malik Vann leading the defensive line. At linebacker Darrian Beavers, Deshawn Pace, and Joel Dublanko make for an outstanding trio.
Pace is tied for the team lead with three interceptions while Dublanko ranks second in the AAC with 84 tackles. In the secondary, Ahmad Gardner, Coby Bryant, and Arquon Bush are as good as they come. Bryant and Bush each have three interceptions. The Bearcats' 14 picks are second overall only to Iowa (19). Cincinnati leads the nation in takeaways this season with 25.
Since its rise to College Football Playoff contention, Cincinnati has not done as great of a job handling opponents as it had beforehand. Perhaps three lackluster performances in a row will serve as a wake-up call. Either way, the Bearcats should handle South Florida if they're anywhere close to their best. The Bulls, however, have been playing better, and this game will likely be closer now than if it was played in September.
Prediction: Cincinnati 34, South Florida 14
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— Written by Mike Ferguson, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow Mike on Twitter @MikeWFerguson.