A pair of schools that combined to play for the last five American Athletic Conference championships will square off on Saturday in one of the biggest conference games of the season. Reigning AAC champion Cincinnati is one of two remaining unbeaten teams in conference play, but UCF is eager to change that on its own home turf, aka the Bounce House.
Since falling to Arkansas in its opener, No. 20 Cincinnati (6-1, 3-0 AAC) has won six straight games — but it hasn't all been easy. The Bearcats are coming off hard-fought wins over USF and SMU by a combined six points. UCF, on the other hand, is 5-2 (3-1 in conference) after a disheartening 34-13 home loss to East Carolina last Saturday. But with games against Cincinnati and Tulane (two teams atop AAC standings), the Knights still control their own destiny in the AAC.
UCF and Cincinnati have combined to win four of the last five AAC titles. The winner of the annual contest has gone on to play in the AAC title game in each of the last five seasons. The Bearcats have won three straight in the series and hold a 4-3 edge over UCF all-time. After consecutive three-point wins in 2019 and 2020, Cincinnati rolled the Knights last season, 56-21.
No. 20 Cincinnati at UCF
When Cincinnati Has the Ball
With Desmond Ridder gone, it's not a huge shock that the Cincinnati offense has taken a slight step back. The Bearcats, however, still have one of the better offenses in the AAC. Quarterback Ben Bryant isn't the all-around talent that Ridder is, but one thing that he can do is stretch the field with his arm. For the season, Bryant has 1,761 passing yards, 15 touchdowns, and six interceptions. Tyler Scott and Tre Tucker are his top two targets. Scott ranks seventh in the conference with 500 receiving yards and third with six touchdown catches. Tucker leads the team with 30 catches (for 396 yards and a TD).
But when the Bearcats are clicking, it's the running game providing the fuel. In last season's 56-21 rout of UCF, Cincinnati piled up 336 rushing yards and six touchdowns. Jerome Ford was the lead back for that team, but he's moved on to the NFL. Charles McClelland has been up to the task of replacing Ford, as he's currently the No. 2 rusher in the AAC with 631 yards. Corey Kiner has been a dependable complementary option, combining with McClelland for 11 touchdowns on the ground.
The Knights have been pretty dependable on defense this season, but they are coming off of perhaps their worst performance. East Carolina put up 458 total yards as the Pirates produced both a 300-yard passer and a 100-yard rusher in the 21-point blowout. Overall, UCF still ranks third in the conference in total defense and is No. 1 with 17.1 points allowed per game. Tre'Mon Morris-Brash has been outstanding up front, and he'll need to be at the top of his game to counter a Bearcats front that paves the way for an offense that's averaging nearly 430 yards per game.
Typically opportunistic on defense, the Knights have forced a total of seven turnovers in as many games this season. They have just two interceptions, both belonging to defensive back Divaad Wilson. Cincinnati has coughed it up 10 times, seven of those being picks.
When UCF Has the Ball
Among AAC teams, UCF is No. 1 at 37.3 points per game, barely edging out Cincinnati (36.9). But in their two losses, the Knights were held to a total of 27 points. Last week, quarterback John Rhys Plumlee had all sorts of problems with ball security, throwing three interceptions and losing a fumble in the blowout loss to the Pirates, Even with the mistakes, UCF outgained (458 to 426), produced more first downs (24 to 23), and dominated time of possession (35:11), proof that it can move the ball effectively.
Plumlee's poor performance shouldn't overshadow how well he's played after transferring from Ole Miss. While he's not a prolific passer (1,812 yards, 11 TDs, 6 INTs), Plumlee is a difference-maker with his legs. He leads the team and is fourth in the AAC with 506 rushing yards, averaging more than five yards per carry, and he's scored seven times on the ground.
Similar to the Bearcats, running the ball is the Knights' bread and butter. RJ Harvey and Johnny Richardson are two backs with big-play ability who can beat defenses in the rushing and passing attack. Isaiah Bowser, a 225-pound bruiser, is the short-yardage specialist. Bowser averages less than four yards per carry, but his 10 rushing touchdowns lead the AAC and rank eighth in the country. Collectively, UCF averages 242.4 rushing yards per game, good for sixth nationally, and has 20 touchdowns on the ground.
Cincinnati certainly lost a lot of star power from its defense that helped get the Bearcats into the College Football Playoff, but it doesn't mean that this unit has dropped off a cliff. They are first in the conference in both total defense (305.4 ypg) and yards allowed per play (4.1). Linebacker Ivan Pace Jr. is the headliner. His seven sacks are tied for the national lead, and he's just outside of the top 10 in total tackles (71). Pace is part of a deep front seven that helps the unit pace the AAC in sacks (29) and yields just 2.8 yards per carry.
In the secondary, current NFL starters Ahmad "Sauce" Gardner and Coby Bryant were the stars last season, but new key contributors have emerged. Cornerback Arquon Bush and safety Ja'Von Hicks are the leaders and have recorded two interceptions apiece. Even though the Knights lean towards the run, Cincinnati must account for wide receivers Javon Baker (Alabama transfer) and Ryan O'Keefe.
In the kicking game, both teams are solid. Colton Boomer has given UCF a big lift since taking over the placekicking duties while the Bearcats' Ryan Coe, a Delaware transfer, hasn't had the smoothest transition but is still very capable.
This contest will ultimately be determined by how well UCF is able to move the ball against the Cincinnati defense. The Knights have a very good ground attack, but statistically, the Bearcats have the best run defense they have faced and may face all year. Cincinnati will look to get UCF into third-and-long situations, although getting off the field has been one of the few weaknesses for the Bearcats this season. Plumlee's ability to extend drives with his legs could also be a huge factor. Having this one at the Bounce House favors the host Knights, but given Cincinnati head coach Luke Fickell's track record in recent years, it's hard to go against the defending champs in an AAC game of this magnitude.
Prediction: Cincinnati 27, UCF 24
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— Written by Mike Ferguson, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow Mike on Twitter @MikeWFerguson.
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