Bulls, Bearcats face off in de facto AAC East elimination game
The South Florida Bulls hope to bounce back from two straight losses when Charlie Strong’s team travels to face the Cincinnati Bearcats in a matchup of AAC East challengers. USF, which vaulted into the AP Top 25 during a 7-0 start to the season, saw its undefeated record dashed in a 57-36 loss to Houston. The Bulls were upset at home last week, losing to Tulane 41-15 to fall to 7-2 overall and 3-2 in AAC play.
Cincinnati also spent time in the Top 25 this season during its 6-0 start. A loss to Temple ended hopes of an undefeated campaign, but in the following weeks the Bearcats survived a trip to SMU and looked better than ever in a 42-0 domination of Navy last week. Now 8-1 overall and 4-1 in conference, Luke Fickell’s squad aims to keep its AAC Championship Game hopes alive.
South Florida at Cincinnati
Kickoff: Saturday, Nov. 10 at 7 p.m. ET
Spread: Cincinnati -14
Three Things to Watch
1. The quarterbacks
South Florida and Cincinnati have both relied on first-year starting quarterbacks, and both have played a key role in the success of the two teams this season. Senior and former five-star recruit Blake Barnett arrived at USF following a long, winding journey that included stints at both Alabama and Arizona State. Barnett has completed 62.2 percent of his passes for 2,416 yards and 11 touchdowns while spreading the ball around to one of the best receiving corps in the AAC (Randall St. Felix, Tyre McCants, Darnell Salomon and Mitchell Wilcox all rank among the top 20 in the conference in receiving yards per game). Though he has also been intercepted nine times (second most in the AAC), Barnett has proven to be a dangerous runner and has gained 298 yards on the ground with eight touchdowns.
Desmond Ridder, Cincinnati’s freshman signal caller, has taken a more direct path to his current position. Though Ridder didn’t post great passing numbers in his first two games (he threw for a combined 145 yards and one touchdown in wins over UCLA and Miami University), his rushing performance helped solidify his role as the starter. Ridder has shown progress throughout the season and has completed 63.1 percent of his passes for 1,703 yards and 13 touchdowns with only five interceptions while adding 426 rushing yards and five TDs on the ground.
2. De-fense (clap, clap)
Both defenses will have a tough task, but one has proven itself far more capable of shutting down opponents' offenses. Led by standout performers such as defensive lineman Cortez Broughton, linebacker Bryan Wright and defensive back James Wiggins, Cincinnati has been the best defense in the AAC, statistically speaking. The unit leads the conference in scoring defense (14.0 points allowed per game, which ranks sixth nationally), total defense (276.1 yards allowed per game, fifth best in the country), yards allowed per play (4.28, fourth nationally), rushing defense (105.2 yards allowed per game, No. 14 in FBS) and yards allowed per carry (3.24, No. 16 overall).
The Bearcats have also excelled against the pass and rank second in the league in pass defense (170.9 yards allowed per game) and yards allowed per pass attempt (5.3) — both of which rank in the top 10 nationally. Cincinnati also leads the AAC and ranks No. 5 in the country in passer rating allowed (99.02).
On the other sideline, the USF defense has struggled to keep opponents off the scoreboard. Earlier this season, the Bulls survived non-conference games against Georgia Tech and Massachusetts in which the unit surrendered 38 and 42 points, respectively, but South Florida has allowed an average of 49 points per game in back-to-back AAC losses. USF has surrendered 30.9 points per contest overall.
3. Explosive plays
The Bulls’ best bet for scoring against the stingy Cincinnati defense is to break a big play — something USF has done especially well this year, but also something Cincinnati has been very good limiting. No AAC offense has produced more plays of 50 yards (13), 60 yards (9), 70 yards (6) or 80 yards (1) than the Bulls, putting South Florida among the top five offenses in the country in each category. Likewise, no AAC defense has allowed fewer 50-plus yard plays (2) than Cincinnati.
Running back Jordan Cronkrite has been responsible for many of the Bulls’ big plays. The junior running back has accounted for five plays of 60 yards or longer, including three of 70-plus yards and an 80-yard TD run that proved to be the game-winner against East Carolina. Cronkrite has averaged an explosive 6.96 yards per carry, and he ranks second in the AAC in rushing (118.3 yards per game). He needs just 54 yards against the Bearcats to hit 1,000 for the season, and he has scored seven touchdowns.
Though both USF and Cincinnati are still technically alive in the AAC East race, the Bearcats have the most to play for. With just one loss to date and with the showdown against UCF on deck, Cincinnati could still play its way into the New Year’s Six bowl conversation. That motivation, paired with the home-field advantage and the best defense in the league, helps explain why the Bearcats are a two-touchdown favorite to beat South Florida. The fact the Bulls have regressed defensively is another major factor, and one that Ridder and the Bearcats should be able to exploit.
Prediction: Cincinnati 38, USF 20
— Written by Nicholas Ian Allen, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NicholasIAllen.
(Top photo courtesy of @GoBearcatsFB)