A spot in the American Athletic Conference Championship Game and potentially more is on the line Friday as the Tulane Green Wave travel to take on the Cincinnati Bearcats, the reigning champions.
The Michigan-Ohio State matchup will draw the headlines this weekend, and for good reason, but there are massive implications here. The winner not only hosts the AAC Championship Game on Dec. 3 but also will be in the best position to claim the coveted Group of 5 spot for a New Year's Six bowl bid based on the latest College Football Playoff rankings.
Cincinnati (9-2, 6-1 AAC) has won four in a row over Tulane and will look to extend its 32-game winning streak at Nippert Stadium. The Green Wave (9-2, 6-1) are 4-0 on the road this season, including a victory over No. 15 Kansas State back on Sept. 17. This game is so important because UCF (5-2 in conference) has wins over both Cincinnati and Tulane. All the Knights have to do is take care of lowly USF on Saturday to claim their spot in the AAC title game.
No. 19 Tulane at No. 24 Cincinnati
When Tulane Has the Ball
Balance is the name of the game for the Tulane offense, as there aren't many weaknesses to pinpoint for opposing defenses. Veteran quarterback Michael Pratt is having his best collegiate season, completing 65 percent of his passes with 20 touchdowns and just four interceptions. Running back Tyjae Spears is one of the breakout players in the American Athletic Conference, now four yards shy of his first 1,000-yard season. There is no standout performer among the Tulane pass catchers who attack defenses as a collective group with six different players posting 20 or more receptions. The Green Wave also are second in the AAC in turnover margin (plus-6).
If there was one potential weak spot that Cincinnati could target, it would be an offensive line that has allowed 23 sacks in 2022, ranking eighth in the conference. That could spell bad news when facing Bearcats senior linebacker Ivan Pace Jr., who is second in the AAC in sacks (9.0), first in tackles (107), and first in tackles for a loss (19). Overall, the Bearcats lack the star power of last year's defense group but remain one of the best units in the country, ranking fifth in yards allowed per play (4.43).
When Cincinnati Has the Ball
A big storyline to monitor this week is the health status of starting quarterback Ben Bryant, who suffered a foot injury last Saturday in the win over Temple and was seen on crutches in the second half. The quarterback position has been a hot topic among Cincinnati fans for much of the season as Bryant has been steady, throwing for 2,741 yards and 21 touchdowns, but is held to a lofty and unrealistic standard because of what Desmond Ridder accomplished with the Bearcats the previous four years. Should Bryant not be available, Cincinnati would turn to sophomore Evan Prater who would provide a running element similar to Ridder that Bryant lacks. The former 4-star recruit in the 2021 cycle has put up decent numbers with limited reps, completing 72 percent of his passes along and rushing for 113 yards on 18 attempts.
Regardless of who starts under center, it would help if Cincinnati could generate some semblance of a rushing attack that has been subpar the last month. In the last four games, the Bearcats have rushed for just 287 combined yards, equating to 2.7 yards per carry. Tulane is not the team to try and fix those issues against, limiting opponents to just 3.83 yards per attempt for the year with nine rushing TDs allowed — the second fewest in the AAC.
Don't expect to see the scoreboard light up on Friday. We have two defenses ranked inside the top 20 nationally in yards allowed per play, the potential to see a backup quarterback get the start for Cincinnati, and a 67 percent chance of precipitation in the forecast. Prater potentially getting the starting nod adds intrigue to the Cincinnati offense with his ability to scramble outside the pocket, but he'd also be starting his first game of the season in a massive spot. For that reason, we'll side with the team who has consistently been the best in the AAC all season. Tulane pulls off the slight upset, securing its spot in the conference championship game while ending the Bearcats' reign and winning streak at home.
Prediction: Tulane 23, Cincinnati 21
Podcast: Week 13 Preview, Predictions, Picks Against the Spread, Breakdown of the Latest CFB Playoff Rankings, and Coaching News and Rumors
— Written by Mike Bainbridge, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Bainbridge is a graduate of Northern Illinois University. Follow him on Twitter @MBainbridgeCFF.
*Price as of publication.