One of the biggest games in the American Athletic Conference takes place under Friday night lights this week. Cincinnati hosts defending conference champion UCF with a chance to make a loud statement to the rest of the conference and pick up a key tiebreaker for down the road. It may only be early October, but the stakes are pretty high for the Knights and Bearcats this week in a division showdown.
UCF and Cincinnati are each coming off blowout wins last week, and each team has lost once in non-conference play to a power conference opponent. As far as the Group of 5 race is concerned for a spot in the New Year's Six, this could potentially be an early elimination game, especially since a head-to-head tiebreaker is on the line.
UCF at Cincinnati
Kickoff: Friday, Oct. 4 at 8:00 p.m. ET
Spread: UCF -4.0
When UCF Has the Ball
The offense for UCF may have had a slow start against Pitt, but the Knights appear to be in good hands with freshman quarterback Dillon Gabriel. Gabriel leads the AAC with 14 touchdown passes and has been intercepted just twice. His 1,336 passing yards are second in the conference behind only Shane Buechele of SMU, although Gabriel has completed 35 fewer passes on 37 fewer attempts than the SMU gunslinger. This week may pose the biggest challenge yet for Gabriel. Cincinnati is allowing just 167.0 passing yards per game this season and has given up only four TD passes. Cincinnati hasn't allowed a touchdown pass in its last two games, although the Bearcats have not picked off a pass since the season-opening win against UCLA.
Cincinnati will hope to bring pressure on Gabriel with Michael Pitts leading the charge. Pitts has four sacks this season, and the UCF offensive line has had a few shaky moments. UCF allowed just 19 sacks last season but already has given up nine. One factor: The Knights had McKenzie Milton last season and don't have an experienced veteran running the offense this year. Fortunately, wide receiver Gabriel Davis can make plays and take the pressure off his quarterback. Davis leads the AAC with eight touchdown receptions but was limited to two receptions for 15 yards last year against Cincinnati.
When Cincinnati Has the Ball
Cincinnati has featured a pretty balanced offense this season. The Bearcats are coming off their best offensive performance of the season, averaging 6.82 yards per play against Marshall (the same Marshall that played a gritty defensive game against Boise State earlier this season).
Sophomore quarterback Desmond Ridder has completed 64.3 percent of his passes for 815 yards and eight touchdowns. When needed, Ridder can pick up some yards with his feet and extend plays, but the bulk of the running game is in the hands of Michael Warren II, who leads the team with 262 yards and four touchdowns, and Tavion Thomas (193 yards, 1 TD).
Cincinnati is supposed to be one of the top threats to UCF, at least within the division. On Friday night, the Bearcats will look to live up to that expectation with a strong defensive effort to start the game. UCF has thrived on big plays this season, so it will be important for Cincinnati to prevent that from happening early. If it does, then Luke Fickell and his program can drag UCF into a slugfest. But if this game turns into a shootout, it could be lights out for Cincy.
It may not start off that way, but UCF will find the spots to make big plays happen and start to put the pressure on the home team to keep up the pace. This will play to UCF's advantage.
Prediction: UCF 42, Cincinnati 38
— Written by Kevin McGuire, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. McGuire also contributes to College Football Talk and hosts the No 2-Minute Warning Podcast. Follow him on Patreon, on Twitter @KevinOnCFB and Like him on Facebook.
(Top photo courtesy of Cincinnati Athletics)