CSJ 2021 American Athletic Conference Championship Game Preview — Houston at Cincinnati


To put it simply, this is the type of championship game that American Athletic Conference Commissioner Mike Aresco was thinking when he made the claim that the AAC is the Power Six conference. While this game has had UCF and Cincinnati as undefeated teams before, this game has so much more meaning for the whole of college football.

Undefeated Cincinnati with a win will get into the College Football Playoff as the first ever as a team outside of the so called Power Five league (and Notre Dame). The Bearcats currently rank #4 in the CPF rankings and with the SEC Championship game this weekend between the #1 and #3 ranked teams of Georgia and Alabama, as well as the Big Ten’s having Michigan, who is ranked #2, play #13 Iowa, all the Bearcats really need to do is to win this game to break the CPF Power Five stranglehold on the four team event.

The Bearcats opponent is Houston, who were nearly undefeated themselves coming into this game. Only a season opening loss to Texas Tech is preventing this from being two undefeated teams playing for the right really to be in the CPF. A win by the Cougars in this one will likely send Houston to a New Year’s Six bowl game (although there could be some debate should Louisiana also win its Sun Belt conference title) but think a win over an undefeated team on the road would send the Cougars to a higher ranking in the final poll.

Cincinnati is making is second straight appearance in the AAC title game. The Bearcats defeated Tulsa last year also in Cincinnati capture the AAC crown.

Houston is making its first appearance in the AAC title game since 2015–the first year that the AAC hosted a championship game. The Cougars won that contest over Temple and that is the last year Houston won a conference title.

Overall, these two teams have played each other 27 prior times with the Cougars having a slight 15-12 edge in wins. The two teams last played each other a season ago where Cincinnati won easily at home 38-10 and has won the last two meetings between the schools.

Here is a statistical comparison between the two teams that shows these two teams this year are very close:

Houston Cougars (11-1, 8-0 AAC)

LOCATION: Houston, Tex.

HEAD COACH: Dana Holgorsen (3rd Season, 18-14 @ UH, 79-55 Overall)

Coach Holverson was hired to bring a winning team to Houston but his first two seasons did not yield the results Cougar fans had hoped as the UH compiled just a 7-13 record in those first two seasons. But Houston turned things around this year with a mostly veteran team and has put together an impressive season with the offense leading the charge.

Houston comes into the game with the conference’s second-highest average scoring output of 38.8 points per game (the only team better has been Cincinnati with 39.6).

QB Clayton Tune leads the passing attacks in the AAC with 26 touchdowns and just eight interceptions this season. Tune has passed for 3,013 yards, and he is coming off a four-touchdown performance in Houston’s regular-season finale against UConn. But four of Tune’s interceptions this season came in the season-opening loss to Texas Tech and has turned things around since that opening game.

He is helped with a strong running game behind him in freshman RB Alton McCaskill who is ninth in the FBS with 16 rushing scores. Heading into the AAC Championship Game, McCaskill rides a four-game streak of rushing averages better than 5.5.

The top receiving threat is WR Nathaniel Dell, who registered 71 receptions, 1,027 yards, and 11 touchdowns on the season. But fellow WR Jeremy Singleton and TE Christian Trahan give Tune a few more options. Singleton has an average of 18.1 yards per reception to go along with five touchdowns. Trahan is a reliable option in the short passing game and is closing in on 1,000 receiving yards in his Cougar career.

The Cougar defense has also improved this season. Houston has allowed just 19.8 points per game this season, and Houston also lead the AAC with just 289.9 yards allowed per game. Houston has intercepted 14 passes this season, with senior Marcus Jones’s five leading the way. The Cougars also get after the opposing quarterback as UH ranks third in the FBS in sacks per game with 3.58 with DEs D’Anthony Jones and Derek Parish leading the team with each having 5.5 sacks.

Jones also can be a threat in special teams. He leads the nation in special teams touchdowns with four. The return specialist ran back two punts and two kicks this year, including the game-deciding kickoff return touchdown to stun SMU. We might also see him on the offense where he has over 100 yards receiving on the season.

Key Player CB/KR Marcus Jones

Jones as mentioned is the best special teams player in the country with his four returns for touchdowns this season. I think for the Cougars to win this game, they will need a big return at some point in the game to give this team momentum.

Jones also will need to play a key role at his CB role to shutdown the Bearcat receivers. If he is playing one-on-one with one of the Cincinnati receivers, he will need to stay on his coverage long enough to allow his strong defensive line in front to get to Bearcat QB Ridder.

Cincinnati Bearcats (12-0, 8-0 AAC)

LOCATION: Cincinnati, Ohio

HEAD COACH: Luke Fickell (5th Season, 47-14 @ UC, 53-21 Overall)

The strides in the Bearcat program have been a step at a time. Coach Fickell has led the team through the steps over the past four seasons. The Bearcats were just edged out of the AAC title game three years ago despite a 10-win season, the UC got to the title game two years ago but lost to Memphis, the to last year winning the title and getting a New Year’s Six bowl bid after an undefeated regular season, and this year, duplicating the undefeated season and has his team on the verge of cracking into the College Football Playoff.

A season ago, the Bearcats were two yards away from perfection, but a failed third down conversion late in the game let Georgia drive for a game-winning field goal in the Peach Bowl. This year’s team has many of the same contributors as last year’s team and has not disappointed.

Cincinnati had its biggest win at Notre Dame this season and likely is the main reason the Bearcats find themselves on the verge of Top Four ranking to end the season.

The success of Cincinnati has grown over the past four year really is with the increased performance of QB Desmond Ridder. The AAC’s top-rated passer has turned in a 3,000-yard season through the air with 27 touchdowns and eight interceptions to be named the AAC offensive player of the year for a second time.

Ridder also has a good running game behind him, led by RB Jerome Ford. He led the AAC in rushing this season with 96.0 rushing yards per game (second in the AAC in total rushing yards with 1,056). Ford also leads the conference with 17 rushing touchdowns.

The receivers for Ridder this season start with senior WR Alec Pierce. He led the team with 802 receiving yards. On the other side fellow WR Tyler Scott, along with TEs Josh Whyle and Leonard Taylor give Ridder multiple targets.

While the offense gets much of the glory, the backbone of this Bearcat team is really with its defense. Cincinnati has allowed just 303.3 yards and just 15.8 points per game this season, which are similar numbers to what they have done a season ago.

CBs Ahmad Gardner and Coby Bryant likely are the best duo in the defensive backfield of any team in the country. Gardner was the AAC defensive player of the year and the duo has intercpeted five passes combined.

LB Deshawn Pace and DE Myjai Sanders are the leaders upfront and have shown they can attack running and pasing teams alike.

Key Player: QB Desmond Ridder

Ridder has shown up big in big games throughout his career. In his last home game as a Bearcat, he will need to use his legs at times I believe in this game to make the Houston defense honest. He has shown more presence in the pocket for his passing game this year but think he will need to unleash he legs to help Cincinnati to this win.

Ridder will also need to make key decisions at the line to get into the right plays and not be afraid to change the paly at the line. Ultimately, he will also need to hang onto the ball and if something is not there to not force anything. He has a great defense on the other side so he will not need to try to win this game alone.

Fearless Forecast:

The Bearcats playing at home is a big key to this game. The game is a sell-out and that crowd will help its defense. I think Houston will keep the game tight to being the game but Cincinnati will break it open in the second half.

The Bearcats have too much riding on this and will have an edge about them to know the prize at the end of this game for them. Cincinnati 31 Houston 20