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Assessing Cincinnati’s AAC Football Championship Opportunity

SB Nation logo SB Nation 10/6/2019 Mike Schneid
a man wearing a helmet © Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

On Friday, the Cincinnati Bearcats took care of business, winning, arguably, the toughest game remaining on their schedule (Memphis might disagree with that assessment). Cincinnati defeated UCF 27-24 in a wild game at Nippert Stadium. The Bearcats are now 1-0 in AAC play, but that 1 is huge, given that they share the East division with UCF.

History of AAC Standings

Since the formation of divisions in the AAC in 2015, Cincinnati has never finished higher than 3rd in the East. Temple (2015, 2016) and UCF (2017, 2018) are the only two teams to win the East and play in the AAC Championship game.

Rest of Year Outlook

First Half

Cincinnati’s schedule was built in a way that the first half of the year was always going to be a challenge and would indicate how this season would turn out. Well, Bearcats have survived and are 4-1, with one game to go in the first half. The win against UCLA is devalued by how bad the Bruins are, but still, playing a real PAC-12 team week 1, as opposed to an FCS opponent, is certainly much more difficult. They lost at Ohio State, as expected, and blew out Miami and Marshall. The Marshall one was always a sneaky game, on the road, and the week before UCF - it felt like it could be a trap game.

Next week, Cincinnati goes to Houston, which felt much more difficult before the season. Cougars QB D’Eriq King has decided to redshirt the rest of the season, meaning inexperienced backup Clayton Tune will take over.

Second Half

The next four games for Cincinnati, after Houston, include - Tulsa, @ East Carolina, UConn, @ South Florida. All four teams are projected to finish below .500 in 2019. Bearcats “should” be able to cruise through these four, with, hopefully, little resistance. Playing ECU on the road could be the toughest challenge of the four. Pirates beat Cincinnati, last time they came to Greenville in 2017. UConn and USF are both pretty dead programs at this point. And Tulsa has shown improvement, but during halftime of that game, Cincy will honor the undefeated 2009 team. Would the 2019 Cats really dare to let down the greatest team in school history? No chance.

The final two weeks is when the fun starts. Bearcats will host Temple on Senior Night. Owls have won the last 4 vs Cincinnati and could pose the biggest remaining threat in AAC East play. Cincinnati ends the season at Memphis, the Friday after Thanksgiving.

In a perfect world, Cincinnati would win out through Temple, meaning the East division is clinched entering Memphis.

Contenders

UCF is still very much a contender in the East. However, they need Cincinnati to lose twice. Or need some type of three way tie, where they can secure the tiebreaker. From the West division, UCF plays @ Tulane and vs Houston and they go to Temple. Another loss is not an unrealistic though, especially given the Knights’ struggles in previous road games.

Temple is a legit contender, though they haven’t looked quite themselves in 2019. They beat Maryland and Georgia Tech, but lost at Buffalo. QB Anthony Russo is very good, but has struggled at times and leads the conference in interceptions thrown. The next three weeks will indicate how much of a contender Temple is as they play Memphis, @ SMU and UCF consecutively. After a bye week (aka USF game) they play Tulane and @ Cincy. They could realistically lose all 5. Or come out of that stretch 2-3 or 3-2.

USF, UConn, and ECU are not even close to being contenders. USF has 1 win (UConn and likely won’t win another AAC game in 2019. ECU and UConn will face each other, and the loser will likely go winless in AAC play. As a Cincinnati fan, I am going to miss these yearly easy guaranteed wins vs UConn.

What winning the AAC would mean

Beyond the obvious implications and glory that comes with winning the conference championship, an AAC title puts Cincinnati in the mix to represent the Group of Five in one of the New Year’s Six bowl games. The highest ranked conference champion among the AAC, Mountain West, C-USA, Sun Belt, and MAC will play, most likely, in the Cotton Bowl on December 28th.

Winning the AAC does not guarantee Cincinnati a spot in this bowl. If Boise State wins out (their schedule is not difficult) they will no doubt be the highest ranked champion. If they slip up, and Cincinnati wins out, the Bearcats could be in position. Appalachian State, could have a say when it’s all said and done as well.

At the very least, Cincinnati should be in a position to play a power five conference team in a bowl game, whether it’s the Cotton Bowl or one of the top AAC bowl games.

Given the weakness of Boise State’s schedule, could Cincinnati, at 12-1, jump a 13-0 Boise State? While unprecedented, it’s possible. But first, Cincinnati has to get to 12-1. And it starts with beating Houston next week.

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