Cincinnati will travel back to Memphis on Saturday at 3:30 on ABC for the AAC Championship Game.
Obviously, there was a lot of disappointment and frustration last Friday when Cincinnati lost to Memphis. The game didn’t mean much from the standpoint that Cincinnati was still playing for the conference championship regardless of the result. But it was thought to have meant everything for the team’s chances at being the highest ranked group of five champion.
On Tuesday night, the new rankings were revealed. It was no surprise to see 11-1 Memphis at #17. But the rest of the top Group of Five teams was Boise State is #19, Cincinnati #20, and Appalachian State #21. This was a massive win for Cincinnati and the AAC.
If Memphis wins on Saturday there is no debate or conversation - they will be going to the Cotton Bowl. And they will very much have earned and deserve it. But if Cincinnati wins, the debate becomes whether the 11-2 AAC Champions should be ranked higher than the 12-1 MWC Champions, Boise State. Given how the committee ranked these teams on Tuesday, it seems likely that they are setting up for Cincinnati to potentially jump Boise with a win over a top 20 team.
It’s also worth noting that there is precedence for this. In fact, Boise was the beneficiary of it previously. The 11-2 Broncos were ranked ahead of 12-1 Marshall in 2014. This situation would be similar.
Boise’s opponent on Saturday in the MWC Championship is Hawaii, who is nowhere near the team Memphis is. Even if that game is a blowout, it’s unclear how much that result can influence the committee.
There’s a few things working in Cincinnati’s favor.
1. Air Force was not ranked by the committee. At 10-2, they were ranked in the AP top 25 poll this week. Seeing them in the Playoff Poll would have given Boise a win over a ranked opponent, which is something currently missing from their resume and not something they will be able to get at this stage. Whereas, a Cincinnati win over Memphis likely will not bump the Tigers out of the top 25, and ensure one ranked win for Cincinnati. Navy is also ranked in the top 25, and while the Bearcats did not play them in 2019, it still shows respect for the AAC (Navy also beat Air Force head-to-head).
2. Cincinnati was ahead of Appalachian State. App State’s biggest talking point is that they have two wins over “P5” schools. That’s cool, but the problem is those teams aren’t any good. 6-6 UNC is comparable to Boise’s win over Florida State and just about any one of Boise’s wins is better than 4-8 South Carolina. Cincinnati’s wins over Memphis, UCF, Temple would all carry more weight than those two App State wins. The fact that Cincinnati is already ahead of them, and playing a top 20 team this weekend, means App State likely has zero chance at the Cotton Bowl bid.
3. Injuries matter to the committee. Often times, the selection committee will call out a specific injury that impacted a team’s result. For example, it has come up several times for Utah at the top of the rankings, that their star RB Zach Moss missed the USC game, which is their one loss. All indications from Cincinnati are that Desmond Ridder will return to the starting lineup as QB1 on Saturday, after sitting out last week. Was that a tactical decision? Maybe, who knows. But it could be a huge benefit moving forward. A win for Cincinnati obviously would have been enormous last week, but if the Bearcats win Saturday, they could argue their case that they only lost to Memphis because they had a backup QB (who, despite playing well, did turn the ball over three times). Ridder has led the Bearcats to 20 wins in 23 games over the last two years and whatever contributions he made to those wins, or despite some of the struggles he has had this year, his record is what it is and is certainly a valid talking point.
4. Cincinnati should not be penalized for playing Ohio State. Wins and losses SHOULD matter. And Cincinnati lost week 2 to Ohio State, in fact they got destroyed 42-0. As a result, many folks continue to point to the simple math - Boise State would have 1 loss, Cincinnati would have 2. The Bearcats played 2 P5 opponents (OSU and UCLA), while Boise State played 1 P5 (Florida State) and 1 FCS team (Cincinnati did not). If Cincinnati had scheduled an FCS team over Ohio State, this would not even be a conversation. They lost to the undefeated #1 team in the country. Yes, the loss was bad. Yes, they were shutout. But Ohio State beat teams even worse than they beat the Bearcats. They are an elite team. And it’s hard to punish Cincinnati for at least trying. If this game never happened, Cincinnati would also have one loss. That realistically should be part of the equation.
For any of this to matter though, Cincinnati must take care of business at Memphis on Cincinnati. A win ensures the school it’s first conference championship game victory and first outright championship since 2009.
Ridder back in the lineup
As noted above, Luke Fickell indicated on Tuesday that Desmond Ridder would start at QB. This is fine, provided Ridder is at or very close to 100%. Ben Bryant proved capable last week and was really able to move the ball down the field. It’s obvious Ridder has been hurt most of the season, especially the last two games where he couldn’t throw the ball at all. If he’s healthy, and can move the ball, than let’s do this. But if you ask me, at the first sign of trouble, I’d give the ball back to Bryant. He should be taking first team reps and preparing himself just in case he is needed.
The bigger issue, of course, is the play calling stinks. Whether it’s Ridder, Bryant, or Tom Brady in there, offensive coordinator Mike Denbrock has got to do a better job of maximizing this team’s strengths.
As per usual, Bearcats football twitter, revealed this week’s uniform combination.
The big two takeaways here is that one, this is the same combination Cincinnati wore when they beat Pittsburgh 10 years ago. Bearcats have never played in a formal conference championship game, but that famous Pitt game was pretty much a regular season championship game. The black pants, white jerseys, black helmets is the best road combination for the Bearcats.
The best part about it is the black helmets. Not just because black helmets are awesome looking, but because I am one of “those guys” who fully subscribes to the theory that helmets equal wins and losses. Yes, I am still bitter about losing the Sugar Bowl in white helmets. And if you didn’t know, Cincinnati’s two losses in 2019 came to Ohio State and Memphis when the team wore white helmets.