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Let the Celebration Begin: Cincinnati Seemingly Clinches First-Ever Group of Five CFP Appearance

2021 American Conference Championship - Houston v Cincinnati Photo by Emilee Chinn/Getty Images

CINCINNATI, OHIO — Jerome Ford hit the jets for 187 yards and two touchdowns, Alec Pierce opened the door for a 21-point third quarter explosion, and the Cincinnati Bearcats clinched what is destined to be the group of five’s first ever appearance in the College Football Playoff.

Ford, whose status has remained uncertain for the majority of Cincinnati’s recent games, tallied his team’s second touchdown on Saturday after a 79-yard run down the side sight of the field. The Alabama transfer completed a pre-bowl season performance of 182 carries for 1,055 yards and 17 scores.

Syndication: The Enquirer
Jerome Ford races past the Houston defense for a 79-yard touchdown
The Enquirer/Sam Greene / USA TODAY NETWORK

Cincinnati (13-0, 9-0 American Athletic Conference) extended the FBS’s longest win streak to 13 games with the help of a near-spotless second half defense alongside Ford’s contributions. Houston QB Clayton Tune was brought down eight times on the day, receiving consistent pressure from Joel Dublanko (2 sacks), Curtis Brooks (1.5 sacks) and still-perfect corner Ahmad Gardner (1 sack). Dublanko produced the most notable work with seven tackles and a critical third quarter interception over the middle to put the game on ice.

“They’ve done everything they’ve been asked to do,” Bearcats HC Luke Fickell said regarding Cincinnati’s performance. “I told them to take care of everything that happens on the field, and they did. They deserve everything that’s coming to them.”

Fickell and co. are seemingly set to appear on New Year’s Eve in a College Football Playoff semifinal game. Many non-power conference teams have tried to claim title runs before, but the drought for one to bring home a championship stands above 35 years (BYU in 1984). The Cougars, unlike the Boise State’s, Utah’s and TCU’s of the 2000’s, were the benefactors of New Year’s chaos in multiple bowl games before the final release of the polls.

“If it’s meant to be, it will be,” Fickell continued after the game. “But I don’t think these guys can be denied. It would be a shame if these guys were denied.”

Cincinnati turned Dublanko’s interception into the second of three consecutive touchdowns. Leonard Taylor and Alec Pierce each found the end-zone from QB Desmond Ridder, Jerome Ford created another good look for a 42-yard score, and the Bearcats found themselves up 35-13 halfway into the third quarter.

Despite a season low in completions (11), Ridder did more than enough in setting his team up with an AAC Championship victory. The third-ranked quarterback in all time wins (44) threw three touchdowns and kept the football under wraps (a very worrisome problem entering the game for UC due to Houston’s top-five FBS turnover margin) as Cincinnati drained out the clock after its early second half outburst. His adversary — Tune — settled for 17 completions on 26 passes for 250 yards, two touchdowns and one interception.

2021 American Conference Championship - Houston v Cincinnati
Houston’s Clayton Tune was versatile on his feet, but the Bearcats defensive pressure proved too much for the junior quarterback
Photo by Emilee Chinn/Getty Images

Among Houston’s other notable X-factors in putting points on the board were Nathaniel Dell and Jake Herslow. Dell — Houston’s season leader receiving yards (1,027) — scored his team’s first touchdown of the game after making a diving catch in the back of the end-zone from the Cincinnati 16.

Herslow, who received the second most targets from Tune, provided the position for the TD with a pair of 14-yard gains inside Cincinnati territory. He finished Saturday with five receptions for 57 yards and a later score of his own in the waning stages of the game.

Final Score: Cincinnati 35, Houston 20

Overview

With their win against No. 21 Houston and the help of a last-second Baylor goal-line stand vs. Oklahoma State, Cincinnati should expect to remain slated at the No. 4 spot in the College Football Playoff Rankings. The Bearcats, barring a Michigan loss vs. Iowa, will face the soon-to-be No. 1 ranked Alabama Crimson Tide. ‘Bama stunned Georgia earlier today in a 41-point overthrow of a defense previously allowing an average of 6.9 points per game. Bryce Young finished the day 26 completions on 44 attempts for 421 yards and three touchdowns, hitting all cylinders as Nick Saban’s defense stepped up bigtime to shut down the versatile Stetson Bennett.

Georgia — now flawed but still a lock to make the CFP — are slated to face either Michigan or Cincinnati on New Year’s Eve. If Michigan downs Iowa, it will be the Wolverines. If the Hawkeyes somehow manage to sneak Geoge Kittle back on their 123rd-ranked offense, it will be the Bearcats.

Cincinnati Key Stat Leaders

Passing: QB Desmond Ridder, 11-17, 190 yards and three touchdowns

Rushing: RB Jerome Ford, 18 carries, 187 yards and two touchdowns

Receiving: WR Alec Pierce, two receptions, 65 yards and one touchdown

Tackling: LB Ty Van Fossen, nine total tackles, five solo tackles and .5 tackles for a loss

Houston Key Stat Leaders

Passing: QB Clayton Tune, 17-26, 250 yards, two touchdowns and one interception

Rushing: RB Alton McCaskill, 13 carries and 39 yards

Receiving: WR Nathaniel Dell, nine receptions, 152 yards and one touchdown

Tackling: S Gervarrius Owens, eight tackles and five solo tackles

Full Cincinnati Schedule:

Miami of Ohio: W 49-14

Murray State: W 49-14

@ Indiana: W 38-24

@ Notre Dame: W 24-13

Temple: W 52-3

UCF: W 56-21

@ Navy: W 27-20

@ Tulane: W 31-12

Tulsa: W 28-20

@ USF: W 45-28

SMU: W 48-14

@ ECU: W 35-13

American Athletic Conference Championship Game vs. Houston: W 35-20

*TBD: New Year’s Six Bowl Game Matchup (Likely Alabama)