6:00 PM EST, ESPN – Line: Cincinnati – 23.5, Over/Under: 58
Friday night belongs to the American Athletic Conference as the (No. 5) Cincinnati Bearcats look to take care of business while under the microscope of the CFP Committee, as they travel to Raymond James Stadium to face the struggling South Florida Bulls. After the second week of the release of the College Football Playoff rankings, Cincinnati (9-0, 5-0 in AAC) once again finds a disconnect between their standing in the AP Poll (2nd Overall) and the CFP (5th Overall), which threatens their quest to crash the Playoff as the first non-Power-Five school to feature in the sport’s proverbial final four. A year after going undefeated prior to a thrilling 21-24 defeat to Georgia in the Peach Bowl, the Bearcats once again find themselves unbeaten through nine contests, though this year they have more than simply a watered down schedule to fall back on; they ousted BIG Ten resident, Indiana (38-24), back in early October, only to follow that up with a convincing 24-13 victory over (then-No. 9) Notre Dame, in South Bend no less. However, the Committee is content with playing hardball with (Head Coach) Luke Fickell’s charges, claiming that those two wins weren’t significant enough to offset what has been an otherwise soft schedule that has featured no other ranked opponents. For even the most ardent Cincy fan, the win at Indiana isn’t much to talk about, particularly when you consider that the Hoosiers (2-7, 0-6 in BIG Ten) have been wildly disappointing in 2020 due to injuries. With that said, downplaying that win over the Irish is a bit harsh from where we’re standing, for Notre Dame have continued to hold firm within the Top-10 of both rankings, and in this case the Bearcats were CLEARLY the better side; Cincinnati shutout the hosts throughout the first half en route to leading 17-0 at intermission, relegating their opponent’s strong running game to just eighty-nine yards twenty-eighty carries, while forcing three turnovers along the way. Sure, if you want to hold close calls against the likes of Navy (27-20) and most recently Tulsa (28-20) against them, then perhaps you have an argument, but at the end of the day the Committee is demanding the unrealistic from this program, whereas the schools currently in front of them can receive a proverbial mulligan; (No. 3) Oregon fell to Stanford and barely survived against Cal, with both teams meandering at 3-6, while mighty (No. 2) Alabama avoided defeat in a close call at unranked Florida before being stunned by Texas A&M. At this point, all this team can do is win out, and make sure they do everything in their power to run up the score while they’re at it, while hoping that some of these four schools ranked ahead of them slip up. In the meantime, this is clearly the best team that Fickell has had during his successful five-year stay in Southern Ohio, where he has amassed a stellar 44-14 record (.759) with four Bowl appearances and an AAC Championship last season, as well as matching the highest postseason ranking in school history (8th in the AP Poll). It certainly helped that the 48-year old returned a number of key seniors on both sides of the football, including reining AAC Offensive Player of the Year, Desmond Ridder (63.7%, 2,321 YDS, 8.6 Y/A, 20 TD, 5 INT). This kid improved by leaps and bounds last season, increasing his completion percentage by a whopping ELEVEN percentage points en route to accounting for 2,888 yards (592 rushing) along with thirty-one total touchdowns. This season his hasn’t been nearly as prolific on the ground (67 CAR, 214 YDS, 3.2 Y/A, 4 TD), but has continued to grow as a passer averaging a career-high 235.6 yards through the air on 8.6 yards per attempt, while matching his personal-best of twenty passing scores with at least five games left to play. Ridder has done a excellent job of spreading the wealth, with seven different Bearcats hauling in at least fifteen receptions, chief among them (Senior Receiver) Alec Pierce (34 REC, 603 YDS, 17.7 Y/R, 4 TD), who leads the team with thirty-four receptions for 603 yards and four touchdowns on a healthy 17.7 yards per catch. Furthermore, (Sophomore Tailback) Jerome Ford (142 CAR, 884 YDS, 62 Y/A, 15 TD), a transfer from Alabama has thrived in a starting role, rushing for 884 yards and fifteen touchdowns thus far, while factoring into the passing game with fifteen catches for 169 yards and another score. On the other side of the football, Cincinnati is again among the best in the country, allowing just 14.9 points per game (3rd in FBS) on 311.2 total yards, including 154.2 yards against the pass on a scant 5.2 yards per attempt and another 157.0 yards versus the run on 3.7 yards per carry. Where this unit has really separated itself is in the takeaway department, logging a staggering TWENTY-FOUR through the first nine games, including an unreal stretch in which they posted at least three turnovers in five straight games. Twelve different players are credited with a takeaway, including Cornerbacks Ahmad Garner (24 TKL, 1.5 TFL, 1.0 SK, 2 INT, 2 PD), Coby White (26 TKL, 0.5 TFL, 2 INT, 9 PD, 1 TD, 1 FF), and Arquon Bush (20 TKL, 2 TFL, 1.0 SK, 3 INT, 6 PD), who comprise arguably the deepest group of Defensive Backs in the country. Coming into tonight’s meeting with South Florida, the Bearcats have found a lot of success in that regard, registering FIVE takeaways in last year’s 28-7 victory at Nippert Stadium. The triumvirate of Bush, Bryant, and Garner picked off FOUR passes in that affair, helping the home side overcome a sloppy offensive performance which saw them turn the football over themselves on four occasions. Over the last decade, Cincy is 6-4 (.600) against the Bulls, including 3-1 (.750) under Fickell winning each of their last three meetings. Ridder has never lost to USF, though has experienced his share of struggles in completing just 61.8% of his passes for an average of 138.3 yards on 6.1 yards per attempt with four touchdowns opposed to three interceptions, despite rushing for another 106 yards in those three meetings.
Meanwhile, as their opponent carries with them the pride of every non-Power-Five school in the country, South Florida (2-7, 1-4 in AAC) are simply trying to end the 2021 campaign on a positive note. Like many programs that ushered in a new regime prior to COVID-19 wrecking the college football landscape, the Bulls look to take another stab at starting over under the guidance of (Head Coach) Jeff Scott, who endured a hellish 2020 en route to a miserable 1-8 finish, the school’s worst in it’s relatively short history. Scott, who spent a dozen years as an integral part of Dabo Swinney’s coaching staff at Clemson, including five years as their Co-Offensive Coordinator in which they won a pair of National Championships arrived in Tampa with a certain degree of credibility, which understandably had the locals understandably optimistic of the school’s outlook. However, virtually NOTHING went according to plan last year, what with a revolving door at Quarterback, coupled with a porous Defense, along with two postponed games contributing to their dismal finish. With that said, USF was expected to look more like a cohesive outfit this season as Scott and his staff received a full Spring and Summer to recruit, cultivate their roster, and implement their ideas. So how is it that they’ve only managed only two wins out of their first nine contests, you ask? Well, first and foremost we’d like to point out that their schedule has been nothing short of unforgiving; South Florida opened up at North Carolina State (0-45), Florida (20-42), and at BYU (27-35) two weeks later, with all three of those opponents spending time occupying a place in the AP Poll at some point this season. They also squared off against (No. 17 in AP Poll) Houston last weekend in an entertaining 54-42 affair at Raymond James Stadium. This one was a wild one folks, as the matchup featured six lead changes, THIRTEEN touchdowns, a pair of 100-yard kickoff returns, a 55-yard passing touchdown and a 97-yard rushing score, and even a safety to boot. Scott’s charges led 28-26 at Halftime, but ultimately couldn’t keep pace with the Cougars in large part to a pair of crucial turnovers. It was another crushing defeat for a team that has very much been in six of their last seven games though have yet to find a way to consistently close, but that’s simply an indication that they need more speed, athleticism, and depth, which Scott & Co have been hard at work at on the recruiting trail. A major reason that they’ve been more competitive than their record would imply has been the stabilizing of their murky Quarterback situation, with (Freshman) Timmy McClain (54.5%, 1,289 YDS, 7.3 Y/A, 4 TD, 4 INT) emerging as the QB1. Last season, four different players threw passes for the Bulls, and this season the favorite to win the job was (North Carolina transfer) Cade Fortin (51.3%, 141 YDS, 3.6 Y/A, 0 TD, 2 INT), who lasted just three games before ultimately giving way to McClain. A True Freshman and a Lefthander, McClain has plenty of room to grow as a passer, completing just 54.5% of his attempts for 1,289 yards on 7.3 yards per attempt with as many touchdowns as interceptions (4), but has exhibited an ability to make plays with his legs that has set him apart from his teammates, rushing for 263 yards and another two scores. The rushing attack has seen marked improvement as well, churning out 176.0 yards on 4.3 yards per carry, with the addition of (Colorado transfer) Jaren Mangham (116 CAR, 507 YDS, 4.4 Y/A, 13 TD) adding a welcomed bruising element to a backfield that was primarily filled with smaller, scatbacks. Mangham, who fell down the depth chart in Boulder last season, opted to take his talents to Tampa, where he has established himself as the top ball-carrier with 116 carries for 507 yards and thirteen touchdowns, all of which represent career-highs. And then there is (Junior Receiver) Xavier Weaver (32 REC, 576 YDS, 18.0 Y/R, 2 TD), who has taken a major leap in his development under Scott, leading the team with an explosive 18.0 yards per reception. Unfortunately, while the Offense has seen a number of playmakers emerge, the Defense has been another story altogether, allowing a dreadful 34.3 points per game (115th in FBS) on 485.0 total yards, including 271.4 yards against the pass on a very inviting 8.5 yards per attempt, along with another 213.6 yards versus the run on 5.8 yards per carry. During the Spring, Scott stated that this unit lacked speed and size, particularly in the Secondary, where the Bulls have four new starters from the group that featured throughout 2020, hitting the Transfer Portal HARD with new additions from Kansas State, Miami (Fla), Auburn, and Rutgers. With that said, it’s clear that there is still plenty of work that needs to be done in this regard, for the Defense has been roasted throughout the campaign, relinquishing 500 or more total yards on four occasions. The pass-rush was also part of the equation a year ago, amassing only SEVEN sacks parlaying to a 2.5% sack rate which was the fifth-lowest figure in the nation. A year later and they’ve continued to struggle in this area, matching last year’s total in as many games. The problem is that they just don’t have the requisite playmakers in the trenches to compete against better teams, which again comes back to recruiting. It’s awfully telling that USF’s most productive players on this side of the football are it’s Senior Linebackers, Tony Grier Jr (65 TKL, 6.5 TFL, 3.0 SK, 2 FF, 1 FR, 2 INT, 1 TD) and Dwayne Boyles (59 TKL, 3.5 TFL, 1 FR, 2 INT, 1 PD), who have accounted 124 tackles, along with ten of their 32.5 tackles for loss, three of their seven sacks, and six of their thirteen takeaways. We’ll see how they stack up against Cincinnati’s experienced group, which despite getting the best of the Bulls in each of their last three meetings, have won just one of their past four trips to Tampa. However, Friday nights haven’t been kind to South Florida of late, with the school losing five consecutive outings and seven of their last ten over the past five years.