No. 4 Cincinnati is well-positioned to make history as the first Group of Five program to make a College Football Playoff appearance after beating No. 21 Houston 35-20 in the American Athletic Conference Championship Game. The win completes a second straight unbeaten title-winning campaign in the AAC and showcased all the reasons why the CFP selection committee should include Luke Fickell's group in the top four of final rankings on Sunday.
Quarterback Desmond Ridder and running back Jerome Ford combined for five touchdowns to lead Cincinnati's offense, which didn't spend much time with the ball, but remained ruthlessly efficient with its possessions. The Bearcats ran just 45 plays to Houston's 73, but outgained the Cougars 400-336 for an average of 8.9 yards per play. Five of their first eight offensive possessions ended in touchdowns. Houston more than doubled Cincinnati in time of possession, but again, it was the Bearcats that were more productive with their opportunities.
Dana Holgorsen and Houston's offensive staff had a great game plan to start, keeping Cincinnati's highly ranked defense off balance and scoring on each of the Cougars' first three offensive possessions. However, things turned after halftime and Cincinnati's defense was overwhelming during a third quarter that saw Houston fail to move the ball into plus territory. That third quarter proved pivotal as the Bearcats' one-point halftime lead ballooned to a 22-point advantage heading into the final 15 minutes of play. And even though Houston was able to chip into the lead in the final minutes, the outcome was not in doubt.
"That's what we're capable of," Fickell told ESPN after the game about the team's third quarter performance. "It doesn't always happen but when things start rolling, the defense and the offense are playing complimentary football. It's tough to stop."
The home crowd at Nippert Stadium started to buzz even before kickoff after Baylor beat Oklahoma State in the Big 12 Championship Game, bouncing the No. 5 team from the playoff picture and further securing Cincinnati's spot at No. 4. Now with a convincing win against a tough ranked opponent and a head-to-head win against Notre Dame, the pieces are in place for a school from outside the Power Five to make the playoff for the first time.
Three things to know about the win:
1. Ridder finishes unbeaten in Nippert
The Cincinnati quarterback is one of the winningest starters in the nation and part of that includes an undefeated record at home. Ridder has developed and improved throughout his career, bringing Cincinnati's team success along with him throughout the last two seasons. The senior from Louisville was part of a group that Fickell said took charge at halftime, wanting ownership of the outcome with a motivational message for their team.
"Coming out of halftime, those seniors did an unbelievable job. Those seniors took over and said 'this is on us,'" Fickell told ESPN after the game.
Ridder is the winningest active quarterback with 44 career victories (44-5), good for third in FBS history behind Kellen Moore (50-3) and Colt McCoy (45-8).
2. Cincinnati proved it belongs
When Fickell pointed to the 21-0 third quarter run and said "that's what we're capable of," he's referring to a level of a performance that can win a national championship. Cincinnati did not play to that level in every game this season, or even for the entire game against Houston. However, it was 15 minutes of football that, if repeated over four quarters, would be good enough to hang with anyone in the country.
Since the start of 2020, this Cincinnati team is 22-1 with the only loss being a three-point defeat against Georgia in the Peach Bowl. The 2021 season, with its weighty nonconference slate highlighted by Notre Dame, provided Cincinnati the opportunity to prove its worthiness in the national championship conversation, and now that a bid seems likely to be the next step. Carrying all the weight of being the first team outside of the Power Five in the CFP, Cincinnati showed up with its best brand of football.
3. Houston has a bright trajectory
After a stunning second-half collapse in a loss to Texas Tech in the season opener, Houston ran off 11 straight wins to deliver what was an affirming performance for the Holgorsen era. Things did not start smoothy with Holgorsen with D'Eriq King's transfer out of the program and just seven combined wins in his first two seasons, but the maturation of quarterback Clayton Tune and the development of this team into a conference title contender suggests things are moving in the right direction.
With a move to the Big 12 on the horizon, Houston has to feel good that it stood on the same field with a national championship contender and went blow-for-blow for three out of four quarters.