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USATSI

A pivotal contest in the AAC race takes place Saturday when No. 16 SMU plays host to No. 9 Cincinnati. The Bearcats return to action after multiple weeks off and will attempt to remind people why it is they have such a low number next to their name. Both programs have expectations of reaching the AAC Championship Game in December and this matchup will go a long way in determining that.

The Bearcats had a scheduled off week on Oct. 10 and then had to postpone their Oct. 17 date against Tulsa because of positive COVID-19 tests. By Saturday, it will have been 21 days since their last competition, a 28-7 win against USF. Prior to that conference opener, the Bearcats rolled Austin Peay 55-20 and bested Army in a low-scoring 24-10 win. There's no reason to doubt Cincinnati's status as one of the best teams in the country, but there is still some unknown with only two games against FBS competition.

The Mustangs, meanwhile, just continue to pile up wins after surviving an overtime thriller with Tulane last week. SMU is 5-0 with its most notable wins coming over the Green Wave and Memphis the week before that. A win over Cincinnati on Saturday would go a long way in making SMU a viable candidate for a New Year's Six bowl bid should it maintain its perfect record. 

These two teams have only met four times before and Cincinnati has dominated those meetings 3-1. However, three of those four meetings have been decided by less than a touchdown, including in 2018 when the Bearcats outlasted the Mustangs 26-20. 

So who wins this AAC showdown? Let's take a closer look at the matchup and storylines to follow before making some picks both straight up and against the spread. Odds via William Hill Sportsbook.

Storylines

Cincinnati: This is the first time Cincinnati has been in the top-10 of both the AP Top 25 poll and the Coaches Poll since the final rankings of the 2009 season -- the last year of the Brian Kelly era. The 2020 Bearcats are defined almost entirely by a defense that not only has been lights out against the run, holding Army to a season-low 182 rushing yards (more than 200 yards below the Black Knights' average), but also leads the FBS in interceptions. Coby Bryant, Anquan Bush and Ahmad Gardner have two interceptions each and have established a clear edge in the defensive backfield that will be a huge factor against SMU's passing attack. 

But ultimately Cincinnati will be tested by its ability to score, with starting quarterback Desmond Ridder continuing to evolve and improve as a passer. The Bearcats were limited in 2019 at times by the inability to establish consistency through the passing game, leaning on Michael Warren and Ridder's strength as a runner to carry the offense in a complementary style to another dominant defense. Through three games, it's clear that Cincinnati wants Ridder to be a difference maker in the passing game, though he's yet to complete more than 62% of his passes in a game. If Cincinnati is going to contend for a New Year's Six bowl in 2020, it needs to get improved play out of the quarterback to complement one of the best defenses in the country.   

SMU: The Mustangs' offense has put up more than 500 yards in four of their five game, including more than 400 yards passing in their conference wins against Tulane and Memphis. Much was made of the loss of leading receiver and team captain Reggie Roberson to injury, but the first game without him in the lineup saw SMU's receiver room answer the challenge in a big way. Three players (Rashee Rice, Danny Gray and Tyler Page) all had more than 100 receiving yards and quarterback Shane Buechele racked up enough big plays to finish with 10.3 yards per attempt. There is some concern about the disjointed nature of the offense with a couple of three-and-outs revealing the reliance on those big plays, but as long as Buechele continues to connect when it counts, the Mustangs should be able to score against anyone in the conference. 

Viewing information

Date: Saturday, Oct. 24 | Time: 9 p.m. ET
Location: Gerald J. Ford Stadium -- Dallas
TV: ESPN2 | Live stream: fuboTV (Try for free)

Game prediction, picks

SMU doesn't have the defense to really seize on any shortcomings for Cincinnati's offense, but it does have more firepower than what the Bearcats are going to be able to match if things get a little loose. It is incredibly important that SMU find the end zone early and make Cincinnati press a little bit, so the opening couple of possessions could tell the tale of this result. The Bearcats have one of the best defenses in the country but SMU, even without two of its stars, should be able to hit enough explosive plays to pull off the top-10 home win. Pick: SMU (-2.5)


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Dennis Dodd
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Chip Patterson
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Tom Fornelli
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Barrett Sallee
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Ben Kercheval
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Jerry Palm
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David Cobb
SMU -2.5
S/U

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