It took some late-game heroics, but No. 9 Cincinnati finally captured its first AAC Championship Game victory on Saturday night with an 27-24 win over Tulsa, courtesy of an 34-yard field goal from Cole Smith as time expired. The victory improved the Bearcats to 9-0 and clinched their spot in a New Year's Six bowl game, though it likely did little to boost their long-shot odds of making the College Football Playoff.
Even without a CFP appearance, the victory over Tulsa helped cement the 2020 season as a special one in Cincinnati program history that could get even sweeter based on the results of their bowl game. The Bearcats have never finished undefeated and have just a single one-loss season in their time as an FBS program.
Saturday's outcome required some clutch machinations. The Tulsa defense made a huge stand early in the fourth quarter when Cincinnati opted to go for it on fourth-and-2 at Tulsa's 5-yard line while leading 24-17. Cincinnati's Jerome Ford lost 3 yards on the play in what was a head-scratching decision by the Bearcats as a field goal would have given them a two-possession lead.
Cincinnati squandered another opportunity to take control when Smith's 37-yard field goal was blocked with 6:27 left. That returned possession to Tulsa, which drove 80 yards on seven plays to tie it at 24-24 with 3:41 remaining when Zac Smith found J.C. Santana for a 13-yard touchdown.
But the Hurricane left enough time for junior quarterback Desmond Ridder to orchestrate a game-winning drive, and he delivered. Despite poor weather conditions, Ridder completed 19 of 29 passes for 269 yards with one touchdown and no interceptions.
Below are two key takeaways from Cincinnati's dramatic AAC title game victory on Saturday night.
1. New heights
A Cincinnati loss would have opened the door for Coastal Carolina to represent the Group of Five in a New Year's Six bowl game. But that honor will now go to the Bearcats, who are projected to play Georgia in the Peach Bowl, according to CBS Sports' Jerry Palm. That will be a nice upgrade for the Bearcats, who have spent the past two seasons in the Birmingham Bowl and Military Bowl, respectively. Reaching a marquee bowl is also an impressive feather in the cap for fourth-year coach Luke Fickell, who is now 31-5 over the past three seasons after going 4-8 in his first year.
Cincinnati's success under Fickell has made him a hot name on the coaching carousel in the past, and it's likely his name will be bandied about in connection with openings this year as well. No coach has stayed at Cincinnati for longer than four years since Rick Minter held the job from 1994 to 2003. Mark Dantonio jumped to the Michigan State job, Brian Kelly went to Notre Dame and Butch Jones went to Tennessee from Cincinnati before Tommy Tuberville got the job and resigned after his fourth year.
Fickell's performance is befitting of a high-caliber power-conference job, but he is an Ohio native who played at Ohio State and has spent his entire coaching career in the state. So perhaps he'll become the first Cincinnati coach in nearly two decades to reach his fifth season.
2. CFP controversy
While the national conversation around Cincinnati will center on whether or not the Bearcats should be considered for a spot in the playoff and the right to compete for a national title, it was clear on Ridder's face as he fought back tears after the game that winning the AAC crown means something to the program. After losing 29-24 to Memphis in last season's conference championship game, this was a bit of unfinished business for Cincinnati.
But AAC commissioner Mike Aresco only fanned the flames of dissension during the trophy presentation when he declared that Cincinnati deserves to be in the playoff. Barring a major unforeseen twist on Sunday, it's not going to happen, and it won't be the first time an unbeaten AAC champion will be left out. UCF was 12-0 in 2017 and 2018 but left out both times.
That shouldn't take away from a fantastic season for Cincinnati, which can prove it does belong on the big stage as it prepares to take on a respected power conference foe in a marquee bowl game just a couple weeks from now.