No. 3 Cincinnati tangles with AAC foe UCF early Saturday at Nippert Stadium and one has to wonder whether the Bearcats are considering asking the Knights for some advice. Cincinnati is ranked in the top four of the AP Top 25, the highest any Group of Five team has been ranked in a major poll during the College Football Playoff era. It's led many to wonder whether this Bearcats team might be the one to break through the glass ceiling and crash the College Football Playoff party.
It's a question with which UCF is more than familiar. Back in 2017, the Knights took the country by storm en route to a 13-0 season that ended with a Peach Bowl win over Auburn. The Knights were left out of the College Football Playoff that season, however, and now this Cincinnati team seems to have the best shot of achieving the impossible dream since that Knights team.
Of course, playoff talk aside (what a novel concept), this is a huge matchup in the American Athletic Conference. One of these two programs has reached the AAC Championship Game in each of the last four seasons, and while they're no longer sharing a division, they remain two of the conference's premier programs. Before the season begins, this is one of the games that's circled because you know it'll be huge. The programs have split the first six meetings, but Cincinnati enters this year's game with a two-game winning streak.
Cincinnati vs. UCF: Need to know
Cincinnati has to be perfect: One of the lessons Cincinnati learned from what happened to UCF is that winning every game isn't enough. The year after UCF went 13-0 and was left out of the playoff, there was a theory that if the Knights could do it for a second year in a row, the committee might be more open to them as an option. Well, UCF went 12-0 the following season and still didn't get in. The argument against it was that it didn't play a difficult enough schedule.
Cincinnati came into 2021 hoping its schedule would be enough if it ran the table. Unfortunately, the Indiana Hoosiers have not lived up to their preseason billing and UCF comes into this game with a record of 3-2. While Cincinnati can point to a road win over Notre Dame, considering how shaky the Irish have looked in their wins, there's no guarantee the Irish will be highly-ranked come selection time. So the only thing Cincinnati can do is force the committee's hand. Not only does it have to keep winning, but it has to dominate teams. It can't leave any doubt or wiggle room about how good it is.
Jerome Ford needs more love: When people talk about the Bearcats, the focus is usually on quarterback Desmond Ridder or the team's shutdown defense. Well, I'm here to spread some love to running back Jerome Ford! Ford leads the Bearcats with 520 yards rushing while averaging 6.34 yards per carry. His eight rushing touchdowns have him among the national leaders and he plays a crucial role in keeping the Bearcats offense on schedule. Plus, when the passing attack gets bogged down, Ford can keep the chains moving. He's one of the better backs in the country, and it's time we recognized him for it.
UCF has not been the same since losing Dillon Gabriel: This is not the kind of observation you need a doctorate to see. Gabriel was the best player on the UCF offense and one of the best quarterbacks in the country but was injured on the final play of UCF's 42-35 loss to Louisville. The week after, the Knights lost to a Navy team that had struggled mightily beforehand. Last week, the Knights managed only 20 points while squeezing by East Carolina 20-16. It's not a shock that an offense might lose its way after losing its starting QB, but Gabriel was a huge part of what made this team tick and the Knights look ineffective without him. Gus Malzahn will need to put together an offensive masterpiece if the Knights have any hope of shocking the world on Saturday.
How to watch Cincinnati vs. UCF live
Date: Saturday, Oct. 16 | Time: Noon ET
Location: Nippert Stadium -- Cincinnati, Ohio
TV: ABC | Live stream: fuboTV (Try for free)
Cincinnati vs. UCF prediction, picks
I don't put anything past Gus Malzahn in a game like this, considering what he was able to do in The Iron Bowl while at Auburn. Unfortunately, Gus just doesn't have the horses at UCF he had at Auburn, particularly when he doesn't have Gabriel at his disposal. Cincinnati's defense is too good, and its offense doesn't get nearly as much credit as it deserves. I wish Gabriel were healthy because, if he was, this game could be a classic. But he's not, so I think we're just going to get a blowout Bearcats victory. Prediction: Cincinnati (-20)
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