No. 17 Memphis has made its case for a spot in the New Year's Six -- and even cinched as much on Saturday,-- by defeating No. 20 Cincinnati for the second time in as many weeks to claim the 2019 American Athletic Conference championship. The Tigers were the highest-ranked Group of Five team in the College Football Playoff rankings heading into the game, and at 12-1 with an AAC title game win, the fans in the Liberty Bowl were relishing every moment of what has been a historic season for the program.
The 29-24 win itself was an absolute war for both teams, with six lead changes and each delivering haymakers on the offensive side of the ball. Things got started early for Memphis when Antonio Gibson, who totaled 130 rushing yards on 11 attempts and 32 receiving yards on three catches, got loose for a 65-yard touchdown in the first quarter.
"All year long we've been a team that's had to respond in the face of adversity," Memphis coach Mike Norvell told ESPN after the game. "It's the heart of these guys, unbelievable character. This day is about them, we have an unbelievable football team and coaches. I'm going to go celebrate with my guys. This is an incredible night."
Norvell entered the game already with plenty of conversation around his future as reports indicated with stronger and stronger certainty that he was the top target for Florida State heading into Saturday's game. When the school announced a Sunday press conference to introduce its next head coach, the assumptions were all but confirmed before the game was even final. Norvell tried his best to make Saturday about the players, the program and a celebration of the 2019 season, but it was impossible to ignore the massive college football story that was unfolding in the background.
Now while Memphis likely heads to the Cotton Bowl, its head coach will have some decisions to make regarding how the next few months are handled. All of that will become clear soon, but for now, the Tigers get to celebrate finally breaking through with a championship in its third straight appearance in the AAC title game.
Here now are three more things to know about Saturday's epic AAC finale.
1. Ridder's return brought offensive success: Cincinnati starting quarterback Desmond Ridder missed last week's loss to Memphis because of injury, and his return to the lineup ended up benefiting the Bearcats in a big way, particularly in the rushing attack. Ridder completed just 16 of 36 passes for 233 yards with no touchdowns and one interception, but he led the team in rushing with 113 yards on 11 attempts with a score. Luke Fickell was committed to running the ball in this game, and the combination of Ridder and Warren (23 carries, 99 yards, two touchdowns) helped Cincinnati outgain Memphis (narrowly) both in total yards and yards per play. Ridder's absence in the loss and subsequent return for the conference championship game gave Cincinnati a potential argument for the committee should it have won and entered contention for the Group of Five spot in the New Year's Six, but after the loss, the performance stands on its own as a gritty showing from a quarterback who has been battling injuries for much of the year.
2. Program history for Memphis: If Norvell has coached his last game for Memphis, he leaves as one of the most impactful coaches in program history. Memphis only has four 10-win seasons in its history, and Norvell has been the head coach of two of them, logging the first-ever 12-win season here in 2019. He's upgraded the talent level of the roster and tapped into a football fever in the community that was desperate for a winner. Justin Fuente did a good job of leveling up the program before he was hired away by Virginia Tech, but Norvell has battled just as hard to get this program from good to great. If Memphis does have to replace Norvell, the job is going to receive more interest and the program is in a better place thanks to his work over the last four years.
3. Bowl projections: Jerry Palm projected Memphis to win in this game, and currently has the Tigers playing in the Cotton Bowl against Penn State. As for Cincinnati, the Bearcats could end up as an attractive option for a bowl game looking to fill a spot reserved for the SEC, as the league might not be able to fill all of its bowl agreements. Currently, Palm actually has Cincinnati back in the Liberty Bowl for a third time this season playing against Iowa State in the Memphis-based bowl game.