Don't think for a minute that just because the AAC falls outside the College Football Playoff chatter that Week 14 is meaningless. No. 18 Memphis survived No. 19 Cincinnati 34-24 on Friday, assuring that the two schools would meet again in the AAC Championship Game next week. The Bearcats were in no matter what with only home-field advantage on the line; the Tigers needed a win or a Navy loss to Houston to host the game.
As usual, Memphis' offense put up plenty of yards and points. The running back combo of Kenneth Gainwell and Antonio Gibson combined for 162 of Memphis' 199 yards rushing. Gibson secured the victory with a 29-yard touchdown run with just over three minutes remaining. The defense also did its job in the second half -- but more on that later.
Memphis has a tendency to make big games tighter than they need to be, and this wasn't much of an exception. The Bearcats have a formidable defense of their own, and backup quarterback Ben Bryant was good coming off the bench. On multiple occasions, they had a chance to climb right back into the game and perhaps take the lead. But credit the Tigers, who found a way to respond each time, and now these two teams will do it all over again next week.
Here's what we learned from Saturday's game.
Memphis' defense was the difference in the game: When we think about Mike Norvell's program, the first thing that usually comes to mind is offense. And, of course, Memphis can score points with the best of 'em. But it was the Tigers' defense that came through against Cincinnati. Memphis sacked Bryant five times, picked him off twice and forced a critical fumble on a third-and-5 near midfield in the third quarter. All of the turnovers came in the second half, as did a majority of the pressure. Memphis had almost no pass rush to speak of in the first half, and Bryant looked comfortable throwing the ball from the pocket. Credit Memphis' defensive staff for making the proper adjustments and focusing on bringing more pressure to disrupt the passing game. That was truly the difference.
Cincinnati had plenty of responses, just not enough answers: What I mean by this is the Bearcats could have been out of this game on a number of occasions. They started slow, allowing an opening kickoff return by Chris Claybrooks for Memphis to go up 7-0. The Bearcats were already down 17-3 after the first quarter before Bryant led a 12-play drive to bring things to within a touchdown. Truth be told, Cincinnati almost felt in control at times even though it trailed the entire game. Twice it came to within three points, but each time it was never able to get over the hump; sometimes it was a result of a turnover (see above). On one occasion, the Tigers had to pull into their bag of tricks to open things up:
Each time Memphis pulled away, Cincinnati found a way to crawl right back in it. It just never had enough answers to actually pull ahead. The turnovers hurt, as did having to play a backup quarterback, but the Bearcats came awfully close to pulling the upset.
Memphis has a hard road to the Cotton Bowl: Let's face it, the Tigers are the AAC's best -- and perhaps last -- hope to make a New Year's Six bowl. In this case, a likely spot in the Cotton Bowl. With today's win, the Tigers will host the Bearcats again in one week. However, it's hard to beat the same quality team twice in a row, and Cincinnati gave Memphis just about everything it could handle with its backup quarterback on the field. How will that affect next week's game, especially if Desmond Ridder is able to return from a nagging shoulder injury? The top competitor to the AAC champ is No. 20 Boise State, who escaped Colorado State on Friday 31-24. The Broncos will host Hawaii next week in the Mountain West Championship, which is also a rematch from an earlier game in the season. Memphis unquestionably has the tougher matchup even though it's at home, though. There's always the possibility Cincinnati could sneak into the Cotton Bowl with a win and Boise State loss, too.