No. 5 Cincinnati can clinch a spot in the American Athletic Conference championship game with a victory against visiting SMU on Saturday.
Of course, as far as the Bearcats (10-0, 6-0 AAC) are concerned, the Mustangs (8-2, 4-2) represent the next obstacle in a bigger pursuit: trying to become the first Group of Five program to earn a College Football Playoff berth since the arrangement began in 2014.
After SMU, the Bearcats end the regular season at East Carolina and could face No. 24 Houston in the conference title game on Dec. 4.
“We’ve got a really tough game this week. We’ve got a really tough game the following week,” Cincinnati coach Luke Fickell said Tuesday. “If we’re fortunate enough to have a third one, we’ll have another really tough one that will give us every opportunity that we want, and I truly believe that.
“I know you’ve got to be in the realm to have any shot, and all we care about is we’re in the realm, and now we’ve got to take care of business.”
Cincinnati can’t afford a slip-up. Not being one of the Power 5 schools leaves the Bearcats needing to not only win but to do so impressively.
SMU looms as a challenge because its offense averages 41.6 points per game, sixth nationally. The Mustangs are led by quarterback Tanner Mordecai, who threw for 377 yards and three touchdowns in a 55-28 win against UCF last week to end a two-game losing streak.
Those two losses — 44-37 to Houston and 28-25 to Memphis — were on the road, and the Mustangs will face another hostile environment for the Bearcats’ Senior Day.
“If you want to win a championship, you’ve got to play well on the road. I think that’s the deal,” SMU coach Sonny Dykes said. “There’s all these things you’ve got to do, and I think playing well on the road is one of them. If we want to try to keep our championship hopes alive, then we’ve got to go play well Saturday and win the game.
“Our guys are excited,” Dykes added. “They like challenges, and this is obviously a challenge, and it’s a good barometer for us to see where we’re at.”
Cincinnati’s 32 seniors to be honored include quarterback Desmond Ridder, who has a 41-5 record as a starter.
Last week, in a 45-28 win at South Florida, Ridder threw two touchdown passes. The second was the 79th of his career to break a tie with Bearcats quarterbacks coach Gino Guidugli for the most in school history.
The senior class is 41-6, and the fifth-year seniors are 45-14 with Ridder sporting a 24-0 record at Nippert Stadium.
“There’s some special people that have done some special things, and I don’t just mean win football games,” Fickell said. “I mean really kind of change the locker room and create an expectation, create a brotherhood and create a lot of amazing things.
“Now, they’ve got to be able to balance emotions. It’s a huge, huge game.”
–Field Level Media