No. 19 Cincinnati at No. 11 Central Florida

8 P.M., ORLANDO, FLA.

Favorite: Central Florida by 7

Records: Cincinnati 9-1, 5-1 American Athletic Conference East; Central Florida 9-0, 6-0 AAC East

Series: Central Florida leads 2-1

Last meeting: Central Florida won 51-23 last season in Cincinnati

 

The surprising and fast ascent of Cincinnati in its second season under coach Luke Fickell reaches another summit on Saturday at Central Florida. ESPN will set up shop with College GameDay outside Spectrum Stadium in the morning. Millions will watch that night with ABC selecting the game for its primetime telecast.

And Jim Tressel may be watching, too.

Fickell is a Columbus native who spent one season as Ohio State coach in 2011 after serving on Tressel’s staff for nine years, and before serving on Urban Meyer’s for another five. Fickell understands that upsetting the Knights won’t happen if he is unable to keep his team focused. And if he didn’t know that, Tressel texted this week to help him stay on message.

 

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“It hasn’t changed,” Fickell said, laughing at his memories of Tressel. “It’s relentless defense, opportunistic offense and superior special teams; the things that he always would have said. ‘Hey, don’t change what it is that you always do.’

“Just a reminder.”

And it’s a message he has been relaying to his team. After going 4-8 in Fickell’s first season, the Bearcats have a shot at winning the AAC East and advancing to the league championship game, but they need to beat the Knights and get some help. Cincinnati lost to Temple in overtime on Oct. 20, and the Owls also stand at 5-1 in league play.

One of the main reasons for the Bearcats’ turnaround has been their defensive line, which features three seniors: end Kimoni Fitz, tackle Cortez Broughton and nose guard Marquise Copeland. At the other end is sophomore Michael Pitts, backed up by another sophomore, Ethan Tucky of Delaware. The game could turn on the line’s ability to pressure Central Florida quarterback McKenzie Milton.

“They’re playing like their coaches embody,” coach Josh Heupel said of UC. “They make you earn it on the defensive side of the football.”

Broughton, who has made 37 consecutive starts, has 43 tackles this season. That includes 5½ sacks and — just as important in Fickell’s mind, considering the speed of the Knights offense — he has broken up nine passes.

“A batted-down ball is almost as good as a sack, and McKenzie Milton doesn’t take a whole lot of sacks,” Fickell said. “You can't get frustrated because the ball is coming out in 1.6 seconds or 2.2 seconds (after the snap). It’s still about pressure, about the things you need to do up front to make it tougher on him to get his job done.”

Milton completes 60.2 percent of his attempts and averages 288.6 passing yards per game. But the Knights are hardly one-dimensional, also averaging 271.4 yards rushing. Greg McCrae (673 yards) and Adrian Killins (546) are above 500 yards for the season with four touchdown runs each. Milton has eight TD runs himself to complement his 21 TD passes.

But if the knock on the Knights — who have been unable to crack the top 10 in the College Football Playoff rankings this season despite 22 straight wins — has been a soft schedule, then those offensive numbers may mean less against the Bearcats, who are sixth nationally in total defense.

“Up front, they’re active,” Milton said. “That’s probably the best part of their defense.”

 

Randolph-Macon at John Carroll

NOON, UNIVERSITY HEIGHTS

Three of the 32 teams in the Division III playoffs are from Ohio. The Blue Streaks (9-1) return after a one-year absence and riding a seven-game winning streak. They also are tough at home, going 5-0, including three shutouts. Randolph-Macon (8-2) has outscored opponents 203-140.

 

Denison at Mount Union

NOON, ALLIANCE

The Big Red (8-2) is back in the Division III playoffs for the first time since 1985, but the team picks up where it left off, playing Mount Union. That time, the Purple Raiders won 35-3. This time, Mount Union enters as the top seed at 10-0 and on a 25-game winning streak.

bhofmann@dispatch.com

@BrianHofmann