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College football: Cincinnati looking to do something UCF could not, make the playoffs

Tom D'Angelo
Palm Beach Post

The roles are reversed in the AAC.

For the last three years, the talk of a Group of Five team crashing the College Football Playoff has centered around UCF. That has changed in 2020, and now, it’s Cincinnati the playoff committee is eyeing as we get closer to the first reveal of the CFP rankings.

The two teams meet in Orlando on Saturday with No. 7 Cincinnati as the team with so much more to lose. If there ever were a year that a G5 program sneaks into the playoffs, 2020 would be it. And the team with the best shot of that breakthrough is the 7-0 Bearcats.

Like UCF in 2017 and 2018, Cincinnati needs a lot to happen besides winning every game, and most of them convincingly. Mainly, the committee has to skip over a bunch of one-loss teams, and perhaps even some with two losses, to rank the Bearcats among the top four. And unranked UCF (5-2) did not do the Bearcats any favors by losing two straight early in the season after peaking at No. 11 in the polls.

When you play in the AAC, every significant data point helps.

Cincinnati Bearcats quarterback Desmond Ridder (9) is stopped just short of the goal line on a run in the first quarter of the NCAA American Athletic Conference football game between the Cincinnati Bearcats and the East Carolina Pirates at Nippert Stadium in Cincinnati on Friday, Nov. 13, 2020. The Bearcats led 35-10 at halftime.

UCF was ranked each of the last three years it faced Cincinnati. The Bearcats' 27-24 victory last year dropped the Knights out of the polls for good.

Now, it’s UCF looking to crush another team’s dream, one it chased in 2017 and 2018.

“Kids understand the opportunity they got at the end of this week,” UCF coach Josh Heupel said Monday. “Our kids have prepared in a great way. I know they will for this one as well. You certainly have your kids’ attention leading up to kickoff for this one.”

The game features one of the best head-to-head matchups we’ll see this season when the UCF offense and Cincinnati defense are on the field.

UCF leads the country with 619.1 yards per game and is averaging 44.0 points. Cincinnati is 10th in total defense, giving up just more than 300 yards per game and third in scoring defense, allowing 12.4 points per game.

“Out in the perimeter they contest everything, play a bunch of tight man coverage,” Heupel said. “Their front seven is extremely physical. They defeat blocks, they tackle well.

“You got to play extremely hard snap to whistle to give yourself a chance to move the football.”

UCF quarterback Dillon Gabriel, who leads the country in passing yards (396.3 per game) and total offense (411.4), was more basic in his assessment.

“They got some big dudes,” he said, “and guys who chase the ball and are able to make plays.”

UCF has recovered nicely from losses to Tulsa and Memphis early in the season. The defense – which allowed 50 points, including four touchdowns in the final 16 minutes, and 703 yards against Memphis – has put together solid back-to-back efforts in wins over Houston and Temple.

“We’ve had great focus, great preparation the last few weeks,” Heupel said. “We need to be at our best, nothing extraordinary but need to do the ordinary things at a really high level.”