UC to face No. 9 Georgia in Peach Bowl on New Year's Day

Keith Jenkins
Cincinnati Enquirer

The University of Cincinnati Bearcats are No. 8 in  the final College Football Playoff rankings released Sunday.

The 13-member College Football Playoff selection committee placed the undefeated Bearcats (9-0) behind 8-1 Texas A&M (No. 5) of the Southeastern Conference, 8-2 Oklahoma (No. 6), which won the Big 12, and 8-3 Florida (No. 7), which lost to Alabama in the SEC title game.

No. 1 Alabama (11-0; SEC champion), No. 2 Clemson (10-1; Atlantic Coast Conference champion), No. 3 Ohio State (6-0; Big Ten champion) and No. 4 Notre Dame (10-1; ACC runner-up) rounded out the committee's top eight.

Notre Dame, which is normally independent, joined the ACC for this season.

As the highest-ranked non-Power Five team in the FBS, Cincinnati earned a New Year's Six bowl bid. UC will face No. 9 Georgia (7-2) on Jan. 1 (noon on ESPN).

"There's certainly some disappointment," Cincinnati Director of Athletics John Cunningham said Sunday during ESPN's broadcast. "You feel for the student-athletes. It's been such a difficult year, and it's hard to be perfect. We had nine times that we had to prove ourselves and we did it. We passed the test each time. I feel strongly that there should be something to be said for that. But at the end of the day, we're excited about the next challenge that we have. We're going to be in a fantastic bowl game against a really good opponent. Coach Fickell will have the team ready to go and we're excited about that."

The bid came a little more than 12 hours after the Bearcats completed an undefeated regular season and won their first outright conference championship since 2009, defeating Tulsa 27-24 in the AAC championship game Saturday at Nippert Stadium.

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"This conference can compete with anyone in the country," said Cincinnati quarterback Desmond Ridder, who was named the AAC title game's Most Outstanding Player after completing 19 of 29 passes for 269 yards and a touchdown and running for 83 yards and another score. "It doesn't matter who we're going to play. No one in this conference is going to back down from anyone. We're going to go up 11 guys versus their 11 guys and play football. Once the ball's down, we're going to go."

Bearcats quarterback was name the AAC Championship game Most Outstanding Player after completing 19 of 29 passes for 269 yards and a touchdown and running for 83 yards and another score

Cincinnati will be making its first-ever trip to the Peach Bowl, while this will mark Georgia’s sixth appearance in the game, but its first since 2006 when the Bulldogs defeated then-No. 14 Virginia Tech, 31-24.

The Peach Bowl will feature a matchup between an AAC program and a SEC program for only the second time in the bowl's 53-year history. Then-No. 12 UCF upset then-No. 7 Auburn in 2018.

Georgia ranks first nationally in rushing defense, allowing 69.3 yards on the ground per game, and is sixth in defensive touchdowns (three).

Offensively, Bulldogs running back Zamir White is 17th in the nation in rushing touchdowns (10), while quarterback JT Daniels has started the final three games of the season, completing 54 of 81 passes for 839 yards and nine touchdowns to only one interception.

“We are extremely excited to kick off the New Year, Jan. 1 with a top-10 matchup as the first New Year’s Six bowl played in 2021,” Peach Bowl CEO and President Gary Stokan said. “Both of the Cincinnati and Georgia programs have persevered through numerous challenges during this unprecedented season and rightfully earned bids to play in an elite New Year’s Six bowl game.”

Saturday was the first game in 28 days for Ridder, the AAC Offensive Player of the Year, and the Bearcats, who had two games canceled due to COVID-19 issues during that span.

"Twenty-eight days, everybody knows since the last time we played, but there was a 14-day pause in there where we pretty much had no contact with our guys," Cincinnati coach Luke Fickell said. "They were almost quarantined themselves. ... We just had to fight through a lot of different things, especially these last two weeks. For these guys to be resilient, it wasn't the sharpest, it wasn't the cleanest, those are some of the things you worry about on a layoff, but this team won't be denied."

Cincinnati, which underwent COVID-19 testing Sunday morning, is one of only two FBS teams in the top 20 in scoring offense and scoring defense this season. The other is No. 2 Clemson.

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Fickell, who is 35-13 in four seasons as UC's head coach, earned a total of $400,000 in bonuses for Cincinnati receiving a New Year's Six bowl bid ($250,000), the Bearcats' top-25 finish in the final College Football Playoff rankings ($50,000), and for winning (or sharing) the conference's regular-season title ($50,000) and the conference championship game ($50,000), according to the terms outlined in his contract.

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Head coach Luke Fickell raises the championship trophy after the Bearcats beat Tulsa 27-24 for their first outright conference championship since 2009.

Fickell led Cincinnati to an 11-win season in 2018 and 2019 after a 4-8 debut campaign at UC in 2017.

"Coach Fick is a great leader," said UC senior safety Darrick Forrest, who along with Ridder was a game captain on Saturday. "I can't even put it into words. He goes out there every day, he gives his full effort. He'll do anything for us, and I feel like each and every day we go out there and we're ready to be led by him."

Fickell would receive another $25,000 if the Bearcats win on Jan. 1.

Cincinnati is No. 6 in both the Amway Coaches and the Associated Press Top 25 polls also released Sunday.