After closing out the regular season against one another last weekend, the no. 20 Cincinnati Bearcats and no. 17 Memphis Tigers are back at it again this week in the AAC Championship Game. Kickoff is set for 3:30 EST on Saturday, December 7 at the Liberty Bowl in Memphis, Tennessee. The game will be broadcast nationally on ABC.
After Memphis beat Cincinnati by 10 points last week, the Tigers are now 9-point favorites in the AAC title game. The over/under for the game is set at 58 points. Click here for a full list of this week’s college football betting odds.
The Tigers are making their third consecutive appearance in the AAC Championship Game under head coach Mike Norvell. Unfortunately for Memphis, they have come up short the past two seasons against Central Florida. However, this might be the best team the Tigers have had under Novell. They steamrolled through most of the AAC and even knocked off SEC foe Ole Miss in their season opener. The lone blemish on their record is a 2-point loss at Temple in mid-October. Since then, the Tigers have won six in a row, narrowly edging out the likes of Navy and SMU at the top of a competitive AAC West Division.
As for the Bearcats, this will be their first time in the AAC Championship Game. Cincinnati won a share of the AAC title in 2014 but hasn’t managed to top UCF in the East Division over the last few years. But this year was different for Luke Fickell and company. After a loss to Ohio State early in the year, the Bearcats won nine straight games to claim the AAC East ahead of last week’s loss to Memphis. Despite last week’s loss, the Bearcats are 10-2 on the season and still have a chance to win a conference title.
In addition to winning the AAC championship, the winner of this game figures to have the inside track on a New Year’s Six bowl game. Both Boise State and Appalachian State will have a say in that discussion. But there’s a strong chance that the AAC champ ends up playing in the Cotton Bowl.
That means there’s more at stake between these two teams than there was a week ago. After returning the opening kickoff for a touchdown, the Tigers nearly led the entire game. The Bearcats tied the game at 17 apiece after falling behind 17-3, only for Memphis to quickly retake the lead and ultimately win 34-24 on their home field.
Memphis beat Cincinnati last week but failed to cover the spread and I think there will be a similar outcome this week. It’s unusual for college teams to play each other twice in one season, much less in back-to-back weeks. If there’s an edge, it tends to go to the team that lost the first game. Cincinnati should have a good sense of what worked and what didn’t work against Memphis and make some subtle but important changes. I’ll take my chances with the Bearcats beating the spread again, even if they don’t win.
One X-factor to watch this week is Cincinnati quarterback Desmond Ridder, who didn’t play last week. Ridder has battled a shoulder problem late in the year and was held out despite claiming that he was ready to play. The Tigers now have to prepare for both Ridder and backup Ben Bryant, who they faced last week. Bryant has better arm talent than Ridder but lacks Ridder’s athleticism and running ability, which will force the Memphis defense to prepare to face two quarterbacks with distinct skill sets.
For a young quarterback, Bryant played well for large stretches last week. However, his two interceptions and one fumble in the second half were too much for Cincinnati to overcome. On the bright side, he showed that he can move the ball against the Memphis defense if he’s forced into action again. The Bearcats were also able to run the ball effectively behind Michael Warren, who gained 122 yards on 21 carries. If Cincinnati can avoid turnovers this week, I think they’ll have a fair amount of success on offense regardless of who plays quarterback.
On the other side of the ball, the Cincinnati defense fared better than most teams against the Memphis offense. Remember, the Tigers returned a kickoff for a touchdown. That means their offense only produced 27 points, which is two touchdowns below their season average of 41 points. Despite a couple of poor outings, the Bearcats held six of their 12 opponents to 14 points or less this year, including three bowl teams. They have a chance to be just as good or better against the Memphis offense this week after seeing them up close a week ago.
Ultimately, I think the Cincinnati defense is good enough to keep the Bearcats within striking distance. The Tigers benefited from a special teams touchdown and three turnovers and were still held well below their season average last week. I also think the Bearcats can benefit from forcing Memphis to prepare to face two different quarterbacks. For what it’s worth, I think Memphis finds a way to win on their home field, but I’ll lean toward Cincinnati to beat the 9-point spread.