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2021 AAC Championship Preview: UH versus Cincinnati

UH junior quarterback Clayton Tune finished the regular season throwing for 3,013 yards and 26 touchdowns. | Steven Paultanis/The Cougar

UH junior quarterback Clayton Tune finished the regular season throwing for 3,013 yards and 26 touchdowns. | Steven Paultanis/The Cougar

On Saturday afternoon, 11-1 Houston will square off against 12-0 Cincinnati in the 2021 American Athletic Conference Championship Game at Nippert Stadium in Cincinnati, Ohio.

Aside from claiming the title of AAC champions, there is a lot is riding on this game for both the Cougars and the Bearcats.

For Cincinnati, a win would keep the undefeated season alive and put the Bearcats in prime position to become the first Group of Five school to make the College Football Playoffs.

For UH, a win over the Bearcats would not only dash Cincinnati’s playoff hopes but also would likely earn the Cougars a spot in a major bowl game.

Here is everything you need to know about Saturday’s showdown between the AAC’s two heavyweights:

Reviewing the UH season

Slow start

Coming into the season, UH was 7-13 in its first two years under head coach Dana Holgorsen.

After week one, it looked like the 2021 season would be full of losing once again as UH blew a double-digit lead, surrendering 31 unanswered points in its loss to Texas Tech.

Many questions arose surrounding junior quarterback Clayton Tune, who threw four interceptions in the game, was the right guy to lead the Cougars in their attempt to turn the program’s fortunes around.

Turning things around

When the first practice following the loss to Texas Tech ended, several UH team captains called a players-only meeting which those within in program claimed turned the season around.

In this meeting, Donavan Mutin, Deontay Anderson and Hasaan Hypolite all spoke, delivering the same message — there would be no more losing this season.

This meeting ignited the team and the team began to do exactly what it vowed to: win.

Tune turned things around, showing much-improved decision making which included a streak of 192 pass attempts without an interception.

Freshman phenom Alton McCaskill dazzled in the backfield, setting the UH program record for most touchdowns by a true freshman with 16.

Nathaniel Dell put together a 1,000 yard season, always seeming to make the play when the offense needed him most.

Heisman hopeful Marcus Jones did a little bit of everything for the Cougars, making his impact felt as a receiver, cornerback and kick returner.

Sack Avenue, the name the UH defensive line branded itself, wreaked havoc on opposing quarterbacks, establishing themselves as the nation’s No. 3 team in sacks per game.

The Cougars have not lost a game since this meeting, winning 11 in a row and becoming only the second team in UH football program history to go undefeated in conference play.

A look at the Bearcats

Home sweet home

The Bearcats simply don’t lose when playing at Nippert Stadium. 

You have to go all the way back to Nov. 10, 2017 to find the last time Cincinnati lost at home, when the Bearcats fell to Temple 35-24. Since that point, Cincinnati has strung together 26 straight home wins, trailing only Clemson for the nation’s current longest home winning streak.

Holgorsen knows the challenge ahead of his team as they travel to Cincinnati and attempt to win at a place where no opponent has come out victorious in over four years.

“They’re pretty good at home,” Holgorsen said. “Haven’t lost there in a while. It’s a big challenge.”

Ridder time

Senior Desmond Ridder has reached about as many milestones as he possibly could since he took over as the Bearcats quarterback in 2018.

Ridder is the nation’s winningest active quarterback, with a 42-5 record as a starter to become the fifth NCAA quarterback ever to win 40 games in a career.

On top of that, Ridder became the AAC’s career leader in total offense, with 12,071 yards (9,905 passing and 2,156 rushing) to go along with 102 career touchdowns, in Cincinnati’s win over East Carolina in the final game of the regular season.

Offensive weapons

Surrounding Ridder are a multitude of dynamic playmakers.

Junior running back Jerome Ford leads the AAC in rushing yards (1,055) and touchdowns (17). His 17 rushing touchdowns are tied for the second-most touchdowns in a single-season in Cincinnati’s program history.

Senior Allen Pierce, a 6-foot-3-inch, 213 pound receiver, leads the Bearcats in receptions (48), receiving yards (802) and receiving touchdowns (seven).

Tight end Josh Whyle has been one of Ridder’s go-to targets in the red zone, hauling in six touchdown catches on the season.

No fly zone

Cincinnati has arguably the nation’s best cornerback duo in Ahmad ‘Sauce’ Gardner and Coby Bryant, who are both semifinalists for the Jim Thorpe Award which is given to the top defensive back in college football.

Gardner is the textbook definition of a shutdown cornerback.

While Gardner’s stats may not appear eye-popping, there is a simple explanation — opponents simply refuse to throw the ball in Gardner’s direction because if they do they know there’s a high chance of either an incompletion or interception. In 35 career collegiate games, the 6-foot-3-inch junior has not allowed a touchdown pass.

On the other side, Bryant isn’t much easier to throw the ball against. The senior has a team-high 11 pass breakups.

Both Gardner and Bryant have three interceptions on the season.

As a whole, Cincinnati boasts the No. 3 pass defense in the country.

Series history

UH leads the all-time series, going 15-12 in the 27 times the two teams have played each other.

Cincinnati has won the last two meetings, most recently defeating the Cougars 38-10 at Nippert Stadium in November, 2020.

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