No. 4 Cincinnati is on the brink of history as it attempts to break through the proverbial glass ceiling that has limited Group of Five teams from advancing to the College Football Playoff. The cougars have that chance Saturday as they battle No. 21 Houston in the AAC Championship Game.
The 12-0 Bearcats already hold the highest ranking by a Group of Five team in the CFP era and capped off their second consecutive undefeated regular season with a 35-13 demolition of East Carolina. Now, Cincy must assert itself one last time to remain unbeaten and state the best case yet that the CFP Selection Committee has seen for inclusion.
Houston has also been dominant in 2021, winning eight of its games by double-figures. In the final AAC game against Memphis, the Cougars cruised 31-13 behind a seven-catch, 100-yard receiving game from star receiver Nathaniel "Tank" Dell. Quarterback Clayton Tune improved dramatically in 2021, jumping to 69% completion, clearing 3,000 passing yards and adding 28 total touchdowns.
The Bearcats should theoretically slide into the playoff with a win, while Houston could likely steal the Group of Five's guaranteed New Year's Six slot with a win. The battle also pits future Big 12 opponents against each other years before they enter the conference. Houston holds a 15-12 edge all-time between these two teams, but the Bearcats crushed UH 38-10 behind 342 yards rushing and four touchdowns in 2020.
Cincinnati vs. Houston: Need to know
Dominant champions: Since Houston lost to Texas Tech in the opener, the Cougars have been far and away the best team in the AAC not named Cincinnati. The teams have combined to win 23 games since that opener and blow through conference play. While much has been written about Cincinnati's success, Houston has won four straight games by double-digits, dating back to a 44-37 win over then-No. 19 SMU. It's a true heavyweight title fight.
Defensive battle: Houston and Cincinnati rank among the best defenses in college football. The teams rank No. 1 and No. 2 in total defense and the reverse one and two in scoring defense. Cincinnati cornerbacks Ahmad Gardner and Coby Bryant rank among the best in the sport, but Houston receiver Nathaniel Dell will provide one of the toughest tests yet. Dell posted 1,027 yards receiving and 11 touchdowns in a breakout season. On the other side, Cincinnati quarterback Desmond Ridder will challenge a UH pass rush that ranks No. 3 nationally in sacks -- ahead of Georgia.
Award hopefuls: While Ridder -- and even Gardner -- should be considered for the Heisman Trophy, the best Heisman contender in the game is on the opposite sideline. Houston cornerback Marcus Jones is having a truly monstrous season. In addition to ranking No. 4 nationally in coverage grade among corners, Jones has 12 passes defended, five interceptions, two punt returns for touchdowns and two kick returns for touchdowns. He even has a receiving touchdown for good measure. It's difficult for a cornerback to contend for national awards, but Jones should be on everyone's All-America radar, and maybe a lock for the Hornung Award.
How to watch Cincinnati vs. Houston live
Date: Saturday, Dec. 4 | Time: 4 p.m. ET
Location: Nippert Stadium -- Cincinnati
TV: ABC | Live stream: fuboTV (Try for free)
Cincinnati vs. Houston prediction, picks
Every time Cincinnati has been presented with a showcase opportunity, it's responded with its best performances. Cincinnati beat No. 6 Notre Dame by 11 points and SMU by a whopping 34 points. Houston is one of the best teams on Cincinnati's schedule, but don't expect the Bearcats to pass an opportunity to make a national statement. Prediction: Cincinnati (-10.5)
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