No. 4 Cincinnati has been fighting all season to get into the top four of the College Football Playoff rankings. Now they’ll end the season on Friday against host East Carolina in Greenville, N.C., with a chance to stay there.
The Bearcats (11-0, 7-0 AAC) added some style points to their resume last weekend with a 48-14 win over SMU in their home finale. Cincinnati rode that momentum into Tuesday when it was ranked No. 4 by the CFP committee.
It’s the highest ranking ever for Cincinnati in the Playoff, and Cincy is the first team from outside the Power 5 conferences to ever break into the top four.
“I think it’s awesome,” coach Luke Fickell told ESPN. “Now we know we’ve got a ways to go with two tough games left. But the excitement about it and the recognition is well deserved for this group of guys who have fought all season.”
The Bearcats need a win on Friday to complete the second 12-0 regular season in program history (2009), earn the right to host the AAC championship game for a second straight year (this time vs. Houston) and — most importantly — continue to hold onto that playoff spot.
“For us, we’ve got to go out and play. We know what’s at stake,” Fickell said. “It’s another opportunity for our guys to go out and compete and do what they love to do.”
The Pirates (7-4, 5-2 AAC) know they’ll be playing the role of spoiler, but they have built a solid season of their own thanks to a four-game winning streak. ECU edged Navy 38-35 last week, and that came after a 30-29 overtime win at Memphis.
The Bearcats have won three in a row in the series, including a 55-17 blowout last year in Cincinnati. Cincy won 46-43 the last time the game was played in Greenville.
“Our kids, they know this is a big game for us. It’s the biggest game of the year; it’s the only one we’ve got this week,” ECU coach Mike Houston said. “Our motivation is trying to get better every day and trying to prepare to play well on Friday afternoon. We’ve got a great opportunity for our program.”
Cincinnati has been as complete a team as any in the nation this season. The Bearcats rank eighth in scoring nationally (40.0 ppg) and sixth in scoring defense (16.0). Cincy ranks third with 26 turnovers created and fifth in turnover margin.
That balance continues through the offense. Jerome Ford (970 rushing yards, 16 touchdowns) provides the power, while quarterback Desmond Ridder has provided big-play capability with 2,699 passing yards and 32 total touchdowns.
“Tough task, but you know what, an exciting time,” Houston said. “If you told me back in the summer, we had this situation going into this ballgame, I promise you, me and everybody else around Greenville would have taken it.”
The Pirates will be a dangerous opponent for the Bearcats’ suddenly potent playoff hopes. ECU ranks 26th nationally in total offense (446.9 yards per game) with a balanced attack.
Keaton Mitchell has piled up 1,077 rushing yards and nine touchdowns, and he ranks fourth in the country with 6.86 yards per carry. Holton Ahlers has thrown for 2,898 yards and 17 touchdowns.
Fickell knows his team is in the playoff field right now, but he also knows how quickly it can change.
“We’ve got a big one this week,” he said. “ECU has been playing really well. I think that this is a really good football team that is hitting their stride at the end of the season.”
–Field Level Media