Why Cincinnati-UCF is the best college football matchup of Week 12
Every week, college football fans take a peek at the upcoming schedule to plan out their Saturdays. Evaluations typically are made based on the number next to the teams playing. If both teams have a number, more people tend to watch. We have a few games like that this weekend, and while it's ok if you choose to watch those games, remember that a number doesn't always guarantee a good game. Cincinnati enters Week 12 as the seventh best team in the country, and they face an unranked UCF team that's extremely dangerous at 4-2. It's been the most anticipated matchup of the AAC's season, and we'll dive into why it should be at the top of your viewing priority list.
The three other biggest games this weekend include Bedlam (Oklahoma-Oklahoma State), Wisconsin-Northwestern and Indiana-Ohio State. All three include ranked teams, presenting plenty of excitement, but also concerns about the quality of the game.
Let's start with Bedlam. If you know anything about the Big 12, you know that they excel on the offensive side of the ball. The Sooners and Cowboys are averaging a combined 76.9 points per game in this series over the past 10 seasons (average score of 45.3 to 31.6), so this is the game for you if you like offense. Oklahoma State's the last remaining hope for the Big 12 to make the College Football Playoff, but one more loss essentially eliminates the conference.
Northwestern is off to a 4-0 start thanks to a tough defense but also an offense that's improved under Indiana transfer Peyton Ramsey. The Wildcats are largely untested even with wins over Iowa and a previously undefeated Purdue team, so we will see how legitimate their record is this weekend. Wisconsin's defense continues to suffocate everyone, including a dominant performance against Michigan last week. The Badgers offense found a passing attack with quarterback Graham Mertz, but it's still relatively the same Wisconsin offense. If you like points, probably look elsewhere.
Another Big Ten matchup includes the surprisingly undefeated Indiana Hoosiers. Though they have wins over Michigan, Michigan State, and Penn State, those teams are a combined 2-10. Throw in Rutgers and that record goes to 3-13. That stat alone is the biggest argument against the Hoosiers being considered a legitimate Top 10 team, but they still deserve respect. While the Hoosiers "haven't beaten anyone," the Buckeyes opponents are equally dismal at a record of 2-9. Outside of the state of Indiana, no one's giving the Hoosiers a chance in this game. You watch this game because you want to see an upset or how polished the Buckeyes look, but it seems more likely that we get the latter.
That leads us to Cincinnati and UCF, a game that has history behind it in addition to featuring elite players on both sides. In 2017, Cincinnati wasn't ready. Year 1 under Luke Fickell saw the Bearcats finish 4-8 with a 51-23 loss to the national champions. A big turnaround in 2018 had the Bearcats ranked heading into the trip to The Bounce House in the national spotlight. UCF dominated that matchup too in a 38-13 win. The tables finally turned in Cincinnati's favor when the Bearcats stunned the Knights 27-24, which helped put them in the AAC Championship Game. Now it's the Knights seeking revenge with the Bearcats trying to hold on to their alpha status in the conference, and it's going to be another battle.
The best matchup of the weekend is UCF's explosive passing attack against an elite secondary. The Athletic's Chris Vannini broke down what other AAC coaches are saying about the Bearcats secondary, and what makes them so good at shutting offenses down. UCF, behind quarterback Dillon Gabriel is averaging 619.1 yards per game, just shy of the FBS record held by Houston in 1989 (624.9). The Knights like to take deep shots to move the ball down the field in big chunks, which just happens to be something the Bearcats do well taking away.
Jaylon Robinson, Ryan O'Keefe and Jacob Harris have the speed to take anyone deep, but they'll find it more difficult to do this weekend. Robinson and O'Keefe will face Arquon Bush, Darrick Forrest and Ja'Von Hicks in the slot. Robinson will also be on the outside with Harris, and they'll face Coby Bryant and Ahamad Garnder. Gardner is gaining a lot of NFL attention after being named first team all-conference as a freshman in 2019. His length has been an issue for a number of receivers this year, but a receiver with a quick release can beat him. Bryant's a quick defender who can run with anyone too, so it will be interesting to see how each individual matchup plays out. Then, there's Marlon Williams.
Williams presents the biggest challenge for the Bearcats defense. I think this is the matchup that Cincinnati defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman will attack with different looks. UCF's star receiver is second in the country in receiving yards and tied for fourth in receiving touchdowns. The most interesting thing about those numbers is that he's not the burner like the other three Knights receivers. Williams is a physical receiver who can handle a deep pass, but he's going to do more damage after the catch. We've seen how he thrives when the football is in his hands, and smaller defensive backs typically struggle to make tackles, leading to a lot of yards after the catch.
How will Cincinnati combat this? Wiggins (205 pounds) and Forrest (200) are the two most physical players that could consistently handle Williams' style of play, but Gardner could also handle it. Gardner might not be as strong as the two safeties, but his length and technique would help him counter a physical style of play. If you need a preview of what to expect, go rewatch UCF against Tulsa.
Here's the only thing that should concern Cincinnati fans. Yes, their defense is elite, but what happens if the UCF offense finds a weakness? What if the Knights open up the scoring? Cincinnati's offense has improved over the last few weeks, but can they hang with a UCF offense that has no problem moving the ball down the field? Desmond Ridder is the sole focus of this concern, and continuing his play from the last few weeks would ease them. There's talent on both Cincinnati's offense and UCF's defense too, so this will be a battle no matter who has the football.
The history between these two sets the stage. The players on both sidelines are worth watching on a weekly basis, and there's a chance (even if it's slim) that a playoff berth is on the line. Week 12 has some great matchups, but it's the Bearcats and Knights that should provide the most intrigue to your Saturday experience. This is a conference that's pushing for their respect, and they're producing a product that's entertaining. Playoff or not, this is the matchup of the week.
Elite play in the passing game is the big selling point, but it's the best all around matchup where either side has a chance to win the game. There's a reason why we're talking about Cincinnati in the College Football Playoff, and it's not because it's just a fun discussion. This weekend gives both teams a chance to make a statement, but a statement win for Cincinnati should make Big 12 and Pac-12 fans worried.