TAMPA, Fla. (AP) — Second-ranked Cincinnati understands what’s at stake.
The Bearcats (9-0, 5-0) will try to remain unbeaten, move a step closer to a return to the American Athletic Conference championship game and bolster their case for a spot in the College Football Playoff when they visit heavy underdog South Florida (2-7, 1-4) on Friday night.
Coach Luke Fickell and his players are not spending a lot of time, though, talking about their chances of winding up in the four-team CFP field. Instead, they’re focused on doing the only thing that’s certain to keep them in the running — winning.
The Bearcats, No. 5 in the latest CFP rankings, are 23½-point favorites against USF, according to FanDuel Sportsbook, and will face SMU and East Carolina in the final two weeks of the regular season.
“There's three guaranteed weeks left. ... November is for contenders. You’ll see it all across college football,"Fickell said. “The teams that are getting better, the teams that can take November and really use it in a positive way, wherever they are as a football team,” will stand out.
The coach added that doesn’t just apply to teams with lofty goals within reach, but programs such as South Florida, which is rebuilding under second-year coach and former Clemson assistant Jeff Scott.
The Bulls have lost 14 of 17 games since Scott’s arrival, however they are coming off giving No. 17 Houston all the Cougars could handle before running out of gas in a 54-42 loss at home last week.
“To me, it’s a completely different football team,” than the USF team that took the field early in the season. “That’s what we’ve got to get prepared for.”
Scott, meanwhile, views Friday night as another opportunity to show the Bulls are headed in the right direction.
The Bulls have lost to three teams — North Carolina State, BYU and Houston — currently ranked in the Top 25. They also fell to two others — Florida and conference rival SMU — that were ranked for a portion of the season.
Cincinnati is the highest ranked FBS team to ever face USF in Tampa.
“There’s no doubt they’re one of the best teams in the country,” Scott said. “It’s going to be a great challenge. ... We look at it as another opportunity.”
ENJOYING THE RIDE
Cincinnati quarterback Desmond Ridder has thrown for 2,121 yards and 20 touchdowns vs. five interceptions. The Bearcats are 40-5 with Ridder as their starter, and the defending AAC champs have won 12 straight conference games.
Ridder said it’s exciting be off to another 9-0 start and among the teams on course to be considered for a spot in the CFP. He also insists there’s no added pressure that comes with being ranked among the nation’s elite.
“I wouldn’t say it added pressure,” the quarterback said. “All we care about is winning the conference championship. Once we do that, everything is going to take care of itself. We’re just taking it game by game.”
Cincinnati running back Jerome Ford is one of the nation’s leading rushers with 888 yards and an AAC-leading 15 touchdowns on the ground, 16 TDs overall. His status for Friday night remains uncertain, though, after suffering a leg injury during last week’s 28-20 victory over Tulsa.
South Florida has lost 18 consecutive games against teams ranked in the top 20 since upsetting Notre Dame on the road in October 2011. The Bulls, however, did show signs of progress a week ago in scoring a season-high 42 points in a 12-point loss.
Freshman running back Brian Battie led the way, scoring three touchdowns — two of them on 100-yard kickoff returns.
“I think if you were a random fan and turned on that game you wouldn’t have known which (team) was 7-1 going into that game. ... We’ve proven when we execute and play complimentary football, we can play with anyone on our schedule.”
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