DALLAS (AP) — When Cincinnati was last in the Dallas area nearly 10 months ago, the Bearcats were there as the first Group of Five team to play in the College Football Playoff.
Their chances for a return to the four-team playoff pretty much ended with a loss in the season opener at Arkansas. But the 21st-ranked Bearcats haven’t lost since and still can win their third consecutive American Athletic Conference title before becoming a Power Five team next summer when they move to the Big 12.
After its open date, Cincinnati (5-1, 2-0 American) plays Saturday at SMU (3-3, 1-1).
“Maybe some of those guys with nicks and bruises, the way the last game went, hopefully the timing (of the bye) was right for us to get back," Bearcats coach Luke Fickell said. “But there’s a momentum shift and things as you’re rolling through a season. There’s never an exact right time. But I think if you could pick it, you choose the middle, and I think it was good for us.”
That certainly provided extra time for quarterback Ben Bryant, who was in concussion protocol after taking a hit on a slide in the fourth quarter of Cincinnati’s 28-24 win over nearly four-touchdown underdog South Florida on Oct. 8.
Without saying if Bryant was cleared to play, Fickell did say earlier this week that the fifth-year senior who succeeded Desmond Ridder was back at practice. Dual-threat sophomore Evan Prater is the backup for Bryant, who has thrown for 1,561 yards and 15 touchdowns.
Fickell indicated that he was more concerned about an ankle injury affecting receiver Tyler Scott (28 catches, 500 yards, six TDs).
“Tyler’s still a guy that we’re hoping throughout the rest of this week he’ll continue to get better and better and be able to play,” Fickell said.
The Mustangs are coming off a 40-34 win over Navy that ended a three-game losing streak under first-year head coach Rhett Lashlee, their former offensive coordinator who returned after Sonny Dykes left for now-undefeated and No. 8 TCU.
“It’s really important to get back on track,” SMU quarterback Tanner Mordecai said. “We’ve had a rough stretch. Things that happened to us that we thought were in our control and stuff that we messed up, so it’s huge for us.”
Cincinnati is the national leader with 9.67 tackles for loss per game and its four defensive touchdowns. The Bearcats lead the AAC and rank third nationally with their 3.8 sacks per game. They allow only 4.13 yards per play and 313 total yards a game (186 yards passing). Linebacker Ivan Pace is the individual conference leader with 10.3 tackles per game, 12 1/2 tackles for loss and five sacks.
Mordecai is the AAC’s leading passer and is third nationally with 336 yards per game, and has 15 touchdowns. Rashee Rice is third nationally with 8.2 caches and 126.8 yards receiving per game despite a toe injury.
“He’s been playing through it, which is good, and we’re just trying to get him to the game each week,” Lashlee said of Rice.
SMU allowed 372 yards rushing against Navy, and now has to face Cincinnati running back Charles McClelland, who is coming off a career-best 179 yards against USF. McClelland’s second TD was a 35-yarder in the fourth quarter that finally put the Bearcats ahead to stay.
The Bearcats are looking to get bowl eligible for the fifth consecutive season. They played in New Year’s Six games each of the past two seasons, first going to the Peach Bowl before last year’s CFP semifinal game against Alabama in the Cotton Bowl.
The Cotton Bowl this season is the NY6 bowl that will host the top-ranked G5 team, so the Bearcats could still make it to the game played at the home of the NFL’s Dallas Cowboys, which is 23 miles from SMU’s campus stadium.
Fickle is 53-16 in his sixth season with the Bearcats and tied with Rick Minter for the most wins in school history.
Minter got his 53 wins over 10 seasons from 1994 to 2003 and is the only Cincinnati coach to be there longer than six seasons.
More AP college football: https://apnews.com/hub/college-football and https://twitter.com/ap_top25. Sign up for the AP’s college football newsletter: https://bit.ly/3pqZVaF