Host Cincinnati is playing Houston for more than just the American Athletic Conference championship on Saturday.
The No. 4 Bearcats (12-0, 8-0 AAC) hope a victory over the No. 21 Cougars (11-1, 8-0) will be enough to earn a spot in the four-team College Football Playoff, whose participants will be selected Sunday.
No school outside a Power 5 Conference (Atlantic Coast Conference, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac 12 and Southeastern Conference) has played in the CFP since its inception for the 2014 season.
That stat doesn’t concern fifth-year Bearcats coach Luke Fickell.
“I don’t over-worry about all the other things,” he said Monday. “It’s never been about anything other than playing for a championship.”
Fickell would like to keep the outside noise from distracting his team, but it might be harder with rumors swirling that he is a contender for the Notre Dame job after Brian Kelly left suddenly to become the coach at LSU on Monday.
“It’s the same way I am with rankings,” Fickell said Tuesday. “It’s the same way I am unfortunately with a lot of other things — with the exception of recruiting — that I don’t pay a whole lot of attention to it.”
Houston wouldn’t mind being the spoiler after being overlooked because of all the attention focused on Cincinnati. The Cougars can match a school record with their 12th straight victory and have won each of their past six road games, including a 45-17 decision at UConn last week.
Cincinnati has won 26 straight home games, a fact not lost on Houston coach Dana Holgorsen.
“I’m not going to lie, I wish this was at a neutral site,” he said Monday. “If the game was played in Houston, I think they would say the same thing.
“You’d rather have a neutral site as opposed to going and being the visiting team, especially when both teams are 8-0 right now, but that’s neither here nor there.”
The Bearcats are in their third straight AAC championship. They lost 29-24 at Memphis in 2019 and defeated Tulsa 27-24 in Cincinnati last year.
Houston’s last championship was 24-13 win vs. Temple in the inaugural AAC title game in 2015.
The only blemish on Houston’s record this season was 38-21 loss to Texas Tech in the opener.
The Saturday matchup features teams that get after it on both sides of the ball. Cincinnati and Houston join Alabama and Georgia as the four FBS schools to rank top-10 nationally in scoring offense and total defense.
Houston ranks 10th in points per game (38.8) and allows 288.6 yards per contest, which ranks sixth.
The Bearcats are eighth in both scoring (39.6 points per game) and total defense (303.3 yards per game).
Both team’s quarterbacks, Houston’s Clayton Tune (3,013 yards) and Cincinnati’s Desmond Ridder (3,000), have compiled gaudy passing numbers.
“It’s going to be a big challenge,” Holgorsen said of facing Cincinnati. “I mean, they’re deserving of where they’re currently ranked at the CFP, probably got to be ranked higher in my opinion based on what they’ve done here over the last couple years and the quality of football that they’ve played.”
Cincinnati beat visiting Houston 38-20 last season, but the Cougars hold a 15-12 edge in the all-time series.