Cincinnati looks to keep a hold on the top of AAC

Cincinnati is coming off a season in which the program claimed its first American Athletic Conference title since 2014 and its first appearance in a New Year’s Six Access bowl. Expectations are high for the Bearcats, who are the overwhelming favorites in the AAC again this season.

At the end of the day, coach Luke Fickell knows his team can’t rest on its laurels.

“I think so far, through the offseason, they’ve handled it well with just expectations and a lot of the talk,” said Fickell. “But I know they’re kind of hungry to get this thing rolling and quit all the other talk and let’s be about the new year.”

Cincinnati has won 31 games over the past three seasons, including back-to-back 11-win campaigns in 2018-19. The Bearcats climbed as high as No. 8 in the final College Football Playoff rankings last season but failed to impress selection committee members who ranked them behind 3-loss Florida and 2-loss Oklahoma teams.

“To me, we’re just scratching the surface of where we can go,” said Fickell, who’s turned down opportunities at Power Five programs in recent years to remain with the Bearcats. “I’m a guy that wants to stay motivated and there are all different kinds of motivations. When I feel like you can continue to grow, there are so many other areas and places and things that we can do. It keeps me motivated.”

“Heck, we’ve only scratched the surface and three, four or five more years, I believe we can take this thing from a really, really good football team to having a chance to be in the top 10.”

The Bearcats return 14 starters led by quarterback Desmond Ridder, who was the AAC Offensive Player of the Year in 2020 after combining for 2,888 total yards of offense and 31 total touchdowns.

The biggest challenger to another successful run for Cincinnati is a familiar one.

After back-to-back AAC titles in 2017-18 and consecutive appearances in NY6 games, UCF took a step backward in 2019 and 2020.

Enter Gus Malzahn, who took over the Knights after Josh Heupel left to take the Tennessee job in January. The former Auburn coach has brought a renewed sense of enthusiasm and optimism in his first year with the program.

“I’m excited about this opportunity,” said Malzahn, who amassed a 68-35 record in eight seasons with the Tigers. “I inherited a very good group that is used to winning.”

UCF has been one of the most explosive offensive teams in college football over the past four seasons, with the Knights averaging 44 points and 540 yards per game during that stretch.

Quarterback Dillon Gabriel returns after leading the nation in passing yards per game with 357 yards. The junior earned all-conference honors after passing for 3,570 yards and 32 touchdowns in just 10 games.

SMU and Houston were tabbed to finish behind Cincinnati and UCF in the league’s preseason media poll.

“I think our team is older and more mature,” said UH coach Dana Holgorsen, who is entering his third season with the Cougars. “I believe this is the oldest team that I’ve had, so a lot of experience with. The record is what the record is. But we did make progress in Year Two and I do believe that we’re going to make progress in Year Three.”

Memphis was among five AAC teams ranked in the top 25 last season in Year 1 under new coach Ryan Silverfield. The Tigers return 15 starters, including receiver Calvin Austin III and are picked to finish fifth in the conference.

“The preseason polls are great and that’s for people to talk about and to be able to answer your questions, but once that ball gets kicked off on Sept. 4, the preseason poll doesn’t mean a darn thing,” said Silverfield. “Our guys have a chip on their shoulder. So if they rank us first or last, it doesn’t matter. We got work to do.”

Tulsa, which finished as runner-up to Cincinnati in last season’s AAC title game, faces a tough nonconference schedule that includes Oklahoma State and Ohio State in back-to-back weeks.

“We feel good about where we’re at,” coach Phil Montgomery said of his team’s preparations heading into fall camp. “We have a tough schedule in front of us and the conference is always difficult, but we’re going to be up for the challenge.”

The Golden Hurricane isn’t the only AAC team facing challenging out-of-conference matchups this season. Tulane (Oklahoma, Ole Miss), USF (NC State, Florida), SMU (TCU), Navy (Notre Dame), Memphis (Mississippi State), UCF (Boise State, Louisville) and Cincinnati (Indiana, Notre Dame) all have critical games against Power Five opponents.

“I firmly believe that the top half of our conference would be very comparable and very competitive and comparable to many of the teams in some of the other leagues around the country,” said USF coach Jeff Scott. “I think that our conference is on the way up.”

This article first appeared on Email Matt Murschel at or follow him on Twitter at @osmattmurschel.