If Cincinnati fails to win the AAC title in its inaugural season, it can place the blame in two directions -- on itself and on the schedule-maker.
The Bearcats are arguably playing the best football of anyone in the league right now. They enter the weekend on six-game winning streak, and have an extra few days off before it next takes the field against Louisville on Dec. 5. And while it's on the sidelines, its fate rests on the team that handed it its only conference loss of the season.
On Oct. 5, the Bearcats lost a brutal 26-20 decision at South Florida. The Bulls scored on special teams and on defense against a Cincinnati squad still reeling from the death of redshirt freshman Ben Flick in an auto accident. Since then, the Bearcats are 6-0 and the Bulls are 1-4 and have dropped four straight.
For Cincinnati to have a chance at the title, it needs the Bulls to end that streak this week. That's because USF takes on Central Florida on Friday, and the Knights remain atop the league with a 6-0 record and only one more game remaining, a Dec. 7 contest against an SMU team that may be without starting quarterback Garrett Gilbert, the record-setting signal caller who injured his knee this weekend against -- wait for it -- South Florida.
Ordinarily, the Bearcats would get their chance to prove themselves against the Knights head-to-head. But because the league has 10 teams and an eight-game conference schedule, these two teams won't meet each other in 2013.
"Of course, Central Florida is going to have to lose a game and if they do and both us and Louisville move up -- and we should be in the top 25 this week -- then the winner of our game would have an opportunity to play in the BCS," Cincinnati coach Tommy Tuberville said. "But UCF they're playing awfully well. We can't control that."
Regardless of what happens this weekend, the Cincinnati-Louisville game on Dec. 5 is shaping up as one of the best of the season. Both have taken care of Houston in back-to-back weeks, knocking the Cougars out of contention. The winner would remain in the hunt for at least a share of the league title, while the loser would likely see its bowl position negatively affected.
For Tuberville and the Bearcats, all they can do is take care of business, cheer for the Bulls, and lament both the schedule-maker and the fact that it took the team just a little too long to gel.
"We didn't have an identity until about the fifth game of the year and we've really played well," Tuberville said. "We've been a good football team for about the past five or six weeks. We've made some mistakes, but we've been good enough to overcome those mistakes. We've gotten better at almost every position."
FIVE BIGGEST TAKEAWAYS FROM WEEK 13 IN THE AAC
1. Cincinnati may be the hottest team in the league apart from Central Florida, but the Bearcats gave Houston extra chances this week because of its kicking woes. Tony Miliano missed two field goals in the fourth quarter, including a 24-yarder with 1:23 to play.
2. Southern Methodist is hopeful that Garrett Gilbert will be back this season, if for no other reason that it would be a shame for the record-setting quarterback to end his college career on crutches. The Mustangs need at least a split in its last two games to be bowl-eligible.
3. Central Florida's Blake Bortles moved into fourth place on the school's all-time completions list with 524, passing Steven Moffett. He's got a long way to go to first place, however -- that's held by Daunte Culpepper at 889.
4. This hasn't been a great year for Lyle McCombs, but he's within shouting distance of one school record. The redshirt junior has 663 career carries, 35 behind all-time Huskies leader Donald Brown.
5. Louisville was short one of its top defenders against Memphis, as safety Calvin Pryor was suspended for an undisclosed violation of team rules. He's expected back on the field against Cincinnati.