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No. 4 Cincinnati handles Houston in AAC title game to set up likely CFP berth

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No. 4 Cincinnati took care of business yet again. And now all the Bearcats can do is wait and see if the College Football Playoff selection committee thinks they are one of the four best teams in the country.

The Bearcats improved to 13-0 by rolling past No. 21 Houston 35-20 at home in the American Athletic Conference championship game on Saturday. The game was close for a while, until the Bearcats scored 21 points in the span of just over four minutes early in the third quarter.

That flurry of action extended what was a tight 14-13 lead into a 35-13 advantage, igniting the crowd at Nippert Stadium as they sensed their team inching closer to making history by becoming the first Group of Five program to reach the four-team playoff.

CINCINNATI, OHIO - DECEMBER 04: Desmond Ridder #9 of the Cincinnati Bearcats carries the ball past Logan Hall #92 of the Houston Cougars during the first half of the 2021 American Conference Championship at Nippert Stadium on December 04, 2021 in Cincinnati, Ohio. (Photo by Emilee Chinn/Getty Images)
Cincinnati quarterback Desmond Ridder threw three touchdown passes against Houston in the American Conference Championship. (Photo by Emilee Chinn/Getty Images)

Cincinnati pulls away with third-quarter flurry

Houston seemed like it could potentially play the role of spoiler in the early going, but Luke Fickell’s group was up for the challenge.

The Bearcats opened the second half with a 75-yard scoring drive that was aided by a questionable pass interference call on Houston on a fourth-down play in the red zone.

That made the score 21-13. And on the first play of the ensuing possession, UC’s Joel Dublanko intercepted Houston quarterback Clayton Tune deep in UH territory. Two plays later, Desmond Ridder threw his third touchdown pass of the game, this time to Alec Pierce, to make it 28-13.

Houston then went three-and-out, and Jerome Ford busted the score open by reeling off a 42-yard touchdown run to make it 35-13. Ford, the Alabama transfer, had a 79-yard touchdown run in the first quarter and finished the game with 187 yards and two scores on just 18 carries.

Those three touchdowns were scored in the span of 4:24. It was the sequence of events that should send the Bearcats to the national semifinals.

College Football Playoff next?

Many have been understandably skeptical that a Group of Five program would ever be included in the playoff field. Cincinnati was undefeated last season, but was No. 8 in the final CFP rankings.

This year, though, a road win over Notre Dame helped give Cincinnati a resume boost. There were some close calls in AAC play along the way, but the Bearcats just kept winning. And they played their best ball late in the year, blowing out SMU (48-14) and East Carolina (35-13) before beating a Houston team that entered Saturday's game on an 11-game winning streak.

Still, it was fair to wonder if Cincinnati was truly in a win-and-in situation.

Oklahoma State was No. 5 in last week's CFP rankings, and it wouldn't have been farfetched for the Cowboys to move past Cincinnati if they won the Big 12 title by beating No. 9 Baylor.

But Baylor pulled off the upset in Arlington in dramatic fashion earlier Saturday. It was a result that was huge for Cincinnati's CFP hopes — especially with the way No. 3 Alabama played against No. 1 Georgia in the SEC title game.

With those two certainly in the top four, plus No. 2 Michigan if it takes care of Iowa in the Big Ten title game, Cincinnati then needed to take care of its own conference title game.

Now that it did, Cincinnati should hear its name called among the four playoff teams on Sunday.