AAC championship at stake in Memphis-Cincinnati rematch
For the fourth time ever, teams that met in a regular-season finale will play in a conference championship a week later.
That makes Saturday’s Cincinnati-Memphis rematch to determine the American Athletic Conference a bit unusual. They’re returning to Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium just eight days after Memphis beat Cincinnati 34-24 on this same field.
"It's very intriguing, going back-to-back against the same team," Cincinnati coach Luke Fickell said. “It's also difficult in some ways, too. For the coaches, it's unique. What do you do? How much do you change? What do you change? We've got to do some different things, but you don't want to do too much. It's quite unique and different just because of the situation.”
No. 16 Memphis (11-1, 7-1, No. 17 No. College Football Playoff) earned the right to host the American Athletic Conference championship game by beating Cincinnati last week.
This is the first conference championship game for No. 21 Cincinnati (10-2, 7-1 AAC, No. 20 CFP). Memphis is playing in this title game for the third straight year, though this is the first time the Tigers have home-field advantage after losing to Central Florida each of the past two seasons.
"We have unfinished business of what we want to accomplish," Memphis coach Mike Norvell said.
Memphis must try to beat the same team in consecutive games to possibly earn a New Year's Six berth in the Cotton Bowl.
The last three times teams met in a regular-season finale and then the conference championship game, only Stanford managed a sweep in 2012 over UCLA. Fresno State and Boise State split in 2017. Middle Tennessee was in this spot last year, hosting UAB in both games and losing the rematch.
Tigers wide receiver Antonio Gibson says Memphis wants to prove last week's win wasn't a fluke.
"People say it's hard to beat the team twice but we're going to prepare and focus on us and make the corrections that we need to make, play our ball game," Gibson said. "So it's a good opportunity for us to showcase what we got."
Some other things to know about Saturday's Cincinnati-Memphis rematch:
One thing will be different with Cincinnati quarterback Desmond Ridder set to start after an injured shoulder snapped his streak of 23 consecutive starts in the regular season finale. The injury had limited him to a combined 140 yards passing his previous two starts. Cincinnati, which has 21 wins with Ridder, snapped a nine-game winning streak with freshman Ben Bryant filling in last week.
"He's been our starting quarterback for two years," Fickell said of Ridder. "That's who we are, what we do. Obviously last week was a unique situation, but that doesn't change what he has done."
The Tigers will have a chance to show how much they've learned from playing in this title game the past two seasons. Memphis had leads in each of those games only to lose 56-41 last year to UCF and 62-55 in double overtime in 2017. Norvell said the Tigers got caught looking at the clock last year and tried to hold up as momentum turned.
"They know what's in front of us," Norvell said. “They know what it takes. We have two years of experience being in a game of this magnitude, and we've had a young team. There's a lot of guys on this team now that have lived through that experience once, if not two times.”
Cincinnati has plenty of experience having gone through a pair of back-to-back 4-8 seasons before winning 11 last year. Last week's loss was the first for the Bearcats since being routed 42-0 by Ohio State on Sept. 7. Linebacker Perry Young says the senior class has been through so much that this second loss made them work even harder.
Memphis jumped out to a 14-3 lead, and the Bearcats never got closer than three twice in the final 17 minutes. The AAC's top scoring defense held Memphis to its third-lowest scoring game this season. The Tigers, who had prepared all week to see Ridder and not Bryant, had a season-high five sacks.
The Memphis coach is 37-15 in his fourth season, which has made him a popular candidate for openings such as Arkansas, Mississippi and Florida State. Norvell told the story Monday of his first official visit with a player in his first week at Memphis, when a player asked how long Norvell would be at Memphis. Norvell said he's honored to represent Memphis.
"I've got a lot of unanswered text messages, I can promise you that," Norvell said.