Oct 21, 2021; Cleveland, Ohio, USA; Cleveland Browns quarterback Case Keenum (5) calls out from behind center JC Tretter (64) against the Denver Broncos during the second quarter at FirstEnergy Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Scott Galvin-USA TODAY Sports

Bengals, Browns bring out the backups in Week 18

Baker Mayfield ended his 2021 season this week, but the Cleveland Browns have one more game when the AFC North champion Cincinnati Bengals visit for the regular-season finale.

Mayfield landed on injured reserve Wednesday and is headed for surgery to repair a torn labrum in his left shoulder. Backup Case Keenum will start for the floundering Browns (7-9), who have lost three in a row and eight of 12 since a 3-1 season start.

Cleveland was eliminated from playoff contention in the AFC last Sunday. Mayfield struggled most of the season with a host of injuries.

“Nobody wanted this — the way this is going, it’s gone, Baker for sure,” said Keenum, who started and piloted the Browns to a 17-14 win over visiting Denver in Week 7. “It’s a tough football league, and that’s kind of the way it is sometimes.”

Cleveland coach Kevin Stefanski has faith in Keenum to get the job done, and he said anyone who is healthy will play. That includes defensive end Myles Garrett, who has 15 sacks on the season but none in the last three games, and running back Nick Chubb (1,201 rushing yards), who was a minimal part of the game plan in Cleveland’s 26-14 loss at Pittsburgh on Monday night.

“(Keenum) is a pro,” Stefanski said. “Just in my conversations already with him this week, he’s ready for the opportunity. He very badly wants to get a win like the rest of our guys do.”

The Bengals (10-6) have won three straight to claim the North title. Cincinnati plans to play without red-hot quarterback Joe Burrow. After posting 971 passing yards and nine touchdowns in his last two games, Burrow will sit out the finale to rest a sore knee and prep for wildcard weekend.

“It’s sore, but it’s not bad,” Burrow said Wednesday. “I could play if I needed to.”

The Bengals have a long-shot chance to finish as the top seed in the AFC, but coach Zac Taylor is likely to hold out several starters. He confirmed it was his decision to rest Burrow. Brandon Allen, who has attempted just two passes this season, will start for Cincinnati.

Taylor might not have many of his regulars available due to COVID-19. On Tuesday, the Bengals placed safety Vonn Bell, linebacker Akeem-Davis Gaither, defensive end Trey Hendrickson, and offensive linemen Trey Hopkins and Quinton Spain on the reserve/COVID-19 list. On Wednesday, Cincinnati added Pro-Bowl running back Joe Mixon and defensive tackle B.J. Hill to the same list.

Taylor wouldn’t commit Wednesday to a number of his starters who could miss for rest or otherwise. Ja’Marr Chase, already with a modern NFL rookie record 1,429 receiving yards this season, is a prime example of a standout player who may or may not see much action in the finale.

“I can’t make a prediction on starters right now. A lot can happen before Sunday,” Taylor said Wednesday.

Cleveland will be gunning for a fourth win in a row over the Bengals and Stefanski has yet to lose to this division rival in his two seasons. The Browns hammered the Bengals, 41-16, in the first matchup this season in early November.

But Cleveland is 2-5 since, hasn’t scored more than 24 points since the offensive explosion, and only twice in the last seven games has managed to break 20.

The Bengals, meanwhile, have relied on Burrow, Mixon and a dynamic Chase-led wide receiver group to pile up 75 points in the last two games. Taylor said his team will play to win but won’t put some players in jeopardy before the playoffs.

“We want to finish the regular season on a good note,” he said.

The Browns had 15 players on Wednesday’s injury report, with starters in cornerback Denzel Ward (groin), tight end David Njoku (shoulder), and defensive tackle Malik Jackson (knee) all listed as non-participants.

The Bengals had eight players miss practice due to rest or injury on Wednesday, including key players in Burrow (rest/knee), defensive tackles DJ Reader (rest) and Larry Ogunjobi (illness), defensive end Sam Hubbard (thigh) and tight end C.J. Uzomah (knee/hip).

–Field Level Media

Aug 9, 2021; West Harrison, Indiana, USA; Cincinnati Bearcats offensive coordinator Mike Denbrock directs a drill during practice at the Higher Ground training facility. Mandatory Credit: Sam Greene/The Cincinnati Enquirer via USA TODAY NETWORK

Reports: Cincinnati OC Mike Denbrock heading to LSU

Cincinnati offensive coordinator Mike Denbrock is expected to leave the school to take the same position at LSU, multiple outlets reported Saturday.

Denbrock joined the Bearcats staff in 2017. In 2021, he helped to lead Cincinnati to an undefeated regular season and the College Football Playoff.

The Bearcats were the first Group of Five team to qualify for the CFP and were defeated by Alabama 27-6 on Friday in the Cotton Bowl. They finished with a 13-1 record.

At LSU, he’ll be joining the staff of Brian Kelly, who was hired Nov. 30. Denbrock, who turns 58 this month, worked under Kelly at both Grand Valley State and at Notre Dame. He’s also coached at Illinois State, Stanford and Washington.

–Field Level Media

Dec 31, 2021; Arlington, Texas, USA; Alabama Crimson Tide linebacker Dallas Turner (15) reacts during the first half against the Cincinnati Bearcats in the 2021 Cotton Bowl college football CFP national semifinal game at AT&T Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

No. 1 Alabama handles No. 4 Cincinnati, advances to championship game

Alabama will play for a second straight national title after the top-ranked Crimson Tide defeated No. 4 Cincinnati 27-6 in a College Football Playoff semifinal in Arlington, Texas, on Friday.

Heisman Trophy winner Bryce Young threw for 181 yards and three touchdowns and Brian Robinson Jr., ran for an Alabama (13-1) bowl record and career high 204 yards on 26 carries.

Cincinnati (13-1), the first non-Power 5 school to play in the CFP, kept it close until Young found Ja’Core Brooks for a 44-yard TD with 1:36 left in the first half to make it 17-3.

Bearcats QB Desmond Ridder was 17 for 32 for 144 yards as Cincinnati had 218 total yards. Alabama had 482, 301 on the ground.

The Crimson Tide will face the Georgia-Michigan winner from later Friday in the championship game on Jan. 10 in Indianapolis.

Alabama downed Ohio State in 2021 and earned titles in 2016 and 2018 while losing in the 2017 and 2019 finals since the first CFP in 2015.

Cincinnati pulled to within 17-6 early in the third quarter on a 37-yard field goal by Cole Smith but the Crimson Tide extended the lead to 24-6 with 13:52 left in the game on Cameron Latu’s 9-yard reception.

Young (17 for 28) has 46 TD passes to smash the school season record of 43 by Tua Tagovailoa in 2018.

Will Reichard added a 43-yard field goal with 6:20 left for the final margin.

The Crimson Tide asserted themselves on the game’s opening drive, going 75 yards in 11 plays for a 7-0 lead on an 8-yard pass from Young to Slade Bolden. Robinson had six carries for 37 yards in the series and receiver Jameson Williams had an 18-yard run.

Cincinnati’s first possession resulted in a 33-yard field goal by Smith to make it 7-3. Reichard made it a seven-point lead with a 26-yard field goal on the first play of the second quarter

–Field Level Media

Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver Tee Higgins (85) catches a pass as Baltimore Ravens cornerback Kevon Seymour (38) defends in the third quarter during a Week 16 NFL game, Sunday, Dec. 26, 2021, at Paul Brown Stadium in Cincinnati. The Cincinnati Bengals defeated the Baltimore Ravens, 41-21.

Baltimore Ravens At Cincinnati Bengals Dec 26

Star WRs abound as Chiefs, Bengals jockey for playoff positions

Playmaking receivers for the Kansas City Chiefs do not have to be named Travis Kelce or Tyreek Hill.

Patrick Mahomes insists “any game can be anybody’s week” and proved his point last week when Kelce was among several Chiefs sidelined by COVID-19 and Hill just coming off the virus.

Each is expected to be at full strength Sunday when Kansas City (11-4) carries an eight-game win streak into Cincinnati for an AFC showdown against the Bengals (9-6).

The Chiefs look to close in on the No. 1 seed in the AFC for the third time in the four seasons since Mahomes has engineered their attack.

Kansas City holds a one-game advantage over Tennessee in the chase for the first-round bye and homefield advantage that goes to the top seed.

When asked how the Chiefs overcame a 3-4 start, Mahomes said, “nobody held their head down. We knew there was a lot of season left and everything we wanted was right in front of us.

“Our guys came in with the right mentality every single day to get better and we’re sitting where we’re at right now, but the job’s not finished.”

Kansas City’s resolve has rarely been more evident than during last week’s 36-10 dismantling of Pittsburgh, when Byron Pringle rose up to catch six passes for 75 yards and two touchdowns. The Chiefs also relied on multiple rushing threats, though starter Clyde Edwards-Helaire suffered a shoulder injury and will miss the Cincinnati game.

A significant challenge awaits from the Bengals, who need only a win to clinch their first AFC North title since 2015. Joe Burrow is coming off a franchise-record 525 yards passing in a rout of Baltimore, going 37 of 46 with four touchdowns.

“He’s a smooth operator,” said the Chiefs’ Andy Reid, who will observe his 400th game as an NFL head coach Sunday.

Tee Higgins has been surging, posting 583 yards receiving in the last five games. Both he and rookie Ja’Marr Chase have more than 1,000 receiving yards on the season, a feat also achieved by the Chiefs’ Kelce and Hill.

The Bengals’ Joe Mixon ranks second among NFL rushers with 1,159 yards.

Kansas City counters with an offense ranked third in the NFL, while its defense has allowed an average of 11.4 points during the nine-game win streak.

“We’re going in expecting to score a lot of points and we’ll have to adapt accordingly,” Burrow said.

Cincinnati has won its last two but has yet to win more than two straight this season. The Bengals’ convincing win over the Ravens, however, is potentially part of a season-ending uptick.

“No moment is too big for our guys right now. They’ve risen to the occasion in a lot of different games,” Bengals coach Zac Taylor said. “Our guys have had the right mentality, an aggressive mentality.”

Cincinnati’s Germaine Pratt has been placed on the COVID-19 reserve list. Another defender, D.J. Reader (COVID-19), could remain out after missing the Baltimore game. Mike D. Thomas has been reinstated to the active roster and taken off the COVID-19 list. Cam Sample (hamstring) and Jalen Davis (ankle) did not practice Wednesday.

After a rash of COVID-19 infections riddled Kansas City’s two-deep a week ago, everyone on the 53-man active roster was free of the virus when preparations for the Bengals began Wednesday. The Chiefs return their leading receiver (Kelce), leading tackler (Nick Bolton) and leading scorer (Harrison Butker).

–Field Level Media

Dec 4, 2021; Cincinnati, Ohio, USA; Cincinnati Bearcats quarterback Desmond Ridder (9) calls a play against the Houston Cougars in the second half during the American Athletic Conference championship game at Nippert Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Katie Stratman-USA TODAY Sports

Upstart No. 4 Cincinnati aims to take down No. 1 Alabama

Top-ranked Alabama starts its postseason quest for a second straight national championship when it opposes College Football Playoff barrier-breaker Cincinnati on Dec. 31 in the Cotton Bowl at Arlington, Texas.

The Crimson Tide (12-1) are old hands at the CFP, making their seventh appearance in the eight years that the current title-deciding format has been in place.

In addition to a 52-24 win over Ohio State in the 2020-21 title game, Alabama won it all in 2015-16 and 2017-18 but took championship-game losses in 2016-17 and 2018-19.

In contrast, the No. 4 Bearcats (13-0) are the first non-Power 5 conference program to be selected for the College Football Playoff.

“There’s a reason they’ve been in the playoff seven out of the eight years,” Cincinnati coach Luke Fickell said of Alabama. “This is not just a top-five program; this is the top program.

“It’s an incredible measuring stick on an incredible stage with an incredible opportunity.”

It might seem like a formidable challenge for Cincinnati, but the first step is overcoming the Alabama mystique.

“Our players know who they’re playing,” Fickell said. “They know what (Alabama) is all about, what that program is all about. Now we have to try to find ways to humanize them and bring ourselves back into doing what we need to do.

“The reality is we’re not the best team, probably. But that doesn’t really matter, because on the 31st, it’s really going to be about who is going to play the best.”

The Bearcats will rely on the nation’s second-best pass defense (168.3 yards allowed per game) to contain Heisman Trophy-winning Alabama quarterback Bryce Young.

While Young threw for 4,322 yards and 43 touchdowns with just four interceptions, Cincinnati has 18 picks (third in the nation in the regular season) and 37 sacks (tied for 19th).

“They don’t make a lot of mistakes,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said of the Bearcats. “They have some very talented guys. They have a good secondary. They have some guys up front that can rush and have some quickness, and their linebackers are very good players. All around, this is a very good defensive team.”

Young has guided Alabama to the nation’s fourth-best scoring average, 42.5 points per game.

“As a sophomore in his first year playing, the way he commands, the patience and poise he plays with, a lot of guys will think he can run and is a good athlete, but really for a young guy, I’ve never seen somebody who uses his feet to take off but does it to throw the ball down the field,” Fickell said.

Cincinnati counters with Desmond Ridder, who passed for 3,190 yards with 30 TDs and eight interceptions and rushed for 361 yards with six scores.

He will face All-America linebacker Will Anderson Jr., who leads the nation with 15 1/2 sacks.

Cincinnati’s leading ball-carrier, running back Jerome Ford (1,242 yards and 19 touchdowns this season), transferred from Alabama after the 2019 season.

The Crimson Tide are 5-1 in national semifinals, with the loss coming in the inaugural CFP in 2014-15. That 42-35 setback came against Ohio State, which had Fickell as its co-defensive coordinator.

The Cincinnati-Alabama winner will play the Orange Bowl winner, No. 2 Michigan or No. 3 Georgia, for the national title on Jan. 10 in Indianapolis.

–Field Level Media

Dec 4, 2021; Atlanta, GA, USA; Georgia Bulldogs head coach Kirby Smart greets Alabama Crimson Tide head coach Nick Saban before the SEC championship game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

Amid COVID-19 surge, College Football Playoff sets contingency plans

Amid a surge of COVID-19 cases, the College Football Playoff established contingency plans Wednesday regarding forfeits, schedules and other scenarios for the semifinals and national championship.

For the playoff semifinals — the Cotton and Orange Bowls — should one team be unavailable to play, it would forfeit the game and its opponent would advance to the national championship game.

If both teams in one semifinal are unable to play, that game would be declared a “no contest,” and the winner of the other semifinal game will be declared as the sport’s national champion.

Should three of the four semifinalists be unable to play, the game with two unavailable teams would be declared a “no contest” and the team unable to play in the other semifinal would forfeit — making the fourth team, and only team able to play, the national champion by default.

If two teams advance to the national championship game as planned, but then one of them is unable to play, the national championship game in Indianapolis can be rescheduled to a later date, no later than Friday, Jan. 14. If one team can play by that date but the other cannot, the team unable to play will forfeit. If both teams are unable to play, then the game will be declared a “no contest” and the season will end without a champion.

“As we prepare for the playoff, it’s wise and necessary to put into place additional precautions to protect those who will play and coach the games,” College Football Playoff executive director Bill Hancock said in a statement. “These policies will better protect our students and staffs while providing clarity in the event worst-case scenarios result.”

In addition to these contingencies, the College Football Playoff has implemented several other policies. It will allow teams to arrive to the bowl sites two days before a game, instead of the usual five days before the game.

Attendance at bowl games was made optional for the bands, sprit squads and staff members of competing schools. For media members, all access to players and coaches will be virtual.

Access to the playing field will also be more limited to those who aren’t players, coaches or essential staff.

For the Fiesta and Peach Bowls, the College Football Playoff, bowl organizers and ESPN would try to reschedule the game within one week of its original date if one or both teams involved are unable to play. If a new date can’t be set, the game will be a “no contest.”

For now, the College Football Playoff semifinals are set for Dec. 31. No. 1 Alabama will face No. 4 Cincinnati at 3:30 p.m. EST at the Cotton Bowl, and No. 2 Michigan will take on No. 3 Georgia at 7:30 p.m. EST at the Orange Bowl. The national championship game is scheduled for Jan. 10 in Indianapolis.

Wednesday’s announcement from the College Football Playoff came shortly after Alabama announced that offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien and offensive line coach Doug Marrone tested positive for COVID-19.

Michigan offensive tackle Andrew Stueber said Tuesday that the Wolverines were getting a “full team booster shot” on Wednesday.

“We implemented masks in meetings, maintaining social distancing,” Stueber said. “A lot of people are taking their meals to go, not really sitting too much.”

–Field Level Media

Cincinnati Bengals nose tackle D.J. Reader (98) tackles Denver Broncos running back Melvin Gordon (25) in the first half the NFL football game between the Cincinnati Bengals and the Denver Broncos on Sunday, Dec. 19, 2021, at Empower Field in Denver, Co.

Cincinnati Bengals At Denver Broncos 371

Bengals slide past Broncos to grab share of AFC North lead

Joe Burrow was 15-of-22 passing for 157 yards and a touchdown, Tyler Boyd had five receptions for 96 yards and a score, and the visiting Cincinnati Bengals beat the Denver Broncos 15-10 on Sunday.

Evan McPherson kicked three field goals, including a franchise-record 58-yarder, for Cincinnati (8-6), which snapped a two-game skid and moved into a tie for first place in the AFC North with the Baltimore Ravens.

Drew Lock was 6-of-12 passing for 88 yards and a score for the Broncos in relief of injured quarterback Teddy Bridgewater. Bridgewater was 12-for-22 passing for 98 yards before leaving with a head injury in the third quarter.

Tim Patrick had three catches for 42 yards and a TD for Denver (7-7).

McPherson kicked a 53-yard field goal in the first quarter and Brandon McManus nailed a 54-yarder to tie it in the second quarter.

McManus missed wide left on a 51-yard attempt with nine seconds left in the half, giving Cincinnati the ball at its 41-yard line. Burrow’s 19-yard completion to Boyd set up McPherson’s record field goal and a 6-3 halftime lead.

The Bengals went ahead 9-3 on McPherson’s third field goal, this one from 26 yards, with 6:21 left in the third quarter.

On the ensuing drive, Bridgewater was hurt when he scrambled. He dove for the first-down yardage as Bengals linebacker Joe Bachie hit his legs and defensive lineman B.J. Hill hit him in the back, propelling propelled Bridgewater face first into the turf.

Bridgewater laid on the ground motionless as he was attended to by Denver’s medical personnel. He was taken off the field on a cart with his head and neck immobilized with 5:34 left in the quarter.

The Broncos announced he suffered a head injury and had movement in all extremities. He was taken to a local hospital for further evaluation.

Lock came in and finished the drive with a 25-yard touchdown pass to Patrick and a 10-9 lead. Cincinnati answered when Burrow hit Boyd with a 56-yard TD pass. The Bengals’ 2-point conversion failed and they led by five.

In the fourth quarter, Denver drove to the Cincinnati 9 but Lock fumbled when he was stripped by Khalid Kareem.

–Field Level Media

Dec 5, 2021; Cincinnati, Ohio, USA; Los Angeles Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert (10) throws before the game against the Cincinnati Bengals at Paul Brown Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Joseph Maiorana-USA TODAY Sports

Justin Herbert guides Chargers to win over Bengals

Justin Herbert threw all three of his touchdown passes in the first half and the visiting Los Angeles Chargers survived a late scare to earn a 41-22 victory Sunday over the Cincinnati Bengals.

Keenan Allen caught two TD passes from Herbert in the first quarter alone as the Chargers (7-5) rebounded from a road defeat at Denver last week. Herbert was 26 of 35 for 317 yards with an interception.

Los Angeles overcame two fumbles from Austin Ekeler but wedged some late breathing room on a Cincinnati turnover. The Chargers’ Tevaughn Campbell returned a fumble by Joe Mixon 61 yards for a TD and a 31-22 lead with 13:43 remaining.

The Chargers’ 16 points in the first quarter were their most since September 2012. They lost star defensive end Joey Bosa in the first quarter to a head injury.

Joe Burrow was 24 of 40 for 300 yards with one TD and two interceptions for Cincinnati (7-5), while playing with a swollen right pinky finger. Mixon had 54 yards rushing on 19 carries with a TD, finding the end zone in his ninth consecutive game.

The Chargers hit the scoreboard first when Allen caught a 4-yard TD pass from Herbert just 3:29 into the game. Dustin Hopkins missed the extra point, but his 43-yard field goal with 6:33 remaining in the quarter gave Los Angeles a 9-0 advantage.

The Chargers made it 16-0 with 1:36 left in the opening quarter when Allen caught a 7-yard TD pass to cap a five-play, 73-yard drive.

When Los Angeles’ Jalen Guyton caught a 44-yard TD pass from Herbert less than five minutes into the second quarter, the Chargers had a 24-0 lead.

The Bengals’ comeback began midway through the second quarter when Tee Higgins caught a 29-yard TD pass from Burrow. Higgins had nine catches for 138 yards. A 6-yard TD run from Burrow with 2:40 remaining in the half pulled Cincinnati to within 24-13. That drive began after an Ekeler fumble.

The Bengals’ Evan McPherson made a 48-yard field goal 5:03 into the third quarter, and Mixon scored on a 7-yard run with 7:10 left in the third after another Ekeler fumble. Cincinnati tried a two-point conversion that would have tied the game at 24-all, but Mixon was stopped on a run to the right side.

Los Angeles got a 1-yard TD run from Ekeler and a Hopkins field goal in the final 10:49 of the game.

–Field Level Media

Dec 4, 2021; Atlanta, GA, USA; Alabama Crimson Tide defensive back Jordan Battle (9) celebrates with tight end Jahleel Billingsley (19) after an interception return for a touchdown against the Georgia Bulldogs in the second half during the SEC championship game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

College Football Playoff: No. 1 Alabama vs. No. 4 Cincinnati, No. 2 Michigan vs. No. 3 Georgia

Alabama is the No. 1 seed in the College Football Playoff and will face No. 4 Cincinnati, while No. 2 Michigan and No. 3 Georgia will square off on the road to the national championship.

The defending champion Crimson Tide and the Bearcats — the first-ever Group of Five team to qualify for the playoff — will meet in the Cotton Bowl at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, on New Year’s Eve. The Wolverines will face the Bulldogs in the Orange Bowl at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens, Fla., that same night.

The winners will meet Jan. 10 in the College Football Playoff championship game at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis.

The College Football Playoff committee ranked Notre Dame (11-1) as No. 5, followed by No. 6 Ohio State (10-2).

Gary Barta, the CFP committee selection chair, said Alabama’s win in the SEC title game and a strong in-season resume led to the Crimson Tide earning the No. 1 seed.

“At the end of the day, the complete victory over Georgia, the committee came out of there with a strong consensus that Alabama was No. 1 and Michigan was No. 2,” he said.

Alabama won the Southeastern Conference title on Saturday with a 41-24 victory over previous No. 1 Georgia. Both teams finished the season with a 12-1 record. The Crimson Tide’s only loss was a 41-38 decision at Texas A&M on Oct. 9.

With its 42-3 drubbing of No. 13 Iowa on Saturday, Michigan won its first Big Ten title since 2004 and finished 12-1. A 37-33 loss at Michigan State on Oct. 30 kept the Wolverines from a perfect season.

Cincinnati did achieve perfection, running its record to 13-0 with a 35-20 defeat of No. 21 Houston in the American Athletic Conference championship game on Saturday.

Alabama is making its sixth appearance in the eight-year history of the CFP. This is the second appearance for Georgia.

On Jan. 8, 2018, Georgia had a 20-7 lead in the third quarter against Alabama, but freshman quarterback Tua Tagovailoa replaced starter Jalen Hurts and led the Crimson Tide to a 26-23 overtime win.

–Field Level Media

Nov 26, 2021; Greenville, North Carolina, USA; Cincinnati Bearcats quarterback Desmond Ridder (9) throws the ball during the second half against the East Carolina Pirates at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium. Mandatory Credit: James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports

No. 4 Cincinnati looks to make CFP case vs. No. 21 Houston

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.

–Field Level Media