Cincinnati joined the American Athletic Conference in 2013, one of the teams that switched from the Big East. The Bearcats, along with Houston and Central Florida are now departing and will compete this fall in the Big 12.
Here is a look at the top five moments for Cincinnati football in the AAC.
1. Making history in 2021
Cincinnati became the first Group of Five team to earn one of the four College Football Playoff berths since its inception in the 2014 season. The Bearcats went 13-0 in the regular season and had no margin for error. One loss would have eliminated them from realistic contention.
The biggest non-conference challenge turned into a 24-13 win at Notre Dame in the fourth game of the season. Cincinnati entered the game ranked No. 7 and Notre Dame was No. 9. Notre Dame cut the lead to 17-13 on Braden Lenzy’s 32-yard touchdown pass from Drew Pyne with 8:20 left in the fourth quarter. Cincinnati would seal the win on a Desmond Ridder 6-yard touchdown run with 5:08 left.
Ridder completed 19/32 for 297 yards, two touchdowns, and no interceptions. He also rushed for 26 yards and a touchdown on 10 carries. Alec Pierce had six receptions for 144 yards. Deshawn Pace and Ahmad “Sauce” Gardner each had interceptions to lead Cincinnati’s defensive effort.
That would be Notre Dame’s lone loss during an 11-1 regular season. The Fighting Irish would lose 37-35 to Oklahoma State in the Fiesta Bowl to finish 11-2.
After the Notre Dame win, Cincinnati would survive two one-score games, winning 27-20 at Navy and 28-20 at home against Tulsa.
The Bearcats then beat visiting Houston 35-20 to win their second consecutive AAC championship game. This was a dominant performance by Cincinnati, which led 35-13 after three quarters. Jerome Ford was named the AAC championship game MVP, rushing for 187 yards on 17 carries and scoring on touchdown runs of 79 and 42 yards. Ridder went 11/17 for 190 yards, three touchdowns, and no interceptions. Darrian Beavers and Ty Van Fossen each had nine tackles.
The Bearcats ended their season with a 27-6 College Football Playoff semifinal loss to Alabama during the Cotton Bowl in Arlington, Texas.
2. The First AAC championship game victory in 2020
During the shortened COVID season, Cincinnati went 9-1 and was 6-0 in the AAC. The Bearcats were steamrolling opponents before surviving a 36-33 victory at UCF in the final game of the regular season. Once trailing 14-3, Cincinnati led 36-25 before UCF cut it to 36-33 on a 10-yard scoring pass and a two-point conversion pass with 4:27 left. The Bearcats would then run the clock almost all the way down, giving the Knights the ball with just eight seconds left.
The No. 9 Bearcats then won another nail-biter, beating No. 23 Tulsa 27-24 in the AAC championship game, with Cole Smith kicking a 34-yard field goal as time expired. Alec Pierce had five receptions for 146 yards and a touchdown to lead Cincinnati.
Even though Cincinnati finished 9-0 in the regular season, the Bearcats didn’t earn one of the four College Football Playoff berths. Still, they earned a New Year’s Six Bowl game and lost 24-21 in the Peach Bowl to Georgia.
Cincinnati led 21-10 in the fourth quarter, but Georgia stormed back and took a 22-21 lead on Jack Podlesny’s 53-yard field goal with three seconds left. Riddler was then tackled for a safety on the game’s final play.
As it turns out, this was a truly impressive defeat. Georgia has since gone on to win the past two national championships and Cincinnati used the loss to earn a College Football Playoff berth the next season.
3. The first AAC title game appearance in 2019
Cincinnati earned its first AAC title game appearance, mainly with a series of close wins. This was still when the AAC had two divisions and the Bearcats won the East Division with a 7-1 record. UCF was second at 6-2.
The difference was Cincinnati’s early season 27-24 home win over then No. 18 UCF. Cincinnati took the lead for good, 20-16, when then-freshman Gardner returned an interception 16 yards for a touchdown with 5:08 left in the third quarter. Pierce’s 11-yard scoring pass from Ridder made it 27-16 on the first play of the fourth quarter. UCF would score with 3:11 left, but Cincinnati would run out the clock to preserve the win.
Cincinnati won four AAC games by three points or fewer. In addition to the UCF victory, the Bearcats won 46-43 at East Carolina, 20-17 at South Florida, and 15-13 at home against Temple.
The one AAC nemesis was Memphis.
The Tigers beat Cincinnati 34-24 at Memphis in the regular-season finale and then defeated the visiting Bearcats 29-24 the next week in the AAC championship. It would be the first of three straight championship game appearances for Cincinnati under the guidance of coach Luke Fickell.
4. Tri-Champions in 2014
A week after losing 50-28 at Ohio State, Cincinnati opened its AAC schedule with a 41-14 home loss to Memphis. That gave the Bearcats no margin for error. Cincinnati couldn’t afford a misstep in conference play. Following a 55-34 non-conference loss at Miami, Cincinnati ran the table in its AAC schedule, winning its last seven games. The clincher was a 38-31 home win over Houston. That gave Cincinnati, Memphis, and UCF all 7-1 records to make the teams tri-champs. This was before the AAC split into divisions and a year before the inaugural championship game.
Trailing 38-31, Houston made one last-ditch effort, driving to the Bearcats 11-yard line before throwing three incompletions as time expired. (Houston would rebound to win the inaugural AAC championship game, beating Temple, 24-13 in the 2015 title game).
Gunner Kiel completed 15/24 for 190 yards and two touchdowns and no interceptions for the Bearcats. When he left the game due to cramps, backup Munchie Legaux completed 10 of 14 for 140 yards.
Mike Boone rushed for 85 yards and three touchdowns on 17 carries. Safety Zach Edwards led the defensive effort with 13 tackles.
The Bearcats finished the season 9-4 overall and 7-1 in the AAC.
5. The career of Ahmad “Sauce” Gardner
In three seasons, the 6-3, 200-pound cornerback helped lead Cincinnati to a 33-5 record, three appearances in the AAC title game, and two championships, in addition to a College Football Playoff berth. During his final season in 2021, he was the unanimous AAC Defensive Player of the Year in addition to being a consensus First-team All-American. He was the first Cincinnati player to earn Football Writers Association of America All-American honors twice.
According to Pro Football Focus, Gardner never allowed a touchdown in his three college seasons.
During his Cincinnati career, he recorded 99 tackles, nine interceptions, and 27 passes defended. He was the No. 4 overall pick in the NFL Draft by the New York Jets and became the first rookie cornerback to earn First-Team All-Pro honors in 41 years. The last one being Ronnie Lott of the San Francisco 49ers in 1981.