CINCINNATI -- After four weeks filled with games that were too close for comfort, Cincinnati unleashed its full potential in a 48-14 win over SMU on Saturday, clinching a spot in the American championship game against Houston.
The win also served as a statement of sorts.
With Cincinnati sitting at No. 5 in the College Football Playoff selection committee rankings, "style points" were very much in play, even if that is not exactly part of the official criteria. But looking sluggish in wins over Navy, Tulane, Tulsa and USF -- four teams with losing records -- did not do Cincinnati any favors simply because the bar is set so high for Group of 5 schools to make a convincing enough impression to land in the top four.
What the Bearcats needed is what they showed Saturday against an SMU team that entered averaging 41.6 points per game, sixth best in the nation. It also helped that SMU entered the game 8-2, third best in the American. Right from the start, the Cincinnati defense set the tone, forcing a three-and-out. On the first play of the next offensive series, Desmond Ridder threw a 53-yard touchdown pass to Tyler Scott, and the Bearcats were off to the races -- leading by as much as 48-0 before giving up two late touchdowns.
Cincinnati coach Luke Fickell did not want to talk much about style points afterward, but he praised his team for playing a complete game and complementary football, as offense, defense and special teams all made big plays. Asked whether he sensed increased urgency this week to put together a complete performance, Fickell said, "That's been my mission, that's kind of been my drive the last three or four weeks."
"I don't know what the difference was -- sometimes the opponent, sometimes just recognizing the challenges that are ahead of you," Fickell said. "Every game is a challenge. But I think that there was a little something different coming into this one, not just that they were 8-2, the way they had played all year and the things that they had done. But I did sense a little more urgency, a little bit more of that energy. And not just on Saturday, but in the entire week.
"That's what you want every week. We're always striving to try to find those ways to get those guys to lock in on the things that we're continuing to preach. But it's not the easiest thing in the world."
Most especially when the outside world demands something different out of a Group of 5 team than it does from a Power 5 team because the schedules are simply not the same. What Cincinnati cared about Saturday was not only putting together a dominant performance but also sending its seniors out the right way.
Cincinnati has now won 26 straight games at home, a four-year unbeaten streak. Ridder has never lost at Nippert Stadium, and he was not about to make it close against SMU. He ended up with 325 total yards of offense and five total touchdowns: three passing, one rushing and one receiving.
"Nothing changed for us. We knew that we had to come out here and have a dominant game," Ridder said. "We've had a lot of ups and downs with SMU where the past couple games have been a battle all the way up until midway through fourth quarter. We just knew that we had to play an entire game and come out and start fast. Our defense did that for us. And then it just made it really easy for us to start with the field position that we did."
Cincinnati plays at East Carolina on Friday. With a win, the Bearcats would clinch home-field advantage for the conference championship game against Houston on Dec. 4.
To carry over the performance from Saturday, Fickell said he wants to see a similar formula relying on complementary football.
"The ability for you to be able to score points, move the football, control the clock as much as you can, as well as play really, really good, aggressive defense is the only way to have a chance to not just win a championship, but get yourself in position to play late in the season," Fickell said.