(19) Louisville (10-1) at Cincinnati (9-2) (ET)
GAME NOTES: In an important American Athletic Conference matchup, the 19th- ranked Louisville Cardinals will visit the Cincinnati Bearcats at Nippert Stadium on Thursday night.
Any chance at returning to a BCS bowl is gone for Louisville, but the Cardinals still have a shot at earning a share of the AAC title. To do so they will need to not only beat Cincinnati, but UCF would have to lose to SMU on Saturday. Even if that does not come to pass the Cardinals have still enjoyed a strong campaign, with a 10-1 overall record entering Thursday's contest. A win on Thursday would give the Cardinals back-to-back 11-win seasons for the first time in program history.
"I don't think it's deflating because you're looking at a team right now who's won 10 games, " Louisville head coach Charlie Strong said. "You're sitting there 10-1, so we don't get to the BCS. We're going to get to another bowl game, but you can't take away what we've already accomplished with 10 wins."
While the Cardinals have been on the national radar all season, the Bearcats have quietly turned in a stellar campaign themselves. Entering play on Thursday, Cincinnati has a 9-2 overall record and like Louisville, is 6-1 in- conference, and a win and a UCF loss away from a share of the AAC title. Head coach Tommy Tuberville has bigger plans for his program though.
"Right now there are probably only 15-18 teams that have a chance to win a national championship. Number one because of national recognition, and number two because of the availability of talent, we want to jump into that market," Tuberville, who is in his first year at Cincinnati said. "You do that by recruiting and winning games, but you also need to be noticed while doing it. When you get out on the big stage, and to us, Thursday is a big stage, you have to perform."
Thursday's contest has even more on the line for these teams than implications in the conference title chase. Up for grabs is the Victory Bell Trophy, which is given to the winner of this rivalry game each year. This will be the last time the Victory Bell is awarded for the foreseeable future though, as Louisville moves to the ACC next season. Louisville took home the hardware last season with a 34-31 triumph in overtime. However, Cincinnati owns the all-time series lead by a count of 30-21.
This contest features a matchup of the top two offensive teams in the AAC. Cincinnati actually leads the conference in total offense (487.3 ypg), while Louisville is right behind, picking up 455 yards per game.
Although he has been out of the Heisman conversation for awhile, Teddy Bridgewater has played extremely well for the Cardinals. On the year he has completed 71 percent of his pass attempts, for 3,268 yards and 25 touchdowns, all while being picked off just three times.
Bridgewater's favorite targets have clearly been Damian Copeland (49 receptions, 655 yards, four TDs) and DeVante Parker (37 receptions, 639 yards, nine TDs), who should each be on the short list for all-conference honors. Bridgewater has spread the ball around though, as Eli Rogers (37 receptions, 466 yards, four TDS) and tight end Gerald Christian (24 receptions, 377 yards, four TDs) have also been in the mix.
The Cardinals also have a wealth of talent in the backfield with Dominique Brown and Senorise Perry teaming as a productive tandem. Brown (704 yards, seven TDs) is the team's leading rusher and more of a downhill runner, while Perry (550 yards, six TDs) is a bit more elusive.
Not only are these teams the top two offensive teams in the country, they also fill those spots on defense as well. However it is Louisville that tops the league on the defensive side, allowing only 242.5 yards and 11.4 points per game. Talent abounds on the unit with players like Preston Brown (83 tackles, 9.5 TFL), Marcus Smith (12.5 sacks), Lorenzo Mauldin (9.5 sacks), Terrell Floyd (38 tackles, four INTs) and Calvin Pryor (57 tackles, three INTS) all making their presence felt.
Dueling it out with Bridgewater will be Cincinnati's Brendon Kay, who didn't start the year, but has taken to the role well. Kay has thrown for 2,797 yards and 22 touchdowns on the season, while connecting on 70.3 percent of his pass attempts. Kay has been less effective than Bridgewater in terms of ball security with nine interceptions.
Anthony McClung and Shaq Washington would certainly have something to say about Copeland and Parker's candidacy for all-league honors. McClung has hauled in 61 passes for 811 yards and five touchdowns this season and has had 100-yard efforts in each of the last two games. Washington (74 receptions, 736 yards, TD) has also hit the century mark in the last couple contests, with 10 receptions and 132 yards against Houston. Chris Moore (36 receptions, 5-7 yards, nine TDs), Max Morrison (27 receptions, 418 yards, three TDs) and Mekale McKay (14 receptions, 405 yards, seven TDs) also get in the mix.
The Bearcats also have skill in the backfield with Hosey Williams (575 yards, four TDs), Ralph David Abernathy (433 yards, three TDs) and Tion Green (371 yards, seven TDs) doing most of the heavy lifting.
Even though the Bearcats are second in the league in total defense, they are still quite a ways behind the Cardinals, who are actually second in the nation in total defense. Still Cincinnati is more than capable of holding its own, as it allows only 302.4 yards and 18.5 points per game. The linebacking unit is the key with Greg Blair (78 tackles) and Nick Temple (64 tackles, 11.0 TFL, 4.0 sacks) leading the way, while Silverberry Mouhon (8.5) anchors the pass rush.
With so much on the line on Thursday both of these teams will be playing with a ton of energy. Expect a frenetic and close contest in an electric Nipper Stadium. Bridgewater has not been phased by any hostile arena yet and assuming he can remain in control, the Cardinals have a slight edge.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Louisville 38, Cincinnati 36