Can the Coogs play spoiler? Houston bidding to keep rival Cincinnati out of College Football Playoff

You can watch the Houston Cougars take on the Cincinnati Bearcats in the AAC championship game on ABC13, Saturday at 3 p.m.
CINCINNATI, Ohio (KTRK) -- The No. 21 Houston Cougars (11-1) are a blazing hot team heading into their American Athletic Conference championship game, which ABC13 is airing on Saturday at 3 p.m.

Just 24 hours before the American Athletic Conference football title game kicked off, UH was already part of a successful drive-in in Cincinnati. Only this drive is not engineered by Coogs quarterback Clayton Tune. It was led by an Ohio deputy sheriff who saved Houston head coach Dana Holgorsen from being late to Friday's pregame press conference.

"The police escort over here was phenomenal," Holgorsen explained. "He did a heck of a job. I haven't had one of those like that since West Virginia - where you've got space to do that. You can't do it in Houston. There's too much traffic!"

Patience is key when traveling. It's also a virtue in college athletics - because it's rare. After Holgorsen won just seven of his first 20 games as UH's head coach, athletics director Chris Pezman brought Holgorsen back for a third season.

"I was able to see what Dana and his staff and the student-athletes were doing," Pezman explained before traveling to Cincinnati. "Once we were able to have some more normalcy to our lives, the product was going to reflect the effort that was being put into it."

Saturday's conference title game will not be normal, though. It's being played on the home field of unbeaten Cincinnati - which is why not many people outside of Houston are giving the Coogs a chance.

The Coogs have the momentum of an 11-game win streak, including eight with double-digit margins of victory. But Houston's streak is just one short of the string of 12 victories owned by their opponents this weekend, the No. 4 Cincinnati Bearcats (12-0), who are currently in position for a history-making berth in the College Football Playoff.

It's history-making because Cincy could become the first school from the "Group of 5" - non-power conferences that aren't among the heavyweights of the SEC, Big 10, Pac 12, Big 12 and ACC - to play for a chance to win a national championship.

Cincinnati already proved to be a giant-killer in 2021, not only beating the powerhouse independent Notre Dame, but also taking down every team on its schedule.

That's every team to this point, except for Houston, which can only play spoiler to the Bearcats' hopes and nothing else.

Despite having won 11 straight games since losing to Texas Tech in the season opener, the Cougars didn't move into the national rankings until the end of October and didn't join the College Football Playoff rankings until mid-November.

"Really all year we feel like we haven't been getting the respect we deserve," Cougars linebacker Deontay Anderson said. "I just feel like we're disrespected, and we really have a chip on our shoulder from that. We can't wait to go out there and keep proving people wrong."

Despite owning momentum, the Coogs are a 10.5-point underdog, according to Caesars Sportsbook, and understandably so. Houston is playing at Cincinnati, which won the right to host the AAC title game despite both teams having the same 8-0 conference record. Cincy had the higher CFP ranking.

"Not going to lie, I wish this was at a neutral site," Holgorsen said.

The Bearcats have won 26 straight games at Nippert Stadium, the second-longest home winning streak in the nation. Houston has beaten the Bearcats just once on the road since 1972. At home, Cincy handily defeated the Coogs last year, 38-10.

Still, facing a highly ranked team in enemy territory, some of the Coogs players say they aren't intimidated.

"In my opinion, they're just another team, and they're in our way," Houston defensive lineman Derek Parish said. "(Rankings) are numbers made by people who watch football on a couch. We aren't worried about that. Numbers don't mean nothing. It matters when the ball is put down on the field."

The Houston-Cincinnati game is also expected to be a slugfest on both sides of the ball. The two schools are among four Football Bowl Subdivision teams ranked in the top 10 nationally in both scoring offense and total defense.

Still, if Houston can pull off an upset of Cincinnati, a Bearcats loss could impact which schools the CFP committee prefers in its field of four teams, especially with one-loss teams like Oklahoma State and, yes, Notre Dame waiting in the wings.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

Eyewitness Sports is in Cincinnati for the Cougars' shot at upsetting the Bearcats. Get updates by following Adam Winkler on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
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