After losing two consecutive AAC Championship Games the past two years, No. 17 Memphis (12-1, 7-1 AAC) has finally cleared the final hurdle and is celebrating a long-awaited American Athletic Conference championship. The Tigers edged No. 20 Cincinnati (10-3, 7-1 AAC) on Saturday afternoon in the AAC Championship Game, 29-24, to win the first outright conference championship in program history since winning the 1969 Missouri Valley Conference title.
This one came with plenty of late-game drama and heroics.
Midway through the fourth quarter, with Memphis leading 23-21, Cincinnati chose to try a quarterback sneak for a first down and got it. But a video replay was called to determine if Cincinnati had too many men on the field. After a lengthy review, the official ruling determined there was not enough video evidence to confirm there were too many men on the field, allowing Cincinnati to continue the drive rather than move back five yards on fourth down. The drive ended with a go-ahead field goal when the Bearcats opted to take the lead rather than try their luck on another 4th-and-1 situation. Hindsight is always 20/20, of course, but the Tigers stormed right down the field on the ensuing possession.
Memphis strung together a 10-play drive that featured Antonio Gibson doing damage on the ground with his speed on the edges and a big pass from Brady White to Kenneth Gainwell to get into Cincinnati territory quickly. White’s six-yard pass to Gibson gave Memphis a 29-24 lead with 1:14 to play, but a two-point conversion failing allowed Cincinnati one last chance to take the lead. On 4th and 15 from the Memphis 26-yard line though, Desmond Ridder‘s last attempt fell incomplete and allowed Memphis to run out the remaining 26 seconds off the clock.
There are a number of moving parts to this story now. For starters, there is the New Years Six situation. Given each team’s ranking coming into the game, it was expected this would essentially be a play-in game for the Group of 5’s spot in the New Years Six, even with Boise State handling their business in the Mountain West Conference Championship Game (and Appalachian State getting its last chance to make a case earlier in the day). That idea still feels pretty solid, with an official announcement to be made Sunday afternoon by the College Football Playoff selection committee. It would be a pretty big shock if AAC CHAMPION is not heading to the Cotton Bowl to face an at-large team from a power conference (Baylor, Florida, Alabama, Penn State and more could all be options).
The other moving part here is the status of Memphis head coach Mike Norvell. Norvell is expected to be named the next head coach at Florida State. Florida State will hold a press conference tomorrow to officially introduce its next head coach. All that might be left to figure out is whether or not Norvell will pull double duty for the next few weeks to coach Memphis in the Cotton Bowl or if he leaves to take on the Florida State job on a full-time basis with an early signing period creeping up.
Cincinnati head coach Luke Fickell may still have his name thrown around the rumor mill as the coaching carousel continues to spin, but he is not currently attached to any rumors regarding imminent changes.