American Athletic championship: Cincinnati rolls Houston to earn slot in playoff

Cincinnati scored three quick touchdowns to start the second half and pulled away to beat Houston 35-20 in the American Athletic Conference championship game Saturday.

The win brings the Bearcats to the doorstep of a historic trip to the College Football Playoff as the first team from the Group of Five to reach the national semifinals.

And with Georgia losing to Alabama in the SEC championship game, the Bearcats will enter the postseason as the lone unbeaten team in the Football Bowl Subdivision. 

Quarterback Desmond Ridder threw for 190 yards and three touchdowns and running back Jerome Ford ran for 187 yards on 18 carries, including a 79-yard touchdown run late in the first quarter and a 42-yard scoring scamper in the third quarter to put the Cougars into an insurmountable hole.

One of the winningest quarterbacks in FBS history, Ridder finishes the regular season with 39 total touchdowns and 3,561 yards of total offense, numbers that could earn him a trip to Manhattan as a finalist for the Heisman Trophy.

Houston, which hadn't lost since the season opener against Texas Tech, led 10-7 in the first quarter and trailed 14-13 at halftime, playing Cincinnati even on both sides and taking advantage of the Bearcats' continued issues in the kicking game.

But the Bearcats stormed out of the locker room with a furious start to the second half, scoring on three straight possessions to churn out a 35-13 lead midway through the third quarter. The second of those three touchdowns came after intercepting Houston quarterback Clayton Tune deep in the Cougars' territory.

The win concluded Cincinnati's second straight season without a loss in conference play. The program's last loss to American competition came against Memphis in the 2019 conference championship game. The Bearcats' only loss in that span was in last year's Peach Bowl to Georgia, a potential opponent in the upcoming semifinals.

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Cincinnati running back Ryan Montgomery (22) runs the ball in the second quarter of the American Athletic Conference Championship game against Houston.

Cincinnati finishing in the top four was a likely outcome even if all of the favorites in Saturday's conference championship games had won, scuttling any possibility that Notre Dame or Alabama would sway the committee's thinking and leave the Bearcats as the first team left outside of the field.

But Oklahoma State's loss to Baylor in the Big 12 championship game made the decision simple heading into Saturday's kickoff: Cincinnati was in with a win.

Alabama's win against Georgia will send two SEC teams into the playoff. Cincinnati will occupy the third spot, with the fourth going to Michigan should the Wolverines beat Iowa to claim the Big Ten championship.

Follow colleges reporter Paul Myerberg on Twitter @PaulMyerberg