CINCINNATI — Sure, the Big 12 will be watching when two of the American Athletic Conference’s top teams kick off on Thursday night. No. 6 Houston and Cincinnati haven’t hidden their desires to jump to a Power Five league.
And now they get to show head-to-head how they match up in football, which is the sport driving conference realignment.
“I would imagine all those decisions are already made,” Cincinnati coach Tommy Tuberville said. “I don’t think that (game) has got a lot to do with it. This is one game, the third game of the season. A lot is on the line for us, obviously, but we don’t look at it that way.”
The Bearcats (2-0) have a chance to make themselves relevant again after a 7-6 season. They’re coming off a 38-20 win at Purdue, Cincinnati’s first victory over a current Big Ten team in 59 years.
The Cougars (2-0) have a top 10 ranking in September for the first time since 1980. They started the season with an attention-grabbing 33-23 win over No. 3 Oklahoma and are trying to open AAC play with their first win in Cincinnati since 1971.
“You embrace it,” Houston linebacker Tyus Bowser said. “We have worked so hard to get to this point. We prepare and train for this type of moment.”
Some things to watch at Nippert Stadium on Thursday night:
WARD’S WEEK OFF
Houston quarterback Greg Ward Jr. was held out of a 42-0 win over Lamar last Saturday because of a sore shoulder. He’s expected to be back to full strength against Cincinnati, looking for another big game against a defense that had five interceptions at Purdue. Ward has developed from a run-first threat into an all-around quarterback. He completed 23 of 40 throws for 321 yards with a pair of touchdowns in the win over Oklahoma.
“He’s a quarterback that extends plays,” Tuberville said. “This is a Big 12 offense. When I was at Texas Tech, you saw this every week. They have it all.”
CAN’T RUN ON THE COUGARS
Houston has held its last four opponents under 100 yards rushing, the longest such streak in the country. Lamar managed only 73 yards in all — the best showing by a Houston defense in school history — and failed to cross midfield. In the last four games, the Cougars have held Temple, Florida State, Oklahoma and Lamar to a total of 199 yards rushing. Cincinnati rushed for 262 yards at Purdue, with dual-threat quarterback Hayden Moore throwing for three touchdowns and running for two more.
GET USED TO IT
The Cougars play the first of four weeknight games. They also host Connecticut and Louisville in Thursday night games. They finish the regular season at Memphis on a Friday night.
“I understand why they do it,” coach Tom Herman said. “The (television) ratings are off the charts when you play these Thursday night games, and we’re in the entertainment business. But we play four of these. ... We’re playing four games in 20 days. You do the math. That’s a lot of pounding on a young man’s body in a short amount of time.”
During a 33-30 loss at Houston last season, Cincinnati had a punt blocked, fumbled into the end zone, botched an onside kick, got tackled for a safety and gave up a 51-yard interception return for a touchdown. No surprise, then, that one of its main points of emphasis this week is to keep its composure.
CAN MOORE ELEVATE HIS GAME?
Moore, a redshirt sophomore, has never face a defense the caliber of Houston’s unit. He was ragged in the first half of a season-opening 28-7 win over Tennessee-Martin, but showed a lot of poise during the win at Purdue. Moore completed 19 of 32 passes for 250 yards and three touchdowns, and he ran 13 times for 71 yards and two more scores. The Bearcats need him to be steady against a defense that leads the nation with 111 forced turnovers since the start of the 2013 season.