Soon-to-be Big 12 programs Cincinnati, Houston to clash for AAC championship

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The clock is ticking, and all American Athletic Conference Commissioner Mike Aresco can do is embrace it.

Both the University of Houston and the University of Cincinnati are headed to the Big 12 Conference. But on Saturday, the Houston (11-1, 8-0) and Cincinnati (12-0, 8-0) football teams will square off in the AAC championship game at Nippert Stadium (4 p.m. on ABC).

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It will be a matchup of two of the top teams in the country, which, according to Aresco, supports the AAC's claim to being a "Power Six" conference.

"Our championship game is one of six that's going to feature two ranked teams," Aresco said Monday. "We all know what the other five are. But this cements our position as a power conference."

Cincinnati (No. 3) and Houston (No. 16) are two of the top 20 teams in the latest Associated Press Top 25 poll. The two teams are also jockeying for better position in the College Football Playoff rankings.

While the Cougars sit at No. 24 in the CFP committee's latest rankings, the defending AAC champion Bearcats are looking to be the first Group of Five team to crack the committee's final top four.

Cincinnati is No. 4 with two CFP rankings reveals remaining (7 p.m. on Tuesday and noon on Sunday).

Cincinnati and Houston are the AAC's shiniest stars. But that's only temporary, as both schools are set to wave the Big 12 flag in the near future.

Cincinnati Bearcats Cheerleaders waive flags with the Big 12 logo in the second half of the NCAA football game between Cincinnati Bearcats and Murray State Racers on Saturday, Sept. 11, 2021, at Nippert Stadium in Cincinnati.
Cincinnati Bearcats Cheerleaders waive flags with the Big 12 logo in the second half of the NCAA football game between Cincinnati Bearcats and Murray State Racers on Saturday, Sept. 11, 2021, at Nippert Stadium in Cincinnati.

"I've said it from the beginning, you can't take it personally," Aresco said. "You understand why teams do certain things, why they look potentially for what they think are greener pastures. So we've just embraced the fact that they're doing all of this in our conference. We're very proud of Cincinnati. We're very proud of Houston. The one thing I will say, we hate to lose them down the road, and we're not sure when that will be. But this is a celebration of what this conference has accomplished over nine years. ... Down the road, we'll rebuild in the same way we did before."

Both Cincinnati and Houston (along with fellow AAC member Central Florida) are expected to join the Big 12 no later than July 1, 2024, but they could begin play as Big 12 members as soon as 2023.

Independent Brigham Young University is set to join the Big 12 in all sports beginning in fall 2023.

The AAC will look to surge ahead with new members Florida Atlantic, Charlotte, North Texas, UTSA, Rice and UAB. Those schools are expected to join the American as early as the 2023-24 season.

But in the meantime, all AAC eyes are focused on the present, specifically Saturday afternoon at Nippert.

Cincinnati Bearcats head coach Luke Fickell smiles during the championship trophy presentation following the American Athletic Conference championship football game against the Tulsa Golden Hurricane, Saturday, Dec. 19, 2020, at Nippert Stadium in Cincinnati. The Cincinnati Bearcats won, 27-24.
Cincinnati Bearcats head coach Luke Fickell smiles during the championship trophy presentation following the American Athletic Conference championship football game against the Tulsa Golden Hurricane, Saturday, Dec. 19, 2020, at Nippert Stadium in Cincinnati. The Cincinnati Bearcats won, 27-24.

Cincinnati coach Luke Fickell, who has led the Bearcats to undefeated regular seasons each of the past two years, has mostly steered away from any Big 12 talk since the school announced its plans to join the Power Five conference Sept. 10. Third-year Houston coach Dana Holgorsen has largely done the same.

"I made a vow to our football team. We're not going to talk about that," he said. "We haven't discussed that one bit. I mean, I've been through this before. Remember back in 2011, West Virginia was (a member of the) Big East and we played Cincinnati and was lucky to get out of Cincinnati with a win on a last-second blocked field goal. Cincinnati was incredibly good at that point. ... We transitioned into the Big 12 the next year.

Houston head coach Dana Holgorsen, right, yells at an official during the second half of an NCAA college football game against Cincinnati, Saturday, Oct. 12, 2019, in Houston. (AP Photo/Eric Christian Smith)
Houston head coach Dana Holgorsen, right, yells at an official during the second half of an NCAA college football game against Cincinnati, Saturday, Oct. 12, 2019, in Houston. (AP Photo/Eric Christian Smith)

"I've been though that and I know how to do that, but I've made a vow to our football team that we're not going to talk about that. This is the 2021 University of Houston football team that is in the American conference and we're going to try to win every game and we've done a good job up until this point to where we can play in this game here this weekend."

Saturday's matchup will feature the two highest-paid college football coaches outside of the Power Five conferences. Fickell's salary of $3.4 million ranks 45th in the country, while Holgorsen's $4 million salary ranks 33rd.

This article originally appeared on Cincinnati Enquirer: AAC championship game: Defending AAC champ Cincinnati to host Houston

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