Three keys, prediction: Can No. 20/19 Cincinnati overcome penalties, get past UCF?

The mission for the University of Cincinnati football team this season has been figuring out what "us" looks like. With the departure of more than 30 seniors and nine NFL draft picks from last year's record-setting team, these Bearcats were inevitably going to look much different than last season's College Football Playoff-qualifying squad.

Through the first seven games, "us" for this No. 20/19-ranked (Associated Press/coaches polls) Cincinnati team has looked like a group that just finds ways to win, according to Bearcats coach Luke Fickell.

"Al Davis said it best, right? 'Just win, baby,' " the sixth-year UC coach said.

UC football UCF how to watchWhat channel is the UC Bearcats football game on? What to know about the UC vs. UCF game


UC football UCF scouting reportScouting report: A look at No. 20 Cincinnati's next opponent, the UCF Knights

UC football SMU victoryNo. 21 Cincinnati Bearcats edge SMU Mustangs to extend AAC winning streak

Fickell's Bearcats (6-1, 3-0 American Athletic Conference) have followed the words of the late Las Vegas Raiders owner, winning six straight games since losing its season opener at Arkansas. But "us" for Cincinnati has also looked like a team that wins despite making several mistakes and committing a large number of penalties.

Cincinnati Bearcats head coach Luke Fickell talks with an official in the second quarter of the NCAA football game between the Cincinnati Bearcats and the Kennesaw State Owls at Nippert Stadium in Cincinnati on Saturday, Sept. 10, 2022.
Cincinnati Bearcats head coach Luke Fickell talks with an official in the second quarter of the NCAA football game between the Cincinnati Bearcats and the Kennesaw State Owls at Nippert Stadium in Cincinnati on Saturday, Sept. 10, 2022.

The Bearcats commit an average of 9.57 penalties per game (67 penalties through seven games). That ties Syracuse for the most in the FBS. Coincidentally, both Cincinnati and the Orange are 6-1. Fickell knows that trend will need to change if the two-time defending AAC champions are going to defeat Central Florida (5-2, 2-1) on Saturday and improve to 7-1.

"We've got to develop some consistency in all that we do," Fickell said. "As I pinpoint and say, OK, what do we have to do to continue to move forward, especially for a week like this, consistency is a big deal. We've got a lot of self-inflicted issues. . . . Those self-inflicted ones are the things that are in some ways holding us back and putting us in some situations that are draining, challenging, trying. For us to grow, we've got to recognize that and we've got to find ways to be able to make some of those things not an Achilles' heel."

3 keys to victory for Cincinnati Bearcats football vs. UCF Knights

1. Play smart: Cincinnati committed a season-high 14 penalties for a season-high 127 yards last week at SMU. Fickell has said he doesn't mind the aggressive penalties, only the "stupid" ones. The Bearcats need to play smart against the Knights and keep their penalties down in what is expected to be a close game.

2. Be special on special teams: Punter Mason Fletcher and kicker Ryan Coe were huge reasons why Cincinnati escaped Dallas last week with a two-point victory. Coe kicked a school-record five field goals on six attempts in the 29-27 win, including a 52-yarder. Fletcher booted an 84-yard punt in the first quarter against the Mustangs, breaking the 46-year-old school record and setting the AAC record.

Fletcher also had a 57-yard punt that dropped at the 8-yard line and a 54-yarder with under three minutes left in the game that pinned SMU at its own 18. Fletcher and Coe will need to continue their hot streak if the Bearcats are going to remain unbeaten in conference play.

3. Contain the quarterback: UCF quarterback John Rhys Plumlee has the dual-threat ability to take over a game. In addition to throwing for more than 1,800 yards and 11 touchdowns this season, the 6-foot, 200-pound senior also leads the Knights in rushing (101 carries for 506 yards and seven scores). East Carolina defeated UCF last week largely because the Pirates capitalized on Plumlee's miscues, sacking him four times and forcing him into throwing three interceptions. Cincinnati needs to make Plumlee uncomfortable and keep him from getting into a groove in his home stadium.

How to watch Cincinnati Bearcats football vs. UCF Knights

Time: 3:30 on Saturday

Where: FBC Mortgage Stadium in Orlando, Fla.

TV: Mark Jones (play-by-play), Robert Griffin III (analyst) and Quint Kessenich (sideline) will have the call on ESPN.

Radio: Dan Hoard (play-by-play), Jim Kelly Jr. (analyst) and Mo Egger (host/engineer) will have the UC radio network call on WLW-AM (700), Sirius 99 or 204 and SXM App 967.

Live stream: ESPN+

Betting line: UCF was a 1.5-point favorite 24 hours before kickoff.

Series history: Saturday will be the eighth meeting between the two programs. Cincinnati owns a 4-3 lead in the all-time series but is 1-2 at UCF. The Bearcats, who have won three straight against the Knights, escaped UCF's Bounce House with a narrow 36-33 win in their last visit in 2020.

Cincinnati Bearcats football prediction

The difference between Cincinnati and the Knights in the Bearcats' last trip to UCF was a field goal. Then-UC kicker Cole Smith made three fields goals in the win, including a 47-yarder. Saturday's game will be another close one between the two soon-to-be members of the Big 12 Conference, and Coe will step up for the Bearcats for the second straight week and seal Cincinnati's record 20th straight AAC victory. UC wins, 37-34.

This article originally appeared on Cincinnati Enquirer: College football prediction: No. 20 Cincinnati seeks win at UCF