Undefeated Bearcats quick to assume 'David' role against talented Bulldogs

University of Cincinnati photo / Cincinnati junior quarterback Desmond Ridder has thrown for 17 touchdowns and rushed for 12 for the 9-0 Bearcats entering Friday afternoon's Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl against Georgia.

In the past five college football signing classes, the Georgia Bulldogs have racked up 95 four- and five-star prospects compared to just five for the Cincinnati Bearcats.

At least Cincinnati can take comfort that Georgia's touted signees earlier this month have yet to enroll and can't play in Friday afternoon's Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl, where the "David vs. Goliath" aspect is in full effect from the Bearcats point of view. Cincinnati is undefeated and the higher-ranked team, but the Bulldogs are the touchdown favorites from the big, bad Southeastern Conference.

"This will be the best team that we have faced and played since I've been here at the University of Cincinnati," Bearcats coach Luke Fickell said Monday. "Obviously we played Ohio State last year, but that was early in the season, and they weren't quite what they were at the end of the year. From what I've seen, this is a really, really good football team, and I know we've got to be at our best and play our best."

The Bearcats are 9-0 and champions of the American Athletic Conference, an accomplishment they attained by turning back Tulsa 27-24 in Cincinnati. Yet they haven't assembled a recruiting class that ranks among the top 40 in the 247Sports.com rankings, which is a far cry from the annual top-three national finishes by the Bulldogs.

Cincinnati offensive coordinator Mike Denbrock was asked about Georgia's defensive talent compared to defenses he studies in the AAC and quickly said there was no comparison.

"There is an immediate difference in everything," Denbrock said. "They have big, physical football players who can run and tackle very well in space. They contest everything, and they are really, really aggressive in their scheme. On top of that, they're incredible with how multiple they are and the different looks that they give you.

"It would bode well for us if we had a 30-day layoff, but it's a great challenge obviously to try and match up with this group. We're going to do the best we can."

The Bearcats are averaging 39.3 points per game and have scored at least 24 points in every contest. Their lowest output occurred in a 24-10 win over Army, which looks to shorten games with its offensive style and is a 9-2 team headed to the Liberty Bowl.

Junior quarterback Desmond Ridder has completed 162 of 244 passes (66.4%) for 2,090 yards with 17 touchdowns and six interceptions, and he also has rushed 83 times for 609 yards (7.3 per carry) and 12 scores.

"He's long, so he covers a lot of ground," Georgia coach Kirby Smart said. "He makes the right decision a lot. When you're playing a guy who's played as many games as he has, it's like he's seen it before. Quarterbacks who have a lot of experience don't make mistakes.

"He makes guys miss on the perimeter and can take off on scrambles for a 50-yard touchdown run, and you can't really account for that as a defensive coordinator when you're trying to cover all the weapons they have."

Denbrock admits that Ridder is often at his best when a play doesn't go as planned, which he expects to happen against the Bulldogs.

"It's a huge piece of it for us," Denbrock said. "Obviously Des has made incredible plays for us all year, whether with his arms or with his legs. Being mobile is a big piece of the puzzle against this defense, and it's got to be part of keeping the football and moving the football and being effective. Everything we do offensively runs through Des, and he knows that.

"We've got to use him when we need to, but we've also got to protect him and give him the opportunity to make plays down the field with his arm."

As for Ridder, a 6-foot-4, 215-pounder from Louisville, Kentucky, the Peach Bowl will provide the second grand stage of his career. The Bearcats have two wins over UCLA and bowl victories over Virginia Tech and Boston College in Ridder's three seasons guiding the offense, but last season's game at Ohio State yielded a 42-0 loss.

"They talk about this as big guys versus little guys, and we're always out to prove everyone wrong," Ridder said. "We go out and play with a chip on our shoulder every game, and that won't change this game. We're going up against one of the big guys in the country, and we're going to see and feel that unlike we have all season."

'Thrill a minute'

Smart reiterated Monday that his roster is being affected by COVID numbers like never before.

"It's a thrill a minute," he said. "We've had good information and bad information, and we've had information that changed. It's been a struggle. I'm not going to get into details, but we've had our issues."

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6524.