The University of Cincinnati football team already spoiled one senior day this season. In order for the Bearcats to host the American Athletic Conference championship game, they'll need to ruin another.
Cincinnati (11-0, 7-0 AAC) will head to Greenville, North Carolina, on Friday to face East Carolina (7-4, 5-2) in what will be the regular-season finale for both teams.
For the ECU Pirates, that means it will be their last opportunity to honor their seniors in front of their home fans.
"You're going to play somebody on their senior day," UC coach Luke Fickell said. "Their seniors are the leaders of their program. So there'll be a lot of emotion, there'll be a lot of energy for them. Not just because of senior day, but also because of the way they've played this entire year. They're on to a bowl game and have a lot of positive momentum within the program."
ECU enters Friday on a four-game winning streak that started with a 29-14 home win against South Florida.
Cincinnati defeated USF 45-28 on Nov. 12, the Bulls' senior day. The Bearcats will look to make it 2-for-2 this season on crashing senior day parties.
3 keys to victory for the Bearcats
1. Pretend it's their senior day: After an emotional pregame senior day ceremony last week, Cincinnati road that wave of emotion to an absolutely dominant 48-14 win against Southern Methodist.
It was the stylish victory fans had been waiting for after the Bearcats sputtered their way to wins in each of the previous four weeks.
Maybe if Cincinnati pretends Friday is its senior day and not ECU's, perhaps the Bearcats will play with that same confidence and explosiveness they displayed last week.
2. Field goals: Field-goal kicking has been an adventure for the Bearcats this season. After 2020 AAC championship game hero Cole Smith started the season rocky, Smith was surprisingly inactive Oct. 23 at Navy due to an undisclosed injury. Smith hasn't kicked a ball since.
Sophomore kicker Alex Bales has handled both extra points and field goals (freshman leg Christian Lowery has handled the long shots) in Smith's absence. But Bales missed both of his field-goal attempts last week. Bales failed on his 38-yard attempt, while his 34-yarder was blocked.
Fickell said he's not overly concerned with the kicking game, even though the Bearcats needed a late field goal to escape with a 46-43 win in their last visit to Greenville in 2019.
"What do you want me to sit up and lie awake at night?" Fickell said. "I mean, we've got confidence in the guys that are doing it. They're continuing to compete, and it is what it is. ... I know if we have to line up and kick a field goal, he'll be the guy that lines up and kick a field goal for us, and we believe in him."
If Friday becomes a kicking battle, it could get ugly. East Carolina has the reigning two-time AAC Special Teams Player of the Week in freshman kicker Owen Daffer.
3. Make Ahlers uncomfortable: It only feels like Holton Ahlers has been ECU's quarterback forever. The 6-foot-3, 230-pound junior completed 27 of 32 passes (84.3%) for 405 yards and three touchdowns in a 38-35 win last week at Navy. The performance was good enough to earn Ahlers a spot on the AAC Honor Roll.
Ahlers and the ECU offense are fully capable of keeping pace with Desmond Ridder and his crew. The "Blackcats" defense needs to make things confusing and uncomfortable for Ahlers.
How to watch
Time: 3:30 p.m. on Friday
Where: Bagwell Field at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium in Greenville, N.C.
TV: Jason Benetti (play-by-play), Andre Ware (analyst) and Paul Carcaterra (sideline) will have the call on ABC.
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 133, XM 203 and Sirius App 955.
Live stream: ESPN+
Betting line: UC was a 14.5-point favorite 24 hours before kickoff.
Series history: ECU leads 13-11, but Cincinnati has won three straight.
With a win, Cincinnati's massively successful group of seniors will be guaranteed one more game in front of its home fans. That, along with everything else that's at stake for UC, should be enough motivation for Ridder and the Bearcats to pull out the victory. UC wins, 37-21.