CINCINNATI (AP) — Whenever senior defensive tackle Cortez Broughton mentioned the American Athletic Conference championship over the summer, he'd get a look that said, "Yeah, right."
The Bearcats won only four games each of the last two seasons, so expectations were low heading into coach Luke Fickell's second season. All that has changed.
A 6-0 start got Cincinnati (8-1, 4-1) back into the Top 25 and changed a lot of perceptions. They're in the title chase as mid-November approaches.
"At the beginning of the season, people didn't think we could go for a championship," Broughton said. "People would ask me, 'What's your goal this year? Win six games? Eight games?' I'd say: conference championship."
A victory on Saturday night over South Florida (7-2, 3-2) would keep them in contention. They're second in the AAC East, a game behind UCF (8-0, 5-0). The Bearcats play at UCF the following week in a game that could amount to a showdown for the division — if they can first get past South Florida.
"Really, we've talked about putting ourselves in this position," Fickell said. "I think this is what guys are more excited about. It's November and we've put ourselves in position to play for a championship."
They're coming off a 42-0 win over Navy that was perhaps their best all-around game of the season and an encouraging way to open the final month. The young Bearcats don't appear to be feeling any pressure in their chase for a title.
"Last week was as clean a game as we've played as a team, just really, really clean," Fickell said.
The Bulls wish they could say the same. After a 7-0 start, they've gotten leveled in back-to-back losses that raised questions about their depleted defense. They gave up a school record in points during a 57-36 loss at Houston, followed by a 41-15 drubbing at home against Tulane last week.
"So much happens in November, and you never know what's going to happen," coach Charlie Strong said.
Some things to watch at Nippert Stadium:
BABY IT'S COLD OUTSIDE: Temperatures are forecast in the low 30s and upper 20s during the game. The Bulls haven't kicked off a game in temperatures below 40 degrees since a 31-6 loss at Rutgers on Dec. 7, 2013. Fickell doesn't think it will be much of an advantage even though the Bearcats are practicing in the cold.
"I'll tell you this: It could be 10 degrees, it could be 5 degrees," Fickell said, "but if you've got the momentum and you've got the energy because you're running down the field and scoring or stopping them on defense, I don't care if you're from South Florida or Alaska — it doesn't bother you nearly as much."
BEST D: Cincinnati got its second shutout of the season against Navy, the first time since 1981 that the Bearcats have blanked more than one opponent. They also beat Miami of Ohio 21-0. The Bearcats lead the league in total defense, scoring defense and stopping the run, with a veteran line anchoring a unit that's showing more versatility as it gets deeper in the season.
"It's encouraging," Broughton said. "You see the puzzle pieces getting put together and having an outcome that's unmatched."
RUNNING FOR RECORDS: Michael Warren II has run for at least one touchdown in eight of Cincinnati's nine games. He has 14 touchdown runs, third-most in school history. David Small holds the record with 17 in 1993. Warren has run for 931 yards, putting him in line to become the school's 12th 1,000-yard rusher and its first since George Winn in 2012. Fickell isn't concerned about leaning on him too heavily.
"Mike's built for this," he said. "Mike's built for November."
OUT OF COMEBACKS: The Bulls overcame double-digit deficits three times while winning their first seven games. They've fallen apart in the last two, resulting in their first back-to-back losses in conference play since 2014. They haven't beaten a ranked team on the road since 2011 at Notre Dame.
"We're 7-0 (entering the Houston game) and we've just been skating by, skating by, skating by," Strong said. "And then how good really are we? There was so much left and so much was there for us to go get, and then we don't go out and compete."
AP Sports Writer Fred Goodall contributed to this report.