The University of Cincinnati football team is preparing for one of its last firsts.
Cincinnati (3-1) will open American Athletic Conference play Saturday night at Tulsa (2-2). Kickoff is scheduled for 7 p.m. on ESPNU. The game also marks the start of the Bearcats' final AAC slate before joining the Big 12 Conference next summer (July 1, 2023).
"Now, it's about moving on to league play," Cincinnati coach Luke Fickell said Tuesday. "We've got to go on the road. We really haven't been on the road since Arkansas (Sept. 3). We know that in this league, if you want to play for a championship, you've got to not only win your league, you've got to win on the road and you've got to be really good on the road."
When Fickell began rebuilding the Bearcats program, he continuously referred to AAC foe Central Florida as the "class" of the conference. UCF won the AAC title in each of Fickell's first two seasons at Cincinnati (2017-18).
Now, the class of the AAC is Fickell's Bearcats.
The Bearcats open conference play as the two-time defending AAC champions. They also have the reigning AAC Offensive Player of the Week and the reigning AAC Defensive Player of the Week.
UC senior linebacker Ivan Pace Jr. was named the conference's Defensive Player of the Week following his standout performance in Cincinnati's 45-24 home win last week against Indiana. Pace had a game-high 15 tackles, including 4.5 tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks, with three quarterback hurries. Pace led a defense that limited the Hoosiers to 3.3 yards per play and forced three turnovers.
The Miami University transfer leads the FBS with 11 tackles for loss, averaging nearly three per game.
"You've got to celebrate a kid like Ivan," fellow Bearcats linebacker Wil Huber said. "He is just an incredible football player. And he's an incredible human being off the field. (He's) very unique in the way he goes about his business. To play next to him is an honor. I'm so glad that he's wearing the UC Bearcats across his chest."
Junior wide receiver Tyler Scott earned AAC Offensive Player of the Week honors after racking up career-highs in catches (10), yards (185) and touchdowns (three) against the Hoosiers.
Scott ranks third in the AAC and is tied for seventh in the FBS with five touchdown receptions through four games. He's also third in the league in receiving yards per game (105.8).
Scott said Tuesday his mentions on social media have picked up a bit over the past few days, but nothing has changed much for him on and around campus.
"Yesterday I walked my girlfriend to class and I also went to get something to eat," he said. "I'm standing in line like a regular person. Nobody came up to me or anything like that, which I'm perfectly cool with. I walked through campus like I was a regular student. Personally, for me, nothing really changes. I don't know if people around me notice me or not, but I'm just still living regular life as if it's just another game."
Saturday won't just be another game. It will be a prime-time clash against a Golden Hurricane squad looking to end its three-game skid against Cincinnati. But for the Bearcats, Saturday begins their march toward a third-straight conference crown.
"One of the first things we talked about coming into this season is to have an opportunity to play for championships, and that first and foremost starts with the conference championship," Scott said. "This is our last year in the conference before we transition to the Big 12. So we definitely want to leave out with a bang."
This article originally appeared on Cincinnati Enquirer: Cincinnati football: Bearcats to begin AAC play Saturday at Tulsa