A bowl game wasn't exactly on San Diego State's radar early in the season, but the program's longest winning streak in almost four decades has the Aztecs dreaming of a big finish.
Cincinnati is thinking a bit smaller as a second straight victory would be a nice capper to an up-and-down season.
The Bearcats welcome the opportunity to end on a high note while souring the San Diego State parade when they meet in the Hawaii Bowl in Honolulu on Christmas Eve.
San Diego State (10-3) was likely not thinking conference championship and a bowl game when it concluded its September nonconference schedule with a 1-3 record. But the Aztecs rolled through their eight-game Mountain West Conference slate unblemished and then beat Air Force 27-24 in the championship game on Dec. 5.
A miserable start is suddenly 2 1/2 months old, and newfound success is breeding confidence with SDSU football.
"It's a pretty happy time around here right now," coach Rocky Long said. "It really hasn't sunk in for me. I don't know why it hasn't sunk in, but it hasn't. But it has with our players. They're a happy group. I want you to know that they're a happy group."
Winning does that. The Aztecs' nine-game winning streak is their longest since a 10-game run during the 1976-77 season. It's the third-longest active streak nationally, trailing Clemson (16) and Alabama (10).
San Diego State's identity has been simple during its hot stretch: run the ball and stop the other team from doing just that.
After averaging 139.8 rushing yards in their first four games, the Aztecs have churned out 277.8 in their last nine. In a similar flip, SDSU's defense allowed an average of 139.0 rushing yards in September and 98.8 since.
Junior running back Donnel Pumphrey led the ground game with eight consecutive performances of at least 120 yards before gaining 90 against Air Force. In the last nine games, Pumphrey has averaged 138.8 rushing yards with 13 touchdowns while adding 252 receiving yards with three scores through the air.
"I don't like to repeat myself, but I've said many times that the most amazing thing about him is that he weighs 170 pounds and he can run between the tackles," Long said. "You don't see many guys like that. Most 170-pound guys are jittery guys that jump around and look for a seam or they try to outrun you to the sideline. When Pumphrey runs a power play he runs it like a power back."
Pumphrey, named San Diego State's MVP for the second straight year by his teammates, has a favorable matchup against a Cincinnati defense allowing 5.0 yards per rush while surrendering 19 touchdowns on the ground this season.
The Bearcats (7-5) hope to offset a defense allowing 30.3 points per game with an offense averaging 36.1. A big offensive threat for Cincinnati is at the quarterback position - whoever holds it.
Gunner Kiel, a top prep recruit who transferred from Notre Dame in 2013, was the Bearcats' signal caller to start the season but missed a month after suffering a neck injury in a Sept. 24 loss at Memphis. Freshman Hayden Moore stepped in with a program-record 557 passing yards against the Tigers, though he found limited success in his next two starts.
Cincinnati used both upon Kiel's return, and coach Tommy Tuberville says he will wait to name a starter for the final game.
"They'll compete, and we'll probably name a quarterback going into Hawaii for the week of the bowl practice," he said. "I want them to compete, I want them to get better."
While Moore holds the nation's top passing game this season, Kiel is No. 3 with 523 yards at Houston on Nov. 7. Kiel has thrown for 2,777 yards with a 65.2 completion percentage with 19 touchdowns and 11 interceptions in 10 games. Moore has totaled 1,683 yards while completing 58.8 percent of his passes with nine touchdowns and eight picks.
The Bearcats traded wins and losses in their final four games and only pieced together back-to-back wins once all season.
"We had an up-and-down year, but these guys played their hearts out," Tuberville said. "Just getting to go to a bowl game is a reward, but going to one in Hawaii is a lot of fun. These guys are well deserved. These seniors have all been to a bowl game every year, so what a sendoff."
Tuberville, though, is 0-2 in bowl games in his two seasons at the helm. Long is just 1-3 in the postseason with San Diego State.
No. 24 Cincinnati won the only meeting between the two teams, a 52-23 victory in San Diego on Sept. 29, 2007.