December 02, 2014

CINCINNATI (AP) Memphis already has at least a share of its first football conference championship since 1971. The Tigers have to wait a few more days to see if they'll wind up all alone.

The American Athletic Conference could finish with a real pile-up at the top.

Central Florida can pull into a tie with Memphis by winning at East Carolina on Thursday. Then Cincinnati - the preseason pick to win it all - could make it a three-way split by beating Houston at Paul Brown Stadium on Saturday.

The 11-team league played its second season with an unbalanced schedule. There's no tiebreaker to decide an outright champion. The league will add Navy next season and divide into six-team divisions with a championship game.

''What a year this has been - a long year, looking back at the ups and downs,'' Cincinnati coach Tommy Tuberville said on Tuesday. ''It's been an interesting year, one that I'll never forget, of all the different things that's happened.''

Memphis (9-3, 7-1) provided the biggest surprise. The Tigers won at Cincinnati 41-14 on Oct. 4 to take control of the league race. They won their last six games - their longest winning streak since 1969 - for their first title since they were in the Missouri Valley Conference.

''To be able to be called champions feels so good,'' senior running back Brandon Hayes said. ''I would never have guessed that we would end up like this. It's definitely a great feeling and I can't wait to see where we get placed for this bowl game. The sky's the limit now.''

UCF (8-3, 6-1) won the title last year and can share another with a win at East Carolina (8-3, 5-2) on Thursday night. The Knights are 14-1 in their two years of AAC play and beat Baylor in the Fiesta Bowl last season. They've never won back-to-back league titles.

''It would mean the world to me and these guys,'' linebacker Terrance Plummer said. ''It's what our ultimate goal is every year and if we're able to achieve that, it will be very special to us. We'll be the first (UCF) team to win back-to-back conference championships.''

East Carolina was the only AAC team to get ranked during the season, making it up to No. 18 in the AP poll during a six-week stay. The lack of ranked teams hurt the conference's national profile.

''I said that to our presidents and athletic directors at our fall meeting,'' Commissioner Mike Aresco said during a visit to Cincinnati last month. ''It's a work in progress in football.

''We need a couple of Top 25 teams. I'd love to have three at some point down the road. It's not going to be easy.''

Cincinnati got votes in the poll at the start of the season, but had a dismal start on defense. Playing with an injury-thinned and inexperienced unit, the Bearcats (8-3, 6-1) gave up at least 41 points in three consecutive games, including that loss at home to Memphis.

They've allowed 17 or fewer points in five of the last six games, all victories. The Bearcats can clinch a share of their fifth league title in the last seven seasons by beating Houston (7-4, 5-2) on Saturday afternoon.

''At first, we didn't know what type of defense we were,'' senior linebacker Nick Temple said. ''We couldn't find our identity. It came slow, but it came right on time because we've still got a shot at the conference championship.

''I wish we started playing like we are now earlier because, who knows? We probably wouldn't be sharing the conference championship. The way we're playing defense is the best in all four years I've been here.''

The Bearcats' biggest concern is getting the offense back on track. Gunner Kiel returned from a rib injury and has struggled with his accuracy in the last couple of games. In his first season playing for the Bearcats, Kiel has thrown 28 touchdown passes, three shy of the school record.

With his defense coming around and the running game becoming more of a threat, Tuberville has relied less on Kiel's throwing to win games. He's hoping to get the passing game back into a flow on Saturday.

''We've been a little lackluster on offense the past two weeks,'' Tuberville said. ''We're going to go back to the drawing board and open things up a little bit. We've gotten very conservative, I think maybe because of the weather or something.''

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Follow Joe Kay on Twitter: http://twitter.com/apjoekay

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