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How Cincinnati Made The College Football Playoff: A Look At How The Bearcats Got So Good

ByAndrew Pistone

Published on Thu Dec 16 2021

|

7 min read

How Cincinnati Made The College Football Playoff: A Look At How The Bearcats Got So Good

It’s been one of the most memorable stories we’ve had in recent college football history. The Cincinnati Bearcats, out of the little known American Athletic Conference, will be going toe to toe with the likes of the Alabama Crimson Tide in the College Football Playoff on New Years Eve.

It’s a majestic rise to fame for a program that might be most well known as a trivia answer for the ever popular question, “Where did Travis Kelce play his college ball?”

While their 2021 campaign will be remembered for a very long time, the fact of the matter is that they’ve been playing high level football for several years. Head coach Luke Fickell has done a tremendous job with the program, as the team has only lost one game in two years. It was a three point loss to the University of Georgia in the Peach Bowl last year, which planted the seed for the standout season Cincinnati is having now.

As the country starts to delve into the remarkable story of Cincinnati football, prospective college athletes and their families can get a unique glimpse of what it’s like to be a Bearcat both on and off the field. The school is hosting a virtual visit for motivated prospects in the upcoming classes, which will give folks a sneak peak into the level of commitment the school has had in upgrading their facilities.

Facilities

Although Nippert Stadium has been home to Bearcats football since 1901, renovations to the facility within the last decade have modernized its look and feel. A skywalk was built in the stadium so die-hard Bearcats fans wouldn’t miss a minute of the action while stepping away for a beverage or some food. Additionally, 5,000 more seats were added to the stadium, to increase its capacity to 40,000. Once the project completed in 2017, students were excited to take in a game from their spiffed up homefield.

“I think making it bigger gets more people involved,” said then-freshman Jackson Forbes. “The more people there, the better the energy is at the stadium.” Via Newsrecord.org

Nippert Stadium is also approximately 30 minutes from downtown Cincinnati, which allows fans who are not living on the outskirts of campus a chance to head north to experience Bearcats football.

The university has also spent, and will continue to spend a significant amount of money updating its residence halls for students. In 2016, the school finished renovating Scioto Hall into an apartment-like building after a $38 million project*. Cincinnati is continuing to double down on ensuring its pupils have a comfortable living experience by investing another $80.4 million* into refurbishing Calhoun Hall. Upgrades such as a new lounge, suite-style dorms and private restrooms are expected to be completed before the 2023-2024 school year.

Recruiting Talent

While the Bearcats have had a smattering of NFL talent throughout the program’s football history, it seems like their baseline caliber of players has been trending upwards in recent years. In the 2021 NFL Draft, four of Cincinnati’s players were selected. That’s the most in any one draft since 2012, when the likes of Derek Wolfe and Kelce were with the program. Their success on the field has the most to do with their ability to bring in quality players, and their commitment to enhancing their campus probably doesn’t hurt, either. The Bearcats appear to be well stocked for the future, as their 2022 recruiting class is ranked number 29 in the nation by ESPN.*. Highly ranked defensive end Mario Eugenio profiles as a potentially impactful edge rusher, who committed to the school earlier this month. Additionally, Cincinnati was able to lock in 19 out of the 20 commitments during early signing day, which is an added sign that players are interested in getting to the program.

The current Bearcats roster has a few players that could be playing on Sundays in the near future. Myjai Sanders is an athletic defensive end who has the ability to make life stressful for opposing quarterbacks. His numbers don’t fly off the page, but his skill set could have him selected as early as the second round of the upcoming NFL Draft.

Running back Jerome Ford is another exciting prospect that could be an immediate contributor to an NFL roster. Some mock drafts have the Bearcats running back going in the third round, and it’s easy to see his stock rise even further with a standout performance in the college football playoff. After serving as a complementary backfield piece for Cincinnati with current Miami Dolphins running Gerrid Doaks, Ford had the backfield all to himself in 2021. His performance this year was dominant, carrying the ball at 6.2 yards a clip, and scoring 19 touchdowns on the ground. Ford has amassed over 1,200 yards rushing this season, and is the prototypical gamebreaker that NFL scouts look for these days.

Usually the face of any team that makes it this deep into the college football season is their quarterback, and Cincinnati’s Desmond Ridder certainly had a great season. He’s projected to right around Ford in the upcoming NFL Draft, and brings a legitimate dual-threat element that is highly sought after at the next level. While his rushing production has dipped a little bit in 2021, Ridder has taken strides as a passer. He’s thrown for 3,190 yards so far this year, and is averaging a career best 9 yards per attempt, as he gets more aggressive in the pocket. With that said, he accounted for 12 rushing touchdowns in 2020, which is sure to get fans excited about his NFL prospects as well.

Ridder wasn’t exactly being tussled over by the elite programs coming out of high school, and Cincinnati deserves a ton of credit for seeing something in the prospect from Louisville, Kentucky.

“Louisville and Kentucky kicked the tires, but that’s as far as it went,” said Ridder’s high school coach, Will Wolford. Via WDRB.com

The Cincinnati signal-caller brings an elite physical package to the table, but also possesses great intellect in the pocket.

“It’s hard to trick him,” said Indiana University defensive coordinator Charlton Warren. He’s seen a bunch of things. He can make checks. He’s one of those guys who can truly hurt you with his arm, his legs, and with his brain.” Via WDRB.com

Looking At You, Luke Fickell

In one of college football’s most intense pressure cookers, Luke Fickell did not seem like he was cut out to be the leader of a national powerhouse program. He was the head coach of Ohio State ten years ago, coaching blue chips prospects like Carlos Hyde, Ryan Shazier and Bradley Roby. 2011 was the Buckeyes worst season in the school’s last 21 campaigns, and the 38 year old Fickell seemed in way over his head. To be fair, he was thrust into the head job after incumbent Jim Tressel was suspended by the NCAA, and then later resigned.

In a less high profile and uncertain situation, Fickell has taken his second chance and absolutely run with it. The nation has taken notice of his ability to build a program from the ground up, and had overtures from several different powerhouse schools in the last several weeks. All the while, Fickell remained focused on the task at hand, and has heaped the credit on to his players at every turn.

“They’ve had to prove it, and they’ve had to go through their ups and downs. A lot of doubters, but they’ve been able to handle all that and continue to do what’s most important, and that’s perform on the field,” Fickell said after the team’s inclusion into the playoff. Via ESPN.com

It will be interesting to see what Fickell’s immediate future looks like. He could opt to stay with the Bearcats and entrench himself as one of the most celebrated figures in the program’s history. There’s an impending large move(discussed more below) that could allow Fickell to have his cake and eat it too, even if he didn’t jump ship for a more traditional football blueblood.

Taking The Next Step

The Cincinnati Bearcats will be remembered as one of the most accomplished Group of Five teams in college football history. They are the first team to ever make the college football playoff, which was established in the 2014 season. Regardless of how the program fares in the next several weeks, we’re going to be seeing a lot of the Bearcats on TV and in higher stakes regular season contests in the years to come.

That’s because the team was officially admitted to the Big 12 conference, along with BYU, Houston and UCF as of this September. Cincinnati, along with Houston and UCF, will join the conference no later than July 1, 2024. The Big 12 has to be pretty happy with their decision to have the Bearcats join their storied conference, considering the additional brand awareness the school has received as a result of their 2021 campaign. While Cincinnati still has to fork over $10 million in buyout fees for departing the American Athletic Conference, their play on the field has given the AAC a legitimacy that will result in opportunities for them to build their reputation.

Bearcats athletic director John Cunningham seemed to have a feeling that his program would take off for several years, and dreamed of playing in a Power 5 conference for several years.

“As soon as we had the opportunity that was presented by the (departure) announcements of Texas and Oklahoma, our athletic director John Cunningham reached out to Bob Bowlsby(Big 12 Commissioner) to rekindle that earlier connection,” said Cincinnati President Neville Pinto. Cunningham had initial discussions of a Big 12 transition dating back to 2016. Via Newsrecord.org

The ensuing chapters of the Bearcats' football story figure to be extremely exciting.

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