When Luke Fickell was first introduced as head coach of the Cincinnati Bearcats in 2016, he made several vows to a fanbase that had just endured a miserable 4-8 season. The former Ohio State defensive coordinator would build an up-tempo offense capable of creating mismatches, as well as an "extremely aggressive" defense that would constantly be looking to make big plays.
Five years later, it's safe to say that Fickell has gone above and beyond his initial promise. The Bearcats have an astounding 48-14 record during the first-time head coach's tenure, including two straight undefeated regular seasons. In 2020, the American Athletic Conference winners were kept out of postseason play but proved they could play with elite competition in a 24-21 loss to Georgia in the Peach Bowl. This year, another dominant regular season (including a win on the road against #5 Notre Dame) was finally rewarded with an odds-defying playoff berth, the first ever for a Group of Five team.
While the gap between the sport's blue bloods and everyone else is still present, Cincinnati's postseason run marks a major turning point in how we as fans view the gridiron legitimacy of small schools. Given that Cincy was arguably granted an opportunity that should have been available to its predecessors, it's worth looking back at some of the past decade's top Group of Five squads to see if they could take down the 2021 Bearcats.
*Rankings courtesy of Sports Reference CFB.
Resume: #6 UCF famously made a dubious, but recognized, claim for the national title in 2017 following an unbeaten season under 2nd year head coach Scott Frost. Their resume, similarly to Cincinnati, was held back by playing in the AAC, even in an exceptionally strong year for the conference with two other ranked programs. However, outside of #21 USF and #25 Memphis, who the Knights beat twice that season, UCF's next three most difficult regular season opponents each went just 7-6. UCF did earn some legitimacy in the Peach Bowl with a 34-27 upset victory over #10 Auburn.
Could they beat Cincinnati?: Where UCF excelled was on offense. Star quarterback Mackenzie Milton led the nation's highest scoring offense (48.2 PPG), chipping in 45 total touchdowns to go with nearly 5,000 yards of total offense. All that yardage can't be attributed to Milton alone; future NFL players Tre'Quan Smith, Gabriel Davis, and Jordan Akins caught plenty of passes, while a committee rushing attack saw ten different players scramble into the end zone. UCF was far less intimidating on the defensive side of the ball; the Knights were 94th out of 130 in yards allowed per game (427.9). Cincinnati's defense, eighth in yards allowed per game and first in total turnovers, would present a much stiffer test for UCF's offense, while an offense averaging 39.2 points per game would lead the more well-rounded Bearcats to victory.
Cincinnati 30 - UCF 27
Resume: Before his disappointing turn with Texas, Tom Herman led eighth-ranked Houston to the brink of perfection in his first season as their head coach. Despite a mediocre 90th ranked schedule, the Cougars notched quality wins against #15 Navy, #21 Memphis and #22 Temple before dominating #9 Florida State in the Peach Bowl by a score of 38-24. The only blemish on the record? A 20-17 road loss to 6-7 UConn.
Could they beat Cincinnati?: To many, this would be an easy answer, since Cincinnati's resume includes zero losses and a better quality win against Notre Dame. However, the way Houston won games presents a unique threat for a good but not great Cincy run defense (43rd in the nation). Houston quarterback Greg Ward Jr. threw for 2827 yards and ran for 1114 on the ground to go with a mind-boggling 21 rushing touchdowns in 13 games. Despite Ward Jr.'s excellence, Houston's defense was an average 54th in the nation, with a suspect secondary surrendering an average of 274.7 passing yards per game. Thanks to the Heisman-quality play of Desmond Ridder, the Bearcats can take the top off of Houston in a high-scoring affair.
Cincinnati 42 - Houston 31
2020 Coastal Carolina
Resume: The most recent member of this list, Coastal Carolina, can go toe-to-toe with any other Group of Five team when it comes to quality victories. The Chanticleers first garnered national attention by taking down Sun Belt rival #15 Louisiana in a 30-27 nail-biter. After cruising through the rest of conference play, Coastal was originally scheduled to take on ranked Liberty, but a covid outbreak caused the game's cancellation. To get in one more game against a quality opponent, the school then reached out to #11 BYU, setting up the memorable Mormons vs. Mullets showdown. CCU gutted out a gritty 22-17 win, halting the Cougars with a game-ending stop at the one-yard line. Unfortunately for Costal, they eventually matched up with Liberty in the Cure Bowl, leading their first loss of the season by a score of 37-34. Head coach Jamey Chadwell won the Eddie Robinson Coach of the Year award, the same honor bestowed to Luke Fickell in 2021.
Could they beat Cincinnati?: Unlike Houston, UCF, and Cincinnati, the 2020 Chanticleers had two Top 15 wins (Louisiana and BYU). They also had their own dual-threat quarterback, redshirt freshman Grayson McCall, who accounted for 3057 all-purpose yards and 33 total touchdowns against just three interceptions (CCU's offense gave up an average of just 1 turnover per game). While McCall's flashy play stole most of the headlines, Coastal Carolina's defense was consistent all season, ranked 31st in total yardage while giving up a minuscule average of 203 passing yards to opponents. Coastal stifled quality competition as well; former BYU quarterback and future New York Jet Zach Wilson was held to just 240 yards when the two teams met last December. Where the edge goes to Cincinnati is stopping McCall and the passing game; UC's star-studded cornerback tandem has led the nation's second best pass defense. With nowhere to throw, Coastal's offense becomes one-dimensional, and Cincy holds on for a gritty Group of Five win.
Cincinnati 24 - Coastal Carolina 17