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How Cincinnati Football Got Here

The nation’s only undefeated team enters their first-ever College Football Playoff on the doorstep of history. And how Luke Fickell took the Cincinnati Bearcats there is anything but a fluke.

Of the four teams in this year’s College Football Playoff, the Cincinnati Bearcats are far and away the one that casual fans might assume is least deserving of their spot in the bracket.

And those fans would be wrong.

An undefeated season including a famous victory over Notre Dame and another American Athletic Conference title made Luke Fickell’s boys impossible to ignore in the eyes of the CFP Committee. Now, they arrive at Dec. 31’s semifinal as a notable underdog in the single biggest sporting event in the modern history of the Bearcats: A date with defending national champion Alabama for a place in January’s title game.

Today, Cincy doesn’t just have swagger — they’re the only football team in the land with 13 wins. They’re the only football team in the land with zero losses.

So, how on earth did they get here?

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The Bearcat Brand

  • Record: 13-0
  • CFP Rank: No. 4
  • Head Coach: Luke Fickell (48-14 record at Cincinnati)
  • 2021 Football Budget: $15.4 million
  • 2021 Estimated Football Revenue: $10 million

It Begins at the Top

  • Cincinnati has won 44 games since 2018.

Coach Fickell’s first year at Cincinnati didn’t go too well.

After being hired away from Ohio State, the Bearcats went 4-8 in 2017. Fortunately, the next year saw the beginning of a rise to prominence, with the Bearcats jumping all the way up to 11 wins in 2018, defeating Virginia Tech in the Military Bowl to cap off the campaign.

Fickell is now in his fifth season, and has been at the helm for each of the two occasions in which Cincinnati has been ranked in the AP Preseason Top 25 to date. His ability to build up a program searching for an identity since Brian Kelly departed over time has led to unprecedented heights that even the new LSU coach couldn’t manage.

Getting a whiff of the mountaintop is nice, but sustained growth and development is how a team becomes a traditional college football power — and that’s Fickell’s model. Clemson, for example, went from ACC also-ran to frequent College Football Playoff contender, and the same is true for the Bearcats. For the third time in four years, Cincy has won at least 11 games, with the COVID-shortened 2020 being the only reason they didn’t win double digits (they still went 9-0 in the regular season before losing to Georgia in the Peach Bowl).

Consistency breeds respect, as the Bearcats were ranked in the Preseason Top 10 for the first time ever. This is in part due to Cincinnati leadership–from Fickell and the coaching staff and the athletic department maximizing the resources allotted to build a quality football program.

Talent Built for Sundays

  • Cincy has eight current NFL players, including four 2021 NFL draftees.

No coach is good without good players and talent is more widespread than ever. Even with traditional powerhouses like the other three teams in the College Football Playoff — Michigan, Georgia, and Cincy’s semifinal opponent, Alabama — Cincinnati has produced a fair share of NFL talent.

Cornerback JC Horn was selected by the Carolina Panthers in the top 10 of last year’s Draft, and this year, more Sunday-ready skill is coming down the pipeline. Quarterback Desmond Ridder has a first-round grade in a draft pool generally dominated by defensive players; an incredible performance against Alabama wouldn’t just be vital for Bearcats, but for their breakout gunslinger.

Cincinnati also has appealing NFL prospects on the other side of the ball. Defensive end Myjai Sanders went from the nation’s No. 327-ranked recruit to a first-round grade and a Senior Bowl invite. The Bearcats even managed to have the void left in the secondary by Horn with Ahmad “Sauce” Gardner.

At 6-foot-3, Sauce is an impressively-sized corner who reliably takes away his side of the field. Elite defensive backs are rarely thrown at, but that hasn’t limited his playmaking ability — Gardner has three interceptions and three sacks.

And looking ahead, Cincinnati has cracked the top 25 recruiting rankings for the 2022 class, a bit of momentum that stands to get an even bigger jolt as Fickell guides the program to greater and greater success. There’s simply no bigger name in the Group of 5 than the Bearcats — and plenty of Power 5 schools are finding it increasingly difficult to compete.

It’s Bigger Than the Schedule

  • Seven American Athletic Conference teams are bowl eligible. That’s as many as the Big Ten and more than the Pac-12.

If you care about the conventional wisdom, one of the knocks against Cincinnati having a place in the College Football Playoff was that their schedule was somehow too easy, and that the average Power 5 schools faces far tougher tests.

That rhetoric doesn’t get far with Fickell.

β€œWe don’t want to feel like we’re carrying some flag for the non-big schools, so to speak,” Fickell said on a Zoom call early in December. β€œWe just want to be us.”

As must as this run should only be about just the Bearcats’ excellent season, it isn’t. Had Cincy suffered even one defeat — specifically against would-be Playoff contender Notre Dame, perhaps — their postseason hopes fall by the wayside. Only one team in FBS ran through the entire regular season and their conference championship game without a blemish on their record; that’s absolutely massive.

Every game was intensely criticized. When the Bearcats defense helped secure a close win against Tulsa, articles popped up in the media wondering if the victory actually hurt their Playoff chances.

Meanwhile, little is mentioned of Georgia not scoring an offensive touchdown against an underachieving Clemson team or Alabama needing late-game heroics to beat Florida and Auburn teams that both finished 6-6. Michigan had to overcome an uncomfortable deficit against Nebraska. And somehow, the team with the smallest margin for error of all turned out to be the one that emerged undefeated.

Cincinnati now arrives at its most important game in its program history Dec. 31 against Nick Saban and the Tide. But no matter the outcome, the Bearcats are no fluke or beneficiary of a juggernaut’s collapse — they fully their spot not just in the College Football Playoff, but in the top tier of the sport overall.

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