- Senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and ESPN.com
- 2-time Sports Emmy winner
- 2010, 2014 NMPA Writer of the Year
On Friday afternoon, the Cincinnati Bearcats won’t be playing merely on behalf of themselves. Instead, when the Bearcats run onto the field of the Jerry Dome for the College Football Playoff semifinal showdown with No. 1 Alabama (3:30 p.m. ET, ESPN/ESPN App), they shouldn’t do so beneath their own traditional black “C” flag. They should run out behind a New Year’s parade’s worth of banners with the logos of all the Bowl Championship Series and would-be CFP crashers who came before them.
Fly the black and gold of UCF, the blue and white of BYU, the blue and orange of Boise State and, heck, even that angry little Green Wave of Tulane. When it’s time to bring out the honorary captains for the Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic coin toss, they should march out every commissioner from the Gang of 5 conferences, from the Sun Belt and Conference USA to the Mountain West and MAC to their current home, the AAC, and even go on and bring reps from the AAC’s granddaddy, the Big East, as well as someone from the WAC. Bring out Gary Patterson and McKenzie Milton and Shaun King, and let them stand out there at midfield with the Bearcats’ actual captains, finally occupying the postseason spots they were all once denied.
Yeah, Cincinnati, you should have brought them all to Arlington, Texas, this weekend, because like it or not, just as much as you are representing your hard-fought 13-0 season, you also are representing all of them and all their greatest seasons, years since lost in the shadows of title games they weren’t invited to.
“I don’t know about all of that,” Cincinnati coach Luke Fickell said when asked about his team’s larger role earlier this season. “I know what our goals are and how difficult a task that is on its own. I appreciate it very much if our success means something to other people out there, but I also don’t think they see us as some surprise story. We expect to have that success.”
They do and they should. Over the past two years, the Bearcats have lost one game. Since Fickell’s first year on the job in 2017, a 4-8 campaign, Cincinnati has posted a four-year mark of 44-6, with double-digit wins in every season except last year’s 9-1 pandemic-shortened schedule.
That success is why the Bearcats really want us to know that they do not consider themselves an underdog. They downright bristle at the notion.
“We’ve heard a lot about this David versus Goliath talk,” junior offensive lineman Dylan O’Quinn said earlier this week. “But the fact of the matter is everybody puts their pants on the same way.”
Alabama, the perpetual top team in the land, also wants us to know it does not consider the Bearcats as an underdog. Heck, the Tide are even trying to convince us that it is Cincy who is the favorite.
“I still feel like we’re the underdog in this game,” Bama linebacker Will Anderson Jr. said. “All year we have been disrespected.”
With all due disrespect to the player who has already won the Bronko Nagurski Trophy, SEC Defensive Player of the Year and been named to every All-America team known to man, let alone anyone and everyone on either of these teams’ rosters and coaching staffs, we ain’t buying what they are attempting to sell. There is only one underdog in this postseason, and it is a cat. A Bearcat.
Cincinnati is a 13.5-point underdog at the betting window. It is the first school from outside the Power 5 to make the four-team CFP in its eight years of existence. The Bearcats are facing the defending national champions. During the 2019-20 fiscal year, the University of Cincinnati spent $74 million on athletics. The other three CFP participants — Alabama, Georgia and Michigan — averaged $164 million.
By any measure on any spreadsheet, Cincinnati is an underdog.
“It doesn’t matter,” Fickell said this week. “We know. We have a good idea. I mean, if you’re going to have a shot at the title, you’ve got to beat the champs. This is what we have: We have a shot to beat the champs. Regardless of what the line is, we’ve said it all year long, ‘The best team doesn’t always win the game.’ That’s just the reality. The teams that play the best win the football game.”
Again, when asked about representing every little guy ever, even when we all acknowledge that his guys aren’t all that little, Fickell only smiled and said, “We’ll take all the support we can get.”
There is plenty, and much of it comes from those who have been in Cincinnati’s cleats before but weren’t able to take that next step.
“What I think we all recognize is how impossibly difficult it is to do what they have done,” said Chris Petersen, the author of what is still considered by most to be the greatest college football establishment gate-crashing of all time, Boise State’s Hollywood-script upset of Oklahoma in the 2007 Fiesta Bowl, which took place 15 years ago Saturday. But even as timeless as that Broncos team has become, it was still relegated to an at-large BCS bowl berth, the same built-in consolation prize that transferred over into the CFP era and was given to undefeated UCF in 2017 and Cincinnati one year ago.
“When you are in that position, feeling like you are on the outside looking in, you know that to have any chance, no matter how slim, you have to be undefeated, but also have to be impressive,” Petersen said. “There is zero benefit of the doubt. That brings a tremendous amount of pressure that only increases every single week. Cincinnati has handled that very well.”
“If you’re being honest with yourself, you know that no one is going to invite you to the big dance, so there’s always that little reminder in your head,” Tommy Bowden said about his 1998 Tulane team that went 13-0 and finished seventh in the final AP and coaches’ polls. Tulane went out with a win in the Liberty Bowl over the gold standard of college football underdogs, BYU, owner of the 1984 national title. “So when a team like Cincinnati makes a run like this, yeah, we are all paying attention for sure.”
It is natural to find oneself rooting for kinship. We gleefully hit the “like” button whenever a family member posts about their new job, new marriage or new baby, even if it’s a second cousin we haven’t seen in years. We still feel the pride when our high school wins State decades after our own graduation. And even during these most polarized of times, so many strangers are discovering a new kinship as they begin to gather in that happiest of common sports grounds, the staging area for the bandwagon that backs an underdog.
In the eight-year history of the College Football Playoff, underdogs haven’t been difficult to find. Bigfoot is difficult to find. Playoff crashers have been nonexistent. The most heralded “we didn’t see that coming” run was in the CFP’s inaugural season, when fourth-ranked Ohio State (and co-defensive coordinator Fickell) upset Alabama and Oregon to win it all. Yes, that’s what passes for a CFP underdog story. A 12-win Big Ten championship team that had Ezekiel Elliott running the ball and Joey Bosa making tackles, winning two games. Not exactly the Miracle on Ice, is it?
Thus the support for Cincy headed into Friday’s Cotton Bowl hasn’t been limited to the “been there, done that” folks. As the CFP has increasingly suffered from “Bama and Clemson AGAIN?” fatigue and the cries for playoff expansion have graduated from chatter into real discussions, the desire for a March Madness-ish Cinderella story has only grown among fans around the country.
This Cinderella’s slippers aren’t shoes at all. They are claws. Worn on the feet of a team that has been given a once-impossible chance to not only participate in the games that will determine the national champion, but to perhaps knock off the crimson-painted face of the establishment. The very Nick Saban-built monster that the teams and fans from the other side of the college football tracks believe has rigged the very game they play against them. Not to mention the superpowers who are on board with any team that can spoil the party they’ve missed out on.
Mere moments after Ohio State lost to the Wolverines — themselves a CFP rookie — to end the regular season, legions of Buckeyes fans pledged their support for the team located 107 miles to the southwest, from a Columbus Dispatch story educating OSU fans on how to be a bandwagon Cincy fan to a declaration from Maurice Clarett himself.
There are programs that would shun such a sudden newbie and fandom that undoubtedly will be temporary. Cincinnati is waiting with open claws.
“I can’t speak for anyone but our team and our fans,” said Fickell, almost sounding like a man who is willing to admit that he is indeed an underdog. Almost. “But [again] we will gladly take all the support we can get from wherever we can get it. Our goal is to make people who just now are paying attention to Cincinnati football to believe in what we’re building and maybe keep watching to see what else we can do.”
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