Cincinnati climbs CFP mountain, but can it stay there?

No. 4 Cincinnati has done the improbable and become the first school from outside a Power Five conference to crack the College Football Playoff

After all these years, little brother is making some big noise.

Meanwhile, back in Columbus, Ohio State fans are still working through the grief of last month’s disastrous loss to Michigan, which to many was worse than being shut out of the playoff for the first time in three seasons.

The Bearcats scaled the CFP mountain and can see the top from there.

Now fifth-year coach Luke Fickell has to figure out how to keep the Bearcats up there as the program prepares to transition to a Power Five conference — the Big 12 — in the next few years.

“When I came here, a mindset of mine was, ‘I hope someday, that we could become a rival to my alma mater,’” said Fickell, who played at Ohio State and was on its coaching staff for 16 years.

Cincinnati has a well-earned national reputation as a basketball school. But it could never compete with the tradition, fan base, facilities and recruiting advantage of the juggernaut Buckeyes.

Urban Meyer, the former Ohio State coach, suggested the trajectory of the Cincinnati program could depend on how the Bearcats show against No. 1 Alabama on New Year’s Eve with 25 million people watching on TV.

“It can be that double-edged sword,” Meyer said. A competitive game boosts the profile of the program; a blowout looks bad and raises doubts about whether the Bearcats belonged.

“There is a lot of responsibility at Cincinnati to go perform well,” said Meyer, who was fired as the Jacksonville Jaguars coach last week. “It is great for them.”

Cincinnati football fandom is regional, closer to Ohio’s six Mid-American Conference schools than Ohio State, which a few years ago tried unsuccessfully to trademark the word “The” as in “The Ohio State University.”

Century-old Nippert Stadium on the UC campus has undergone some major renovations in recent years but still seats only around 40,000. (That’s smaller than any in the current Big 12.)

Fickell built his 2021 team around seniors and transfers who will be gone next season, including quarterback Desmond Ridder, running back Jerome Ford (an Alabama transfer) and most defensive starters. Sustaining the success will be challenging, but Fickle has prioritized recruiting and building for the future.

“They’ve got a top-five team — they’re a ways away from having a top-five program, and that’s what Ohio State is,” said Jim Kelly, a former Bearcats player and radio analyst for more than three decades.

“Yeah, they will have some growing pains with some new kids, but they’re making strides and truly are ahead of where they were five years ago (when Fickell arrived), in every aspect,” Kelly said.

Buckeyes fans will keep an eye on the Cincinnati game before settling in to watch No. 7 Ohio State’s consolation game, a Rose Bowl matchup with No. 10 Utah on New Year’s Day.

Things will get more interesting if the Bearcats beat two-touchdown favorite Alabama, and No. 3 Michigan upsets No. 2 Georgia.

“In a perfect world, Michigan and Cincinnati would play each other in the national championship game — let the coaching sparks fly! — with Fickell getting the best of Jim Harbaugh,” columnist Rob Oller wrote in The Columbus Dispatch. “That might even make Buckeye Nation happy, despite being on the outside looking in.”


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