Following Saturday’s narrow 24-31 loss to the University of Arkansas Razorbacks, the University of Cincinnati football program finds itself in unfamiliar territory — 0-1 with an entire season’s slate of games ahead.
Since Luke Fickell’s stable tenure as head football coach began in earnest his second season at the helm, the University of Cincinnati has only lost a handful of football games. More precisely, Coach Fickell has only lost seven games since 2018. The Bearcats’ last two seasons featured an unparalleled, historic run of success, with only two losses: to Georgia in the 2020 Peach Bowl and Alabama in the 2021 Cotton Bowl.
During that (unprecedented) run, Coach Fickell was relatively fortunate inasmuch as he didn’t have to deal with injuries or turnover at the quarterback position. Except for a two week stretch late in 2019, Desmond Ridder was the Bearcats’ starting quarterback after taking over for Hayden Moore during the UCLA game on September 1, 2018 (Fickell’s first signature victory as head coach). Unfortunately, Mr. Ridder is conspicuously absent from the 2022 roster, as are notable roster departures at running back (Jerome Ford), wide receiver (Alec Pierce, Michael Young), linebacker (Darian Beavers, Joel Dublanco), defensive line (Curtis Brooks), and defensive backfield (Sauce Gardner, Coby Bryant, Bryan Cook).
Prior to Saturday’s loss to Arkansas, the Bearcats last started a football season with a loss in 2010. Saturday’s road test, however, shared nothing in common with the 2010 loss to Fresno State (or any other opening game in recent memory). Last season’s high watermark of success in view, prior to Saturday the Bearcats still had never started a season facing such a big test in Game One. For scale, UC has opened up against the likes of Miami, Austin Peay, Tennessee-Martin, and UCLA the last five seasons.
Even if UCLA’s teams were (arguably) so-so, UC’s recent Game One environments do not compare to Saturday’s — facing a top 20 SEC opponent…on the road…in 85 degree Fayetteville swelter…before a hostile, capacity crowd…of 76,000 hog-calling Razorback fans. Make no mistake, Coach Sam Pittman’s Arkansas team was/is no joke. Their roster from last season notched wins over Texas, Texas A&M, LSU, and Penn State and returned mostly in tact. And their human wrecking ball of a quarterback, KJ Jefferson (weighing north of 230 lbs.), also returned. While Pittman’s Hogs were picked to finish third behind Alabama and Texas A&M in the SEC West, maybe the media should consider revising (and raising) expectations following Saturday’s performance.
For the first game in recent memory, I approached Saturday’s game sober minded about the Bearcats’ prospects. I (correctly) worried issues that invariably surface with any quarterback transition might cause the Bearcats’ offense to sputter. UC’s offense did just that in the first half, struggling to find an early rhythm. I also (correctly) worried roster turnover, especially on defense, would be a problem. Throughout the game, UC’s defense struggled with contain. And down the stretch, CJ Jefferson gashed the BlackCats on quarterback keepers, often at critical moments. Lastly, I (incorrectly) worried Arkansas’ balanced offensive approach and tremendous size and athleticism up front would give us fits. If anything, Nick Saban’s game plan in the Cotton Bowl would’ve seemed to have provided Pittman and Co. with a solid template for exploiting roster vulnerabilities. Arkansas’ roster, however, didn’t pack the same punch in the trenches as the Crimson Tide’s. I can’t help but think Fickell’s recruiting efforts, combined with Brady Collins’ strength and conditioning program, all but leveled up the size and speed of the Bearcats’ roster such that historic athletic disparities were neither consequential nor meaningful.
What now? How does this team rebound/reload?
For a program working to build a “Top 10” brand, accustomed only to early season success, the Bearcats are fortunate as the balance of this season’s schedule includes mostly winnable games. Thankfully, Coach Fickell’s program outgrew the other teams in the American Athletic Conference years ago. The Conference schedule, then, should insulate and help provide this roster with winning momentum forward.
Though the College Football Playoff is no longer in reach, it probably never was given this year’s strength of schedule — regardless of Saturday’s outcome. A 12-1 season, on the other hand, remains well within reach. And that kind of success, if this Bearcats roster can settle in and get used to winning again, could provide tremendous momentum for UC’s offseason transition to a more competitive environment as a new member of the Big 12 Conference next season.
The next two Saturdays (Kennesaw State on the 10th and Miami on the 17th) provide Coach Fickell’s squad with a chance to regroup, sharpen, and reload before the Hoosiers travel to Nippert Stadium and the AAC schedule kicks off (against Tulsa on the road on October 1st). Saturday was frustrating because we were a possession away; fewer mistakes and we likely would’ve gotten over the top. Nevertheless, this season and UC’s roster reboot should be a lot of fun to root for. Go Bearcats!
By: Brian Fox
More pictures from Fayetteville follow…