Bearcats head coach Luke Fickell (left) and quarterback Desmond Ridder celebrate after defeating Houston in the American Athletic Conference championship game in Cincinnati. (Kareem Elgazzar/The Cincinnati Enquirer via USA TODAY NETWORK)
It has been a part-plucky, mostly comical, rarely sincere slogan of every college football upstart of the past dozen or so years, written on signs designed to create smiles or chanted through contained laughter from student sections across the land.
“We Want Bama.”
Well, Cincinnati, you big dreaming, gate-crashing, perfect regular season after perfect regular season Group of 5 underdog, congratulations on doing the seemingly impossible and actually making the College Football Playoff.
Now guess what?
You got Bama.
On Sunday, the playoff committee laid it out: No. 1 Alabama, the once again reigning national champions, powered by another Heisman favorite and coming off another SEC championship, with the greatest coach of all time and a roster full of five-stars against … the fourth-seeded University of Cincinnati Bearcats in Arlington, Texas on Dec. 31.
On the other side of the draw, No. 2 Michigan will take on No. 3 Georgia, a battle of at least more similar weight classes later that night in Miami Gardens, Florida.
So here we go, a chance, at last, to see exactly what a very, very good team from outside the sports’ historical power construct can actually contend for a title. To just get here, UC has scaled a wall built on television revenue and decades old conference affiliations that have long defined the haves and have-nots, the worthy and unworthy, the real and the pretend.
Bearcats coach Luke Fickell wants no part of making this global. He is, smartly, focused on his team and his team alone, not the past or future somewhere else.
“Representing ourselves and what we do within our program, our university, our community and our city,” Fickell said Sunday on ESPN.
Can UC do this? No one knows, of course. Not yet. Prior to this, however, college football did everything in its power to make sure we never found out.
‘All you ever wanted was a chance’
The sport’s history is littered with great teams without conference connections or decades of pedigree who never got to settle it on the field.
Occasionally these clubs would get a chance to play someone from a decent league but never a real shot at a real championship. They’d get put at the kids table of the bowl series, often pitted against each other. Sports Illustrated once dubbed them the “Separate but Equal” bowls.
You have to go back to 1984 and BYU – ancient days by today’s system – to find a team from outside the major conferences to win a national title.
And so the sport’s history is littered with the unknown. Utah. Boise State. TCU. UCF. Even Tulane and Hawaii.
Sometimes they were the nation’s only unbeaten team (Boise, 2006). Sometimes they boasted No. 1 overall pick in the NFL draft (Utah and Alex Smith in 2004). Sometimes they won the Rose Bowl (TCU 2010). Sometimes they did it two straight years (UCF, 2017 and 2018).
Sometimes they beat Oklahoma on a Statue of Liberty play and then had their running back propose to his cheerleader girlfriend (if you need to ask …) to go 13-0 but never had a chance to advance. Sometimes they even beat Bama (Utah, 2008 in the Sugar Bowl).
Were they good enough to actually win it all? Maybe not. Or Maybe. No one can say for sure.
But a litany of legendary coaches who led them, and then moved on to bigger things – Urban Meyer and Kyle Wittingham at Utah, Chris Peterson at Boise, Gary Patterson at TCU, Scott Frost at UCF – all wonder to this very day.
“All you ever wanted was a chance,” Petersen said years ago. “You just wanted to find out.”
Bearcats got outside help to crash CFP
Cincinnati is going to find out. Cincinnati is going to get that chance. The path is there. Win two games and the Bearcats are national champions. No one else ever faced that reality. They were always going to be denied, voted out or looked down upon.
Petersen used to rail about the criticisms he’d hear about a Boise State team that would churn out half a dozen NFL draft picks. Its home stadium was too small – like you get points for that. It used to be a junior college – like that matters on third down.
Or how Boise, Idaho is too small and isolated – “and Lincoln, Nebraska isn’t,” he once said? “We have a million people living here, Fortune 500 companies.”
There was always something. A metric. An argument. A doubt. Now, well, now there isn’t. At least this one time. UC did it the hard way. It required posting consecutive unbeaten regular seasons – like last year’s results mattered for anyone else (cough, cough 2-4 Michigan) – to build credibility. It won all its games. The Bearcats soundly beat fifth-ranked Notre Dame at Notre Dame, effectively boxing out the Irish.
And they still needed the ACC, Big 12 and Pac-12 to cannibalize itself. Had Oklahoma State running back Dezmon Jackson been able to stretch a few inches further at the end of the Big 12 title game, UC is probably out.
That’s how fragile this was.
Oklahoma State running back Dezmon Jackson came up short in the Big 12 title game, much to Cincinnati’s delight. (AP Photo/Roger Steinman)
Whatever, UC in. A team with 32 seniors, with an NFL-caliber quarterback, with a first round of the draft defensive back, with a coach that even the biggest programs in the country are interested in hiring, is in this thing.
History says the Bearcats won’t win. History says it won’t even be close. This is, after all, Alabama.
The Tide just defeated a supposedly invincible Georgia team by 17. In last year’s playoffs it beat Ohio State by 28 and Notre Dame by 17. Alabama has won playoff games by 17 (Washington, 2016), 18 (Clemson, 2017) and 38 (Michigan State, 2015).
If that’s the fate that befalls Cincinnati, then so be it. This shouldn’t be the referendum that will impact all future Group of 5 teams – until this playoff smartly, and finally, expands – because it didn’t define the other victims of the Saban steamroller.
But at least Cincinnati gets a shot. It all gets settled between the lines, not in a committee room or by computer formula or via decades of hardened opinions.
“We know it’s going to be an incredible challenge,” Fickell said. “[However] our guys have done nothing but step up to challenges.”
They got Bama.
Now comes the hard part.