Another wonder of college football announces itself in the middle of town as the lords of Nippert Stadium enter November playing for their highest stakes ever. A real conference championship race has arrived.
We’ve seen a good many college conference championships in Cincinnati, but most conference championships aren’t what they used to be. The ones local basketball teams have been winning for more than 20 years mean next to nothing, not even an automatic NCAA bid, because college basketball has sold out its regular season for the postseason tournaments.
One year not so long ago, 2002, the University of Cincinnati football team won the Conference-USA championship, but the league undercut UC by sending Texas Christian to the Liberty Bowl, knowing the UC crowd wouldn’t travel. The championship in a league that doesn’t honor its champion is a rather hollow victory.
A different day has arrived. Not only does the Big East honor its football champion, but so does all of college football. To the titlist goes an automatic BCS bowl berth, with all the money and prestige that entails, and UC is in the thick of it.
It’s been said before, and it’s worth saying again at a time like this: Only college football persists with a truly worthwhile regular season. It remains mysterious why anyone would insist on a playoff tournament after every other sport has shown us the price paid for a true champion.
College football gives us a mythical champion so we can have a true regular season. The other sports give us a real champion and pay for it with a mythical regular season. And, as often as not, we say the best team didn’t win the championship anyway.
But we can’t say that about the winners of the college football conferences, because those titles come the hard way, week by week, leaving no room for flukes.
The Bearcats approach the midway point in this Big East season with as good a chance as anyone, 2-1 right now with a meeting against first place and 3-0 West Virginia coming up Saturday in Morgantown. A win puts UC in the driver’s seat by virtue of a head-to-head win against the Mountaineers, but the driver’s seat isn’t necessarily a safe place on this road.
Later, the Bearcats go to Louisville, which is not among the contenders at this moment, Following that, 2-1 Pittsburgh comes to Nippert Stadium before the conference season ends at home Nov. 29 against Syracuse. Meanwhile, after UC goes to Morgantown, West Virginia travels to Louisville and Pittsburgh before ending the league season at home against South Florida. Pittsburgh plays at home against Louisville Saturday before going to Cincinnati, playing at home against West Virginia and going to Connecticut.
Whoever sweeps the UC-Pittsburgh-West Virginia round robin probably wins the league, and a split might still be good enough if the likes of Louisville, South Florida or Connecticut can spring a win against one of the leaders.
The timing works well for UC, which has played a commendable season despite quarterback problems. First, the Bearcats didn’t get Ben Mauk back from the NCAA, not a huge surprise, but then Dustin Grutza broke his leg. In went Tony Pike, who broke his non-throwing forearm against Akron Sept. 27. By October, the Bearcats were on their fourth quarterback.
After a redshirt freshman, Chazz Anderson, guided UC to a 33-10 win against Marshall, UC began stumbling offensively. The Bearcats barely survived in a 13-10 win against Rutgers, then made six turnovers at Connecticut in a 40-16 loss during which the game got away in the fourth quarter. UC still leads the Big East in passing efficiency with a 150.8 rating.
Now Pike is back, and if he isn’t the guy head coach Brian Kelly would have picked in August, at least he’s the second or third guy Kelly would have picked. If Pike can stay healthy and give the Bearcats continuity behind center, they’ll be that much better equipped down the stretch.
It remains that this season, like any other season, comes down to running the ball and stopping the run, and it especially comes down that way with a team that hasn’t enjoyed familiar quarterback play. One can almost read UC’s record from the game-by-game rushing statistics. That nationally televised 24-10 win against South Florida Oct. 30 was the first time UC won without out-rushing the opponent, and you can thank three UC pass interceptions for that.
The Bearcats are 31st in nationally in rushing defense this year, allowing 112.8 yards per game. They won’t face a better test of that component than West Virginia, which ranks 10th in rushing offense with 229.5 yards per game. If West Virginia hits that average, UC can all but forget about winning.
UC will have to contain the West Virginia running attack, avoid turnovers and make a special teams play or two to win this one on the road. No one said the Big East would be easy. We only said it would be great, and look what it’s given us: a whole new perspective on the regular season in Clifton. And when it’s over, it might even give us a whole new perspective on New Year’s Day.
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