At the end of a charmed season, University of Cincinnati football officials are in the game they expected, a Jan. 1 meeting in the Orange Bowl against Virginia Tech, which automatically goes to Florida as the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) champion. The Bearcats could have asked for more and received a lot less.
They could have asked for a chance to make that huge statement in some other bowl game against the likes of Alabama or Texas so they could be the Boise State of 2008, the upstart with the memorable upset. Qualifying for a BCS game as the Big East champion, the Bearcats could have bitten off a larger chunk.
But the BCS decided to stick with the kind of mix to which we’re growing accustomed. We get a national championship game between Oklahoma and Florida. We get a traditional Rose Bowl with two high-performing teams in Penn State and Southern California. We get a Cinderella game for the Sugar Bowl, in which BCS buster Utah will take its 12-0 record against Alabama, the more obvious power. We get the glamorous lead-up game between two of the all-time greats, Ohio State and Texas.
What’s left is one game between two BCS lesser lights, UC and Virginia Tech, which will only raise cursory curiosity outside of Cincinnati and Blacksburg, Va. And if the Bearcats could have asked for more, they really couldn’t have received anything better.
The Bearcats not only are in a BCS game, but they’re in a BCS game with a chance to win. Of all the teams in BCS games, Virginia Tech is the least regarded, coming up 19th on the last ranking, compared with 13th for UC. No computer ranked Virginia Tech higher than 14th, and neither poll put the Hokies higher than 19th.
It’s also worth remembering that even in light of UC’s impoverished football history and Virginia Tech’s relative prosperity for the last 30 years, the Bearcats still are 4-4 lifetime against the Hokies. During a dim period for the Bearcats in the mid-1980s, UC beat Virginia Tech in 1985, then went to Blacksburg the next year and won. Virginia Tech didn’t lose another game for the rest of 1986, finishing 10-1-1.
Two weeks before the Orange Bowl, betting lines set UC as a 2 1/2-point favorite, another indication of why this is the right game for the Bearcats. It’s better at this point for the Bearcats to play in a game that they “should” win.
The whole point of this exercise is to get people taking UC football seriously, both in Cincinnati and nationally. If the Bearcats were cast in the Cinderella role against someone like Texas, even a win would somehow defeat that purpose. Inevitably, the narration would credit the outcome as much to the magic of open competition and a Texas letdown as to UC’s true force as a football team.
One suffocates to imagine UC described as “the little team that could,” which is not the path to prestige in college football. The path to prestige is fear, respect and, not the least, favorable position in the early rankings each year.
To win the national championship, it’s absolutely necessary to begin the season highly ranked, somewhere in the top 15, if not better. Every revision in the Harris and coaches polls that feed the BCS rankings is weighted by those preseason assessments. It stands to reason that the higher your team starts the less other teams have to fail before you’re No. 1 or No. 2.
If UC were to pull the marquee win against Texas or Alabama, the voters might note a rising program, but they might also say they want to see more. The idea that such a win shows “why they play the games” comes with a double edge, because it subtly diminishes UC’s achievement.
Beyond that, what would we really expect if the Bearcats were to line up against the likes of Texas or Alabama? We already know UC lost early this season 52-26 at Oklahoma. In light of later events like Oklahoma’s November drubbing of the Big 12, it’s a pretty respectable showing. But the fact that UC head coach Brian Kelly was so awed by Oklahoma’s talent is an indication that he knows, as we all do, that UC isn’t at the elite level.
There’s no shame in that, considering where UC has been and especially considering where UC could be going. At this point, though, the steps are smaller and tougher.
If the Bearcats beat Virginia Tech, they can claim to be the best college football team in the East (if you count Penn State of the Big Ten as a Midwestern school and UC of the Big East as an Eastern school). That provides a base for the Bearcats.
UC will not defeat Virginia Tech easily. The Hokies are ranked seventh nationally in total defense, 13th in scoring defense and 14th in passing defense. UC won’t go up and down the field however it wants.
But UC is the much better balanced team going into the Orange Bowl. While Virginia Tech’s defense is much touted, the Hokies also rank 107th in total offense. UC, meanwhile, is 26th in total defense and 50th in total offense. As always, the Bearcats will have to stay away from turnovers, which have killed them at times this year, and produce another good night in their special teams, which are among the country’s best.
A New Year’s bowl win would suddenly place UC into a whole new category of football teams in the eyes of recruits and national prestige. It’s the best kind of game for UC right now.
They can keep adding the pieces later. And one day, perhaps, when they do line up against Texas or Alabama they won’t have to run the self-defeating Cinderella act.
CONTACT BILL PETERSON: firstname.lastname@example.org