The University of Cincinnati football team is like a Cheshire cat — the smile is there, but where's the cat? The few who line up behind the Bearcats and speak on their behalf usually wind up betrayed, embarrassed, painfully silenced by another UC football mishap.
How many times has this space sung UC football's praises, only for our local collegians to tank the next month? If they're supposed to be good, they start poorly. If they're not supposed to be good, they might win a few in the middle of the year, put themselves into contention, then revert to form. And when they aren't supposed to be good, they usually aren't good for surprises.
The university was hoping for change this year, but the opening of the Mark Dantonio Era is looking remarkably like the garden variety UC season to which we were welcomed by Rick Minter after two dreary decades that preceded him.
At that, the Bearcats again are the better football team in town this year, leaving out, of course, the great high school powers like Elder and Colerain, who will mosh it out this weekend in the playoffs. The old pub wager about which local team will win the most games — the Bengals or UC — once again is on the table.
The Bengals actually won that contest last year.
Did that have something to do with getting Minter fired?
Anyway, sometime around the end of last season or the end of any season that didn't end with a bowl appearance, the university administration caught itself in a vision of big-time football on a little budget. So UC replaced the coach who stabilized its program, figuring another man could make magic with the same resources.
To this point, we haven't seen magic. The Bearcats followed form with losses at Ohio State and Syracuse. And the Bearcats followed form with inexplicably poor losses against Alabama-Birmingham and Army, two opponents well within reach of good UC teams. Now the Bearcats have rallied, as is their custom, putting themselves back into the bowl picture with impressive wins against Memphis and Texas Christian.
At 4-4, the Bearcats need two wins for bowl eligibility. Fortunately, they would be spared bowl trips to Boise or Detroit even if they win all three of their remaining games, since Conference-USA no longer is tied in with those bowls. As it happens, their chances of winning even two are less than prohibitive.
Among their remaining games are a trip to Southern Mississippi, which is ranked No. 23 in the latest BCS compilation, and a trip to Louisville, the high-scoring power ranked a robust 15 by the same measure.
By the twisted justice of Conference-USA football scheduling, Louisville and Southern Miss don't play each other at all this year, while UC plays each in the past three weeks. Which means it's unlikely Louisville or Southern Miss will lose twice in the league this year, which means UC, at 3-2 in the league right now, probably can't win the league title even if it wins the rest of its games. Bowl eligibility is another matter.
It would figure that the road to bowl eligibility for UC probably will run through Louisville, which is the best team within two hours of Cincinnati during this lackluster season of local college football. The combined record for UC, Miami, Ohio State, Indiana, Louisville and Kentucky is an even 23-23.
Hopes aren't running very high this year in many nearby corners. Ohio State rang up a three-game losing streak to Northwestern, Wisconsin and Iowa. Indiana is about what it always is, while Miami already has lost to UC in its rival game and to Marshall in the MAC East's de facto championship game. Kentucky is pretty close to the worst offensive outfit going this year in college football.
But Louisville is posting a dynamic season under football coach Bobby Petrino, which goes pretty well with basketball coach Rick Pitino. The Cardinals not only are third nationally at 42 points per game, but quarterback Stephan LeFors leads the nation with his 179.8 quarterback rating and the Louisville defense ranks 11th nationally.
The LeFors story begs for a happy ending. Offered a scholarship by no one but Louisville, he comes from a family in which his parents, brother, paternal grandparents and three uncles all are deaf. LeFors' dad has joked that he keeps thinking the kid's trying to sign to him when he gestures to teammates on the football field. May the cheers be loud enough for his family to appreciate.
Unfortunately, it's likely those cheers at Papa John's Stadium will drown the Bearcats for Dantonio's first year. But it's not until next year that we should have expected to see much difference anyway. What will be his direction for UC football?
Among Minter's successes was his move to make UC a truly local team. This year's roster, mostly composed of Minter recruits, includes 28 players from Cincinnati and immediately surrounding Ohio towns, nine players from the Columbus area, four from the Dayton area and another four from Northern Kentucky. Such a local football team might inspire more public support, but the Bearcats played before their usual 20,000 at Nippert Stadium last Saturday when they beat TCU.
The quarterback, Gino Guidugli, is a local lad who's played all but one game in the past four seasons. He'll own the UC passing record book, but the Bearcats are 23-22 in the games he's played, including two bowl losses.
With hopes of amping up the football situation, UC has changed coaches and conferences. It the process, it appears the Bearcats might be running in place.
Funny, but the Bearcats are moving out of Conference-USA for the Big East next year with hopes of improving their football profile, but it's only because Louisville is going with them that the new league might be as good. The only other future Big East school appearing in this week's BCS ratings is West Virginia, ranked No. 16.
It would seem UC football has a checkered future to go with its checkered history. UC was able to arrange the prestige upgrade to the Big East only because Miami (of Florida), Virginia Tech and Boston College downgraded the Big East's prestige by moving to the Atlantic Coast Conference. Now that college football fans are seeing what the Big East looks like without its best football mates, the question is going out louder than ever: How on earth does the Big East maintain its automatic bid to a BCS bowl?
The entire Big East needs to upgrade in so many ways. Conference-USA now is the equal of the Big East in football and might remain so when UC and Louisville switch over next season. This year, the Big East has only three bowl tie-ins, not including its automatic to a BCS game. Without a BCS automatic, Conference-USA has four bowl ties.
The names on UC's football schedule will be better next year, but the opponents probably won't be. And that actually bodes well for the future. OK, time to shut up.