Following the University of Cincinnati football team used to be one of life’s simple pleasures, a private and personal window on sports through which the wins and losses didn’t matter as much as the laughs, groans and occasional sense that these kids might be getting somewhere. Might be. Few others understood or cared, which was just part of the puzzle.
Plenty of room in the stands, so there was no need to crowd. You didn’t worry about fatheads and frontrunners, because they went elsewhere no matter how hard you tried to convince them otherwise. And, as often as not from about 1992, the football was pretty good.
During really honest moments, you wondered why Cincinnati sports fans wouldn’t latch on to the Bearcats, especially some of Rick Minter’s hard-hitting teams in the mid-1990s. But you didn’t wonder about it for very long.
If you didn’t necessarily want big-time college football and the excesses that go with it, you still thought about the people you heard on the radio all week or met in the bars and all they talked about was how much they were disgusted by the greediness of pro sports as they dreamed of athletes who played hard for the love of the game.
But the second you tried turning them on to UC football, they’d look at you like you were campaigning for a black presidential candidate and immediately protest that UC football will never amount to anything because Cincinnati is a pro sports town, as if that were a honorable distinction rather than a swindle.
So there you sat at the UC game, all but alone, watching a representative football team turn in a competitive performance, and you just couldn’t understand what was inside people’s heads that would keep them from figuring it out. Very frustrating.
Times have changed, believe it or not. Ten years after approving the funds for two new pro sports stadiums, Cincinnati fans know they’ve been had. The Reds and the Bengals, between them, have achieved one winning season in their new stadiums. Two weeks ago, an African-American presidential candidate carried Hamilton County, beating a Republican war hero on his way to the White House. And college football is the most serious game in town.
The Reds, the Bengals and the Republicans have changed minds by such dizzying ineptitude that only the slowest of the slow are still taken in by their blandishments. The UC football team is alone in changing the weather with a fresh, compelling vision of athletics.
It’s hard to overstate the importance of UC’s game Saturday night against Pittsburgh at Nippert Stadium. A win for the Bearcats all but puts them in a BCS bowl game, which is a New Year’s showcase. We probably shouldn’t even bring up the stakes for winning such a game — which would pit them against the likes of Texas, Florida or Southern Cal — except to note that it’d probably lead to high rankings at the start of next season, which could develop into national title race if the year falls right.
The Bearcats are the first place team in the Big East, 8-2 overall and 4-1 in the league. They’ve won three straight, none more impressively than their 59 minutes of raw dominance Nov. 8 at West Virginia, where the Bearcats held the league’s flagship football program to 220 total yards, completely taking apart one of the best running attacks in America.
And when it turned out the Bearcats needed to win that game twice, they won it twice, finishing with a 26-23 overtime victory. A week earlier, they notched a 24-10 win against South Florida. A week later, they produced a 28-20 win at Louisville.
Pittsburgh is 7-2 overall and 3-1 in the Big East. Pitt’s most recent win is its most lopsided, a 41-7 smashing of Louisville Nov. 8. The Panthers haven’t played since then, meaning they’ll have two weeks to ready themselves for UC.
Though Pitt has beaten UC in all seven of their meetings historically, UC is clearly and measurably the better football team, if the results to date are to be trusted. Pitt is just now heading to the tough end of its back-loaded schedule, with upcoming games against West Virginia and Connecticut. UC already has those teams out of the way and faces only Syracuse after Saturday.
Especially considering that UC has walked the much tougher path through the league to date, the Bearcats come up looking much better by numerous measures. Out of 17 NCAA statistical categories for team performance, Pitt ranks in the bottom half of the Big East in 10 of them and ranks fourth in four others. UC ranks in the bottom half in only five of those categories and rates in the top three in nine of them.
If the Bearcats can establish the run, they should be able to score whatever they need to score in this game. Defensively, they need an answer for Pitt running back LeSean McCoy, who is 12th nationally with 115.7 rushing yards per game. If the Bearcats can bottle up Pittsburgh’s running game the way they stopped West Virginia, then UC cornerbacks Mike Mickens and DeAngelo Smith will be set for big plays in the secondary as Pitt tries throwing its way into the game.
History says Pitt should win this game. But if this were about history, then Nippert Stadium would be half empty.
It’s not about history. It’s about a new age for UC football. The new age says the Bearcats should win. If the Bearcats say likewise, then the new age will truly begin.
CONTACT BILL PETERSON: [email protected]