Writing this weekly column and picking out positives from the games grows harder and harder. This week, I don’t even have “a win is a win” to fall back on. The Bearcats lost, decisively, to the South Florida Bulls. On the surface, this isn’t exactly a catastrophe. Despite the reputation that USF has earned among Bearcats faithful, the Bulls are a good team. They have been since the beginning of last year. They should win at least eight games this season.
So, why did an “understandable” loss ignite the most rip-roaring firestorm I’ve seen from UC Twitter? Here’s a closer look.
Let’s look at the negatives:
(Trying to control my rage here.)
- The starting quarterback never stood a chance. Redshirt freshman Ross Trail started the game for the Bearcats, and wasn’t yanked off the field until the end of the third quarter, following a pick six. Trail has now thrown six interceptions this season against just one touchdown. He’s thrown two pick sixes, which means he’s thrown more touchdowns to the defense than to the Bearcats. Look, I like Trail. So far, he’s shown me nothing that leads me to believe he can’t compete in the future. I like his skill set, but the kid isn’t ready. The fans know it, and you gotta believe Trail himself knows it by now. Throwing him into the fire at this point is bad coaching, a slap in the face to your players and fans, and terrible for Trail’s confidence. Put your kids in a position to win. Don’t hang some poor freshman out to dry because you’re less worried about winning football games than you are about teaching a lesson to a senior quarterback with 50 career touchdowns.
- The QB battle looks like an absolute sham. I have been on Gunner’s side since the start of fall camp, but I learned to accept the Hayden Moore era as it was forced upon us. Hayden didn’t blow me away, but he was getting the job done until he got injured against Houston and struggled late as a result. Now that Hayden is hurt, Tuberville can’t hide behind excuses anymore. Following camp, he boasted about having three quarterbacks who could run the team. While that sounds fantastic, it’s nothing more than a lie. This team has three quarterbacks: An injured sophomore, a freshman in over his head, and a senior who Tuberville refuses to play. I had a pretty good theory for “The Gunner Issue,” but Saturday debunked it. After an unconfirmed report that the offensive staff “forced” Tuberville to finally insert his senior, Kiel left the field at the end of a drive and exchanged some words with his head coach. While this anger from Gunner is refreshing to see, it unfortunately seems to substantiate the theory that Gunner was planted at #3 on the depth chart as an act of spite by Tommy T. I had doubted this theory, but now it looks like the only possible answer. There’s no conspiracy theory. Tuberville stuck his senior and the end of the bench and Gunner is angry. To make things worse, Tuberville referenced Kiel just once in the postgame press conference, and it was only to bring up his turnover problems last year.
- Tuberville quit. Again. Last season against BYU, Tuberville enraged the fan base by waiving the white flag in an important non-conference game. Trailing by two scores with four minutes remaining, Tommy decided to call it a night and punted the ball to the Cougars, who ran out the clock for the win. In a season full of anger and heartbreak, that may have been my low point. On Saturday, with the Bearcats facing an 18-point deficit at the onset of the fourth quarter, Tuberville thought it would be a good idea to try a 48-yard field goal with UC’s backup kicker who is currently 2-for-5 on the year to go with a pair of badly missed extra points. Aside from the message that sends to fans, what must that feel like for the players? You don’t land on a big-time college football team without being extremely competitive and confident. What does it feel like when your own head coach has clearly given up on you? Sure, pulling off an 18-point comeback is immensely difficult, but with their senior quarterback finally returning, I know for a fact those players were gearing up for a fight. A long field goal attempt in that situation with that kicker may as well just be a punt with a full quarter of football remaining.
- Tuberville still can’t win the big game, especially against teams in the American. Here’s a full list of 8-win AAC teams Tuberville has beaten in his time at UC: Houston 2013, ECU 2014, Houston 2014. The ECU game was nearly given away on the worst play call I’ve ever seen, and the Houston game later that year saw the Bearcats hang on for dear life after Kiel left with a second-half injury. In that same stretch, Tuberville has lost six games against 8-win AAC teams. 3–6 against good teams may not sound like a train wreck, but it is. (Especially considering Houston and USF should be joining the 8-win club this year, pushing TT’s record to 3–8.) For a program that was dominating a power conference a few years ago, you’d think knocking off a few good AAC teams would be possible. For a coach with tenure in the SEC and Big 12, you’d think knocking off a few good AAC teams would be possible. Don’t get me started on bowl games.
- The Bearcats are 3–2, but the season is on the verge of being a dumpster fire. The Bearcats have started 0–2 in the conference for the second consecutive year, essentially ending championship hopes as quickly as they started. Losing two conference games is bad enough, but doing it to open the season, at home, against the best team from each division is worse. 3–2 is nothing to jump off a bridge over, but stop and consider the future of this season. Before Tuberville can think about finishing at a respectable 8–4, he has to worry about getting his team back on his side. The 2010 Bearcats folded under Butch Jones, finishing 4–8 because he lost the locker room. The 2016 Bearcats are teetering on the edge. Tuberville has to get his kids motivated to play. He also has to start Gunner Kiel, which seems unlikely given their sideline spat on Saturday, which surely only added fuel to the fire between the coach and QB. This team has the talent to win eight or nine games this season, but there are a lot of intangibles that go into a successful year, and I don’t think we have any of those.
On the bright side:
(Yikes, this is tough this week.)
- We’re still 3–2. In a five game stretch, losing two games is not good. Over the course of a full season, losing two games is pretty great. Wins and losses are all that matter, and if this team and this coaching staff ever decide to maximize potential, there’s a scenario where we finish the regular season 10–2. Do I think that’s possible? Absolutely. Do I think it’s likely? Not really. Having said that, there is some precedent for it. In 2013, the second weekend of October kicked off a six-game winning streak. In 2014, the third week of October kicked off a seven-game winning streak. The league is better than it was in those years, but we still have the ability. If there’s one thing Tuberville has done well, it’s handle bad teams and string together wins in the second half of the season.
- Gunner finally threw a pass. Surely Tuberville can’t put the cat back in the bag, right? Unless Hayden is back to 100% and starting, I simply can’t fathom Tommy running Ross Trail back out there against UConn. Saturday was an unmitigated disaster, but we may have worked ourselves into a spot where Tuberville has no choice but to start his fifth-year senior. Given the way he ended last season and started this one, you gotta believe Gunner is chomping at the bit to get out there and prove himself again.
- Tuberville accepted responsibility. Maybe I’m wrong, but it feels like the first time Tommy has come out and taken the blame. As a head coach, you have to accept responsibility for what’s your fault, and take the fall for a lot of things that aren’t. Tuberville typically does neither. Maybe Saturday was a wake up call. It means very little, but at least it’s something.
- The Bearcats fan base is on the same page. Cincinnati sports fans live in a constant state of divisiveness. Even just in regards to the Bearcats, the fan base can rarely agree on anything. There are fans that still clamor for Bob Huggins at every turn. There are fans that want to run Mick out of town. There are fans that want Cronin on a lifetime contract. There are fans that thought Butch Jones was great and fans that never liked him. Towards the end of last season, the line on Tuberville started to move. There are fewer and fewer fans on his side, myself included. In my life as a sports fan, I’ve never picketed for a coaching change. It’s just not my style. Suddenly I find myself boiling over with frustration about UC football. If Tuberville buried his head in the sand up to this point, now he knows for sure: His approval rating is in the garbage, and the overwhelming majority of UC fans are finally on the same page. Between the team’s performance on Saturday, the vocal displeasure inside the stadium, and the tidal wave of vitriol on Twitter, this should be a wake up call. It felt like a program-altering loss.
Where do I stand?
I’m not anti-Bearcats, and I never will be. I refuse to give up on UC, ever. That said, for the first time, I’m firmly standing on the anti-Tuberville side of the fence. If this current trend continues, I think it’s time to pull the plug at the end of the season. Do I think they’ll fire him? Not really. Can Tuberville win me back? Sure. Pulling out eight or nine wins and a bowl game this year would probably extend my personal leash.
I’ve always been somewhat annoyed by the entitlement of UC fans. Especially when it comes to basketball, Bearcats faithful seem to think anything short of elite national prominence is worthy of firing. In this case, I think that mentality is a good thing. We all went into the game against #6 Houston expecting to win. That was probably unwarranted, but I love that the expectations for the program remain high.
The only remaining defense of Tuberville’s tenure is that he takes care of lowly teams. At a place like Purdue, that’ll get the job done. At Cincinnati, that’s not good enough. The city, the program, the fans, and the players deserve better than mediocrity. If Tuberville can’t deliver more than mediocrity over the next seven or eight games, he doesn’t deserve to be here. He’s making a lot of money to coach in a conference that’s not immensely difficult in front of fans that are very supportive without applying much pressure to win like at OSU or Texas. This is a good gig, and I think we’re all starting to get the feeling that we’re being taken advantage of.
If there’s one thing you take from this rant, let it be this:
Do not give up on this team. I know the coaching staff, especially Tuberville, hasn’t earned much loyalty in the past few years. However, if anyone is more disappointed than the fans, it’s the players. These kids had a choice of where to spend their college careers, and they chose the University of Cincinnati. They chose us, so let’s stick with them. It would be easy to give up and stop attending games, but the players don’t deserve that.
Show up at Nippert. Make noise. When the time is right, make your displeasure known. Just remember who your frustration is directed at, and don’t let these kids play in an empty stadium. That would only make things more depressing. We have two weeks off to simmer down and take a break from football in Clifton. Let’s beat UConn, lick our wounds in the bye week, and come out strong to Nippert for Homecoming against ECU. The season isn’t dead yet, and neither am I.