As if the AP Poll itself wasn’t meaningless enough, there is actually a story behind the story. There’s a tiny number next to teams in the Top 25, but there are a ton of little things going on behind that number. Breaking the Poll is a series that breaks down the AP voters and dissects why the Bearcats are ranked where they are. Last week’s entry is here. (This series is made possible by College Poll Tracker.)
The Long Road Home
Your Cincinnati Bearcats are back in the Top 25 of the AP Poll for the first time since Week 7 of the 2012 season. UC went 2,185 days between appearances. It’s been a long, long road back. We made it.
In many senses, the Tuberville Era was a barren wasteland. Still though, it’s remarkable to me that his Cincinnati teams never hit the Top 25, even for a week. They popped into the Coaches Poll at the end of 2013 before a loss in the Teddy Bridgewater Game dropped them. In 2014, they won the conference championship and only lost to (eventual champion) Ohio State, Miami FL, and Memphis during the regular season, yet still never got closer to the Top 25 than their measly #34 ranking in Week 16. The 2015 team started at #33 in the preseason poll and quickly tanked following the Temple Debacle. The 2016 team, hilariously, actually received votes in Week 3, coming in at #38 after hammering Purdue.
So, many flirtations, but never a Top 25 ranking during the Tuberville Era. The last time UC had a Top 25 football team, they were in the Big East, Butch Jones was head coach, and Travis Kelce was in red and black.
Again, it’s been a long, long road back.
Your (Voting) Body Is A Wonderland
Last week I was thrilled when UC got a look from 11 different voters. This week that number hiked up to 41. That means just over two thirds of the AP voting body thinks the Bearcats are worthy of a Top 25 placement.
Last week, UC had two top-20 votes. This week, they have five. Eleven voters placed them at #23, 11 voters placed them at #24, and 11 voters placed them at #25.
These are very healthy numbers for a team whose entire argument is purely quantity over quality at this point.
It does you little good to have one die-hard supporter voting for you. Much like Cincinnati’s resume, the best way to break into the poll is by going quantity over quality. The 33 votes at the very bottom of the poll are better for UC’s future in the rankings than the five in the Top 20.
The Bearcats have played their way onto the radars of many, and now that they’ve joined the Top 25 itself, I expect their status to pick up speed as they gain the “lazy vote.” (I promise you some voters just look at the current Top 25 and adjust it to make their personal ballots. An undefeated team in the rankings won’t be dropped by many.)
This is something we haven’t experienced in quite some time, but the bye week is great for anyone hungry for a higher AP Poll ranking. It’s basically a freebie week.
The rest of the poll can beat each other up while UC guarantees an unbeaten record a week from now. Looking at next week’s schedule for teams immediately in front of UC: #24 Mississippi State is on a bye. #23 USF plays @ Tulsa. #22 Texas A&M plays @ South Carolina. #21 Auburn plays at home vs Tennessee. UC may be able to slide up a spot without doing anything.
The downside to finally being ranked is the instant target on your back. Bad teams that lack focus often times roll over at the first sign of adversity. We’ve seen this from UC in recent years. However, when the opponent is ranked, there’s something to prove. UC is not going to get many freebies the rest of the way if they remain ranked. You better believe a middling Temple team will be looking to score a victory over a Top 25 team in their building. UC is going to get everyone’s best shot, and the pressure from opponents will surely be greater than it has been thus far.
There also has to be some internal pressure. Six weeks ago, UC was playing with house money. There were no expectations aside from the hope of a bowl game if things broke right. We’re halfway through the season, the team is undefeated, and they’re in the AP Poll. I think expectations have reset, at least a little bit.
The vast majority of the fan base would’ve seen 6-6 as a success if you’d asked them in August. Now what? You can’t tell me you wouldn’t be a little disappointed if this team lost their final six games. The roster never changed though. They didn’t add any players. In fact, they’re down several key pieces (Campbell and Doaks) since August. So how fair is it to suddenly expect what we saw as a 6-win team to win 11 games?
We’re about to find out what the coaching staff, the team captains, and QB Desmond Ridder are made of. This is a tough balancing act for a young team. Cincinnati closes the year against USF, UCF, and ECU. The first two will be difficult and the final will be much like that UConn game. The next three are going to be where the season is decided. Two tough (but very winnable) road games followed by a tough (but very winnable) home game. This is where UC can make the leap from seven wins to (dare I say) nine or ten.
Hold onto your seats.