FCS games aren’t worth much.
A crappy team rolls into town, the stadium fills to 75% capacity, the Bearcats win by 40, and everyone heads home, not knowing much more about the team than they did before they entered. It’s pretty much impossible to move the needle in a positive direction with a game against a lower-division opponent.
It’s certainly possible, however, to move the needle in a negative direction, and that’s where the beauty in Cincinnati’s 63-7 win over Alabama A&M lies.
In hindsight, the first signs of serious cracks in Cincinnati’s foundation came in the opening game of the 2016 season when the Bearcats played to a halftime deficit against Tennessee-Martin. In Fickell’s first game in Clifton last season, the Bearcats went scoreless in the first quarter against Austin Peay before going to halftime with a 14-7 lead.
While the lesson here may be to avoid playing FCS programs from the state of Tennessee, I think it also proves that FCS games (at least in Cincinnati’s case) can be indicative of where the team is headed.
By the time Cincinnati was finished with Saturday’s three-hour assault, they had their most resounding victory in five years. So what does it mean?
Driving home to Columbus after the game last night, I thought about what I’d write here. When I woke up this morning, I saw that Mo Egger had basically already written it.
Cynics (or skeptics, if we’re being kind) will point to Cincinnati’s first three wins and say, “UCLA has more work to do than analysts thought and just got rocked by Fresno State, Miami has been UC’s doormat for more than a decade, and Alabama A&M doesn’t even play FBS football. I’m not convinced anything has changed.”
To be clear, I think there’s validity there and I don’t necessarily blame people for following that line of thinking. I’m looking forward to next week’s matchup with Ohio because it should be UC’s first “normal” game of the year after three weird situations to open the season.
But I’ve also watched a lot of Cincinnati football—enough to feel it. Others can feel it to.
On paper, Cincinnati’s best start since the Butch Jones era could be chalked up to a fluke. It may read like a fluke, but it doesn’t look like a fluke or feel like a fluke.
For the first time since 2015, Cincinnati is winning games and they don’t feel like miracles. I’m looking at challenges on the horizon and I think those games—Ohio, Navy, USF—can be victories with execution rather than the divine hand of God.
This team may be 3-0 thanks to some victories that can easily be picked apart, but the talent this team has is unassailable.
Desmond Ridder (a.k.a. He Can Run, But Can He Pass?) took advantage of soft coverage to drop dimes all over Nippert Stadium in his Clifton debut. The freshman peeled off three touchdowns through the air over the course of 199 yards passing at a gloriously-efficient 9-for-10 clip. He also added a pretty 22-yard touchdown scamper, just in case you forgot about his legs.
Kahlil Lewis tortured the Bulldog defense for 92 yards and a touchdown on four grabs, freshman Jayshon Jackson chipped in a team-high six catches for 80 yards, Cincinnati’s rock Josiah Deguara had another touchdown catch, and Thomas Geddis made UC’s most impressive touchdown catch in years.
And then comes the running backs. Oh man.
Mike Warren was UC’s workhorse through two games, practically dragging the offense to its first two victories. He got a breather on Saturday, carrying the ball only six times yet still amassing 78 yards and a touchdown to go with an 18-yard reception. Charles McClelland had his first real action and took advantage of his 16 carries by racking up 121 yards and a touchdown. Tavion Thomas, the human steamroller, had 18 of the most impressive running back carries I’ve seen in Clifton in a while. His 141 yards and two touchdowns almost don’t do justice to how he looked in the eyeball test. He was quite literally carrying multiple defenders down the field after Cincinnati built a massive lead and stopped throwing the ball. It’s been talked about, but the kid is 6’2” 235 pounds of fury. He looks every bit like an NFL running back.
He was at prom six months ago.
It’s not hard to see why the kid had offers from Ohio State, Alabama, and Arizona State before eventually committing to Oklahoma. Boy, am I glad he landed in Clifton.
The defense had another ‘ho hum’ outing, allowing its first points since UCLA’s Kazmeir Allen sprinted 74 yards in the third quarter two weeks ago.
This defense has played 12 quarters this year and has only allowed points in three of them.
They’re giving up eight points per game, good for #2 in the country.
So, yes, cynics may be able to dismiss some of these victories, but the believers who are watching are seeing the early signs. This team has something the Bearcats haven’t had in a few years.
On Saturday, the Bearcats answered very few questions, but didn’t inspire any, either. That’s a good thing for a team and fan base that would largely view a .500 record as a success.
The Bearcats have three wins against bad teams, but the eye (and gut) test is awfully convincing. The long train back to relevance may be ahead of schedule. The Bearcats can match their 2016 and 2017 win totals on September 22. Big ole game next week at Nippert...
The student section and band tandem get a 10/10. The students, at least in the first half, brought the energy and the band right in the middle makes too much sense. It was a thing of beauty. Can’t wait to see it for 60 minutes.
The new third down siren is a success. The Halloween theme was a hit for years, but now feels like a relic of a bygone era. This new defense is mean and has earned the opportunity to do its own thing. The sirens fit the bill.
The crowd was pretty nice. Just shy of 29,000 fans showed up, which is what I expected. Maybe I’ve already forgotten what energetic games in Clifton feel like, but I think those 29,000 felt like more. It was pretty loud in the first half. After halftime, the place really thinned out. It was a “good” empty, if there is such a thing. Recently, the popping of pads echoing at Nippert in the second half has meant the Bearcats were roadkill and people left to spare themselves. Last night felt like 2011. Victory was such a foregone conclusion that watching the ending didn’t feel entirely necessary. (Of course, I think this is preposterous and I can’t imagine leaving a UC game I’ve paid to attend, but I digress.)
Man, it’s good to be back at Nippert. See you Saturday.