The American Athletic Conference released its 2019 football schedules Thursday, which means it’s time to freak out about how Cincinnati is going to pack the stands and follow up its surprising 11-2 season.
The Weeknight Games
People will have differing opinions here, but the fact that the two biggest home games of the year (UCLA and UCF) are both weeknights is brutal. Getting a night game at Nippert is excellent, but I’m not sure it’s worth coming at the expense of a lively tailgating scene and a full house at kickoff. I don’t care who you are, filling the stadium for kickoff at 7 p.m. on a weeknight won’t happen, especially during high school football season. The opening week game against UCLA (which was moved up from Saturday the 31st) is one thing, but Friday night college football games stink, and now the conference will have to play perhaps its biggest game on an off-night. UC will pay the price.
The obvious trade-off here is that ESPN or ESPN2 will broadcast both of these games. It’s great for national exposure, but again, it’s an extra hoop that fans will have to jump through on the heels of a somewhat disappointing season from an attendance standpoint. Despite the 11-2 record and the undefeated mark at home, the Bearcats averaged just 30,518 fans per game in 2018, up only 2,000 over the 4-8 2017 campaign. Hopefully, the weeknight games being big match-ups will offset the natural sag in ticket sales for those nights.
Finally, finally, the Bearcats have Thanksgiving weekend on the road. The 2017 Senior Day game against UConn took place on the Saturday after Thanksgiving, drawing just 23,125 fans. The 2018 Senior Day game against ECU took place on Black Friday and brought only 21,230. The stadium is depressing when it’s empty, and it’s deflating watching the seniors trot out onto the field with their families in front of empty bleachers.
The Bearcats got a break this year. Their Thanksgiving weekend trip takes them to Memphis, which gets UC off the hook for an unattractive home date and puts the onus on Tiger fans. That’s going to be a tougher game, but the Bearcats may get a break if Thanksgiving can dampen the enemy crowd.
The road game against the Buckeyes is taking place just when we expected: Saturday, September 7. Fortunately for UC in this case, the UCLA game moving up gives them a long week to prepare.
Ohio State has a home game against Florida Atlantic the preceding Saturday.
The first bye week comes between Miami and Marshall, which is so close to being perfect. It would be great if it instead came before the UCF game, offsetting the short week the Bearcats have due to facing the Knights on a Friday. A tricky road game followed by a Friday night tilt against UCF is rough.
The second bye week comes between Tulsa and ECU, which doesn’t do much for me aside from giving the team a chance to rest up heading into the final five games of the season.
I always look for the stretches without a reprieve. UCLA and Ohio State are on a back-to-back, but that’s just two games (with a long week between), and it won’t impact the AAC standings, so I’m less worried about it.
Marshall, UCF, and Houston seems like the toughest stretch, seeing as two of those games come on the road, UCF comes on a short week, and it will set the tone of for the shape of the AAC race.
USF, Temple, and Memphis is another big stretch, but I’m less sure about how good the Bulls and Owls will be in 2019 and Memphis, while talented, at least comes on Thanksgiving weekend which should mitigate a lot of the effects of a hostile crowd.
Overall, the schedule is generally front-loaded, the opposite of what it was a year ago. Miami is the easiest opponent in the opening half, but that game tends to be closer than it should, which means it’s not quite the freebie I’d like. Fortunately, there’s at least a bye game before the trip to Marshall.
We’ll know a lot about this team based on their record at the end of October 12—the season’s midpoint. Ask me right now, and I’d be happy with a 3-3 split. (This is a conversation for this summer, but the 2019 schedule is much harder than 2018’s. Repeating the 11-2 record would be heroic. Then again, I was wrong last year.)
Saturday, October 19 against Tulsa seems like the obvious choice here.
A Good Balance
This is where this year’s schedule shines. The 2018 slate was weird in that the Bearcats didn’t come to Nippert until mid-September, played three games in four weeks at home, then were gone for nearly a month before back-to-back home games gave most fans a final taste of the team at Nippert in mid-November since Senior Day came on the heels of Thanksgiving.
The 2019 schedule is nice in that there are two games (basically) in September, two in October, and two in November. It’s a good balance, and getting Senior Day out of the way before the holidays won’t effectively shorten the home season as it did for many fans the last two years. The Ohio State game is also easy to travel to, so I’d wager many fans will have seen the team play three times by September 14 just a year after many of us got our first look on September 15.
The perfect alternation between home and away games is something I don’t think I’ve ever seen before. I like it.
We knew the schedule would be more difficult than it was a year ago, so we were bound to have one half shake out tougher than the other. I’m okay with that. You could even talk me into accepting the Thursday night opener against UCLA. However, the UCF date is brutal and sours my opinion of this year’s schedule. There’s a lot to like, but the game many of us had circled is significantly less appealing than it would’ve been on a Saturday.
It happens. These things are rarely perfect, especially in the AAC. The schedule is generally pretty good.
The Bearcats return to Nippert in just 203 days. Bring it on.