A flood of optimism washed over Cincinnati this past winter, taking Tommy Tuberville away while Luke Fickell rode in on a stallion made of gold. With optimism at a high point not seen since Tuberville took over, the future appears extremely bright for Bearcats football. Its tough to think in a measured way when possibilities seem endless for the new regime and the new direction of the program. But the next five years will be an important era in Cincinnati’s football history, as its essentially sink or swim time. The Bearcats can either find their stroke once again and get back toward the gentle waters of bowl contention and national recognition or tread water and ultimately drown in obscurity.
For my money, I believe the Bearcats are heading toward the former outcome rather than the latter. But what are some other things we can expect over the next half decade?
UC will win the American Athletic Conference at least once
I can see that the first limb I go out on is plenty sturdy. The AAC is not exactly a football powerhouse, but with programs like USF, Houston and even SMU on the rise, there is plenty of competition to be had. USF and Houston will likely have a stranglehold on the conference next year and perhaps the one after that, but as Fickell comes in, changes the culture and, more importantly, brings in exceptional talent, UC will begin to resemble a contender once again. I don’t expect it to happen overnight, but in a year or two, the Bearcats will be on an upward trajectory and I expect that to pay off in a conference title at least once before...
Luke Fickell will take another job
This is where the other shoe drops. As much as I’d like UC to become a perennial powerhouse at the national level, that seems far fetched, at least right now. The power programs in the Big Ten, SEC, Pac-12, ACC and Big 12 will always have their pick of head coaches when an opening comes along. Even Chris Peterson was wooed away from his fancy digs at Boise State by Washington, so expecting Fickell to plant his flag at UC, succeed and then never consider a move is naive at best. Fickell has strong ties to Ohio State and if he leads UC back from the brink like he should and Urban Meyer eventually retires, then Fickell would be a prime candidate to be the man in Columbus. However, that doesn’t cover all of the opportunities that may be presented to Fickell. Just look at Willie Taggart, who turned USF around in four years and exchanged the green and gold of Tampa for the same color scheme in Eugene, Oregon. I expect a similar trajectory for Fickell.
UC will have a Top 50 recruiting class at least once
Before heading off to greener pastures, I expect Fickell to do big things. While a top 50 class isn’t exactly shooting for the stars, it would be a major milestone for the program. Fickell and his staff have already shown off excellent recruiting chops, luring some big names in a way Tuberville never could. Currently, Fickell’s 2018 class is ranked No. 31 nationally and No. 1 in the AAC by 247Sports. There is still a ton of time for that to change, but the addition of four-star recruits like Malik Vann and Josh Whyle make this a class that puts any of Tuberville’s to shame. UC last had a top 50 class in 2011 (No. 47) and Fickell is gunning for a much bigger splash than that. If he keeps scooping up four-star talent, he’ll get there sooner rather than later.
Vann and R.J. Potts will lead the defensive revolution
For the last decade, especially recently, UC has been known as an offensive program. Running an air raid style offense will do that for you. Although 2016 was a disastrous crash landing for the program, that came just a year after the Bearcats ranked sixth in the country in total offense. I expect the identity of the program to change in the coming years under Fickell. Although the new head coach brought in a solid offensive mind to lead the offense in Mike Denbrock and has said he wants to go fast and run a spread style game plan, Fickell’s roots are in defense and you can be sure he will stick to those.
That sentiment is best illustrated by the talent Fickell has been able to attract. Safety R.J. Potts is a four-star recruit who signed with Cincinnati after Fickell was hired and Vann is part of the encouraging 2018 class and one of two four-stars to commit to UC already. Obviously, neither will be key cogs immediately, but once Fickell and his staff have a chance to mold the defense they want and coach both Potts and Vann, I’d expect the two recruits to become stars for a new and defensively dominant Bearcats team.
UC will be in a new conference by 2022
Don’t worry, I’m not firing up the #Big12Confirmed engines, but it just seems like a matter of time before the Bearcats are playing football in a different conference. There was a reason those Big 12 rumors persisted for so long. UC is a solid program that brings a lot to the table. As it looks to satiate its own appetite for football glory (and the cash that goes with it), you have to believe UC will continue to evaluate and consider alternatives to the AAC. Going hand-in-hand with this notion is the ongoing shifting of the college landscape, with conferences expanding far more than they consolidate. Mega conferences like the ACC seem to be where the tide is shifting, and UC will eventually get scooped up.
In all, the next five years should be exceptionally interesting from a number of perspectives for Bearcats football. Its an incredibly liberating feeling as compared to the hopelessness felt during the last months of the Tuberville era. Now UC is onward and upward thanks to the #FickellDownEffect.
If you have your own predictions for the next five years, drop them in the comments.