It took a long time on Sunday afternoon, but the Cincinnati Bearcats finally had their bowl destiny decided. After seeing the College Football Playoff, New Years Eve Six and a host of other bowl matchups revealed, the word finally came down at around 4:30 p.m. that the Bearcats would be playing the Virginia Tech Hokies in the Military Bowl on Dec. 31.
Any bowl would have been desirable for the Bearcats before the season started. Two miserable years without a postseason appearance (as well as some miserable runs in the postseason before that), left the community around UC desperate for a hint of successful football. The Bearcats provided in spades, winning 10 games for the first time since 2012. Now that they’ve put together such a successful regular season, we can really evaluate the bowl bid they received.
Let’s start with the most important part. Can the Bearcats win this game? The answer, in short, is absolutely. The Hokies barely scraped into a bowl invite. Two weeks ago, they were 4-6 overall and staring at their first bowl-less season since 1992. They rattled off back-to-back victories with a miracle against Virginia and a business as usual triumph over Marshall on Saturday. While you could argue that they’re playing with some momentum, this is a team that lost to Old Dominion earlier this year and is rated by S&P+ in the same range as USF, which UC beat pretty soundly less than a month ago.
Just because the matchup is winnable doesn’t make it a good one, however. If UC played in a bowl against an intramural touch-football team, that wouldn’t be exciting, but they would be favored to win. Virginia Tech is obviously much better than that, but this year’s Hokies are a shell of the elite program they have been. That makes this ever so slightly disappointing, since the Bearcats would probably love to test themselves against some of the more dominant Virginia Tech teams of recent past. That’s nothing against this year’s Virginia Tech. This is still a good team from one of the best conferences in the country. The Bearcats would be unwise to overlook the Hokies just because they are getting them on a relatively down year.
Star power is another important part of these matchups and the Bearcats are definitely doing their part. With 10 all-league players, including American Athletic Conference Rookie of the Year Desmond Ridder and first-team all-conference players like Cortez Broughton, Perry Young, Dino Boyd and James Smith, the roster is loaded. Virginia Tech has talent as well, especially big-play wide receiver Damon Hazelton Jr., who caught 45 passes for 745 yards and eight touchdowns this year, and defensive lineman Ricky Walker and his 9.5 tackles for loss.
The starpower extends to the sidelines as well, with both teams featuring rising stars in the college coaching world. Luke Fickell was named the AAC Coach of the Year for his work resurrecting the Bearcats, while Justin Fuente previously built up Memphis and has done well in his first three seasons in Blacksburg, even if 2018 has been a down year of sorts.
There are other story-lines to be feasted upon in the leadup to this game that will make it all the more satisfying. Perhaps the most important is that this isn’t the first time the Bearcats and Hokies have played in a bowl game. Heck, it isn’t even the first time they’ve faced in the Military Bowl.
The other Bearcat/Hokie Military Bowl was in 2014. The Bearcats won nine games that year under Tommy Tuberville. The Hokies didn’t seem to care, rolling to a 33-17 victory. That game can be a bit of a cautionary tale for UC. After all, Virginia Tech was only 6-6 before that bowl, just as it is this season. The Bearcats and Hokies also played in the 2009 Orange Bowl. I regret to remind you that the Hokies won that one as well, spoiling an 11-win campaign for the Brian Kelly-led Bearcats.
Obviously this is a very different program than the one that faced Virginia Tech in those bowl games. Tuberville is gone and the 2008-09 team was led by Tony Pike and Mardy Gilyard. That means that the thirst for vengeance might not be as elevated in the locker room, but it would certainly be nice for the fans to get some relief, even if those bowl losses aren’t exactly the worst of the last decade or so. Those dark days are all in the past now because the Bearcats are in a bowl game and that is ultimately what matters.