There was some actual college football played this past weekend. Not a scrimmage or a spring game, but real regular season college football. Rice escaped an upset versus Prairie A&M, Hawaii won a shootout against Colorado State and Wyoming beat New Mexico State with Clayton’s favorite uniforms.
While it was fun to see live football again, it still didn’t feel 100 percent satisfying since the Cincinnati Bearcats were not involved in any of the games. That will change this weekend when UC opens the season with a trip to visit the UCLA Bruins. Right now, the Bearcats are 16.5-point underdogs to the Bruins and are projected to win roughly six games this season. But until that first game is played, we don’t really know what’s going to happen. For all we know, the Bearcats are going to win the opener by 50 points and go on to win the national title. Or they will lose by 50 and never win another game ever again.
Those are both some pretty drastic extremes. Let’s try taking a more tempered approach to figuring out the most realistic best and worst ways the season could go.
In week one, Chip Kelly’s new offense at UCLA doesn’t take off right away like it did when he was head coach of the Philadelphia Eagles. Perry Young and the Bearcats defense take major steps forward and suffocate the Bruins’ attempts at pushing the tempo while the offense, led by Michael Warren and Gerrid Doaks, pave the way for a 21-17 victory.
While the national headlines pontificate about why Kelly lost in his debut, the Bearcats surge with confidence on their trip back home where they prepare for the next Battle for the Victory Bell against the Miami-Ohio RedHawks the following week.
During a sweltering evening at Paul Brown Stadium, the RedHawks and Bearcats play a back-and-forth game featuring more than a few lead changes, but once again the UC defense makes plays when it counts, with Tyrell Gilbert returning an interception 67 yards for a touchdown in the fourth quarter that puts Cincinnati ahead 27-21. A field goal in the fourth quarter wraps up the scoring and the Bearcats’ 30-21 victory makes them 2-0.
The following week, in the home opener against Alabama A&M, UC wins a game by an excessively comfortable margin for the first time in the Luke Fickell era. Doaks and Warren score two touchdowns apiece and Kahlil Lewis tallies nine receptions for 123 yards and a touchdown, while the defense limits the Bulldogs to 179 total yards.
Even with their 3-0 mark, the Bearcats are still mostly overlooked on the national level. Things don’t get much better when a rather unheralded but no less talented Ohio Bobcats team comes into Nippert Stadium and outlasts UC 28-24.
Despite that loss, a 3-1 record after non-conference play is more than enough to have UC fans optimistic about the rest of the season. That optimism rises further when Hayden Moore throws for 354 yards and four touchdowns in an absolute decimation of UConn in the conference opener.
Homecoming is the next week and the Bearcats don’t have another easy time, as Tulane’s running game punches harder than anything the UC defense has seen to that point. Trailing 31-28 with four minutes to play, the Bearcats execute a last minute drive for the ages and Lewis’ seven-yard touchdown reception in the final minute leads to a stunning victory.
Now I promised this would be a realistic best case scenario, so don’t think this is going to end with the Bearcats 12-1 with an American Athletic Conference title. Even in the best case scenario, UC is more than likely going to lose the next two games on the schedule at Temple and at SMU. Even with that they are 5-3 entering the last month of the season. I’ve already predicted that the Bearcats will upset Navy, so obviously that will come to pass in this optimistic fantasy. Then, even though Charlie Strong is a great coach, there is so much roster turnover at USF that UC, clearly improved with a 6-3 record, makes the necessary adjustments and topples the Bulls at home.
The next week features a cold dose of reality, as UC tries its best to upset UCF, a team that has already secured a spot in the AAC title game, but is ultimately dispatched 34-17. UC’s fortunes change the following week in a 41-13 exclamation point against an East Carolina team that wins all of two games the whole year.
As they head into bowl season, the Bearcats are 8-4 overall. They are selected for the Birmingham Bowl where they play the Kentucky Wildcats, much to Clayton’s chagrin, and win 35-28. After a 9-4 finish, Fickell’s name is bandied about on the head coach rumor mill, but he ultimately decides to stay put.
Kelly’s offense is actually what he did at Oregon right from the word go and the Bearcats are annihilated 48-14 in week one.
Miami-Ohio jumps on the bandwagon and, still stewing after last year’s epic collapse, takes UC out for a nice 31-24 revenge dinner.
UC still gets an early win when Alabama A&M comes to town, but the final score is less decisive than expected.
Ohio, led by 456 all-purpose yards from Nathan Rourke, runs well past UC and finishes off a 1-3 start to the season for the Bearcats, causing many to begin wringing their hands.
Some of those worries are assuaged temporarily when UC holds on for a 17-13 win at UConn the following week, but it is far from the launching pad of a conference opener than needed.
Over the next five games, UC somehow pulls out one victory (probably against Navy), but is outscored by an average of 20 points in its other four losses, setting it up for a regular season finale showdown with East Carolina at just 3-8. Once again, the Bearcats escape with a 4-8 finish, topping the Pirates 24-20, but it sends us off into the offseason still frustrated by the lack of progress.
When the 2018 season comes to a close, it is much more likely that the Bearcats will finish somewhere between the two extremes posted above, however “realistic” they may be. Until such time, we can cling to the hope of the first and try to banish the second into the recesses of our minds.