There are a number of reasons that FBS programs schedule games against teams from outside the FBS ranks. The primary one is to provide an easy win. That’s just what the Cincinnati Bearcats are hoping for this weekend against Alabama A&M. Based on their 2-0 start, the Bearcats should very well get that type of result.
However, that’s just what they thought the previous two seasons when they played their season openers against Austin Peay (2017) and Tennessee-Martin (2016). While UC did win those games by double digits, they were not the strolls through the park they were supposed to be.
It started with the matchup against the Tennessee-Martin Skyhawks, who were the harbingers of doom for the Tommy Tuberville era. Even though UC was picked by many to win the American Athletic Conference in 2016, or at least be competitive, the season got off to an ominous start, with the Skyhawks taking a 7-0 lead through the first quarter. For a UC program that had been built on powerful offenses, it was a sobering quarter of football.
The second quarter was no more encouraging, as it took until there were 19 seconds left in the first half before UC finally put points on the board, doing so via a three-yard touchdown pass from Hayden Moore to Nate Cole. The Bearcats then failed to score another point until late in the third quarter, getting a three-yard touchdown connection between Kahlil Lewis and Moore. They finally pulled away near the end of the game, landing the final blow with a Tyrell Gilbert interception return for a touchdown.
The 28-7 final score did not do justice to how difficult the game was, both for the team and the fans spectating. The Bearcats did finish with 400 yards of total offense, but they were absolutely dominated in time of possession (37:06 to 22:54) and struggled to keep drives alive, converting on only 5-of-13 third down chances. Turnovers also played a major role in keeping UC’s offense grounded, as the Bearcats had two fumbles and an interception across three of their first four possessions.
On the bright side, the defense stood tall in the red zone and this was the breakout game for Devin Gray (five receptions, 111 yards).
Still, following the win, confidence in Bearcats football was shaken and it never settled, with the team enduring a miserable 4-8 campaign before Tuberville was fired.
That meant when the Bearcats started the 2017 campaign under Luke Fickell, it was expected that a repeat of the Tennessee-Martin game was impossible. That sentiment was not correct by any stretch of the imagination.
Cincinnati did win the game, but by a score of 26-14, which was more akin to the type of outcome you’d expect in a fairly competitive American Athletic Conference clash. Like the previous year against the Skyhawks, the offense was slow to get started, failing to score any points until Thomas Geddis caught a 16-yard touchdown pass from Moore with 10:54 to play in the second quarter. Once halftime hit, the Bearcats were clinging to a 14-7 lead. That’s where the score remained until Tyler Cogswell’s six-yard touchdown reception, but even that score was soured by a missed extra point. Austin Peay mounted a comeback, and brought the score to 20-14 early in the fourth quarter but the Bearcats got one more score (and a failed two-point conversion) as they outlasted, not outplayed, the Governors.
In many ways, this game was worse than the Tennessee-Martin one. The Bearcats allowed 313 yards of total offense while compiling only 248 themselves. They also lost the time of possession battle by a wider margin (37:41-22:19) and were horrific on third down (3-for-11). Luckily, the Governors scored on only 2-of-4 red zone tries and were also terrible on third down (3-of-16).
Both of those games are in the distant past now. The Bearcats have won their first two games of the season in 2018 with high-pressure defense and against much better opponents. They are also about to face Alabama A&M, a team they opened the 2015 season against and destroyed 52-10. Obviously beating UCLA on the road and shutting out Miami-Ohio will go down as more important indicators of future success, but if UC comes out and plays like you’d expect an FBS program to play against a team from the FCS, we’ll have even more evidence that this year’s team is leagues ahead of the last two.