Change can happen gradually over time or it can happen all at once. What has happened to the Cincinnati Bearcats is somewhere in between. While head coach Luke Fickell did not immediately turn the program into a national powerhouse, going 4-8 in his first season a year ago, he has still lifted the Bearcats to the upper echelon quicker than most expected.
Prior to this season, the Bearcats were projected to finish fourth in the American Athletic Conference east division and most just hoped that they would contend for a bowl game. This very site predicted that they would win five games. How wrong we all were.
Beginning with their thrilling opening day win over the UCLA Bruins, the Bearcats were largely unstoppable, going 10-2 in the regular season and capping it all off with a 35-31 win over the Virginia Tech Hokies in the Military Bowl. That was their first bowl win since 2012 and just their third in their last eight appearances.
Along the way, they caught the attention of the college football world, including the folks who vote in the weekly polls. The Bearcats were ranked in the AP Top 25 for four weeks this season, rising to a high of No. 19 on Nov. 11. They fell out of the rankings days later after being blown out by UCF, but their work since them has earned them a spot in the final AP poll of the season, as they were placed at No. 24 earlier this week.
That ranking may be a bit higher than they deserve, at least based on the more advanced metrics. The Bearcats wrapped up the 2018 campaign as the No. 31 team in the country by S&P+, but their 24th-ranked defense obviously pushed them higher. In addition, they ended the year as one of 14 teams with at least 11 wins.
The last time the Bearcats were still ranked in the AP poll when the season came to a close was in 2011 when they won 10 games, including the Liberty Bowl against Vanderbilt. That was enough to make them the No. 25 team in the final AP Top 25. Some standout members of that Butch Jones-led squad include Isaiah Pead, Zach Collaros and Derek Wolfe. The year after that was the lat time the Bearcats were ranked in the AP poll at any time during the season, as they rose to No. 21 after a 5-0 start during Jones’ final year with the team. They went 5-3 after that and never saw the polls again.
Then five years passed. In that time, the Tommy Tubereville era started and ended and the Bearcats went 33-30 combined, including marks of 4-8 in 2016 and 2017. With Fickell at the helm and a lot of returning talent for 2019, the Bearcats probably won’t have to deal with such a drought again any time soon.