As the 2010s come to a close, a new decade is on the horizon. A lot goes into that statement, though. Once the new year arrives and the 2020s begin, the possibilities of what can happen are endless.
The last time Bearcats fans endured the turn of a decade, they were in the process of taking over New Orleans ahead of UC’s Sugar Bowl bout with Florida. At the beginning of this decade, Cincinnati was the best non-power five time in the country and was inches away from a National Championship appearance. To cap the decade, the Cats will take on Boston College in the Birmingham Bowl.
It’s safe to say it’s been an eventful decade. It’s unfortunate, really, that UC is in the Birmingham Bowl, because it doesn’t do the growth of the program justice. Instead, it should serve as a reminder to all Cincinnati fans: The life of a G5 school is never, ever consistent, and anything can happen. In the 2020s, we will likely see another shakeup in conference realignment — two words that give fans nightmares.
Instead of worrying about what could happen in the future, let’s take a trip down memory lane and reflect on what has happened in the past decade.
2010 Sugar Bowl
With their 45-44 win over Pittsburgh, the Bearcats clinched a BCS bowl bid. They were slated to face a Tim Tebow-led Florida squad that boasted other future NFL players. It was UC’s entrance exam into the upper echelon of college football, and it failed miserably.
When Brian Kelly took the Notre Dame job — despite telling his team he wasn’t going anywhere — it left Cincinnati angry, confused and unprepared. Kelly had taken the team to new heights, but now it had to figure out how it would prep for one of the greatest quarterbacks in college football history.
Let’s not talk about the score of the game, but rather what happened next. Many key players were headed out, meaning big shoes had to be filled.
Enter Butch Jones.
The Butch Jones era
Funnily enough, Brian Kelly’s replacement at Central Michigan when he took the UC job was Butch Jones. UC looked at the same place when it needed a new coach and subsequently hired Jones.
In his first season, Jones went 4-8 (2-5 Big East) in a fairly frustrating campaign. On the heels of a BCS bowl appearance, that record wouldn’t cut it. When UC started the season 1-2 with losses to Fresno State and North Carolina State, things were looking bleak. Then, the Bearcats had a chance to right the ship against No. 8 Oklahoma at Paul Brown Stadium, but two fumbles from D.J. Woods that likely would’ve led to touchdowns cost the Cats an upset.
The next season was more like how it had been in years before. Going 9-3 (5-2 Big East) in the regular season with losses to Tennessee, West Virginia and Rutgers, Jones proved he could coach in the Big East, but he clearly wasn’t going to have the team reach the levels Kelly brought it to. A bowl victory against Vanderbilt brought UC to 10 wins, setting the bar high for 2012.
After starting 5-0, Cincy stumbled against in-state foe Toledo and rival Louisville. UC matched the two-game skid with a pair of wins, but then lost to Rutgers (again). That’d be the last loss of the season as Cincinnati would be set up with a Belk Bowl date with Duke.
The fans’ opinion on Butch Jones still wasn’t as favorable as you’d expect a G5 coach coming off a 10-win season. It had to do with the fact Jones never really fully embraced Cincinnati as a long-term home. Kelly left a hole in fans’ hearts, but what was needed was a coach who’d dedicate more than a few years to the program.
UC would have the chance to find said coach as Jones left the team to take the same job at Tennessee.
2012 Belk Bowl
Here we go again. UC in a bowl game with an interim coach because the previous head coach left. However, instead of Tim Tebow, they were facing Sean Renfree and the Duke Blue Devils.
Duke was making its first bowl appearance in 17 years at the time. The Blue Devils stormed out to a 16-0 lead, but the Bearcats got back into it and eventually found themselves tied at 34. Duke almost took the lead, but a fumble deep into UC territory set up what would be a famous touchdown in recent history.
UC won the game 48-34 and sparked a night of celebrations in the fake Queen City.
Goodbye, Big East. Hello, Tommy Tuberville and the AAC
The death of the old Big East is something that makes Cincy fans nostalgic. What adds to it is the beginning of the Tuberville era, where promises and hope quickly turned into wondering how the program can be put back on track.
There were bright moments during Tuberville’s time, like Chris Moore’s record-setting game against the team in Columbus. The Bearcats were joining the the new American Athletic Conference with some old friends and new ones.
In 2013, Tuberville started his career in Cincinnati with a 9-4 (6-2 AAC) record, including a regular-season ending overtime loss to Louisville. The Cats then fell to UNC in the Belk Bowl, and by fell, it was a 39-17 blowout that was never close.
The following season was similar; a 9-4 record, but he led the team to a 7-1 conference mark and an AAC championship. But, like the year before, UC fell in the Military Bowl to old-foe Virginia Tech.
Two consecutive bowl losses aren’t what led to the spiraling downfall of Tuberville. It was the 7-6 record the next year — including a 42-7 pummeling from San Diego State in the Hawaii Bowl. But, there were a few high points: Hayden Moore broke the single-game record for passing yards against Memphis with 557 yards. What’s more impressive is that he did that after coming in with over three minutes remaining in the first quarter. Although UC lost, it bounced back with a win over the U at Nippert.
Then, UC went 4-8 the following year. Things weren’t good, and they weren’t looking like they were going to get better. As the season progressed, Tuberville’s seat was heating up, and it boiled over after the Bearcats’ 20-3 loss to BYU.
At that point, there was no going back.
Tuberville fired, Luke Fickell announced as head coach
When Tuberville resigned as head coach of Cincinnati football, UC needed to find someone to set the program back on track. Both Brian Kelly and Butch Jones were young coaches with ambition, but Tuberville was someone who had experience and thought he could elevate the program with that. Boy, was he wrong.
Hiring Luke Fickell meant hiring someone who’d embrace the program as his own and build it back up. Most of his career had been made at Ohio State, where he briefly served as head coach in 2011, but had no true experience as an HC.
He’d build his own career at UC.
His first season finished with a 4-8 (2-6 AAC) record but ended with a wild finish against UConn to cap off the campaign. After the Huskies tied the game with no time left, an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty pushed UConn back 15 yards. The ensuing PAT was no good, meaning Fickell earned his fourth win as head coach.
4-8 looks a lot better than 3-9, but you know what looks better? 11-2.
Cincinnati exercises bowl demons, downs Virginia Tech in Military Bowl
The 2018 season had a lot of questions surrounding it. Not in a, “Our coach might get fired” way, but rather, “We’re going to see how this staff does.” With a first game at UCLA, it was a great test to see what the team was made of.
After a less-than-stellar start that witnessed Hayden Moore get benched for true freshman quarterback Desmond Ridder, the Bearcats took down the Bruins 26-17.
For the first time in a while, fans had hope.
The regular season ended with 10 wins and losses to Temple (in overtime) and Central Florida. The Cats booked another trip to the Military Bowl, where they’d face Virginia Tech.
Against the Hokies, Desmond Ridder went down early and remained out for the rest of the game. Hayden Moore came in and led UC to its first bowl victory since 2012.
Nipp at Night strikes Golden Knights, another 10-win season
The 2019 season was fun. It was fun to beat UCLA on opening night. It was fun to beat Miami (again). It was fun to win 10 games (again).
Being shut out by Ohio State wasn’t fun. But, let’s not focus on that.
On Oct. 4, Cincinnati hosted then-No. 18 Central Florida on a warm Friday night. It had the makings of another special night at Nippert, but of course, the on-the-field aspect still needed to be played out.
At 3-1 and the game on national television, UC had a chance to make a statement. Down 16-10 at halftime, there were plenty of questions — most of which were about the offense and its tendency to stall on drives. However, like a lot of parts of the season, the defense came to the rescue in the third quarter and shut out the Golden Knights. Cincinnati added 10 points — including a pick-six from Ahmad Gardner — and didn’t look back, eventually winning 27-24 and earning the Cats’ first win over a ranked team since 2009 (yes, it was that game).
It’s been a wild decade, but a new decade signals new opportunities. Will Cincinnati finally get an invitation to a Power-5 conference? Will Luke Fickell be plucked by a big school? If he stays, will UC make a NY6 bowl?
Let’s find out together.
P.S. Cincinnati didn’t lose to Miami this decade.