College football programs from smaller conferences have made cloudbursts onto the national scene, as runs by schools like Tulane (1998), Utah (2004 and 2008) and Boise State (2006 and 2009) captured the country's imagination. But the underdogs in college football have struggled to find the same lore and allure as a sport like college basketball, in part because the system hasn’t allowed them to play at the highest level.
While those stories have been compelling and endearing, those schools from small leagues fell short of truly getting an opportunity to compete for the national title. That’s what makes Cincinnati, No. 4 in the College Football Playoff rankings, one of the most compelling stories in the sport's history.
The Bearcats enter the weekend as 10.5-point favorites against Houston to win the American Athletic Conference championship, finish the season 13-0 and become the first team outside of a major conference to earn an opportunity to play for the national title.
Since college football began streamlining its system to play for a national title in 1998 with the Bowl Championship Series, no team from outside a power league has made a more compelling run at the title than the Bearcats. Cincinnati’s season has seized the attention of the sport’s prior underdog coaches and those who’ve broken glass ceilings in different sports. And those who’ve attempted to upend the establishment have an appreciation for what Bearcats head coach Luke Fickell and his team are doing.
“There’s no such thing as perfect in football, but basically they’re having to do that,” said Chris Petersen, who can relate from his run at Boise State from 2006-13. “There’s just no margin for error.”
Remember what happened to TCU and UCF?
The necessity to be perfect is compounded by the reality that perfect may not be enough for the Bearcats.
Former TCU coach Gary Patterson is still stung by the Horned Frogs, who were in the Big 12 at the time, getting left out of the 2014 CFP. They entered the final weekend ranked No. 3 and beat Iowa State 55-3 to finish 11-1. He still wonders what could have been if they hadn’t dropped out of the Top 4 in the final rankings: “Sometimes, that changes history.”
Even if it is undefeated, Cincinnati could face that same fate. That scenario is especially viable if No. 3 Alabama upsets No. 1 Georgia and No. 5 Oklahoma State wins the Big 12 championship over No. 9 Baylor.
“There is a precedent,” Patterson said of the committee’s decision to drop a team from the Top 4. “They’re going to have to justify that [if it happens to Cincinnati] a lot better than what they did last time. I tried to handle that with class. What good would it do to complain about it? Who knows what TCU could be right now if we’d been allowed to play in the playoff?”
One administrator who has watched with interest is Tennessee athletic director Danny White. He was UCF’s athletic director when the Knights finished undefeated in 2017 and ended up No. 12 in the CFP rankings and undefeated again in 2018 and finished No. 8.
White now sits in an SEC chair, but has been happy to see Cincinnati of the AAC push its way into unprecedented heights for a team outside the power conferences. “I’ve been pleased to see that there’s been progress for them to get in the top four,” White said. “Winning every game matters. I think that they deserve to be in the playoff if they take care of business this weekend.”
White added that the conversation around expanding the playoff is a good thing for the sport. He thinks Cincinnati reaching the playoff would also be a boost. “I think it’s good for the game,” he said. “They have a veteran group. We competed against them a bunch [at UCF]. They have a good football team, a great quarterback and a good coach.”
From multiple seasons of following the committee, White also knows the possibility exists for an undefeated Cincinnati to get jumped. He added: “That’d be so disappointing if that’s what happens.”
Keeping tabs on Bearcats: Brad Stevens and Urban Meyer
Long before Jacksonville Jaguars coach Urban Meyer become one of the most well-known coaches of this generation, he announced himself to the profession as the coach of upstart Utah in 2004. That Alex Smith-led team busted the BCS — a big deal at the time — and crushed Pitt, 35-7, in the Fiesta Bowl.
Meyer’s son, Nate, is a senior walk-on receiver on this Cincinnati team, and he plans to get into college coaching. Urban Meyer has felt the parallels nearly a generation later of this Cincinnati team and those Utes.
“Oh, it does, it does,” he said, when asked if this season has brought back memories of Utah. “Boise State, TCU and Utah, it was all the first time the underdogs were welcomed to the big boys.”
Meyer also worked with Fickell at Ohio State, graduated from Cincinnati and his sister, Gigi Escoe, is a vice provost there. Meyer is thrilled to see everything come together with the school on the cusp of history. “Obviously, the way he’s done it,” Meyer said of Fickell. “He’s done it the right way and built it with local players. I’m careful about who I’d let my son go play for. Luke Fickell is a no-brainer.”
Boston Celtics executive Brad Stevens is hopscotching the country these days scouting college basketball games. On Saturdays, he makes it a point to check Cincinnati’s scores. As the coach at Butler, Stevens led the school to national championship games in 2010 and 2011.
“I always think back to how hard it was to win conference games, they all knew you and you were their Super Bowl,” Stevens told Yahoo Sports in a phone interview. “When I pay attention to Cincinnati, I pay attention to the fact that they’re playing with an incredible amount of stress or pressure against teams that have none of that.”
Butler played in the Horizon League during both of the school’s Final Four runs under Stevens. That often required a level of near perfection in conference play and in 2011 the Bulldogs needed to win the tournament for a bid. Stevens predicted that the Bearcats will play freer and looser once they’re in the CFP.
“If they get their crack at it, their roles will be reversed,” Stevens said. “That’s what happened with us. We were playing like we weren’t allowed to lose in January and February … that’s a different level of pressure you have at lower conferences. Once you get into the big tournament, the heat gets flipped.”
There are still barriers before that happens. Cincinnati faces a significant challenge against No. 21 Houston on Saturday for the AAC title. Then it'll have to win one final perception battle before it can emerge as the sport’s iconic underdog story.