Cincinnati climbs CFP mountain, but can it stay there?

Katie Stratman-USA TODAY Sports
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CINCINNATI- The University of Cincinnati has played football for more than a century in the long shadow of Ohio State.

After all these years, little brother is making some big noise.

For Cincinnati (13-0), playing in the under-the-radar American Athletic Conference, everything fell into place in 2021. The Bearcats landed as the No. 4 seed in the College Football Playoff, crashing what has been the domain of college football’s blue bloods, the first school outside a Power Five conference to do so.

Meanwhile, back in Columbus, Ohio State fans are still working through the grief of last month’s disastrous loss to Michigan, which to many was worse than being shut out of the playoff for the first time in three seasons.

The Bearcats scaled the CFP mountain and can see the top from there.

Now fifth-year coach Luke Fickell has to figure out how to keep the Bearcats up there as the program prepares to transition to a Power Five conference – the Big 12 – in the next few years.

“When I came here, a mindset of mine was, `I hope someday, that we could become a rival to my alma mater,”‘ said Fickell, who played at Ohio State and was on its coaching staff for 16 years.

“I mean that, all of the sudden, maybe they look at you and recognize that they have to battle against us,” he said. “Whether we play them on the football field or not, a lot of the other opportunities are in recruiting. That’s where we continue to want to be – and that’s not just the Ohio State stuff. That’s being a top-10 program.”

Cincinnati has a well-earned national reputation as a basketball school. But it could never compete with the tradition, fan base, facilities and recruiting advantage of the juggernaut Buckeyes.

It has, however, had enough football success in the past two decades to become a mid-major stop on the coaching ladder for the likes of Mark Dantonio, Brian Kelly, Butch Jones and presumably Fickell, though he has spurned opportunities to leave.

Urban Meyer, the former Ohio State coach, suggested the trajectory of the Cincinnati program could depend on how the Bearcats show against No. 1 Alabama on New Year’s Eve with 25 million people watching on TV.

“It can be that double-edged sword,” Meyer said. A competitive game boosts the profile of the program; a blowout looks bad and raises doubts about whether the Bearcats belonged.

“There is a lot of responsibility at Cincinnati to go perform well,” said Meyer, who was fired as the Jacksonville Jaguars coach last week. “It is great for them.”

Curiously enough, Cincinnati and Ohio State, 100 miles apart, have never been football rivals. They’ve played each other just 17 times, with the Bearcats winning twice – in 1896 and 1897. The last time they met was in 2019, when the Buckeyes sent Fickell and the Bearcats back to the bus with 42-0 loss. The schools once went nearly 70 years without a gridiron clash.

Cincinnati football fandom is regional, closer to Ohio’s six Mid-American Conference schools than Ohio State, which a few years ago tried unsuccessfully to trademark the word “The” as in “The Ohio State University.”

Century-old Nippert Stadium on the UC campus has undergone some major renovations in recent years but still seats only around 40,000. (That’s smaller than any in the current Big 12.)

Fickell built his 2021 team around seniors and transfers who will be gone next season, including quarterback Desmond Ridder, running back Jerome Ford (an Alabama transfer) and most defensive starters. Sustaining the success will be challenging, but Fickle has prioritized recruiting and building for the future.

“They’ve got a top-five team – they’re a ways away from having a top-five program, and that’s what Ohio State is,” said Jim Kelly, a former Bearcats player and radio analyst for more than three decades.

“Yeah, they will have some growing pains with some new kids, but they’re making strides and truly are ahead of where they were five years ago (when Fickell arrived), in every aspect,” Kelly said.

Buckeyes fans will keep an eye on the Cincinnati game before settling in to watch No. 7 Ohio State’s consolation game, a Rose Bowl matchup with No. 10 Utah on New Year’s Day.

Things will get more interesting if the Bearcats beat two-touchdown favorite Alabama, and No. 2 Michigan takes down No. 3 Georgia.

“In a perfect world, Michigan and Cincinnati would play each other in the national championship game – let the coaching sparks fly! – with Fickell getting the best of Jim Harbaugh,” columnist Rob Oller wrote in The Columbus Dispatch. “That might even make Buckeye Nation happy, despite being on the outside looking in.”

No. 3 TCU loses 31-28 in OT to K-State in Big 12 title game

Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports
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ARLINGTON, Texas — Ty Zentner kicked a 31-yard field goal in overtime as 13th-ranked Kansas State beat No. 3 TCU 31-28 in the Big 12 championship game Saturday, leaving the Horned Frogs to wait another day to find out if they had already done enough to get into the four-team College Football Playoff.

The Wildcats set up the winning field goal after TCU (12-1) had the opening possession of overtime and Kendre Miller was stopped short on consecutive plays from inside the 1.

Deuce Vaughn ran for 130 yards and a touchdown and Will Howard threw two TDs for the Wildcats (10-3, No. 10 CFP), who six weeks earlier had jumped out to a 28-10 lead early in the second quarter before TCU scored the game’s last 28 points.

That was one of five games the Horned Frogs (12-1, No. 3 CFP) won when trailing after halftime. But they couldn’t do it again with the chance to guarantee being the first Big 12 team other than Oklahoma to make the playoff.

TCU, the first Big 12 team to complete a regular season undefeated since Texas in 2009, could still get into the playoff. While their case was helped when fourth-ranked Southern California (11-2) lost 47-24 to Utah in the Pac-12 championship game Friday night, the Frogs now have to wait until the final CFP rankings come out Sunday.

Big 12 Commissioner Brett Yormark said before the game that TCU, with first-year coach Sonny Dykes, already deserved to be in the playoff.

“You look at their strength of schedule. You think about how they’ve performed all year long,” Yormark said. “I think regardless, they should be in, for sure.”

No. 4 USC falls to Utah in Pac-12 Championship, damaging playoff hopes

Utah vs. USC
USA Today
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LAS VEGAS — No. 12 Utah pounded a limping, bloodied Caleb Williams and roared past No. 4 Southern California 47-24 on Friday night to win the Pac-12 Championship and put USC’s College Football Playoff hopes in doubt.

The loss by the Trojans (11-2) could open the way for Ohio State (11-1) to take their spot in the playoffs. USC is fourth in the CFP rankings, the Buckeyes are one step behind.

Ohio State had to be Utah’s biggest fan. The Buckeyes move up in playoff consideration, with 12-0 Michigan at No. 2 with the Big Ten championship game on Saturday, that would give the Big Ten conference two playoff teams for the first time. It also would extend the Pac-12′s playoff drought — Washington in 2017 is the last team from that conference to make the playoffs.

Utah (10-3) is heading to the Rose Bowl, but the Utes already were going there regardless of the outcome of the title game. They are responsible for USC’s only losses, having edged the Trojans 43-42 on Oct. 15 in Salt Lake City.

The Utes rolled up 533 yards of offense in the rematch, and Cam Rising passed for 310 yards and three touchdowns.

Williams threw for 363 yards and three TDs. He entered the game as the leading Heisman Trophy candidate, but wasn’t the same after getting injured in the first quarter.

The Trojans looked as if they were going to run away with the game, taking a 17-3 lead early in the second quarter behind some stellar play by Williams.

He appeared to hurt his left knee or leg in the first quarter on a 59-yard run in which he took a big hit at the end, and he suffered a bad cut on the pinky finger of his throwing hand. He spent most of the game limping, and wasn’t the same after a sterling first quarter in which the Trojans outgained Utah in total yards 194-70, and Williams had both touchdown passes.

After USC failed to pick up a fourth-and-8 from Utah’s 37-yard line, the Utes scored two touchdowns in the final 3:55 of the first half, and suddenly the game was tied at 17. Instead of a rout, the game was beginning to look like the shootout the Utes won in October.

The game took on that tone at times in the second half, but USC had no answer for how to slow down Utah, which outscored the Trojans 44-7 in overcoming that two-touchdown deficit.

ATTENDANCE RECORD

A announced sellout crowd of 61,195 made this the largest for a neutral-site Pac-12 Championship. It beat the previous record of 58,476 fans. who watched Southern California-Stanford in Santa Clara, California, in 2015.