ARLINGTON, Texas — Desmond Ridder could be the one to end Cincinnati’s 50-year stretch without a first-round pick in the NFL draft, or the quarterback could watch a teammate get that historic phone call in Las Vegas this spring.
Either way, the Bearcats will showcase talent on a scale rarely seen at their school in a College Football Playoff semifinal against Alabama, which had 10 first-rounders the past two years and at least one for 12 years running.
“If they’re surprised, then they haven’t been watching our games,” said Ridder, a potential first-round choice along with cornerback Ahmad Gardner. “So maybe the draft or whatever, that maybe might help them wake up a little bit, I guess.”
There are plenty of ways to conclude Cincinnati (13-0) is the underdog in the Cotton Bowl on Friday. None is as stark as the history of NFL prospects and stars, which extends to the other semifinal between Georgia and Michigan in the Orange Bowl.
While top-ranked Alabama (12-1) has 62 first-round picks since Cincinnati defensive tackle Bob Bell went 21st overall to Detroit in 1971, Michigan and Georgia aren’t exactly first-round strangers.
Not so for the biggest names in the NFL among Cincinnati alums.
Kansas City tight end Travis Kelce and older brother Jason Kelce, Philadelphia’s center, are both three-time All-Pros, but Travis Kelce has the higher profile as one of Patrick Mahomes‘ favorite targets.
The younger Kelce went in the third round in 2013, while Jason Kelce was a sixth-rounder in 2011. Between the Kelce drafts, the Bearcats had their highest number of picks in the first four rounds with four in 2012.
Cincinnati (No. 4 in The Associated Press and CFP rankings) could match that in the upcoming draft. Ridder, Gardner, edge rusher Myjai Sanders and receiver Alec Pierce are showing up on some lists of top 100 prospects.
“You have to have a little buzz for us, especially for future-wise,” said safety Bryan Cook, another NFL prospect. “But I try not to get too caught up in that aspect. Just at least not right now, because you have a game to play. But from looking at it, it definitely does help us a lot as far as getting looks and things like that.”
Gardner, an Associated Press All-American who hasn’t given up a touchdown in his college career, still has to declare for the draft. But he generally projects higher than any of his teammates, so that decision seems clear.
Cincinnati hasn’t had a draft pick higher than the second round since defensive tackle Derek Wolfe (Denver) and running back Isaiah Pead (then-St. Louis Rams) in 2012. Wolfe had a solid nine-year career with the Broncos and Baltimore, recording 34 sacks in 122 games through 2020, while Pead never really caught on over four seasons.
If nothing else, this year’s Cincinnati prospects will enter the NFL with higher profiles as the first Group of Five school to reach the four-team playoff.
“I guess that’s not the way we choose to look at it, an opportunity to showcase our talent, as much as our unit strength and our team strength and our team chemistry,” defensive coordinator Mike Tressel said. “We feel like everybody coming together is the only way to beat an Alabama or anybody else that’s in the playoff. Our guys are excited to match up.”
The Crimson Tide has taken the Heisman Trophy winner into consecutive playoffs with receiver DeVonta Smith last season and Bryce Young, the first Alabama quarterback to win the award, this year.
Ridder led the only remaining undefeated FBS team, while “Sauce” Gardner allowed just 17 catches in 13 games and fellow cornerback Coby Bryant won the Jim Thorpe Award as the nation’s top defensive back. But millions of television viewers will be seeing those names for the first time Friday.
“A lot of people might not think or might not know, that’s not their fault, because that’s not something they were brought into or really seen,” Cook said. “All I can say is, we do have a lot of guys who can actually play on the next level.”
The proof should come on the Strip in Las Vegas in four months.