TUCKERMAN: On the playoffs at Nippert

When the Bearcats left for the return season at Camp Higher Ground three months and 60 degrees ago, the mission was as simple as ever: compete for a championship. The Bearcats had talent, and while they weren’t picked to win the conference in the preseason, we thought if things fell into place, they would be in a position to pull it off.

It’s not the 2021 Bearcats. The difference is obvious by looking at the names on the roster, but it’s also apparent in the resume. It lacks the flagship victories of Indiana or Notre Dame. There was no explosion like Temple, UCF or SMU. And, naturally, no one emerged as a Heisman dark horse or among the top five potential picks.

This season has yet to look like many had hoped. We wanted the season-opening win at Arkansas, which was within Cincinnati’s reach but ultimately too big to contend with. Certainly, no one wanted to break the three-game winning streak against UCF, bitterly ending the AAC dominance that began in 2019. And, of course, no one wanted to turn every conference game into a race to strong feelings. (Cincinnati’s margin of victory in its first five AAC wins was 5.6 points per game.)

However, it is a sport where culture and leadership are kings. The Bearcats are doing what needs to be done. They go into every game hoping to win and refuse to give up their ground. They lost key contributors to injury and plugged those holes and kept pushing. And so, with a little help from their friends at the US Naval Academy, this crafty group is firmly seated in the driver’s seat of the conference, controlling their fate with the final week of the season in mind.

Earlier this week, Athleticism justin williams wrote about the similarities between this year’s team and the 2019 peloton. Some numbers back that up, but the comparison makes sense even on a basic, vibrational level. The 2018 Bearcats accomplished a lot, winning 11 games and closing the year with a bowl win, an A+ result that meant Cincinnati, where fans constantly brace themselves for disappointment, spent much of the start of 2019 in point to a Power Five route loss as evidence. of impending collapse. But the collapse never happened, and the team surpassed its 2018 highs by advancing to the conference championship game.

The same twisting of hands and anxiety have gripped this season, with many waiting for the ground to fall. But the collapse hasn’t come yet, and the Bearcats have continued to find ways to win, sitting 9-2 going into Thanksgiving week with an opportunity to move past the arrival of this 2019 team and overcome that last bump.

Coach Fickell — and, by extension, his team — likes to say that November is for suitors. “We’re going to change the whole mindset on the road,” he said at Tuesday’s weekly press conference. “And let our guys know that’s where the playoffs start.”

The playoffs, indeed. Saturday’s Black Friday game serves as the de facto AAC Championship semi-final. Protect Nippert for the 33rd straight time, and they will have earned the right to extend their AAC schedule just one more game and host a third straight conference title game.

It hasn’t always been pretty and it hasn’t always gone to plan, but these Higher Ground goals are on the table this week like a Thanksgiving feast. Top-25 Cincinnati vs. Top-25 Tulane at Nippert on Friday. We’ll see each other there.


The Bearcats return to Nippert Stadium to face Tulane Friday at noon ET on ABC in a de facto semifinal. Tickets are still available HERE!

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James C. Tibbs