7 Cincinnati, history tells its route to the college football playoffs looked like this, and only this: Beat No. 9 Notre Dame on Saturday, then win the final eight games of the regular season, then win an American Athletic Conference title. .
Fail in any of these things and dream come true. Eliminate it altogether, make it 13-0, and maybe the playoff selection committee will invite a 5-team group to the major games of the postseason for the first time.
Of course, an undefeated record just gets the Bearcats into the conversation. Cincinnati played a perfect regular season in 2020 and never went above seventh in the playoff rankings. By the time the committee released its final picks for the four-team tournament, coach Luke Fickel’s Bearcats were ranked eighth, five behind the losing teams.
Fickel spent 16 years coaching at Ohio State, where he played nose guard in the 1990s and led the Buckeyes for a season between the tenures of title-winning coaches Jim Tressell and Urban Mayer. Now in his fifth season in Cincinnati, which is 3-0 after beating Indiana on September 18, Fickel spoke this week about the playoffs, his schedule, and a game that will be the most important in a school’s history. Playing football since 1885.
Number 7 Cincinnati plays Number 9 Notre Dame on Saturdays at 2:30 p.m. Eastern, the game airs on NBC. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
What are the lessons for this week after beating Indiana in their noisy stadium?
Be who we are. And that means if we need to intervene, we can hover. But I think that’s how we go about the process of what we do — I mean, we go on a silent count, we go on a hand, we clap — all those things that we do. , we tried to change the noise, and I think it affected us even more than the noise.
So it’s a bit more, “Hey, just make sure we do what we do and try not to change it.”
Notre Dame barely beat Florida State, which still did not win, and had a tough game with Toledo. But they beat Purdue and scored late on Wisconsin. What is keeping you up at night this week?
His ability to play four quarters. They play their best ball at the end of the game. They are battle-tested. In some ways, I think we’re a little bit battle-tested—we were battle-tested in Indiana and had a few fights in the first half against Murray State—but their battle on the road in Florida State. They have been battle-tested, battle-tested at a neutral location, and battle-tested at home. And that’s how you grow up, especially when you can find ways to win when they probably haven’t played their best ball yet.
To me, they’re a little like us in that I’m not sure what their best really looks like, and I’m not sure what our best really looks like.
Quarterback Desmond Ridder stayed at Cincinnati for one more season. How is that different from a year ago?
He is far more mature in understanding that he has to let the game come to him. He is much more adept at not trying to be perfect; In his sophomore year and junior year, he was trying to be and thinking he could be. But I think in their development, they’ve really kind of identified that you’re not going to be perfect, that if you have to take a shot and it’s not, take what you have a chance to do.
This is where he has shown his growth more than anything else. Not that he used to panic earlier as he has always been a good competitor, but he is able to handle really slow starts as well and puts everyone on the ground with confidence.
The American Athletic Conference has the best defense in Cincinnati. Now that you’ve been head coach and in America for a while, have you developed any big ideas about defense?
I’ve grown more here in the first two or three years than I actually did at Ohio State because you realize what you’ve got and you need to take things apart to make things happen.
You kind of get set in your ways and the things you truly believe in, and suddenly you recognize that it’s not going to work. You don’t change what you believe in, but find some ways to do things differently to make sure you’re giving your kids the best chance.
What is the biggest difference in your approach?
We play more of a three-man front as opposed to a four-man front. We’ve always kind of been intermittent and build everything from there. One of the things that was a challenge for me over the years at Ohio State was how do you work from the back to the front end. It was something I never really thought about that much and when we started developing here those two things had to be mixed.
You were at Ohio State when Brian Kelly, now the coach of Notre Dame, was running Cincinnati. How has Cincinnati football changed?
I was so cocky that I didn’t really know what was going on here. And I think that’s one of those things that happens to you as a youth coach. I’ll admit I was so cocky I couldn’t recognize him and didn’t realize what he was doing here – obviously I did when they were number 2 or 3 in the country and undefeated and things like that – but Yet I did not recognize the things that I did not understand and know. I think this is where all your experiences really help shape you not only as a coach but also as a person.
Coaches like to say that their team controls its own destiny. Given how the playoff committee has treated schools like Cincinnati, can you make that argument in your locker room?
You control your destiny. I mean, if you win every game your luck can’t go into the playoffs. But you control it.
I am indeed the one who believes that it is not only the team of our league or the team of non, so to speak, Power 5 group. I guess it’s everyone: If Texas A&M was right in that spot last year, they weren’t going to jump to Notre Dame or Alabama or Clemson or Ohio State, just because of sheer followings and what is that? Those people have been. When you are in a top-five program, you get a lot of benefits.
I’m not worried about it. But in our mind, you control your destiny.
US Commissioner Mike Eresco said no one should “underestimate” the Power 5 conventions’ branding. Cincinnati is getting ready to jump into the Big 12, so do you agree with that assessment?
Yes. But I think it’s also the branding and the history of your program. so i Belief that if Texas A&M was going to enter last year, they would have to beat Alabama. If we’re going to go in, you’ve got to beat Notre Dame. If going to enter North Carolina, they must defeat Clemson.
Now, could Georgia face a defeat? We’ve seen it. Alabama? well damn. Ohio State? We’ve already seen it. It’s not like that for everyone, but it is what it is. I think they get an advantage because of what those teams have done. And I’m not saying they don’t deserve it, because they do.
You all almost beat Georgia in the Peach Bowl last season. Winning this weekend will be huge for your program. Have you thought about what the loss would mean?
As a competitor no one thinks of a disadvantage, but you just keep saying, “Hey, we set a standard when we walked in the door here when we were awesome, no matter what, One of our goals was to play for the championship.” We always want to put ourselves in that position by the end of the year to play for the championship, and the target has never changed, even because of the season last year or the year before.
Have you allowed yourself to imagine winning Saturday?
No, I’m not a nostalgia guy. I don’t look back, I don’t look forward, I do as much as I can at the moment. I’m not sure if it’s the best way to live or to relax, but it was kind of the way I was brought up.