(Can the Bearcats stay relevant in a largely irrelevant football conference?)
Another year of Bearcat football will finally arrive on Friday night. For me and the many fans like me the wait has been far too long. A two week bye left UC off the football map while everyone else played. It so happens that off the football map is exactly what UC must avoid as it lingers in the purgatory of Gang of Five football. Those first two bye weeks are a microcosm of everything this program is fighting and striving to avoid. Five ten win seasons in 7 years, 6 bowls, 4 BCS conference titles, 2 BCS bids and an undefeated regular season that left the Bearcats 1 second from playing for a National Championship…those are the heights the program has reached in the recent past. Getting there was a climb that required the stabilizing of a football program, great achievement in the athletic department, investment in resources, moving to a new conference and two particularly great coaching hires. As we move into the 2014 season you cannot blame any Bearcat fan for asking: Can the Bearcats stay relevant in a largely irrelevant football conference?
I hate to say bad things about the American Athletic Conference. I want the conference to succeed and I want it to get recognition. I want it to be far and away the best G5 conference and I honestly think it will be. I think there are programs that can have success in it, but as a whole it’s still going to be far below any of the P5 conferences. By all accounts the AAC actually had a really good year last year at the top. UCF lost one game and dominated the Big 12 champ in the Fiesta Bowl. Houston had a solid year, future members ECU and Navy were really good. The Bearcats had a 9-4 season that was disappointing, but not really a knock on the league. Of course, the bottom of the conference was abysmal and the start to this season has been defined by missed opportunities (UCF blowing the PSU game by starting the wrong guy, Memphis losing close late to UCLA, ECU losing close late to South Carolina, Houston getting waxed by UTSA) and bad teams looking bad. No team was ranked from the conference to start the season and this despite last year’s champ winning its BCS bowl. It’s hard to stay nationally relevant when you are not on the national radar and it’s hard to be on the national radar in the AAC.
So once again, can the Bearcats stay relevant in a largely irrelevant football conference? YES. That’s my simply answer and I don’t think it’s the optimistic in me. It is possible to stay nationally relevant in a conference like the AAC, but there is only one way to do so….excellence. The Bearcats must be excellent if they are to remain relevant in the ever changing landscape of college football. TCU, Utah and Boise State are all examples of programs that became very relevant playing in lesser conferences. It can be done. It cannot be done with 9-4 seasons and it cannot be done by slipping past mediocre to poor conference opponents. The Bearcats need to dominate the dregs of the league. They need to beat the teams at the top the vast majority of the time and they need to win big games out of conference. Without excellence, the Bearcats become lost in the system, they become an afterthought and it is far harder to get back to relevance than to stay there.
This is the 5th college football season since the incredible run of 2009. The Bearcat’s relevance on the college football landscape has slipped. It slipped when Butch’s first team bumbled its way through a 4-8 season and though they shared in conference titles the following 2 years, by not being the BCS representative the Bearcats while still relevant as a top team in a BCS conference never got back to the levels reached in 2009. Everything the Bearcats have done since Butch Jones left for Tennessee has been in an effort to stay relevant and hopefully get to the college football promise land and play in a top notch conference. The day after Butch Jones left, the Bearcats hired Tommy Tuberville from Texas Tech. Coach Tubs had spent most of his career as a head coach in the SEC, first at Ole Miss then producing a great run at Auburn, even going unbeaten in the SEC and somehow not getting to play for a National Title. The Bearcats have committed to investing in their football program by expanding and modernizing Nippert Stadium. Additionally, Tuberville seems to have them recruiting at a P5 level. There is a lot in place that fans can get excited about.
However, another 9-4 season will be a huge step backwards for this program. Last season there were highs and there were lows. Simply put, Tuberville’s first seasons was a complete mixed bag. The roster was much more talented than the 4 loss team we saw and at times showed that talent. It also had some horrific performances such as games at Miami, at South Florida, at Illinois and the Bowl game against UNC. It’s worth noting that UC’s last coaching change produced a 4-8 first year before back to back 10 win seasons with shared Big East Titles. Coaching changes can be tough, they are often a huge adjustment in the first year for the players. Really, of UC’s last 5 coaches only Brian Kelly managed to excel his first year and have a team live up to its potential. Year two, however, is a big deal. It says a lot about the direction of the program, especially when the talent is in place…and make no mistake the talent is in place this year.
To me, anything short of a 10 win regular season will be a disappointment for this team. Ten wins will put UC in the thick of the AAC race. 11 wins will likely be enough for an Access Bowl bid. These are the sights the UC program needs to aim for every season. 10+ win regular seasons are how the Bearcat program will stay relevant in a largely irrelevant conference. Relevance keeps the remarkable rise of Bearcat football alive and moves it forward hopefully to new heights. We ultimately hope those new heights include resuming UC’s place at the big boy table and playing for a P5 conference.
UC is a program that has succeeded on the field at a level where it deserves to be there and a program with an administration that seems committed to bringing the Bearcats back to that level. Looking at the future of UC football the program must be excellent. It must be the premier G5 program. If the program achieves excellence it will continue to thrive and will likely get to where it wants to go. Without excellence UC football could go the way of the conference it resides in and become largely irrelevant. In short, the next few years are huge and as a fan, I can’t wait to witness it. I hope to see as many Bearcat fans down at PBS as possible Friday night. Go Bearcats!