On Saturday October 2nd, the Cincinnati Bearcats take on Notre Dame Fighting Irish in South Bend, Indiana in a matchup between top 10 college football teams. When this game was announced in April 2019, who knew it would have so much meaning to it.
This is the biggest game in Cincinnati football history.
Bearcats have played in 3 BCS/NY6 bowl games – 2008 Orange Bowl vs Virginia Tech, 2009 Sugar Bowl vs Florida, 2020 Peach Bowl vs Georgia.
While those games were huge milestones for Cincinnati and were exciting and meaningful, the stakes weren’t THIS high.
Had they won either of their BCS bowls, it would have been an exciting victory that would not have moved the needle in the landscape of college football or, at the time, the Big East. By the way, the coach of Cincinnati during those 2 BCS bowls was current Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly… (more below).
If Cincinnati beat Georgia last January, they would have finished 10-0, completing a perfect season during a COVID year where their accomplishments would have been brushed aside in comparison to the big guys like Alabama, Ohio State, and Clemson.
They have played in the AAC Championship Game each of the last two years (2019 loss to Memphis, 2020 win over Tulsa).
In the last 15 years, Cincinnati has been blown out by Ohio State (twice), Michigan, Florida. They are 1-32 all-time on the road vs top 15 teams. The 1 win was the 2009 victory over #14 Pittsburgh. A historic moment for UC football, as they completed a 12-0 season, but in the context of history, they didn’t get to the BCS Championship Game and they didn’t beat Florida in the Sugar Bowl.
I would also say the 2018 regular season game vs UCF was a high stakes game because the Knights were riding high with their historic win streak (23 wins in a row), College Gameday was in Orlando and this game was featured on ABC Primetime. A win would have vaulted Cincinnati into NY6 contention. But ultimately, that moment wouldn’t come until the following year.
If Cincinnati beats Notre Dame on October 2nd, everything about the 2021 season changes. It’s a victory that moves the needle in a way those previously noted games never would have dreamed of.
Notre Dame falls out of playoff contention with a loss. Even if they were to run the table afterwards, the lack of a conference championship game would hurt them. Plus, no team has ever made playoffs with a loss to a G5 team during that regular season.
Cincinnati enters a legitimate conversation about the playoffs, something no G5 team has really done. With respect to UCF, right or wrong, they never seriously considered. But with the AAC more respectable now than ever, and OOC wins over Notre Dame and Indiana, the committee would have to consider the Bearcats IF chaos were to run through the top of the rankings (as it has over the past month – bye Clemson).
Notre Dame is one of the most notable and historic schools in college football. Like the Lakers and Cowboys, they are a powerhouse program with a national following that includes a love/hate relationship with fans. People are either hardcore dedicated fans of ND or they loathe the Fighting Irish. There is no in-between. You could argue the America’s Team moniker applies to Notre Dame. Look at TV ratings, online apparel sales. They truly move the needle in ways no one else does.
A Cincinnati win would snap Notre Dame’s 24-game home winning streak, the second longest in the nation.
A Cincinnati win over Notre Dame, would mean PAYBACK!
“Cincy committed to Kelly”
On December 6th, 2009 I sat in Fifth Third Arena, exhausted and hungover waving a red towel waiting for the official BCS announcement show.
The day before, my friends and I drove out to Pittsburgh to sit in a freezing cold snowy game, where Cincinnati trailed 31-10, only to win 45-44 in the best game ever. That secured the Big East Championship as Cincinnati finished the regular season 12-0. That was the last game Brian Kelly ever coached for Cincinnati.
Let’s go back a little further now.
2006 was my freshman year of college. On November 18, 2006, the Bearcats got a historic victory over 7th ranked Rutgers. A few weeks later, head coach Mark Dantonio, left Cincinnati for Michigan State.
He was replaced by Brian Kelly, a young head coach at Central Michigan who was highly regarded in coaching circles. Kelly hadn’t been at the FBS level long, but this felt like the right step for him at the right time. He was at Grand Valley State from 1987-2003 (head coach from 1991-2003), before making the leap to Central Michigan where he coached 3 seasons and went 19-16.
His first season, in 2007, Cincinnati went 10-3, showing some significant progress at a place where winning wasn’t a thing of the past. 6-7 games max was the ceiling at Cincinnati.
And then, Kelly blew the doors off of the ceiling.
Bearcats won back-to-back Big East championships in 2008 and 2009, overtaking the previously dominant Louisville and West Virginia. In 2009, they went 12-0, before losing the Sugar Bowl to Urban Meyer, Tim Tebow and the Gators.
Kelly didn’t coach in that game. He left Cincinnati for Notre Dame shortly after the regular season was completed.
That takes me back to that Sunday after Pittsburgh in December 2009.
Many fans attended a watch party at Fifth Third Arena to listen to the official bowl announcement. The school distributed red towels that read “Cincy committed to Kelly”. Kelly was a HOT commodity at the time, and Notre Dame had fired Charlie Weis. Kelly seemed like the prime target.
How I recall it? 4 days after the BCS announcement (5 days after the epic win over Pitt), the school held their annual football banquet, celebrating the players’ success and accomplishments.
That night (December 10th, 2009), Kelly no-showed the banquet and reports from ESPN began trickling in that Kelly was accepting the job. There was no good bye message, no thank yous, nothing. He just disappeared and the next morning was wearing green in South Bend.
Now personally for me and many others, the way it all went down left a bitter taste. However, if we’re being honest, it’s hard to get too upset about a guy leaving Cincinnati for Notre Dame. The Fighting Irish, in spite of the University’s challenges, is a dream job for most coaches.
The truth is, Kelly was never long for Cincinnati. While he didn’t lay the initial foundation (that was Rick Minter and Dantonio), Kelly proved you can have success at Cincinnati and really helped put the school on the map and set the stage for the position they are in today.
Fans do owe him thanks. But the school owes him payback.
“Notre Dame is a dream job for most coaches” and I get why you would leave Cincinnati for Notre Dame.
Notre Dame defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman knows all about Cincinnati’s defense. He had a hand in recruiting almost all of these guys, after coaching at UC from 2016-2020. Freeman is a former linebacker at Ohio State and his defensive coordinator was Luke Fickell.
Along with Freeman, defensive backs coach Mike Mickens also departed for Notre Dame after the 2020 season. Mickens felt he’d be better positioned for a defensive coordinator job in the future by working at Notre Dame.
He was an All-American cornerback on the Kelly coached Bearcats teams, playing a big role on the 2008 Big East championship team. Mickens was drafted in the 5th round by my favorite Dallas Cowboys. So this one certainly hurts.
Guys like Sauce Gardner and Coby Bryant will certainly play with a little extra chip on their shoulder with both their previous position coach and coordinator on the other side.
Saturday will mark 4,314 days since Brian Kelly disrespected the Bearcats at their banquet. It will take approximately 3.5 hours for the 2021 Bearcats to exact revenge and make history.
Let it fly like a champion today.