After Cincinnati pulled away for a 17-point win at USF last month, Bulls coach Jeff Scott told Bearcats coach Luke Fickell he’d be pulling for his AAC adversary the rest of the way.
“I hope they get what they earn and get a spot there in the top four,” Scott said afterward, “because I’d love to get an opportunity to watch them represent us this year.”
Scott got what he wanted; the No. 4 Bearcats finished unbeaten to earn a spot in the College Football Playoff and a showdown Friday with No. 1 Alabama. In some ways, Cincinnati represents every Group of Five program because of the way it finally burst the glass ceiling. But for USF, the Cotton Bowl connection is deeper.
Cincinnati represents what USF has the potential to become.
The parallels between the programs are plentiful, beyond their shared AAC affiliation. Both sit in top-30 metro areas. Both are based in fertile recruiting areas. Both must battle local pro teams and nearby blueblood college programs for attention. Both have had multiple top-25 seasons and multiple eight-loss seasons in the past six years.
Cincinnati’s explosion, then, can serve as a model for USF — more of an outline than a template.
It starts, as it always does in college football, with recruiting. The Bearcats’ last four recruiting classes have been ranked first, second, first and first in the conference. Three of them were ranked in the top 50 nationally.
Those rankings explain why Cincinnati has won back-to-back AAC titles. But the Bearcats are poised for their second straight top-10 season because their players have outperformed their recruiting profiles. Three Bearcats (quarterback Desmond Ridder, cornerback Ahmad Gardner and defensive lineman Myjai Sanders) will be early-round NFL draft picks. A half-dozen others (including Armwood High alumnus Jerome Ford) could also be drafted.
“If (fans are) surprised,” Ridder said, “then they haven’t been watching our games.”
The only surprise is that some of them weren’t highly recruited. Ridder wasn’t among the nation’s top 1,600 recruits in the 2016 class but has first-round potential. As a 163-pound prep player, Gardner’s Power Five offers were Indiana, Kentucky, Iowa State and Syracuse. The Bearcats beat several MAC schools to land Coby Bryant, who won the Jim Thorpe Award as the nation’s top defensive back.
Offensive coordinator Mike Denbrock said the process starts with identifying the “right individuals that have the potential for growth,” then developing them properly.
ESPN analyst Todd Blackledge sees something else. Blackledge, an Ohio native whose dad was a former Cincinnati assistant, said Luke Fickell’s Bearcats don’t spend much time fighting futile recruiting battles against Ohio State for blue-chip talent. Instead, they focus on landing three-star prospects that fit.
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“I think that template of understanding who you are and how to recruit to who you are and then developing the guys once they get there to fit your culture and to fit your team and what you want to do schematically is a really good model,” Blackledge said.
It’s a model that could work at USF. The Bulls can add an occasional player the Gators or Seminoles want (like December signee Eddie Kelly), but those victories will be rare.
The better blueprint is to focus on fit. Cincinnati wants blue-collar players that fit the program’s Midwestern footprint. UCF, when it has been at its best, has centered on speed. The Bulls’ identity has been harder to define, which hasn’t helped.
Cincinnati also has found the right balance for the transfer portal. At least eight players on the depth chart are transfers, including the leading rusher (Ford, from Alabama). Fickell said before last year’s Peach Bowl that the portal is “not a big way we want to build our program,” but it can help.
USF went heavy on transfers in this recruiting class to add immediate experience and talent to a program that needs both. But it probably isn’t a long-term blueprint for sustainable success.
The Bearcats’ transfers also are noteworthy because of where they’re from: at least seven grew up within 60 miles of Cincinnati, signed elsewhere and came back home to flourish. That list includes star linebacker Darrian Beavers (UConn), all-conference safety Bryan Cook (Howard) and defensive lineman Jowon Briggs (Virginia).
Their additions are part of the Bearcats’ clear focus on mining local prospects from a talent-rich state. In Fickell’s first spring, only 11 scholarship players were from Ohio. More than half (45) of them now are. The Bearcats list 27 players as Cincinnati natives (including walk-ons). That has created an undeniable hometown pride; Beavers has the city tattooed on his arm.
“Cincinnati is in my blood,” Beavers said, “and I feel like the recognition that this city has gotten from this football team has been extraordinary.”
USF, to its credit, has been following a similar approach to take advantage of its own recruiting hotspot. Five of USF’s 12 incoming transfers are from the Tampa Bay area, as are three of their other 13 signees.
Though Cincinnati’s roster management is something the Bulls can follow, other aspects of the Bearcats’ rise are trickier. Quarterbacks of Ridder’s caliber are hard to find. Five defensive starters are super seniors who used their extra year of eligibility from the pandemic, providing a rare level of experience.
Cincinnati also has invested heavily in facilities; Nippert Stadium has been renovated twice in the last 16 years (including an $86 million expansion in 2015), and the school is working on an indoor practice facility as it prepares to move to the Big 12.
Together, they created the Group of Five program that finally broke through to the playoff. And, perhaps, gives a clue at how USF could get there some day.
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