Football for Cincinnati fans made a rare intrusion on January, which turned out not to be such a glorious moment. But we’ll take it and hope for more next year, understanding that the interim poses numerous challenging scenarios.
Down on the river, the Bengals are stuck in the same old program, hoping that if they run their act over and over again it will one day turn out differently. In the popular vernacular, that’s called insanity. In the NFL, it’s called chronic losing.
Up in Clifton, Brian Kelly appears locked in again as the University of Cincinnati’s football coach. We’re about to really find out how good this guy is, and so is he. Eligibility has now expired for 10 of his 11 defensive starters as well as his nation-leading punter, his top wide receiver and two stalwarts on the offensive line.
The early line on next season for both teams might be surprising. By the miracle of scheduling, the Bengals should be much improved, which might still amount to bad news. But they could also be good enough to win more than they lose.
Meanwhile, just when we’re thinking UC should start hitting 10-3 every year, that program has new mountains to climb.
The Orange Bowl appearance exposed the limitations of UC’s offense, though we say that in a relative sense. We’re holding UC to a higher standard now, which is sad in a way.
Debuting in a BCS bowl, the Bearcats have lost their innocence. One hates to think of UC as another Big East wannabe, another shooting star on the order of Louisville, Rutgers or South Florida, which all cameoed on the national stage in recent years and couldn’t work up to bigger parts.
But looking at all the departures from their defense, it’s hard to imagine the Bearcats won’t drop back at least a little bit.
Even if Kelly and his staff have groomed replacements, grooming is no substitute for experience. Nor is it obvious that the Bearcats will be able to hide a young defense by hogging the ball with a strong running game.
Most favored UC in the Orange Bowl. In retrospect, we should have known better. Virginia Tech not only entered as an old hand in BCS games but as a bitter old hand trying to redeem itself after last year’s Orange Bowl loss to Kansas. Virginia Tech kicked off with much to prove, while UC kicked off with much to savor after winning the Big East and earning its first taste of the big time. The Hokies came with more incentive to win, not to mention the seventh ranked defense.
Next time the Bearcats go to a BCS game, they’ll play with that chip on their shoulders — it’s part of growing up in college football. But growing pains are another part of growing up. Now that the Bearcats are 22-6 under Kelly, they’re not sneaking up on people any more.
They’re going to be circled on every schedule in the Big East. They’re scheduled against two good West Coast programs: Fresno State, which will challenge anybody any place, visits Nippert Stadium, while UC also heads to Oregon State.
Back in the mid 1990s, the Bearcats employed a defensive coordinator named Tim Rose, who had been the head coach up the road in Miami. Rose made a remark that still passes for wisdom: You’re never over the hump in college football.
He pointed to perennial powers that were down at the time, places like Oklahoma, Alabama, Southern Cal and Texas. In those days, the three major Florida programs were all on the upswing, basically calling the shots in college football.
We wonder if UC can use its leverage as a Big East program to position itself for national contention. First, though, UC has to demonstrate that it can navigate the player turnover natural to college football and consolidate its present position.
Ask Marvin Lewis how tough it is to stay in the mix. Three years ago we were celebrating NFL playoffs after the Bengals won the AFC North. Maybe we thought they were over the hump, having climbed a tall hill in three years. But you’re never over the hump. Out dropped the bottom, slowly at first, but rather completely this year.
All you have to do is invest in a first-round pick who falls to injury (David Pollack), then hang your hat on a couple of other bad actors (Odell Thurman and Chris Henry). Next, you find out that your diva wide receiver (Chad Johnson) leans too hard on the diva end.
Players start getting full of themselves. The same guys who made sacrifices for the whole last year want their indulgences this year. They expect breaks from the law because they’re the mighty, heroic Bengals. And the whole operation deteriorates.
We all knew the Bengals would struggle this year. The 2008 schedule put them against 10 of the top 11 defenses from 2007. They ended up playing this year against only three teams that finished 2008 with losing records. And they mostly faced this competition with a quarterback from Harvard rather than their Heisman Trophy winner from Southern Cal.
Next year, their opponents are coming off a combined winning percentage of .465 and Carson Palmer will be back. If the Bengals can clean a little house, just upgrading a few players, they might last until December with a chance for the playoffs. Even in that case, the work is far from finished.
The UC football staff knew it 10 years ago while climbing the hill, the Bengals learned it in the last three years and now it stands as a word to the wise as UC and the Bengals move forward. You’re never over the hump.
CONTACT BILL PETERSON: firstname.lastname@example.org