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Is Greater Cincinnati Becoming a College Football Hotbed?

By Bill Peterson · September 26th, 2007 · Sports
Jerry Dowling

You've thought all these years that Cincinnati wasn't a college football town, and you were right. But the football teams from the universities of Cincinnati and Kentucky are a combined 8-0, they're both in the Associated Press rankings and do you think, maybe, that this year is a little different?

Whichever side of the river you're on, you have better topics than the Bengals' deplorable special teams. In that sense, Cincinnati is right in step with the rest of America, where a Saturday of college football is much more thrilling and surprising than a Sunday of watching the NFL.

If, for obvious reasons, the college game isn't as well played as professional football, it's also not as bloodless. A university student or alumnus who likes football can feel a pull of brotherhood with the school's football team. The guys on the football team are kids in school kind of the way you were a kid at the same school, and they're making about as much money there as you did.

College football is much more universal. In towns like Los Angeles and states like Alabama or Iowa, where the NFL is absent, college teams are present. And they're not going anywhere. The college team won't threaten to leave town if the taxpayers don't bankroll a new stadium.

A bad pro football team in town is a company of mercenary athletes who aren't as good as the mercenary athletes in other towns. It's not as cuddly as your alma mater's hapless football team, your star-crossed pal for whom you always wish the best while knowing he'll always shoot himself in the foot.

You don't blame the players for being bad. You might blame the administration for hiring a coach who can't recruit.

But you're not likely to hear those complaints right now in Clifton nor on the Kentucky side of town, where broad majorities have never seen the Bearcats or Wildcats in such prosperous condition.

By the rankings, both teams have attained levels unknown for 30 years. By the records, neither team has performed so well in more than 50 years, which is three cycles of 17-year cicadas.

At 4-0 for the first time since 1954, the Bearcats are rated 24th by the Associated Press, entering the media rankings for the first time since October 1976. The Bearcats won their seventh straight game going back to last year in a 40-14 drubbing of Marshall on Sept. 22 before 35,097, the largest crowd to ever see them play in beautiful Nippert Stadium. The next home game, Oct. 13 against Louisville, is sold out. Unbelievable.

For the first time since 1950, Kentucky is 4-0 and undefeated in the Southeastern Conference. The newest AP poll puts the Wildcats 14th, their highest ranking since they finished the 1977 season rated sixth. As always, the UK schedule after September is a meat grinder, but this time football season won't end before Midnight Madness.

Not so many years ago, UC and UK would quietly play each other for local bragging rights. Because football was clearly second to basketball at both schools, however, the bragging didn't amount to much.

If they played now, it's a quasi-glamorous inter-sectional match-up. And if UC is going to start drawing 35,000 at home, that game is worthy of Paul Brown Stadium.

Football at UC is on a very long climb that really began about 15 years ago. In 1992, UC re-opened Nippert Stadium for full use after renovations and, in 1993, Tim Murphy delivered the first winning season in 12 years with a senior-laden team before moving to Harvard.

Rick Minter came in from Notre Dame and stabilized the program, which took a huge step in 1996 as a founding member of Conference-USA, the football program's first league affiliation in 26 years. A year later, UC made its first bowl appearance since 1950.

The early years of this century have accelerated UC's progress. The shifting national landscape created opportunity when the Atlantic Coast Conference swiped Boston College, Virginia Tech and Miami from the Big East, which suddenly needed new members, so it added UC, Louisville and South Florida in 2005. After all that, the Big East is stronger than ever and the ACC still isn't an elite football league.

Meanwhile, UC substantially refurbished its campus, including $105 million in upgraded athletic facilities. With improved facilities and a Big East path to the major bowl games, UC could recruit better players.

All the program needed was a dose of audacity. Then along came Brian Kelly, who took over for last year's International Bowl and now is the first UC coach to start 5-0 since 1935.

The Bearcats run a spread offense, and they have the swagger to go with it. Kelly hasn't been around long enough to know the Miami game is supposed to be a struggle. The Bearcats went to Oxford on Sept. 15 and posted a 47-10 win.

The offense is almost perfectly balanced between run and pass. They're so well set that when quarterback Ben Mauk's shoulder gets stuck, they've still got Dustin Grutza.

The UC defense is ranked 28th nationally, allowing 308 yards per game and making 12 interceptions. After halftime, UC opponents have scored only 12 points in four games.

Of course, the real tests are yet to come, but the possibility of a BCS bowl looms in the Big East schedule. Among Big East opponents, the AP ranks West Virginia fifth, Rutgers 10th and South Florida 18th, with Connecticut receiving votes and Louisville dropping out of the poll this week.

UC beat Rutgers, South Florida and Connecticut last year, and Louisville appears beatable. In an ideal society, UC would play West Virginia at Nippert Stadium on Nov. 17 for big marbles.

By then, we'll also know quite a lot more about Kentucky. In past years, the UK football season passed as predictably as the leaves changing colors in the fall. Inevitably, if the program wasn't completely in the dumps, UK would open 4-1 or 4-2 running up to the annual Louisiana State/Georgia disaster.

Beginning in 1956, UK played LSU and Georgia back-to-back every year through 2001. UK won both games in 1956 but went 17-72-1 in those games over the next 45 years. Right about then, basketball practice began and football had served its purpose of tiding over Big Blue fans for six weeks.

About twice every three years, UK would pull a season-making upset against one of the SEC's national powers. About twice every year, UK would blow similar upsets in the fourth quarter.

But the Wildcats already have knocked off Louisville this year, and they went to Arkansas on Sept. 22 to win their first SEC opener on the road since 1984 with a 42-29 victory. Quarterback Andre Woodson is an elite NFL prospect: big, fast, strong-armed and accurate.

The Wildcats have scored at least 40 points in every game this season and now they're notable for fourth-quarter presence of mind, coming from behind in the final period to win five times in their last nine games. Georgia, Louisville and Arkansas are among the victims.

Only time will tell if Cincinnati ever becomes a college football town. Right now, at least, it's in a college football moment that hasn't come around for generations.

The novelty is fun. Lasting change would be better.



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