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No. 4 Cincinnati is the first non-Power Five football program to be in the College Football Playoff.
But that is where coach Luke Fickell is leaving it. He is also leaving his American Athletic Conference and mid-major flags behind as he prepares his No. 4 Bearcats (13-0) for the national semifinal against No. 1 Alabama (12-1) in the Cotton Bowl in Arlington, Texas, on Dec. 31 (2:30 p.m. central time, ESPN).
And he has the right idea.
“For us and our program, we don’t want to think we’re carrying some flag for the non-big schools, so to speak,” Fickell said at a press conference with Alabama coach Nick Saban recently. “We just want to be us.”
Cincinnati does have a 24-13 victory over No. 5 Notre Dame and a 35-20 win over No. 20 Houston, and it has the No. 2 pass defense in the nation (168.3 yards allowed a game) and the No. 9 scoring offense (38.8 points a game). Alabama is a 14-point favorite by FanDuel.
Fickell does not plan on playing for the little conferences or the other “little” schools that could.
“I think sometimes when you start saying you’re carrying the flag or doing something for somebody else or trying to make a statement for, you know, a bunch of different programs, I think you can get lost in a lot of things that are going on,” Fickell said.
Fickell won national championships at big train Ohio State as a special teams coach under coach Jim Tressel and as a co-defensive coordinator under coach Urban Meyer in 2002 and ’14, respectively. Ohio State beat Alabama, 42-35, in the national semifinal in the 2014 season.
“So, we’re trying to stay focused on what this is about,” he said. “It’s an incredible opportunity and a great measuring stick in all that we’ve been doing.”
Saban, though, does not mind waving the flag for the smaller schools. Asked if it is good for college football that a school not from the Power Five – SEC, ACC, Pac-12, Big 12, Big Ten – has made it to the final four of the playoffs, Saban showed his Kent State and Mid-American Conference colors.
“Hey, I played at Kent State, all right,” he cracked as Fickell, a former Ohio State nose guard who grew up two hours south of Kent, Ohio, in Columbus, Ohio, smiled approvingly.
“I’d like to have been considered a major college player,” Saban said. “I know it’s the Mid-American Conference, but we played and tried to be the best that we could be.”
Saban, who grew up in Fairmont, West Virginia, three hours from Kent, played defensive back on Kent State’s only Mid-American Conference champion in 1972. The team finished 6-5-1 and 4-1 in the league with a loss to Tampa in the Tangerine Bowl in Tampa. Kent State going to a bowl was really cool at the time. Its only previous postseason excursion was the Refrigerator Bowl in 1954. Yes, that was a bowl in Evansville, Indiana, where Kent State and linebacker Sam Huff , an idol of Saban’s also from West Virginia, lost to Delaware. And Kent State going to any bowl is still “major.” It has been to four in its history.
“Cincinnati certainly deserves what they accomplished,” Saban said. “I mean, they beat Notre Dame. I have a lot of respect for their conference, and I think it’s great for college football that everybody in every conference has an opportunity. It’s very, very difficult to go undefeated. You’ve got to have a special mindset and a special group of young men to do that.”
Fickell may not like the idea of playing for all the mid-major programs out there, but he is relishing the underdog role. The Bearcats were usually favored this season.
“We know it’s going to be an incredible challenge for us,” he said. “Our guys have done nothing but step up to challenges, and I think that’s what gives us the best opportunity – they may be excited about putting the shoe on the other foot.”
So, Cincinnati has Alabama right where it wants it. And remember, No. 8 Cincinnati played well against strong SEC competition last season in a 24-21 loss in the Peach Bowl to No. 9 Georgia, which was favored by a touchdown.
“More than anything, our guys are incredibly excited to play against the No. 1 team in the country and Coach Saban and the Crimson Tide, who obviously they know everything about.”
He is hoping Alabama knows little about his team.
And cancel those game plan tips from other non-Power Five schools pulling for them, thank you very much.
“Our guys have done a great job handling all the distractions and different things that we’ve gone through with people trying to tell us how we need to play and what we need to do to have any chance,” he said.
They’ve got this.