Fickell eager to see how eighth-ranked Bearcats ‘mesh together’

Cincinnati hosts Miami on Saturday at Nippert Stadium in season opener

Credit: John Raoux

Credit: John Raoux

Even though the University of Cincinnati football team lost just 28 letterwinners and return 52 from last season’s 9-1 team, coach Luke Fickell is anxious to learn about his team.

He knows the players. He’s just not sure how well they’ll come together as a team. That’s why he annually compares the Bearcats’ seasonopener to “Christmas morning.”

“Week One, you’re curious to see what you’ve got,” Fickell said on Tuesday during Cincinnati’s first weekly media session. “We know we’ve got some really good football players, but how do we mesh together as a team? This is the first time we get a chance to see what this team is made of. It’s a chance to see what we do when adversity hits.

“This Week One has been more intriguing than any other week since I’ve been here.”

Fickell’s fifth season with the Bearcats and the 134th in Cincinnati history is scheduled for Saturday with a 3:30 p.m. kickoff, and it will start like none of the previous 124 games against Victory Bell arch-rival Miami. The two teams – which used to play their season finale against each other, often on Thanksgiving – will open the season against each other for the first time.

The Bearcats, ranked eighth in the Associated Press pre-season poll and 10th in the coaches’ poll, are 3-0 against the RedHawks under Fickell and are riding a 14-game winning streak in the series, pulling to within one win of knotting the overall series record. Miami leads, 59-58-7, and while Cincinnati won, 21-0, in 2018 with two fourth-quarter touchdowns and 35-13 in 2019 after falling behind, 10-0, in the first quarter, the RedHawks came close to snapping the Bearcats’ win streak at rain-soaked Yager Stadium in Fickell’s debut season. Cincinnati needed 18 fourth-quarter points in the fourth quarter, including 15 in the final 2:52, to pull out an improbable 21-17 victory.

“There was about a 95-percent chance with two minutes to go in the game that they were going to win the game,” Fickell said. “There have been some battles.”

Cincinnati counts 18 starters returning from a team that went 9-1 last season, capturing the American Athletic Conference championship and losing in the Peach Bowl to Southeastern Conference-powerhouse Georgia, 24-21, on a field goal with three seconds left. Among the returning players is senior quarterback Desmond Ridder, the reigning AAC Player of the Year.

Fickell admits to not knowing as much about Miami as he normally would. Pandemic protocols cost the RedHawks nine of their 12 regular-season games last season, including a home matchup with Cincinnati that made 2020 the first year the teams didn’t play since 1943 and 1944, but he leans toward the time-honored approach about this being the kind of rivalry in which records can be thrown out the window.

“There is a difference with just three games,” he said. “There are a lot more unknowns, but Week One is always about yourself, anyway.”

What he’s pretty sure about is Miami is better than Austin Peay, the Bearcats’ opponent in last season’s opener. He also knows the RedHawks are more motivated.

“We have a heightened awareness of what this rivalry is all about,” he said. “We’re switching gears. We’re not getting ready for just another game. We’re getting ready for a rivalry game. We’ve been hammering home what the rivalry is all about. The first three games have been battles. The last four or five days, we’ve focused on that.”


Miami at Cincinnati, 3:30 p.m., ESPN+, 980, 1450

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