Cincinnati coach Luke Fickell watched the Mid-American Conference cancel its season Aug. 8 and the Big Ten follow suit three days later.
Ohio State — the three-time Big Ten defending champion — and six Mid-American Conference schools in the state postponed their fall seasons. That left the Bearcats as the last FBS team in Ohio standing for 2020.
Fickell, who played at Ohio State before serving as an assistant there for 16 seasons, managed those emotions while trying to maintain fall camp.
“It was tough on us as coaches, and it was even more difficult on the kids — the 18-to-22-year-olds,” Fickell told Sporting News. “Let’s be honest, it’s hard to get motivated, especially at camp, when you believe that things could get canceled soon.
“Living in Ohio and Big Ten country and being from here, you kind of assumed things would follow in that direction. Our guys fought through it, but it wasn’t without a lot of ups and downs.”
With all that uncertainty amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Cincinnati stayed in a bubble of sorts at the Higher Ground Conference and Retreat Center for 19 days in August. Coaches and players stayed at the facility. Nobody left, and it worked.
“We were best when we put the ball down and just played,” Fickell said. “That’s what our kids love to do. We could do it because we were more mature and have kids who can do it.”
Cincinnati emerges from that with a unique opportunity in 2020. The American Athletic Conference moved forward with its decision to play. The Bearcats, who have won 11 games each of the past two seasons, are the highest-ranked Group of 5 school in the AP Top 25, at No. 20.
Cincinnati opens its season Saturday against Austin Peay, and the Bearcats added Army to the schedule Sept. 26 to make up for the loss of two MAC opponents. When asked about the scheduling quirks, Fickell simply laughed.
“You threw out the window, ‘Well, who have we prepared for? Who do we know? Which teams would we be better off playing?'” Fickell said. “You kind of said everything else is overridden because we want to make sure we can get at least two (nonconference) games in because some of the teams in our league would get three.”
Football season in Ohio became a reality for Fickell on Aug. 28. He can attend high school games involving his son Landon, a guard for Cincinnati Moeller High School. That led to a conversation between the two that the coach continues to live by in a state that has been at the center of the COVID-19 football debate.
“It’s not just to be grateful — that starts it — but now you have to refocus yourself,” he said. “If we’re going to do this, there is one objective — and that’s continue to win, continue to grow and continue to build.”
The implications for this season are unique. With just three Power 5 conferences playing, there is buzz around the AAC about snagging a College Football Playoff spot under the right circumstances. UCF was unable to crack the Playoff despite back-to-back undefeated regular seasons in 2017-18. Could the Bearcats be that team in a quirky 2020 season?
“We have not talked about that a lot,” Fickell said. “We’re in a different situation where for the first time they’re actually talking about us. I don’t like that. I like it the other way around when they’re not giving you any respect and things like that.
“We’re not a goal-oriented team because goals are things that you measure at the end of the year. When you get caught looking at goals, you miss the objectives. That’s kind of been our philosophy all along.”
Fickell did concede that those possibilities have generated more excitement in recruiting and with fan support, and the long-term prospects for the program are on the rise again. Cincinnati enjoyed five seasons with double-digit victories from 2007 to 2012 under former coaches Brian Kelly and Butch Jones. Those two coaches went on to jobs at Notre Dame and Tennessee, respectively.
Fickell was a candidate for the Michigan State job this offseason, but he opted to stay in his home state. In a sense, Cincinnati was prepared for the challenges of 2020 before it entered the camp at Higher Ground in August. This season is now a springboard, and as long as Fickell is around, that won’t change — no matter what happens in 2020.
“I really do think we have the makings of the things you need that continue to grow and continue to last over time,” he said. “Whether you have an up or down year, it’s not going to break you if have a good program.”
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