Will Cincinnati-Notre Dame showdown foreshadow Luke Fickells future?

Luke Fickell did not downplay the significance of Saturday’s top-10 showdown with No. 9 Notre Dame. 

No. 7 Cincinnati (3-0) is the favorite at Notre Dame Stadium, and this is the crux of the Bearcats’ potential College Football Playoff case. The Irish (4-0) don’t have a conference championship game, so it feels like an elimination game of sorts.

“It’s big,” Fickell said at his press conference Tuesday. “We’re not going to lie to you. But once the thing is kicked off, you can’t let all the emotions of all the different stuff that is going on affect you and how you go about things. What I mean by that is, the emotions throughout the week that can drain you because you need to be at your best on Saturday.” 

Fickell spent most of that media availability answering questions about the coaching ties on both sides. 

“There are a lot of those kinds of storylines with every game, obviously this one being a little bit different and unique because it’s Notre Dame,” Fickell said. 

Cincinnati offensive coordinator Mike Denbrock used to be at Notre Dame with Brian Kelly. Irish defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman used to be with Fickell at Cincinnati. Kelly was the head coach at CIncinnati before Notre Dame. 

Does that mean Fickell might one day be the head coach at Notre Dame? This game could be a part of that long-term answer.

Kelly isn’t going anywhere, of course. He just passed Knute Rockne as Notre Dame’s all-time winningest coach with his 106th victory. The Irish have made two College Football Playoff appearances in the last three years, and he turns 60 on Oct. 25. The Irish are 37-5 since 2018. 

Cincinnati is 34-6 in the same stretch with Fickell, who has put the Bearcats in the CFP conversation each of the last two years. Trips to UCLA, Michigan and Ohio State and a Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl appearance against Georgia have built to this moment, and Cincinnati is the top Group of 5 program in the country right now. 

That fact the Bearcats are favored tells everything. 

“When you say top-10 teams, I don’t think we’ve had a situation where we’ve been in this position yet,” Fickell said. “Maybe the bowl game was that situation. Nonetheless, this is what you’ve kind of dreamed of.” 

How long can Fickell keep that dream going at Cincinnati? He turned down an offer at Michigan State in 2020. He shot down speculation that he is a candidate for the USC job in 2022. Cincinnati accepted an invitation to join the Big 12 on Sept. 10, and if there is a next move for Fickell, there is no rush now to leave. 

Cincinnati remains in a good spot. Fickell has used that Ohio-recruiting base to build a talented roster, and those class rankings continue to improve with each cycle. The Bearcats could be a playoff regular in a 12-team format playing out of the Big 12. That means Fickell is in a good spot for the foreseeable future.

So what happens when Kelly does eventually leave Notre Dame? 

Fickell would be one of the top candidates for several reasons dating back to his high school days as a standout at St. Francis DeSales High School in Columbus, Ohio. Some of Notre Dame’s best coaches — Lou Holtz, Ara Parseghian and Kelly, to name a few — had strong Ohio coaching ties, too. Fickell understands the mantra of “Catholic Football” that breaks team huddles across high schools in the Rust Belt. 

Fickell also played and coached at Ohio State, and he was on the field as a player for the home-and-home between the Buckeyes and Irish in 1995-96. He was a coach in the bowl-game matchups in 2006 and 2016. He used those experiences from the most-successful program in the Big Ten and applied them to Cincinnati. 

Those are memories Fickell said he likes to keep for himself, however. 

In the present, Fickell has a chance to win the most significant game of his head-coaching career. He said the Bearcats will travel to South Bend, Ind., on Friday and visit the stadium. It’s a chance to soak up all that history that comes with playing in one of college football’s most-sacred venues. Then, all those emotions will be put aside on Saturday. This is the type of game every coach dreams of, and there is no better place to show. 

“This is a place I’ve never coached before,” he said. “I had the good fortune of playing there but never have coached there.” 

Saturday will be the first time. Will it be the last? 

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