Cinderella was reserved for March and the movies. It didn’t exist in college football. Even with the advent of the four-team College Football Playoff in 2015, there was no room for the little guy.
Despite going undefeated in 2017, Central Florida had to settle for a much-mocked national championship parade after getting bypassed by the playoff committee. Last year, Cincinnati was perfect during the regular season — and couldn’t sniff the playoff.
The best the non-power conference schools could hope for was a New Year’s Day Six bowl. Until now. Until Friday afternoon at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas.
That’s when undefeated Cincinnati (13-0) will get its shot, the chance to bring some March Madness to the gridiron. To pull off the upset of upsets, and earn a spot in the national championship game. No more wondering. No more what-ifs. At last, when the 13.5-point underdog Bearcats meet defending national champion Alabama (12-1) in the Cotton Bowl, the underdog has a seat at the grown-ups’ table.
Cincinnati is the storyline of the College Football Playoff, the team everyone will have an eye on. A blowout loss would give detractors further fuel. A strong performance, or by chance a stunning victory, would have the opposite effect. It could pave the way for other Group of Five schools, until an expanded playoff arrives.
“We’re excited to get down here and play Alabama and show not only ourselves, but everyone in the country, what we can do against a top team,” Cincinnati’s star senior quarterback, Desmond Ridder, said.
Alabama certainly fits that criteria. The Crimson Tide have the Heisman Trophy winner in quarterback Bryce Young, arguably the greatest coach of all time in Nick Saban and one of the country’s premier defensive players in Will Anderson Jr. They are coming off of a one-sided win over Georgia (which faces Michigan in the other semifinal) in the SEC title game. They are supposed to cruise.
Don’t tell Cincinnati. The Bearcats and their 33 seniors have not played the part of happy-to-be-here underdogs. They believe they can win. They are confident their fourth-ranked defense can slow down explosive Alabama, that Ridder and company can expose the Crimson Tide defense as Arkansas, Texas A&M and Florida did. They have future Sunday performers: Ridder and cornerback Ahmad “Sauce” Gardner are both potential first-round selections. They didn’t get here by accident.
“If they’re surprised, then they haven’t been watching our games,” Ridder said.
With all that said, much had to go right for Cincinnati just to get to this point. It took established programs from power conferences, such as Clemson, Oregon and Oklahoma, having down years. The Bearcats needed to go undefeated, and do so in mostly impressive fashion. They had to pick up a trademark win, at fifth-ranked Notre Dame, to prove they belonged.
In some ways, this run was set up last year, when Cincinnati lost a tough three-point game to Georgia in the Peach Bowl on the heels of a 9-0 regular season and ended the year ranked eighth in the Associated Press poll. The Bearcats entered this season with high expectations that went to another level after the double-digit win at South Bend, Ind.
“As a football team, we feel like we’ve earned our way here. We feel like and know we belong here,” offensive coordinator Mike Denbrock said. “The thing that some people forget sometimes about this group of seniors, and this football team in particular, is they did everything that people ask them to do to get to this point. They’ve been successful 13 straight times that they’ve taken the field.”
Cincinnati has tried to downplay the historical significance of its role in this game. The Bearcats have insisted they aren’t playing for past and future Group of Five schools or carrying the mantle for underdogs everywhere. They are in Texas to win a football game. They just want to be themselves. They feel that will be enough.
“We’ve already had so much pressure on us throughout the entire season, marking off the checklist,” Ridder said. “Why add the pressure of every other non-Power Five school onto our back? For us, it’s really just been about us, and will always continue to be about us and the way we go about [playing] our game.”
It is about them, but it’s all about the rarity of the position in which they find themselves. David gets the crack at Goliath many past teams have only dreamed of. History will be made in Texas on New Year’s Eve.