Alex Frank | Sports Director
On this day last year, the Cincinnati Bearcats football team was 3-8 and coming off a 48-20 loss at the East Carolina Pirates, a game that head coach Luke Fickell called the team’s worst game of the 2017 season earlier this week.
Cincinnati had just let then Pirates quarterback Gardner Minshew throw for 444 yards and four touchdowns and let a 2-8 team completely obliterate them.
Fickell said after that game that they had some soul-searching to do on the ride home before their final regular-season game against UConn, a game the Bearcats would win on Nov. 25, 2017 22-21.
Fast forward to today in 2018 and the Bearcats are enjoying an off-day after earning their 10th win of the regular season by demolishing the Pirates 56-6 on Senior Day.
“I am so proud to have been here with them through the highs and lows,” senior offensive lineman Garrett Campbell said. “I think this 10-win season is the cherry on top. I couldn’t be more happy just to be a part of this program to meet so many great guys and be a part of such a wonderful brotherhood.”
When the Bearcats spring practice began, the expectations surrounding the football program were not nearly as ambitious as finishing 10-2.
Athlon Sports picked them to finish 4-8 for the third year in a row and ESPN’s Football Index projected them at 5.6 wins.
Most Bearcats fans probably would have happy with this team just becoming bowl eligible, especially after the two seasons prior to 2018 when the Bearcats finished 4-8 in both 2016 and 2017.
But it was Campbell who said before the first game of the season at UCLA that in his eyes the only team who could beat the Bearcats was themselves.
Sure enough, the Bearcats went in as a heavy underdog at UCLA in the Rose Bowl and came back from an early 10-point deficit to win.
That ignited a 6-0 start and propelled the Bearcats to No. 20 in the AP Poll, their first time in the AP Top 25 since 2012.
“At camp you sit back and you’re like being a senior in my senior year I’m like, these guys actually they have something,” senior defensive tackle Cortez Broughton said. “Just seeing guys, just seeing them grow, continue to grow as a whole especially our D-line unit and just us growing together. Having that bond, having that relationship is something special.”
But the real tests for this team came in the second half of the regular season with all six games coming against teams the Bearcats lost to in 2017.
After a tough overtime loss at Temple, the Bearcats reversed an overtime loss against SMU last year with an overtime win in Dallas this year with sophomore safety James Wiggins running back an interception 86 yards for a game-winning touchdown.
Cincinnati followed with a shutout win over Navy in limiting their vaunted triple-option offense to just 124 rushing yards and then beat South Florida to set up a prime-time showdown at undefeated Central Florida.
While that game may not have gone in their favor, Cincinnati showed its ability to compete on the big stage and how far this program has come under second-year head coach Luke Fickell.
“It’s been a lot [what Fickell means to this team]” Broughton said after the game Friday. “He basically coaches the coaches and coaches the players at the same time. He’s in the action, he’ll get bumped a couple times; a little chip on his shoulder at the same time.”
Fickell mentioned at his weekly press conference on Tuesday that it was going to be a challenge for the program this week against East Carolina in being able to bounce back from a disappointing loss at Central Florida.
The Bearcats passed that challenge with flying colors on Friday with the 56-6 win, erasing all memories from last year and proving the difference a year can make.
“The thing that’s so gratifying is just to see the growth,” Fickell said.
That growth will continue when the Bearcats find out Sunday Dec. 2 at noon on ESPN where they will be headed for a bowl game.
But looking beyond this season, the difference a year has made this season will only continue next year and potentially many years beyond that.