The underdog, Cinderella teams are celebrated in college basketball, but they’re never viewed as worthy in college football.
At least they weren’t until the University of Cincinnati’s football team crashed the College Football Playoff. They’re the first non-Power Five team to earn a spot in the national semifinal since the sport moved to its current playoff format in 2014.
There are people who will view Cincinnati’s performance against top-ranked Alabama as a referendum on Group of Five programs, though the Bearcats will join the Big 12 in a couple of years. Alabama is a 13.5-point favorite, the largest spread among any bowl game.
“I’m not saying Cincinnati is carrying the flag for the Group of Five, but you know how the world works, that will be the perception,” ESPN broadcaster Kirk Herbstreit said. “If they lay an egg or they get blown out, there will be many that will say, ‘See, I told you all along.’ My colleague, Lee Corso, doesn’t think Cincinnati should be even in the discussion – like, anybody from the Group of Five.”
Labeling the Bearcats as a Cinderella team, however, is probably shortchanging their accomplishments. They’ve won 22 of their 23 games over the last two seasons, losing to Georgia on a last-second field goal in last year’s Peach Bowl. They won on the road against Notre Dame, the first team outside of the Playoff bubble. They’re the lone unbeaten team this year.
“I think the thing that some people forget sometimes about this group of seniors and this football team, in particular, is they did everything that people asked them to do to get to this point,” said Mike Denbrock, Cincinnati’s offensive coordinator. “We feel like we’ve earned our way here. We feel like and know we belong here.”
The Cinderella perception also ignores the success of other non-Power Five teams in the previous 15 years. A 2006 Boise State team that went undefeated and topped Oklahoma in a memorable Fiesta Bowl. A 2008 Utah team, which then played in the Mountain West Conference, beat Alabama in the Sugar Bowl. There were TCU and UCF teams that went undefeated, didn’t receive a chance to play for a national championship, and won prominent bowl games.
Trying to represent other Group of Five teams is one of the last things on the minds of the Bearcats. Head Coach Luke Fickell doesn’t use the terms “Power Five” or “Group of Five” in his program and they learned their lesson about trying to match expectations from people outside of the program when style points were such big talking points during their conference games.
“For us, we’ve already had so much pressure on us throughout the entire season of marking off the checklist, so why add the pressure of every other non-Power Five school that we have on our back?” quarterback Desmond Ridder said. “It’s really just been about us and will always and continue to be about us and the way we go about our way and the way we go about our game. So, there’s really no added pressure on us from that standpoint.”
Said receiver Alec Pierce: “I don’t think the significance for us is anything other than the significance of it being the College Football Playoffs. It’s the biggest game of the year for us in that aspect that we have a chance to advance on to the college football finals. That is itself a huge, enormous significance. Other than that, I don’t think we’re looking at the outside factors.”
In a sport that doesn’t invite many outsiders, the Bearcats know the opportunity in front of them. It’s one that didn’t seem possible when many of the players were recruited into the program.
“We’ve got over 33 seniors that have been through the fire,” Denbrock said. “Have had disappointments along the way. Have had challenges along the way. Have had struggles along the way. And have done nothing as a group and a football team but overcome those things that people put in front of them. Whether that’s labeling them a non-Power Five team. Whether that’s calling them Cinderella or whatever name that people in the media like to come up with to try to describe this group.
“I describe them as a football team. A group of men that have a common goal, that grind and fight and scratch and claw every day to make that a reality.”