It’s Week 3 of the college football season, and by now most teams have a lot more intel on their team than they did in fall camp. Injuries have forced their way to the surface, freshmen have surprised, veterans have (or haven’t) made the jump coaches expected them to. Unless you’re the Cincinnati Bearcats, who have been sitting at home waiting for the chance to finally play some real football.
Cincinnati will play its first game of the season on Friday night against Toledo. By then American Athletic Conference foe Houston, which plays BYU Thursday, will have played three games. So just how does this happen?
It goes back to former athletic director Whit Babcock, now at Virginia Tech. Cincinnati was supposed to start the season against Stony Brook and then get a week off before playing Toledo. That would have been a pretty typical schedule. Georgia, for instance, opened the season against Clemson in Week 1 and then had an open date last week in advance of this Saturday’s game at South Carolina.
But the Stony Brook game was canceled, with a game against Miami (FL) on Oct. 11 added in its place. When the conference schedule was pulled together, there wasn’t a conference game the first week of the season for Cincinnati (Tulsa played Tulane on the opening Thursday), so the Bearcats had to wait until Sept. 12 to see live game action.
"I'll take whatever blame anybody wants to give," Babcock told the Cincinnati Enquirer in August. "...A year ago at this time in Newport, Rhode Island (AAC media day), we were told we couldn't move a conference game there (as the opener). That's when it got to a code red. There also was some membership turnover in the conference. With everybody going in and going out, we couldn't make it happen."
Cincinnati coach Tommy Tuberville is understandably frustrated, and he’s had to alter his team’s preparation from typical years. It doesn’t help matters that Nippert Stadium, where the Bearcats usually play their home games, is undergoing renovations, so the team has been moved to the Cincinnati Bengals’ Paul Brown Stadium.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” Tuberville told SI.com. “We’ve just tried to be very imaginative of what we’re doing in practice and not do too much contact. We can have four or five scrimmages, but you want to keep them healthy because it’s a long season. We don’t know going against each other. One day the offense will be good. One day the defense will be good. You just do the best you can and try to get them mentally ready to go and in good physical shape. Then turn them loose and see what you’ve got. It’ll be like Christmas on Friday night for us.”
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The Cincinnati players are “crawling up the walls” to play, according to Tuberville. With so much extra time off, the team focused on individual phases of the game on specific days. One day the Bearcats would work on the running game. Another day they’d work on third down. The next day would be gap control. The goal was to keep the players from getting bored. In a way, the schedule is a lot like the time between the regular season and a bowl game, with so much time to practice for one game.
There has been one unexpected advantage to waiting around. Cincinnati has game film on every other teams from this season while the Bearcats are still a mystery to their opponents.
Unfortunately Cincinnati is also a bit of a mystery to itself.
“We still don’t know what we have,” Tuberville said. “It’s a little concerning. Every year in college you need to play some kids who are redshirt freshmen or sophomores who have never played in a game. You don’t know how they’re going to react in certain situations. But it’s time we played.”
Tuberville waited until this week to announce Gunner Kiel as the starting quarterback because “we weren’t in any hurry.” The quarterbacks had a couple extra weeks to compete for the job, and as coaches always claim, competition makes guys better.
Not playing a game means Cincinnati hasn’t lost a game either. The Bearcats moved all the way up to 27th in the Sagarin ratings this week, ahead of 2-0 teams like Arizona State, Penn State, Missouri, North Carolina and Tennessee. With a few more weeks off perhaps Cincinnati could have slid all the way up into the top 10.
So is there a way to fix this? It’s obviously too late for this season, but Tuberville does have an idea to at least make sure teams are a bit more prepared in general regardless of whether they play in Week 1 or Week 3.
“Look at all the football teams that are supposed to be good with a lot of returners,” Tuberville said. “You’re not near the football team you’re going to be the first game. There’s no way. It’d be great to get on a bus and for us to go down to Louisville for instance. What a great deal that be. We could practice for a day. The next day you sell tickets for $10 each and everybody could watch a controlled scrimmage. At some of these stadiums with that, you could pay for an Olympic sport for a year. There’s no reason we shouldn’t do that.”
It might seem unorthodox and a long way off, but so did the idea of a playoff 10 years ago when Tuberville’s Auburn team was left out of the national championship despite being undefeated. With NFL fans always pushing to cut back on preseason games, maybe it’s time college football adds them.