In such a bizarre season, it’s only fitting that the center of college football in 2020 is found in America’s heartland. And so Sports Illustrated’s two college football writers set out on a (masked and socially distanced) journey to the six campuses in this Midwestern footprint. Ross Dellenger has the northern tier, trekking West to East from Evanston to South Bend to Columbus. Pat Forde is taking the southern route and going East to West, from Huntington to Cincinnati to Bloomington.
We’re rolling out two stories a day, starting Wednesday and running through Friday, as well as updates on our social media platforms, using the hashtag #MidwesternRevivalTour. Keep up to date with the entire series here.
WHY WE’RE HERE: Cincinnati is 7–0, ranked No. 7 nationally, and has been as high as No. 6, which is its best AP ranking since 2009.
SEASON HIGH POINT: Smashing SMU 42–13 on Oct. 24.
PROGRAM ARC: Consistent excellence under Luke Fickell has reestablished Cincinnati as an elite Group of Five program. Previous head coaches Mark Dantonio, Brian Kelly and Butch Jones all moved on to Power 5 jobs.
PROGRAM EDGE: Under Fickell, it's defense first. Cincinnati has had top-10 scoring defenses nationally in 2018 and this year.
ACADEMIC BRAGGING POINT: UC had America's first program of cooperative education, founded in 1906.
CAMPUS ICONOGRAPHY: The Oscar Robertson statue. Also Echo Point, a circular brick plaza near the geology-physics building; when you stand in the exact center and face north, your voice will echo back at you, though no one else will hear it.
PLACE YOU MUST VISIT: Uncle Woody's, where you are not welcome to wear any Ohio State gear into the bar.
CINCINNATI — Desmond Ridder is a planner and a preparer, which is a funny thing when you consider how much of the Cincinnati Bearcats quarterback’s life has been completely unscripted.
That started at the beginning, quite literally. His mother, Sarah, was 15 years old when she gave birth to Desmond in Louisville. His choice of high schools veered twice late in the process, due to unforeseen circumstances. He got his Cincinnati scholarship offer in a Porta-Potty at Churchill Downs, after a hastily arranged throwing session earlier that day. He was sure his longtime girlfriend was giving birth to a son, only to learn at the gender-reveal party earlier this month that he will be a girl dad come April.
Even though Ridder might have dreamed of being where he is today, neither he nor his family ever could have envisioned the path. “It’s been surreal,” Sarah Ridder says. “There’s still times we see the highlights on ESPN and say, ‘Holy crap, that’s our kid.’ ”
That’s her kid, passing and running and leading the Bearcats to a 7–0 record and No. 7 national ranking, threatening to become the first Group of Five conference program to crash the College Football Playoff. That’s her kid, ranking second in the American Athletic Conference and 18th nationally in yards per play, at 8.27. That’s her kid, moving up in NFL draft analyst projections. That’s her kid, causing agents to inquire with his mom and stepdad about whether Desmond is going pro or returning to school in 2021.
The NFL would complete the career arc Ridder foresaw for himself as a kid, though few others envisioned it for him. He grew up with a large “X” decal on the wall of his bedroom, symbolizing his hopes of playing at St. Xavier High School. He grew up with a goal of being a major-college quarterback. He grew up dreaming of playing on Sundays.
Check. Check. And … we’ll see.
“He’s had those plans,” Sarah Ridder says.
The birth of Desmond Ridder certainly was not part of anyone’s life plan. His mom was in high school and his biological father was not in the picture. “We pretty much grew up together,” Sarah Ridder says. “We were best friends.”
“We were able to guide each other,” Desmond says. “It was open and free. I’m not going to say there wasn’t strictness and parenting, but a lot of things she let me learn on my own. She was always going to be there, but you don’t always have to ask for help. She let me be independent but guided me when I needed it.”
They lived with Sarah’s mom, Jan, in the Highlands neighborhood of Louisville. So did Desmond’s aunt and uncle (themselves in their early 20s) and an adopted cousin who he refers to as his aunt, even though she’s only a few months older than he is. “It was kind of wild,” Desmond says, laughing.
The house on Woodbourne Avenue was the scene of joyful chaos for Desmond and his cousins growing up. They were always playing (and often breaking) something. Jan Ridder had French doors leading onto her back patio with 20 small glass panes in them, and they took a beating.
“By the time I left there, when I was 10, we had probably replaced 13 of the 20 windows with plexiglass,” Desmond says.
He gives grandma credit for teaching him how to throw a football. One day he was out in the yard tossing a ball with his uncle and Jan interceded, showing him how to grip it and deliver a spiral. He would go on to become a pitcher, a point guard and—always—a quarterback while playing in the Hikes Point Optimist League and then the Catholic School Athletic Association.
Catholic youth football is a big deal in Louisville—probably too big a deal for some. Grown men still talk about winning or losing the eighth grade Toy Bowl. Neighborhood parish teams become the feeder programs for large Catholic high schools.
There are eight of those in Louisville—three of them all-boys schools, four of them all-girls, and one co-ed. The two largest football-playing schools are St. Xavier and Trinity, traditional powers that have won dozens of state titles and produced a long line of college players and a few pros. When those two rivals play annually at the University of Louisville’s stadium, the crowd can be as large as 40,000.
Growing up with that X on the wall, Desmond figured he had his high school path set. But when he started showing real promise as an eighth grader at Holy Family—just down the street from St. X—coaches from Holy Cross (a smaller, coed school) began recruiting him. They told him he could be a big fish in their smaller pond, as opposed to just being a name and a number among 100 boys on the St. X freshman team.
On the morning he and hundreds of other kids his age were taking placement exams at the Catholic schools they hoped to attend, Desmond was undecided.
“Des, where we going for this placement test?” His mom asked.
“Take a left on the Interstate,” he said. “Let’s go to Holy Cross.”
That was going to be his path—until Holy Cross ran into trouble with the Kentucky High School Athletic Association for illegal recruiting outside the county. When that happened, Ridder reversed course and wound up where he’d dreamed of being all along.
His head coach at St. X was Will Wolford, the former All-Pro offensive lineman, himself an alum of the school. Wolford modernized an archaic offense, giving its quarterbacks a chance to throw the ball more often, out of shotgun and spread formations. Desmond became an avid student of the game, sometimes wearing a GoPro camera on his helmet at practice and studying the video afterward.
He became a starter, but not really a star. He was a two-star recruit on Rivals, three-star on 247. He attended camps at Louisville and Kentucky but came away with no scholarship offers. In the spring of his junior year, Ridder was a kid who believed he would be a Division I college quarterback—he just needed a Division I college to share his belief.
During lunch period one day, St. X offensive coordinator Dave Nurnberg found Desmond and told him a Cincinnati coach wanted to drive the 100 miles down Interstate 71 to watch him throw the following morning. There was just one problem: That following day was Kentucky Oaks Day, the day before the Kentucky Derby.
Oaks Day is an official holiday in Louisville. Schools close, businesses shut down and more than 100,000 people flock to Churchill Downs for what is known as “Louisville’s day at the races.” It’s an especially big day for high schoolers in town, because it’s a cheaper and tamer day at the track than Derby Day. But with his college dreams still cloudy, Desmond knew he couldn’t pass up this opportunity. So he persuaded some of his friends to run routes and catch passes for him.
“If we can be here at like 7:30, we’ll be out of here by 8–8:30,” Desmond told them. “Then we can all go get dressed up and have a hell of a day.”
The throwing session went well. An athletic 6' 4", with a good arm and touch, Desmond showed what he can do. Then he went to Churchill Downs with his buddies.
Mid-afternoon, while hanging out with thousands of others in the infield, he got a call from Tommy Tuberville, the head coach of the Bearcats. This wasn’t an ideal environment for a momentous phone call, so Desmond scooted into the only place where he could have a semi-quiet conversation: a Porta-Potty.
“When I came out I just had the biggest smile on my face,” he says. “That was my first college offer.”
It was the only one he needed. Desmond committed to Cincinnati a couple of weeks later, ending his recruitment before it really got going. That commitment didn’t waver even when the school fired Tuberville after a 4–8 season. When new coach Luke Fickell said he still wanted Desmond, he signed with the Bearcats.
After a redshirt season in which Cincinnati again went 4–8, Desmond dug into the playbook with quarterback coach Gino Guidugli, himself a former Kentucky high school and Bearcat great. His analytical mind soaked up what Guidugli taught him about the nuances of the position.
“He’s super sharp and intelligent,” Guidugli says. “We demand a lot of our quarterbacks—a lot is on his shoulders. He handles it well. He’s not a kid who’s going to make the same mistake twice.”
By spring ball and into fall camp, the former two-star recruit was ready to beat out senior Hayden Moore and become the starter as a redshirt freshman. His first game: an upset of UCLA in the Rose Bowl, and he’s been winning ever since. Ridder’s record as the Cincy starter: 29–4.
Along the way, he has metamorphosed from game manager to playmaker. This season his yards per pass attempt have increased from 6.7 to 8.1, despite playing with an almost completely new cast of receivers. He’s also nearly doubled his yards per rush, from 4.5 in 2019 to 8.9 this year. Fickell’s traditional defense-first program is averaging 41.6 points per game, on a school-record pace.
“I think we can play with anyone in the country,” Desmond says.
Still, this season started unevenly. Ridder wasn’t very good in the first two games, missing receivers and making mistakes—something that galls a young man with a strong perfectionist streak. (“I think everything has a certain way they should be done,” he said. “I don’t like to mess up on things.”)
Sarah Ridder knew what was going on behind the scenes. Desmond’s girlfriend of more than six years, Claire Cornett, was pregnant. And there was the increased talk about an NFL future. There was some weight on her son’s shoulders.
Her message to her son: “Breathe. Let loose. Have fun with the guys.”
The message got through. Applying less pressure to himself has freed Desmond to play with more instinct while still adhering to his studious approach to quarterbacking.
On the sideline during games this season, Desmond has taken to writing down plays and drawing up opposing defenses in a notebook after each offensive possession. The routine: get on the phone with Guidugli in the press box to discuss what he transpired, then scribble down his recollections of plays and formations.
“He’s got a unique ability to recall things that happened,” Guidugli says. “One of the best I’ve been around from that standpoint. He’s able to tell me the things I’m seeing from the press box, which is pretty rare. Usually quarterbacks on the field can’t see the game as well as I can from up high, but Desmond can.”
Earlier this month, Claire and Desmond did what young couples do these days—they had a small gender-reveal event for their baby. Claire knew what the outcome would be. Desmond was in the dark, but convinced they were having a boy.
The plan was for Desmond to kick a football, which would break and let out a pink or blue powder. “In my head I saw blue powder exploding everywhere,” he says.
This was one time when his sharp mind was wrong. The powder was pink. He’s thrilled, anyway, and ready to be the kind of young parent Sarah was to him.
“I’ve always thought of having children early, because of my relationship with my mother,” Desmond says. “Having a young connection is really a different type of connection. There’s something about it that is unique.”
He will be a college graduate in December, with a degree in sports administration. He may also be the quarterback of an undefeated team bound for the College Football Playoff or a New Year’s Six Bowl. He could be a professional football player in 2021. He definitely will be a father.
Desmond Ridder’s plan is playing out the way he envisioned, but he never could have scripted all the plot twists along the way. What he predicted might all happen while tracing a happily unpredictable story arc.