BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — Back in 2014, when Indiana and Cincinnati contracted to play this Saturday's football game at Memorial Stadium, no one could have imagined taht the stakes for this game would be so high.
In 2014, Tom Allen wasn't even in Bloomington yet. The Hoosiers were 4-8 with a nonconference loss to Bowling Green. Cincinnati had a decent season. The Bearcats went 9-4 with a bowl loss to Virginia Tech in the Military Bowl, but no one thought of them as a top-25 team.
Fast forward seven years, and both teams were ranked inside the top 20 heading into the season.
If it weren't for a 34-6 loss to Iowa in Week 1, Indiana would still be in the top-25 for Saturday's matchup. Meanwhile for Cincinnati, it is currently the highest ranked team in the state of Ohio at No. 8. Ohio State, which lost to Oregon last Saturday, is a spot behind at No. 9.
The Hoosiers and Bearcats began their meteoric rises at around the same time as well.
On Dec. 1, 2016, Allen officially became the head coach at Indiana. Ten days later, on Dec. 10, 2016, Luke Fickell officially became the head coach at Cincinnati.
Both teams missed bowl games in 2017 — Indiana went 5-7 and Cincy went 4-8 — but the foundations were being built.
The Bearcats had the big season first. In 2018, Cincinnati went 11-2, this time winning the Military Bowl against Virginia Tech while Fickell was named American Athletic Conference Coach of the Year. It was just the third 11-win season in UC history.
The fourth 11-win season came one year later, when the Bearcats went 11-3 and beat Boston College in the Birmingham Bowl.
Then came 2020, where the Bearcats nearly became the first non-Power 5 school to play its way into the College Football Playoff.
Cincinnati was ranked as high as No. 6 during last season. On Dec. 20, there were three teams in the top six that were undefeated — Alabama (11-0, No. 1), Ohio State (6-0, No. 3) and Cincinnati (9-0, No. 6).
The Bearcats just missed out on the top four and nearly went undefeated last season, but lost on a last-second field goal to Georgia in the Peach Bowl 24-21.
This season they're on the same mission to become the first non-Power 5 school to make the College Football Playoff.
Dan Hoard, radio voice of the Bearcats, laid out prior to the season how Cincinnati has put itself in position to do this in 2021.
"They're setting up to do what no team has ever done outside the Power 5, to qualify for a four-team playoff, and I know that's a lofty goal. But you need five things to happen at the same time to have a chance.
"Number one, you've got to be great the year before so that you begin the season in or close to the top 10. They're number eight. Check. You need to have a great quarterback coming back. Desmond Ridder. Check. You need to hold on to a great head coach. Luke Fickell. Check. You need to have great nonconference games that impress people around the country. Indiana and Notre Dame. Check. And you have to go undefeated. That's the hard part."
After two easy wins to begin the season against Miami of Ohio (49-14) and Murray State (42-7), the Bearcats have one of those marquee non-con games Hoard was referring to this Saturday.
"It's been quite awhile since we've gone on the road," Fickell said Tuesday. "Last year, there were one or two road games, but not a single game where there was any type of hostile crowd or any type of environment where you had to handle being on the road.
"The great thing about college football is you have everything back and for us to go play a really, really, really good Indiana team, that we've been talking about since the summer, how we will handle that will be a big deal. A great challenge ahead of us in many different ways."
Fickell has noticed the stability Indiana has built in Bloomington, much like he has done in Cincinnati.
He pointed out that the Hoosiers had a great season last year, and even how they had a solid year in 2019 when they went 8-4 in the regular season before losing to Tennessee in the Gator Bowl.
"It's a program that has continued to build," Fickell said. "When I say a program, programs are guys that have consistency. What Tom has done there is really build some consistency year in and year out, at least the past three years."
Much how like Allen has "LEO" as a slogan for Indiana football and comes up with one word each week for the team — this week for Cincinnati the Hoosiers' one word is "seize" — Fickell and the Bearcats also have a saying for this season.
The mantra for Cincinnati this season is "let if fly," with the mindset to be unafraid to go out and accomplish what they hope to do this season.
"No hesitation. Back to the hakuna matata, right? No worries," Fickell said. "There's so much that goes on in a football game. There's so much preparation for every game because it's so critical because you only get a guaranteed twelve games. When you get those opportunities, when you actually go and take the field, the preparation is over. You still do some in games, but you can't have hesitation. You gotta believe in what you've done, how you prepared and now you gotta let it fly."
Two rising programs. Two rising head coaches. Two teams with big expectations in 2021. Their paths took shape at around the same time, and now these two programs meet for the first time under such high stakes this Saturday in Bloomington.
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