Cincinnati’s 40-16 loss Thursday to Houston is not an indictment on the Bearcats — not in a vacuum, anyway.
The 24-point Houston margin of victory does not entirely reflect the nature of the contest, as the host Bearcats led in the early fourth quarter on a Hayden Moore touchdown pass to Kahlil Lewis. Even after a Greg Ward Jr. touchdown rush recaptured the advantage for the Cougars, Cincinnati was still very much alive.
Two pick-sixes with Cincy in desperation mode made for a lopsided score, yes. But this was not a blowout, nor an end to the Bearcats’ season. It’s Sept. 17, and an American Athletic East division title is still very much a possibility for this team.
So why does Thursday’s loss feel so demoralizing, at least from this outsider’s perspective?
In a vacuum, it’s a single blemish early into a talented team’s docket. Beyond the vacuum, though, losing by four scores, at home, on national television stands as another example of Cincinnati’s underachievement in recent years.
Houston came to Nippert Stadium sporting a Top 10 record, reigning Peach Bowl champions with a season-opening win over Oklahoma and a Heisman Trophy candidate behind center. The Cougars have ascended to this level in relatively short order.
No, Tom Herman did not make it happen overnight. Despite the disappointment of Tony Levine’s brief tenure, Herman built on the solid foundation established under Art Briles and Kevin Sumlin.
But Houston’s foundation was not so much stronger than Cincinnati’s that the Cougars should be on the precipice of Playoff contention, while the Bearcats plateau. In fact, less than a decade ago, Cincinnati had the more favorable outlook.
The two programs reunited as conference-mates with Houston’s move to the American from Conference USA, a league they shared until 2005, when Cincinnati made the jump to the Big East. Despite having lost Boston College, Virginia Tech and Miami in the years prior, the Big East was then a BCS conference, and certainly higher in the football pecking order than C-USA, where Houston remained for another nine years.
Cincinnati needed just a few years to capitalize on its BCS affiliation, playing its way into the Orange Bowl in 2008, and the Sugar Bowl in 2009. The ’09 Bearcats were just about at the level Houston’s approaching today, threatening to crash the national championship party.
Brian Kelly’s departure for Notre Dame following Cincy’s Sugar Bowl run could have crippled the program altogether. We’ve seen it happen with other programs when a coach leaves for a more prominent position.
UC is anything but crippled in the years since Kelly’s departure, winning a share of conference championships three years since: 2011 and 2012 under Butch Jones, and 2014 under Tommy Tuberville.
The Bearcats weren’t crippled, no. The program’s growth was stunted, however.
Jones’ two conference title-sharing teams did not receive BCS berths, as the nature of those championships was similar to Homer Simpson’s inclusion in the space program: default.
Jones succeeded overall in his time at Cincinnati, but the Bearcats simply struggled to win the big games on their schedule — an issue that’s since followed the coach to his tenure at Tennessee. In 2011, they dropped a home game to West Virginia in mid-November, which effectively earned the Mountaineers’ way into the Orange Bowl before their exit to the Big 12.
The 2012 team fell at Louisville, but would have claimed the Sugar Bowl bid the Cardinals used as a launching pad were it not for a 10-3 home loss a few weeks later to Rutgers. Jones had nothing akin to the thrilling, 2009 UC win over Pittsburgh that sealed the Bearcats’ perfect regular season.
Nevertheless, West Virginia, Louisville and Rutgers all leaving the former Big East should have created a power vacuum for Cincy to fill. Instead, Houston’s moved over from C-USA to seemingly fill it. Navy reached the Top 25, a designation that’s eluded UC for several years now. Temple beat Cincinnati at Nippert Stadium a season ago en route to the East division; a crown USF is the favorite to win in 2016.
Cincinnati didn’t just fail to fill the gap, but has actually regressed under Tuberville.
The unifying theme for programs like Houston under Herman, USF under Willie Taggart and Temple under Matt Rhule: All entrusted high-potential programs in deep recruiting areas to young, up-and-coming coaches.
There’s inherent risk in doing so; namely, that he’ll succeed. UC experienced it with Kelly, whose success set a benchmark for the program as he left for a name brand with more resources and tradition.
However, the same happened at Houston when Briles and Sumlin exited. USF flirted with national relevance last decade, even ascending to No. 2 in the AP Top 25 in 2007 under Jim Leavitt. Temple had a strong run three straight years under Al Golden and Steve Addazio.
With the exception of Temple, however, Houston and USF both had to regress before building back up. The aforementioned Levine era at UH was short-lived, and Skip Holtz never clicked at USF, taking over after Leavitt’s firing.
In that vein, Cincinnati is no different than other programs at the same level. However, Houston and USF cratered. UC’s plateau has been its highest hurdle; how does one justify a dramatic shake-up when the program continues to win with some consistency?
Tuberville’s underachieved at UC, much as he did at Texas Tech, or at Auburn in between the peaks of 2004 and 2006. While you may not know what Tuberville’s doing on the micro level — where has Gunner Kiel been? — you know exactly what you’re getting on the big picture.
That’s a pretty consistent 7-to-9 wins.
Still, Cincinnati feels like a program that, in its current spot, should consistently 10-to-12. The Bearcats should have already reached the heights Houston is at now.
Boosters and fan bases too often chase impossible dreams, sometimes running off good coaches in pursuit of a goal that can’t be reached. Cincinnati’s place now is tenuous, because a change from Tuberville might move the program more toward the lofty potential shown in Kelly’s tenure.
In the same token, a dramatic shift might doom UC to the irrelevancy in which it languished from, oh, every decade from the 1950s until Kelly succeeded Mark Dantonio.
Much like the final score Thursday, the shortcomings of the last few years at Cincinnati might be deceiving. Still, just like Thursday night, it sure looks as though UC football missed opportunities to do something special.