It is an overstatement to say Cincinnati is facing a must-win at Tennessee on Saturday.
But one way to get back some of the national attention that was lost in a disappointing 2010 is to beat an SEC team on the road. Everybody in the program knows that.
"It's an opportunity for our program to get our name out there on a national level so we can play with other teams that aren’t just in the Big East," linebacker JK Schaffer said. "We are not only going out on a national stage and representing our team, we’re representing our city, representing our conference. We have a lot of pride in the Big East conference. The Big East doesn’t get the most respect so that gives us a little bit of a chip on our shoulders to beat those SEC teams and get the Big East on the map."
Cincinnati has blared "Rocky Top" all week to help prepare the players for the atmosphere at Neyland Stadium, where over 100,000 fans will be in attendance. This might be the biggest stadium Cincinnati players have ever played in, but many of the Bearcats do have big-game experience.
Seniors like Schaffer and quarterback Zach Collaros played in the Sugar Bowl to end the 2009 season, and were a part of BCS teams. So they know what it means to be in big games. Schaffer hopes that will help, especially since 25 players will be making their first road trip.
"All the seniors, a lot of us played in Orange Bowl our freshman year. The Sugar Bowl, a lot of us started," Schaffer said. "We've played in a lot of big games and that’s going to help us. It’s not our first rodeo. It won’t be the nervous jitters that a lot of players get when they play in those first big games. That will help us a lot. We’ll be able to just worry about the game itself and not the environment and all the external factors that don’t directly affect a football game."
The game also is a huge test for the Cincinnati defense, which struggled last season. The Bearcats had problems getting a consistent pass rush going, and gave up way too many big plays in the secondary. With nearly every returning starter back, coach Butch Jones has said throughout fall camp that he expects this group to be much better because they are more experienced and more comfortable in the system.
Still, Tennessee presents some matchup problems. The Vols have much bigger receivers than the Cincinnati defensive backs, and the offensive line is one of the biggest they will face this season. Jones also said they have more depth and speed than they are used to seeing.
Turnovers could play a critical role. That is an area Cincinnati emphasized this offseason after going minus-15 in turnover margin in 2010. The Bearcats had five in the opener against Austin Peay, a good start to the season. But a win over Tennessee would obviously make this a great start to the season.
“When you go in and play a team like Tennessee that has great tradition, great backing and great fan support, it adds credibility to what you’re doing," Jones said. "We can’t get ahead of ourselves. They’re a very talented football team with a lot of skill players. They play with a great toughness. It’s going to be a great challenge. Our players are looking forward to it. I’m looking forward to it because it’s a great measuring stick for where we need to grow as a program. When you play a program like Tennessee, there is a lot of credibility behind that name.”