Orange Bowl loss shouldn't diminish Cincinnati's season

Posted by ESPN.com's Brian Bennett
MIAMI -- Cincinnati players were understandably down after Thursday night's 20-7 loss to Virginia Tech in the FedEx Orange Bowl.

"Disappointing is maybe not even the right word for it," defensive end Connor Barwin said. "But we're disappointed that we couldn't give the university and this city an Orange Bowl championship and leave on the best note possible.

"It's so sad. We wish we would have played better."

The Bearcats played uncharacteristically messy on their biggest stage, failing to score after their opening drive and turning the ball over four times. But while their moods were sour, the team couldn't remain completely distraught over the Orange Bowl outcome.

Just getting to a BCS bowl was in itself a major accomplishment and a first for the program. Cincinnati won a school-record 11 games this season and its first Big East championship while rising to No. 12 in the final regular-season rankings. Nothing that happened in the postseason can erase that.

"A loss is a loss; it stinks," coach Brian Kelly said. "It's lousy. But does the foundation crack in our program? No. Do the expectations change? Absolutely not. From a big-picture standpoint, the things we want for this program are in place.

"We're on a journey. We're not there yet. But if you keep knocking on that door, if you keep putting yourself in that position, we'll finish the deal. So, yeah, it doesn't feel good to lose, not when you put in as much time as we do. But I'm not going to be jumping off the Fontainebleau tonight."

Orange Bowl result aside, Cincinnati's program has never been in better shape. The school is building new practice fields and an indoor bubble. Nippert Stadium expansion is on the horizon. Most importantly, Kelly has pledged to stick around despite other schools' courtships.

At least 15,000 Bearcats fans attended Thursday's game at Dolphin Stadium, outnumbering Virginia Tech fans. It wasn't that long ago that Cincinnati couldn't convince 15,000 people to come to their home games.

"I've been telling people that it's official: A portable Nippert is a reality," Barwin said. "We're so thankful for that."

Barwin is a senior, so he won't get to be a part of what happens next. Neither will most of the team's defense, which loses 10 senior starters and will need to find key contributors next season. But on offense, the Bearcats return quarterback Tony Pike, who might be the best signal caller in the Big East next year, as well as star receiver Mardy Gilyard, running backs Jacob Ramsey and John Goebel and three offensive linemen. Promising freshmen Isaiah Pead and D.J. Woods should play more vital roles as well.

"It's all about the offseason now," Pike said. "It's about getting with the new receivers, plus [the returning guys] and polishing things up for next year so we can make a run at it."

Cincinnati will also have to maintain its hunger, something Gilyard said shouldn't be hard to do.

"We need to figure out a way to get back to the BCS," he said. "I'm going to make it my personal goal to make sure the team does everything two times as hard. Do all the extra things in the offseason, extra runs, extra workouts. All the elite programs in the country do those things."

The Bearcats haven't reached the elite level, as Thursday's game showed. But that doesn't mean they shouldn't be excited about what happened this year -- and about what's possible in the future.