Cincinnati plays underdog role again

Here it is bowl season, and Cincinnati has exceeded expectations again. Picked to finish fifth in the conference, the Bearcats won a share of the Big East championship.

Picked to finish fifth in 2008, the Bearcats went to the Orange Bowl.

Picked to finish fifth in 2009, the Bearcats went to the Sugar Bowl.

You can see why players and fans feel their program is disrespected. So how did Cincinnati (9-3) react to the fact that it is an underdog to a 6-6 Vanderbilt team headed into the AutoZone Liberty Bowl on Saturday?

"That's every week," defensive tackle Derek Wolfe said in a recent phone interview. "Cincinnati is never considered a favorite."

What is different about this season compared to 2008 and 2009 is the recognition the Bearcats received from league coaches. Wolfe was selected co-defensive player of the year , and running back Isaiah Pead was selected offensive player of the year. They are the first Cincinnati players to win those honors. Butch Jones also was picked Coach of the Year.

Still, Cincinnati players do play with a boulder on their shoulders. There really is nothing new about proving themselves. But there may be an added sense of urgency for the seniors in this bowl game. The Bearcats have not won a bowl game since 2007, and they are Cincinnati is 2-17-1 against SEC teams since 1980. Whether it is fair or not, all other leagues are measured against the SEC. So even wins over .500 teams are considered pretty big.

One player who will have to come up big in the game is Wolfe, who was a second-team All-American in three different publications. Wolfe leads the Big East and ranks sixth nationally with 19.5 tackles for a loss and ranks third in the league and tied for 12th in the FBS with 9.5 sacks. While it was known throughout the league that Wolfe was one of the best interior linemen, he was not on anybody's preseason list for potential defensive player of the year.

"It's a great honor and whenever you work hard something is going to come back for you," Wolfe said. "That's what I always preach to people. I did everything I possibly could to make myself better each and every day."

All that work will eventually pay off with a spot in the NFL. Wolfe is listed as a sleeper pick who could make a nice transition from tackle to end in a 3-4 scheme in the pros. Wolfe already has experience playing on the edge, and said he really enjoys when Cincinnati goes with three down linemen and he is on the end because, "I get a lot of space to work on one guy."

He has one game left to show what he can do, and to get that elusive bowl victory.

"We're just trying to finish strong," he said. "I'd hate to leave with a loss. We're going to play as hard as we possibly can."