Cincinnati's chance to climb CFP wall

CINCINNATI -- The first day of possibly one of the most important weeks in Cincinnati football history began in low-key fashion for Tommy Tuberville.

The Bearcats coach propped his feet up on his desk while watching game film from the previous night's surprisingly close 31-24 win over Miami (Ohio). Hank Williams Jr.'s "All My Rowdy Friends" provided the soundtrack.

"It's country-western Sunday," Tuberville told a visitor. "Hank. Merle Haggard. Johnny Cash."

How's this for a Sunday morning wake-up call? Tuberville started his day by picking up a copy of the Cincinnati Enquirer expecting to read about his team's win on Saturday night. Instead, the paper ran a front-page story about Ohio State's historical dominance over in-state programs and whether the Bearcats could do something about it.

"We haven't beaten them in how long?" Tuberville asked his assistants at a staff meeting later on Sunday.

They chirped back: not since 1897.

"That's a long time," Tuberville said, prompting laughter.

The implications of the game are hard to ignore, especially for a program in Cincinnati's current tax bracket. But Tuberville didn't want to turn Saturday night's visit to the Horseshoe into an all-consuming crusade.

"Let's not even talk about Ohio State this week," Tuberville told his assistants Sunday afternoon. "We'll shut media stuff down.

"We've just got to get better. If we win, we win. If not, we move on. And heck, it's not as though they're not beatable. But we can't waste a week on hype."

A loss wouldn't change the trajectory of the Bearcats' season all that much. But an upset victory would force the rest of the nation to take notice of a program that is stranded in a kind of no-man's land.

So yeah, there is going to be talk. And hype. It's up to Cincinnati to make it something more than that.

"People want to say that we're in the American Athletic Conference and it's not a powerful conference," tight end Jake Golic said. "This will be our chance to show that we're contenders."

Family tradition

When conference realignment shifted the tectonic plates of college sports, arguably no program got crushed worse than Cincinnati.

The Bearcats won or shared the Big East title in 2008, '09, '11 and '12 and went to back-to-back BCS bowl games under former coach Brian Kelly. Yet they sat by as former Big East conference mates West Virginia, Pittsburgh, Syracuse, Louisville and -- most painfully -- Rutgers were scooped up by power conferences until no more lifeboats were left. Despite pouring hundreds of millions into its facilities, including an ongoing $86 million update of venerable Nippert Stadium, and its location in a highly populated area and top-35 TV market, Cincinnati found itself on college football's version of a deserted island.

That's why many people scratched their head when Tuberville, who had successful runs at two SEC schools, left Texas Tech two years ago to lead a team with an uncertain conference future.

But Tuberville, whose wife grew up about 30 miles west of Cincinnati, has settled in at the only coaching job he's ever held north of the Ohio River. Unlike at Texas Tech, no one here asks him why his offense isn't as exciting as his predecessor's. Bearcats fans are glad to have someone who might stick around for a while after Mark Dantonio, Kelly and Butch Jones all jumped ship for bigger jobs.

Tuberville's office is full of mementos from his previous stops, but its most noticeable feature might be the two buckets of candy -- one holding Jolly Ranchers, the other red Twizzlers -- serving as a sweet welcome for visitors just inside the front door.

"I like the people here, and I like being in a bigger city," Tuberville said. "I can go down and watch the Reds play, go to festivals in the city. There's always something to do.

"I know we're not in a big conference right now, and we might not ever be. That doesn't bother me. I just like winning games and being around good football."

The head coach is not the only one who has found refuge here. The Bearcats' roster contains seven players who transferred in from Power 5 schools, including standout receiver Mekale McKay (Arkansas), linebacker Jeff Luc (Florida State) and Golic (Notre Dame). Then there's the ultimate wanderer, quarterback Gunner Kiel.

The former blue-chip recruit famously committed to both Indiana and LSU as a high school senior before flipping from the Tigers to Notre Dame a couple of weeks before signing day in 2012. LSU coach Les Miles would later say that Kiel "didn't have the chest" to lead a major program.

Kiel spent a redshirt year in South Bend but didn't feel like he fit in at the school. He also got stuck behind Everett Golson on the Irish depth chart. So he transferred to Cincinnati in 2013, sitting out another year under NCAA transfer rules.

The time off and out of the spotlight seems to have benefited him. Tuberville said Kiel earned the respect of his teammates last year by working long hours in the weight room and on the practice squad, staying quiet and not showing any signs of entitlement. Kiel has made more friends than he had at Notre Dame and has enjoyed the more laid-back, family atmosphere that Tuberville promotes. Kiel said he is "having fun again" with football.

"This is definitely my second family," Kiel said. "They've given me everything I wanted."

At Notre Dame, Kiel hung out mostly with Golic's family. He and Jake Golic are now roommates.

"He's more himself here than he was at Notre Dame," Golic said. "The guy I knew behind closed doors, he's letting that shine up here because he's comfortable in his situation. He's the man here now."

Kiel's long wait to play his first game since 2011 grew even longer, as Cincinnati was the last team in the country to open its season after having byes the first two weeks. But his debut proved worth the delay, as he threw for 418 yards and six touchdowns in a 58-34 blowout of Toledo.

"I knew he'd play pretty well, but I didn't know he'd play like that," Tuberville said. "I told him, 'Man, you've been a myth for three years.'"

Walk the line

Speaking of myths, the Bearcats don't buy into the premise that their conference affiliation holds them back. Two signs bearing the College Football Playoff logo adorn the front of their team meeting room.

"That's everyone's goal around the country, to get to the playoff," linebacker Nick Temple said. "If not, then I feel like you're not a winning program."

Tuberville credits himself for helping bring about the playoff in the first place. He coached Auburn to an undefeated season in 2004, but the Tigers were left out of the BCS national title game. After they won the Sugar Bowl, he told the team, "You've changed college football. The BCS can't overcome this."

But can Cincinnati, or any Group of 5 team, overcome the obstacles blocking its path to a playoff?

"Honestly, there are about 10 to 12 schools that have a chance to get there every year," Tuberville said. "Every now and then, you might have one of us sneak in.

"But when I say 'us,' I mean 60 to 70 percent of even Power 5 schools. This school has been to two BCS bowls. Oklahoma State hasn't done that. Ole Miss hasn't. Has Georgia been to two?

"I think every three or four years, one team outside of the big leagues will make it in. This year, what's to say that BYU can't go? We've got just as much chance as 90 percent of the teams [in the FBS]."

Beating Ohio State could put Cincinnati and East Carolina on a collision course in the American for at least a major bowl bid, if not a long-shot playoff bid.

"I was with Michael Floyd and Golden Tate and Kyle Rudolph and all those guys at Notre Dame," Golic said, "and this is the best receiving corps I've ever been around. We could very easily run the table, with the depth and overall talent we have."

Movin' on

Tuberville earned a reputation as a big-game coach at Auburn, where he routinely knocked off top-five teams. He is also 2-0 versus Urban Meyer, who coincidentally is a Cincinnati graduate.

But on Friday, all Tuberville worried about was Miami (Ohio), a team that had lost 19 straight games overall and nine consecutive to the Bearcats in the Victory Bell series, the second-oldest rivalry in the FBS.

"Games like Ohio State, those are the easy ones as a coach," Tuberville said. "These are the ones that scare you, because Miami is like how we will be against Ohio State. They have nothing to lose and everything to gain."

The game justified Tuberville's fears. The Bearcats were sluggish at the start and lacked the energy they had in their opener. Maybe they were looking past Miami a little bit. Maybe the RedHawks were treating this game as their personal playoff game. Whatever the reason, it took a goal-line stand late in the fourth quarter before the game was decided and was much closer than Tuberville wanted or probably expected.

Players celebrated after the game by ringing the Victory Bell, and Tuberville gave it a clang before beginning his postgame talk in the locker room. He congratulated the team for winning despite not playing all that well until issuing his own alarm bell.

"Things get tougher as we go on," he said. "If we don't learn to run the football, it's going to be a long year. Offensive line, it's on your backs."

Tuberville finished his quick address with a reference to the next game.

"This is going to be a good week this week," he said. "They've had a week off, so we're going to see what they've got."

Ring of fire

All the mistakes from Saturday night are relived and retold in great detail during the Sunday afternoon staff meeting.

Cincinnati coaches gathered around a conference table and munched on bites of fried chicken from Buffalo Wild Wings, offering detailed assessments of their position groups' performance the previous night. Tuberville leaned back in his chair at the head of the table, asking pointed questions and making critical comments between sips of a Diet Mountain Dew. A sample of his critiques:

"Does that guy have a clue? It's like we're playing with 10 when he's out there."

"He's selfish. I'm tired of looking at him. He thinks he's doing us a favor by being out there, but he's not."

"The screen ripped our guts out, and they were just average."

Eddie Gran, the offensive coordinator, agonized over three failed third-down conversions that he said "could have kept the defense from having to do what you did." Tuberville described Kiel, who threw four TDs but also threw two picks and nearly a third, as looking more nervous in the pocket than he had in Game 1.

"His decision-making needs to get better," passing game coordinator Darin Hinshaw concurred. "On the flip side, he made some throws that were unbelievable. I think he experienced some humble pie."

Tuberville was unhappy with some weak spots on his defense. At one point, he turned to the offensive coaches and asked, "Do you have anybody on offense than can go over there? Y'all need to think real hard about that."

Ohio State came up only a few times in the hour-plus meeting. Hinshaw reported that one passing play didn't work against Miami because a receiver told him he couldn't hear the play call over the crowd noise.

"Well, let's not run that one this week at Ohio State," Tuberville said.

After watching the Bearcats' kickoff return team fail to engage its blocks fast enough, Tuberville warned, "That group we'll see this week will be 10 yards farther down the field. We've got to make sure we get on them quicker."

Still, motivational speeches about the Buckeyes weren't on the agenda.

"We ain't gotta worry about getting them jacked up this week," Tuberville said.

True to form, the head coach never said the words "Ohio State" in his first address to the full team later on Sunday. He talked about the need to improve in many areas, including turnovers, especially with "a really good team" on deck. Other than that, he didn't mention the Buckeyes. It wasn't necessary.

"You hear alumni saying we could go 0-11 as long as we beat Ohio State," said Luc, the Florida State transfer who racked up 18 tackles versus Miami. "I'm like, 'You're by yourself on that one.' But that's what the alumni want to see.

"They're the biggest school in Ohio, so who wouldn't want to beat them? It's like the state championship."

More than just state pride is on the line for this merry band of outsiders. Tuberville helped shake up the BCS once and now has his sights set on scaling the College Football Playoff wall. A win in Columbus this week would give Bearcats everywhere a reason to dance on the next country-western Sunday.