Luke Fickell and Cincinnati's fight for the 2021 College Football Playoff and beyond

CINCINNATI -- Luke Fickell isn't much for the stage, at least not the theatrical sort.

His stage growing up was the wrestling mat, where he won 106 straight matches at St. Francis DeSales High School in Columbus, Ohio. So forgive him if he's about style and frills the way the Wicked Witch of the West is about water.

The same goes for his unbeaten Cincinnati football team, which is doing its best to crash the College Football Playoff party this season in a system that's been called everything from exclusive to snooty to downright rigged.

The Bearcats insist they're undaunted by what many claim is a stacked deck against non-Power 5 teams when it comes to determining college football's national champion. Spend a little time with the laser-focused Fickell, and it doesn't take long to figure out that's not just lip service, either.

"We don't need to be somebody we're not," Fickell told ESPN. "We said at the beginning of the year that we have to be who we are, meaning we can't try to live up to somebody else's standards. We can't let somebody else define what's a success to us. We know what's a success to us, and we're not going to change. You get into that world of trying to live up to all those things on the outside, and it's going to be impossible."

The vibe last week among Cincinnati fans was a tad different, as they basked in the spotlight of ESPN's College Football GameDay visit to campus and did a little (OK, a lot) of venting in the process. The emotions were all over the map from excitement to tension to -- yes -- anger.

One of the countless signs in the crowd read: Can a Top 5 team loan us a quality loss?

It was the kind of scene usually reserved for Tuscaloosa, Alabama or Norman, Oklahoma or right up the road in Columbus, Ohio. Thousands of fans poured down Clifton Avenue onto campus, and over and over again, they repeated a version of the same question.

"If we go unbeaten again, with the best win of anybody in the Top 5, how can they keep us out of the playoff unless it's just an invitational and not a legitimate playoff?" asked longtime Cincinnati fan Walt Horvath of Dayton, Ohio.

Horvath was standing about a 60-yard Desmond Ridder touchdown pass from the epicenter of the College GameDay festivities and, along with his son Blake Horvath and friend Will Sayer, all season-ticket holders, went back and forth over the different scenarios that would create the best pathway to the playoff for the Bearcats.

"I still think we've got a good chance," Sayer said. "We need Alabama and some teams to lose, but we're one of the best four teams out there."

Fickell is too consumed with coaching his football team to go anywhere near that debate -- even if his Bearcats are squarely in the middle of that debate -- but he's also not naive. The father of six and lifelong Ohioan knows precisely what's at stake these new few weeks as the college football season hits its most exciting (and most unpredictable) stretch.

The Bearcats, No. 5 in the CFP's latest rankings, don't have the luxury of a mulligan like some of the teams ahead of them as they try to stay unbeaten Friday night on the road against South Florida (6 p.m. ET, ESPN2). They need to be perfect, maybe even better than perfect in terms of how they win, and then may need some help if they're going to become the first Group of 5 team to make the playoff.

"If we continue to have one-point victories, when it's all said and done, then I'll pound the table," said Fickell, who admittedly would prefer to have a root canal, maybe even two root canals, over having to take on the role of a lobbyist.

"If they don't want us, they don't want us. What else can you do? We've all not been invited to a party at some point in time."

Plus, Fickell has seen too many weird things happen in November and too many twists and turns in the game of football to get caught up in where his Bearcats are ranked right now. For that matter, the unveiling of the rankings every Tuesday night is not a part of his viewing pleasure, as if anything is outside of practice tape, recruiting tape or tape on upcoming opponents.

"I've even challenged our guys to put their phones down when they're in the (football) building," Fickell said. "You've just got to let your mind rest."

His players, many of whom have been around for each sweat-soaked step of Cincinnati's transformation, have taken on their coach's approach.

"Winning the game is what drives us every week, not any of the other stuff," said senior linebacker Darrian Beavers, whose forced fumble at the goal line preserved a 28-20 win over Tulsa last week. "We'll keep focusing on winning, and things will be fine."

Clearly, the CFP committee places a premium on how a team wins and who those wins are against. Three of the teams ahead of Cincinnati in the latest rankings have one loss, and the Bearcats have looked pedestrian in their last three wins, most recently needing two late goal-line stands to hold off the Golden Hurricanes.

But is there a double standard? Mike Aresco, the American Athletic Conference commissioner, certainly thinks so and blasted the committee in a letter to ESPN this week. He suggested that only Cincinnati is being penalized for close wins.

"(Power 5) conference teams are given the benefit of doubt because of their brand names," Aresco wrote. "If Cincy goes undefeated, they should not need any help to make the playoff."

One thing's for sure: The Cincinnati fans are ready for a fight if their beloved Bearcats are spurned for a second straight season after finishing No. 8 in the final CFP rankings a year ago and not even getting a sniff from the committee.

"The excuse last year was we didn't play anybody, and (committee chairman) Gary Barta is trying to use that again this year," Walt Horvath said. "How many teams have a win on the road like we do against Notre Dame? All you hear is a bunch of excuses about why we shouldn't be in."

Graduate student Hope Wulliger, adorned in a black Cincinnati jersey and red toboggan, had her dog, Louis, with her among the mass of fans at GameDay. Louis, who just turned 1, was wearing his own Bearcats scarf, but Wulliger joked that he was none too happy at the release of the first rankings when Cincinnati was No. 6.

"He barked a little bit and was a little restless in his sleep that night," Wulliger said.

Fickell, in his fifth season at Cincinnati, is restless every week, and that has nothing to do with the rankings. He acknowledges that he doesn't allow himself to enjoy the ride enough and even chastised his players for not celebrating more in the locker room after the Tulsa win.

"We gotta be able to relax a little more," Fickell said. "I keep saying, 'Be who we are.' (The Tulsa win) was a little bit more of who we are. I'm not saying we want to give up those rushing yards (297), but finding a way when it comes down to it."

At some point, fairly or unfairly, winning "ugly" may catch up to Cincinnati. The Bearcats trailed two-win Navy before winning 27-20. They led 14-12 over one-win Tulane at halftime before pulling away in the second half and held on to beat three-win Tulsa, which ran eight plays inside the 12-yard line in the final three minutes and was kept out of the end zone.

"A lot of what keeps our locker room so strong is going out there and playing with a chip on our shoulder, being tough, scrappy, annoying and just never stopping," said sixth-year senior linebacker Joel Dublanko, who goes all the way back to Tommy Tuberville's last season at Cincinnati in 2016.

"We're the ones getting everybody's best shot now. I like to say that we've been forged through fire together, and that's just going to make us that much more equipped for whatever we face the rest of the way."

Fickell, who made 50 career starts at nose tackle for Ohio State, is one of those guys who hangs onto the losses. He lost four wrestling matches as a freshman in high school before reeling off 106 straight wins. He still remembers the names of every wrestler that beat him as a freshman.

Likewise, nobody needs to remind him that three of his four seasons as a player at Ohio State ended in a loss to bitter rival Michigan.

"Three times we were undefeated going into the Michigan game and got beat all three times," said Fickell, the pain of those losses evident in his face all these years later. "You lose the last one, and it's very, very difficult. From 18 to 22 years of age, that's the world I lived in. You're winning, winning, winning ... and then bam.

"You start looking at the prize at the end of the tunnel, and it can happen."

That's why the only prize Fickell ever mentions with his Cincinnati team is that next game. And when he says winning is winning, he knows from experience.

In 2002, Fickell's first season as an assistant coach at Ohio State under Jim Tressel, the Buckeyes finished 14-0 and won the national championship. They won four games that season in the final minutes of the game, including three wins over unranked foes in which they were fortunate to escape. Ironically enough, one of those wins came over Cincinnati, 23-19, in Week 4.

"It's not easy wherever you are," Fickell said. "You get down the stretch, and from the injuries and all the different stuff that's going on, it's very, very difficult."

And the worst thing that can happen, especially with a team like Cincinnati that doesn't have any margin for error, is looking around at what's going on elsewhere in college football.

"I don't. Maybe that's ignorance," Fickell said. "I know there's noise, but I don't get caught up in looking at any of that. I'm not sure I do a good enough job of making sure the guys don't, either, because it's so far out of my mind knowing how hard it is to win every week."

The one thing Fickell is a stickler about when it comes to the "Power 5 vs. Group of 5" conversation is that he doesn't allow the "Power 5" word to be used in the Cincinnati football complex.

"As coaches and as players, I didn't want us to feel like we are a younger brother, stepchild, whatever or to be able to use it as an excuse," said Fickell, who doesn't even want the word "budget" used in front of his kids.

"It becomes a crutch, and we're not going to allow that to happen."

When a coach pumps life into a program the way Fickell has, there oftentimes is a price for that success for the school, as in other coaching opportunities coming his way. Fickell turned down the Michigan State head coaching job two years ago and has had other opportunities along the way. He's certain to get a few more, particularly with so many attractive openings this year.

The job Cincinnati fans need to worry about most is USC. Mike Bohn, the current USC athletic director, hired Fickell at Cincinnati, and Fickell is the kind of coach -- with his blend of toughness, recruiting prowess and experience at a fish bowl like Ohio State -- that could restore USC to its past glory.

"There's always going to be that concern when you do well that someone is going to come steal your coach," longtime fan and Cincinnati graduate Ryan Harder said. "Luke Fickell might be that guy who stays. I thought that about Brian Kelly, too, but I do think (Fickell) understands what he's building here."

Weighing in Cincinnati's favor is the Bearcats' upcoming move to the Big 12 for the 2024 season, which may come earlier as part of this latest round of expansion. There's also the family component for Fickell and his wife Amy. The only time he's ever lived outside the state of Ohio was for a year and a half when he was on the New Orleans Saints' roster.

"Everybody else has an opinion, just like everybody thinks what our team should look like and how you should win," Fickell said. "Well, for your professional career, everybody has an opinion, too. They all think you should do this, and if you have an opportunity to go here, then you should do it or that you would have a better chance to do this there.

"I'm more, 'How do you know who we really are or what we really want as a family?'"

What any coach wants is the opportunity to keep growing and a school committed to reinvesting in the program.

"To me, that's the thing about this place," Fickell said. "You can continue to grow in your program and all different kinds of things, and not just winning, which is what is so intriguing. It's not just a great place to live for your family and all those things, but as a professional, can you keep growing? And you can do that here."

The Bearcat Nation, which packed Nippert Stadium last Saturday with College GameDay in town, is convinced that growth can expand to being a perennial playoff contender.

Even if it takes a blank check.

Matt Speck, a fifth-year engineering student, showed up last week carrying an oversized blank check made out to the CFP playoff committee.

"Sometimes it takes a little more money," Speck cracked. "All schools like Alabama and their boosters have their blank check. I figured I would bring mine. It's ridiculous what they're trying to do to us."

What's not ridiculous is a Cincinnati resume' over the past few years that includes a 19-1 record dating to the end of the 2019 season. The Bearcats are the only team with a double-digit win over a CFP Top 10 team this season (24-13 at Notre Dame), and their only loss over the last two seasons was to Georgia in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl a year ago when the Dawgs won 24-21 on a 53-yard field goal with three seconds to play.

Georgia was missing some key players in that game, but Cincinnati was also missing star cornerbacks Ahmad Gardner and James Wiggins as well as leading rusher Gerrid Doaks.

"We want Georgia," Sayer said last week between sips of a cold beverage. "People forget that we were right there with them last year, and they are clearly the best team this year with basically the same defense, a defense people are saying is one of the best ever.

"That should tell you right there that we belong."