I’m not so much of a proponent of new year’s resolutions as I am a believer in new year’s goals, mainly because there’s less self-loathing involved in falling short of a goal than there is when a promise gets broken.
So, I’ve set some personal goals for 2022, most of which I won’t meet, many of which are entirely unimportant, and aside from a handful, the majority of which are either too uninteresting or inconsequential to anyone outside of me and the close circle of people I’ll choose to share them with.
But one goal I don’t mind sharing is that I would like to write with greater frequency in the new year. More than likely, what I try to write will be posted on this silly radio station website, but perhaps I can convince another outlet to let me populate their space with my typed-out drivel. I have ceased contributing to The Athletic, not because I no longer want to contribute to The Athletic or because anyone from The Athletic has expressly informed me that I will no longer be contributing to The Athletic, but because, well, the people there sort of just stopped saying yes to my ideas, and honestly, anyone who peruses my three and a half years’ worth of contributions to that amazing publication would find no blame in someone wanting those contributions to cease.
So here I am. Back to filling this space, or at least hoping to, just as I did back when people who ran radio stations cared about what went on their websites., and just as I did in the days when I had no one to help edit my work and diligently streamline my rambling sentences into a few coherent thoughts.
Let’s see how it goes.
I’m writing this while sitting on an airplane that’s on its way to Dallas, where the kind of football game I never thought I’d see the UC Bearcats play in awaits. We’ve known for weeks that the University of Cincinnati will play Alabama in the Cotton Bowl, with its immense stakes needing no explanation.
Yet the time that’s passed since Selection Sunday hasn’t made the experience of preparing to travel to see UC play in a bowl game that carries national title implications seem any less surreal. I’m very, very used to spending time between Christmas and New Year’s traveling to a bowl game that UC is playing in, but I’m not quite as accustomed to many other people caring that much about it.
Since UC’s CFP berth was solidified, I’ve thought often about what those moments just prior to kickoff of New Year’s Eve will be like and how the game’s eventual outcome will do nothing to change how I ultimately remember those moments. For me at least, those moments likely to stir emotions that I’ve only felt a few times as a sports fan. Whatever those emotions are will be based on two different things.
One is the sheer improbability of the Bearcats even getting to this point, and not simply because many of us are old enough to remember how much of an afterthought UC’s football program used to be, but because of how a berth in the national semis represents the confluence of two things that happen that simply don’t happen too often.
Nothing in sports – hell, nothing in life – seems to ever live up to the hype. And while there will be no shortage of attempts to portray this Cincinnati team as a group of plucky upstarts and ragtag overachievers who crept up on the college football world from out of nowhere, the reality is that the 2021 UC football season was ushered in with an unprecedented amount of hype, with expectations for this season starting to ramp up the moment last year’s ended.
Cincinnati was ranked in the top ten of both major preseason polls, they were voted clear favorites to win the American Athletic Conference, their preseason Las Vegas over/under win total was 10, and in the biggest regular season game any UC football team has ever played – on the road at Notre Dame – they were favored to win.
All of this occurred amid chatter – some of it loud, some of it more understated - about the Bearcats’ playoff bona fides if the team ended up being as great as expected.
To get to this point, the Bearcats didn’t just have to run the table and withstand the weekly pressure of chasing perfection, they had to be as good as advertised AND win every game, with no margin for error and with talk of an undefeated season occurring with such frequency and casualness that it was easy to forget not only how hard it is for a college football team to win every game.
Perfection needed some luck. Few accomplishments ever occur without the help of good fortune, and the Bearcats benefitted from an almost eerie amount of outside help. Simply put, the exact scenarios that UC needed to unfold in order to make the playoff, unfolded. Even if it was mostly unsurprising every time a contending team lose, the reality is that few of us spent the season choosing to compute the odds of everything falling into place, not so much because the math was too daunting, but because in sports, much like in life, nothing ever seems happen exactly as we wish.
But for this team, and a fan base conditioned to expecting the worst, it did.
As the Bearcats and Crimson Tide take the field together, I’ll think of how the last few months unfolded and the sheer improbability of it all, but I’ll also remember a late summer night in 2018 when I walked out of the Rose Bowl thinking that I had just seen visual evidence of a program pivoting toward something special.
No, I didn’t giddily ramble on about UC one day making the College Football Playoff that in the aftermath of UC’s comeback win over UCLA in the ‘18 season opener in Pasadena, but I did retreat merrily to my room to write about what I’d seen, which was a team that not only looked different than its most recent predecessors, but that was being carried by young players with deeply promising college football futures.
That improbable victory against the Bruins proved to be the beginning of a slow build that wasn’t without its hiccups that looking back, now seem like they were necessary parts of the process. The first-hand glimpse into what the Bearcats needed to become in 2018. 42-zip in Columbus a little less than a year later. The what-ifs of late 2019. Even the heartbreaking loss in the Peach Bowl.
Despite the setbacks and close-calls, part of the fun of being a UC fan this season has been reaping the payoff from those fleeting bits of pain and watching the people involved with the program pick up, learn, and churn ahead. The result has been a terrific team that's won every game while crashing the playoff party yet without really sneaking up on anyone or typecasting themselves as overnight successes.
And damn, has that been a blast to behold, even if I haven't spent much time writing about it. I'll try to change that in 2022.
Ideally with some help from what happens in Texas on the last day of 2021.
(Thumbnail Photo: Emilee Chinn/Getty)