Notre Dame 2021 Schedule Countdown: No. 5, Cincinnati
This is the eighth in our 12-part series where we count down Notre Dame’s 2021 strength of schedule by how we view the degree of difficulty, from 12 to one. At No. 5 is the Oct. 2 home contest with Cincinnati.
Head Coach: Luke Fickell — 41-21 (.674) overall in five seasons as head coach.
Entering 5th season at Cincinnati, where he is 35-14 (.714)
Fickell was 6-7 in his one season as the interim coach at Ohio State (2011).
Recruiting Rankings 2017-21: 2017 (63rd), 2018 (47th), 2019 (89th), 2020 (39th), 2021 (37th)
2020 Record: 9-1
For the second time in their history, the Bearcats finished with an unbeaten regular season (9-0), earning a bid to a New Year’s Six Bowl (Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl), where it lost to a short-handed Georgia team 24-21 on a 53-yard field goal with three seconds left.
Seven of the nine regular-season games played were at Cincinnati’s Nippert Stadium, including the American Athletic Conference (AAC) Championship, a 27-24 victory against No. 23-ranked Tulsa that saw Cole Smith convert a 34-yard field goal as time expired.
The only two road games were a 42-13 romp over No. 16 SMU on Oct. 24, and a Nov. 21 conquest of conquest of Central Florida (36-33), who Cincinnati has succeeded as the top Group of Five Program in the country. After the win over UCF, the Bearcats did not play again for three weeks, or until the AAC title game Dec. 19, because of coronavirus issues.
The only other unbeaten regular season at Cincinnati, of course, was in 2009 under head coach Brian Kelly, who parlayed that 12-0 outcome into getting hired at Notre Dame.
Did You Know …
Cincinnati did not finish ranked in the Associated Press poll, which began in 1936, until 2007 under first-year head coach Kelly — No. 17 with a 10-3 record. The Bearcats then finished No. 17 again in 2008 (11-3) and No. 8 in 2009 (12-1) with Kelly.
In fact, had Texas not converted a 46-yard field goal as time expired for a 13-12 win over Nebraska in the Big 12 Championship to put the Longhorns in the BCS Championship versus Alabama, Kelly’s troops were next in line for the title game, which he would have coached instead of accepting the Notre Dame post on Dec. 9 of that season.
Since Kelly’s departure after the 2009 regular season, Cincinnati has finished in the top 25 four more times, notably each of the last three under Fickell. His 31-6 run the past three seasons has been comparable to Kelly’s 33-6 output from 2007-09. The Bearcats finished No. 24 in 2018 (11-2), No. 21 in 2019 (11-3) and No. 8 last year (9-1), matching the highest finish in 2009.
2021 Capsule Summary
Two new assistants were brought aboard by Fickell, notably Mike Tressel — nephew of former Ohio State head coach Jim Tressel — as the defensive coordinator after Marcus Freeman was hired this winter by Notre Dame to succeed Clark Lea. Under Freeman, the Bearcats led the AAC in scoring defense three straight years and were 8th nationally last year (16.8 points per game).
Darren Paige from Eastern Michigan also will now instruct the running backs under offensive coordinator Mike Denbrock — who coached for Kelly at Notre Dame from 2010-16 — succeeding Dan Enos, the new offensive coordinator at Maryland.
Cincinnati is expected to maintain its hold on its status as the nation’s top Group of 5 team, and is ranked No. 11 in ESPN’s “way-too-early” 2021 preseason poll. Eight starters return on offense, seven on defense, plus kicker Smith.
Headlining the offense is senior dual-threat quarterback Desmond Ridder, the AAC Offensive Player of the Year who has accounted for 6,905 yards passing (66.2 completion rate last year) and 1,814 rushing, including 12 touchdowns last year, during his career. The offense averaged 6.7 yards per play last season with him as the catalyst.
The line must need to find a couple of tackles but the backfield returns former Alabama transfer Jerome Ford, who rushed for 483 yards and 6.6 yards per carry in 2020 at Cincinnati. The receiving corps is well-balanced, with Notre Dame grad transfer Michael Young setting the pace after leading the Bearcats with 29 catches last year for 332 yards and three scores.
Defensively, safety is the primary concern, but Ahmad Gardner is one of the nation’s premier corners, and end Myjai Sanders displayed his playmaking skills last season with 10.5 tackles for loss, seven sacks and five passes defended. The Bearcats also add 295-pound Virginia grad transfer Jowon Briggs to the interior.
Why No. 5 In Countdown
A strong case can be made that the Bearcats should be even higher because of a winning culture that has been developed, quality coaching and a fourth-year starter at quarterback who is one of the nation’s premier dual threats.
Furthermore, after playing Indiana on Sept. 18, Cincinnati has a bye before traveling to Notre Dame Oct. 2. Meanwhile, the Irish have a huge showdown with Wisconsin in Chicago the week before hosting Fickell’s troops. The Freeman angle also makes this an intriguing matchup.
Still, Notre Dame has recruited at an appreciably higher level, and the Irish have been superb at home the past three years. We look for them to be at least a touchdown favorite, depending on how the first month, especially versus Wisconsin, transpires.
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