Without playing a single snap, the Cincinnati Bearcats jumped from No. 20 to 13th in the Associated Press Top 25 poll.
Cincinnati can start earning its ranking on the field when it welcomes FCS opponent Austin Peay to Nippert Stadium for a long-awaited season opener for the Bearcats on Saturday.With 16 returning starters, including 13 of the top 15 tacklers from an 11-win team that finished 2019 with an emphatic 38-6 rout of Boston College in the Birmingham Bowl, the Bearcats should battle Memphis for the American Athletic Conference title.
"I'm really excited to get this thing going," Cincinnati coach Luke Fickell said. "It's almost like unwrapping your presents on Christmas."
Austin Peay is 0-2, including a lopsided 55-0 loss at Pitt last week.
Fickell, the former Ohio State defensive coordinator, pondered at one point in the offseason knocking heads with the Buckeyes. Michigan State pursued him hard before Fickell opted to stay in Cincinnati.
Shortly after that decision, COVID-19 shut down the sports world for months. Fickell remains concerned that he could come down with the virus, as he's the father of six school-age children who participate in sports and live under the same roof.
In fact, Fickell has gone so far as to draw up contingency plans should he or staff members contract coronavirus and be forced to quarantine. Defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman would be the head coach if Fickell has to take time off, and there are also scenarios in place if Freeman or offensive coordinator Mike Denbrock are affected by the pandemic.
"I'm hoping we don't have to use them," Fickell told the Cincinnati Enquirer of the scenarios. "I think the great thing is we believe in the guys that are here. And just like the players, if we have somebody go down, somebody else has to step up."
While the Bearcats aim to start their year with a solid performance, the Governors try to end this portion of their schedule with a better effort. A member of the Ohio Valley Conference, which pushed its schedule back to the spring, Austin Peay has already lost to Central Arkansas and Pittsburgh.
Its setback to the Panthers last week at Heinz Field was a brutal mismatch almost from the start. Pittsburgh outgained the Governors 456-137, holding them to one rushing yard and seven first downs.
That game was played with no fans in the stands, as will be the case Saturday. The only people allowed in the seating area will be parents and immediate family of players and coaches.
"It felt very weird without a single fan in the stands," Austin Peay center Blake Mitchell said. "No student section, no parents, just football ... I liked that there were zero distractions."
--Field Level Media