Luke Fickell didn’t downplay the significance of Saturday’s top-10 showdown with No. 9 from Notre Dame.
No. 7 Cincinnati (3-0) is the favorite at Notre Dame Stadium, and this is the crux of the Bearcats’ possible college football Playoffs case. The Irish (4-0) don’t have a conference championship game, so it feels like some sort of elimination game.
“It’s big,” Fickell said at his press conference Tuesday. “We’re not going to lie to you. But once it gets going, you can’t allow all the emotions from all the different things that are happening to affect you and affect the way you do things. What I mean by that is, the emotions during the week that can drain you because you need to be at your best on Saturday. ”
Fickell spent most of that media availability answering questions about training ties on both sides.
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“There are a lot of those kinds of stories in every game, obviously this one is a little different and unique because it’s Notre Dame,” Fickell said.
Cincinnati offensive coordinator Mike Denbrock used to be at Notre Dame with Brian Kelly. Irish defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman used to be with Fickell in Cincinnati. Kelly was the head coach of CIncinnati prior to Notre Dame.
Does that mean that Fickell could one day be Notre Dame’s head coach? This game could be part of that long-term answer.
Kelly isn’t going anywhere, of course. He just surpassed Knute Rockne as Notre Dame’s all-time winning coach with his 106th win. The Irish have made two college football playoff appearances in the past three years, and he will turn 60 on October 25. The Irish are 37-5 since 2018.
Cincinnati is 34-6 on the same streak with Fickell, who has put the Bearcats in the CFP conversation each of the past two years. Trips to UCLA, Michigan, and Ohio State and a Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl appearance against Georgia have been built up to this point, and Cincinnati is the best Group 5 program in the country right now.
The fact that the Bearcats are the favorites says it all.
“When you say top 10 teams, I don’t think we’ve had a situation where we’ve been in this position yet,” Fickell said. “Perhaps the game of bowling was that situation. However, this is what you have dreamed of.”
How long can Fickell keep that dream going in Cincinnati? He turned down an offer in the state of Michigan in 2020. He turned down speculations that he is a candidate for the USC job in 2022. Cincinnati accepted an invitation to join the Big 12 on September 10, and if there is a next move for Fickell , now there is no rush to leave.
Cincinnati remains in a good place. Fickell has used that Ohio recruiting base to build a talented roster, and those class rankings continue to improve with each cycle. The Bearcats could be a regular playoff player in a 12-team format playing from the big 12. That means Fickell is in a good place for the foreseeable future.
So what happens when Kelly finally leaves Notre Dame?
Fickell would be a top contender for a number of reasons dating back to his high school days as a standout at St. Francis DeSales High School in Columbus, Ohio. Some of Notre Dame’s best coaches, Lou Holtz, Ara Parseghian and Kelly to name a few, also had strong coaching ties to Ohio. Fickell understands the “Catholic football” mantra that breaks up team clusters in Rust Belt high schools.
Fickell also played and coached at Ohio State, and was on the field as a home and home player between the Buckeyes and the Irish in 1995-96. He was a coach in bowl game matchups in 2006 and 2016. He used those experiences from the most successful show in the Big Ten and applied them to Cincinnati.
However, those are memories that Fickell said he likes to keep to himself.
Today, Fickell has a chance to win the biggest game of his head coaching career. He said the Bearcats will travel to South Bend, Indiana on Friday and visit the stadium. It’s an opportunity to soak up all that history that comes with playing in one of the holiest places in college football. So all those emotions will be put aside on Saturday. This is the kind of game every coach dreams of, and there’s no better place to show it.
“This is a place I’ve never trained before,” he said. “I was lucky enough to play there, but I have never trained there.”
Saturday will be the first time. Will it be the last?