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No. 8 Cincinnati: Luke Fickell, Desmond Ridder are leading Bearcats to new heights

Cincinnati Bearcats head football coach Luke Fickell and quarterback Desmond Ridder have helped the school rise to the top of the Group of Five programs across the country. Ridder has won more games as a starting quarterback than any other quarterback in the country. Fickell, a former Ohio State assistant, is a two-time AAC coach of the year.

CINCINNATI — Often times one decision can change everything. In the case of the Cincinnati football program, it was two decisions that ultimately set off a domino effect to unprecedented success.

In May 2016, Desmond Ridder, a lanky junior quarterback at St. Xavier High School in Louisville, Kentucky, committed to play for the Bearcats.

Seven months later, following Tommy Tuberville's dismissal after four seasons, longtime Ohio State assistant Luke Fickell also committed to the Bearcats, becoming Cincinnati's 42nd head football coach.

Both Ridder and Fickell were simply seeking an opportunity. For Fickell, it was another opportunity to lead a program. For Ridder, it was an opportunity to play quarterback at the Division I level and at a school that wasn't too far from home.

"First and foremost, it was only like an hour and a half away. My mom told me to stay within six hours. So I made her happy with that," Ridder said.

Ridder and Fickell's commitment to the Bearcats have resulted in back-to-back 11-win seasons, a 9-1 campaign that was one three-point loss to Georgia in the Peach Bowl away from perfection, and a 2021 season that will kick off Sept. 4 with expectations that have never been higher at Cincinnati.

"When we finished last year, we were in that top 10 (No. 8 in the final College Football Playoff Rankings)," said Fickell, who is entering his fifth season at Cincinnati. "I would say what we've got coming back, with a guy like Desmond Ridder, we're a top 10 team. We've got to play and we've got to prove it, but in order to be a top 10 program, you've got to do things over a period of time. You've got to set a different standard. And top 10 programs don't take big dips and dives."

Cincinnati head coach Luke Fickell is dunked by a Gatorade bath by Bearcats offensive lineman Chris Ferguson in the closing seconds of the Birmingham Bowl on Jan. 2, 2020. The Bearcats beat Boston College 38-6.

Consistent excellence is now the standard at Cincinnati. Fickell, a two-time American Athletic Conference Coach of the Year (2018, 2020), has solidified himself as one of the top coaches in the country. Ridder, the 2020 AAC offensive player of the year, could be the Bearcats' first first-round pick in the NFL draft in more than 40 years next spring.

But before they became the faces of the top Group of Five team in the country (Fickell, Ridder and the Bearcats don't use the terms "Group of Five" or "Power Five"), their journey together started in 2017, when Cincinnati went 4-8 in Fickell's debut season with the Bearcats and Ridder never saw the field.

After Fickell and offensive coordinator Mike Denbrock vowed to honor the scholarship Ridder received from Tuberville and then-Cincinnati offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Zac Taylor (now head coach of the Cincinnati Bengals), Ridder redshirted his freshman year, sitting behind starter Hayden Moore.

"I was just trying to soak it all in," Ridder said. "Seeing the speed of the game, seeing how Hayden thinks, and how the coaches communicate on the sidelines and everything in between plays."

As Ridder was trying to adjust to the speed of college football, Fickell was trying to adjust to having his own program again. Fickell, then 44 years old, said it was harder than he ever imagined. Harder than even the 2011 season, when Fickell was the interim head coach at his alma mater, Ohio State, after his mentor, Jim Tressel, resigned. The Buckeyes went 6-7 that season and ended the year on a four-game losing streak.

"The reality is I was swimming," Fickell said of his first season at Cincinnati. "My head was spinning more than his (Ridder's) head was spinning. (I was) trying to figure out what it is we need to do, where we need to go.

"We had some good football players, but we had a really poor football team. I don't know if there's a better way of coming together and creating a culture and an environment of winning other than sometimes having to go through some tough things. So if there's anything I learned from that first year, it would be this is a really, really tough job, and I mean as a player and as a coach. To find a way to be successful and to win, it's going to take an incredible amount of work."

Cincinnati quarterback Desmond Ridder raises his hands as the fourth quarter begins during last season's Peach Bowl against Georgia. Ridder is 30-5 as a starter, making him the winningest quarterback in college football heading into this season.

After grabbing Fickell's attention as the starting quarterback on the scout team as a true freshman, Ridder beat out Moore for the starting job the following year. Ridder went on to throw for 2,445 yards, 20 touchdowns and five interceptions and run for 583 yards and five more scores en route to leading the Bearcats to an 11-2 record and earning 2018 AAC rookie of the ear.

"He proved to a lot of us, not just us as coaches, but I think he proved a lot to his teammates, which makes him the leader that he is today," Fickell said.

After going 11-3 in 2019, completing back-to-back 11-win seasons for the first time since 2008-09, the Bearcats needed Ridder's leadership more than ever. As the team dealt with the challenges of the global pandemic last spring and summer, Fickell took a backseat and let Ridder and other team leaders guide the group as it sorted through the impact of social justice issues following the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and others.

The team also had to decide if it even wanted to play given the health and safety concerns surrounding COVID-19.

"Coach Fick always has an open door policy up in his office," Ridder said. "How many people take advantage of that? I don't know. But I'm one of those guys who will pop up in there every once in a while and just sit down and have a talk. ... He put a lot on me. ... Going into camp, we put together a leadership group and a social injustice group to really get the feeling of what the whole team feels."

The team's decision was to play, and Cincinnati played better than any Group of Five team in the country.

The Bearcats' defense, led by a host of players including defensive end Myjai Sanders and cornerback Ahmad "Sauce" Gardner, again dominated. The unit led the AAC in rushing defense, scoring defense and total defense in 2020. Cincinnati was fourth in the country in fewest yards per play allowed, third in pass efficiency and had the top touchdown-interception ratio (7-16) in the nation.

"Being able to go against obviously the No. 1 defense every day makes it a lot easier for me to come out the next year and play a lot faster than what I would have," Ridder said.

The 6-4, 215-pound right-hander passed for 2,296 yards and 19 touchdowns against six interceptions in 2020, while rushing for 592 yards and 12 more scores, the most rushing touchdowns by an FBS quarterback last season.

Ridder, who is 30-5 as a starter, will open the 2021 season as the winningest quarterback in college football.

While Fickell leaned on Ridder last summer, it will be Ridder who will lean on Fickell this time around. Ridder and his longtime girlfriend, Claire Cornett, welcomed their first child, a daughter, Leighton Elizabeth, in April. As Ridder learns how to assemble cribs, change diapers and fasten car seats, he often seeks advice from Fickell. After all, fatherhood isn't new to the 47-year-old coach. He and his wife, Amy, have six kids, or, according to Amy, she has seven -- six and her husband.

"I've given a lot of advice. I'm not sure if it's good advice," Fickell said. "... My advice to him is to come on over and see what it's like to be complete chaos. Because when you're man-to-man, you're OK. You've got one (child), you've got two. It's when you've got to start playing zone is when things really become chaotic. Know what you want and are doing before you get to that zone concept. I try to put it in football terms."

After another offseason where Fickell was wooed by larger programs but elected to stay at Cincinnati, and Ridder deciding in January to wait for the NFL and stay in school for "one last ride" with the Bearcats after leading them to their first AAC championship in December, there's really only one focus this season. It's the same focus Fickell had when he took the job at Cincinnati more than four years ago.

"Play for championships," Fickell said. "It doesn't change. And I think that's what you want it to be. I think if you put something else ahead of it, then your mind gets distracted. ... Our philosophy in how we're going to recruit is not going to change. Our philosophy on how we treat the players and the relationships we build with them (is not going to change). Why would our philosophy change based on what an expectation is from an outsider?"

Our preseason Top 25

For the last 12 years, the American-Statesman's sports staff has spent July breaking down our own preseason Top 25 rankings. Last year's eventual College Football Playoff semifinalists ranked first, second, third and ninth in our 2020 poll.

Our previous Top 25 team stories:

No. 25 Ole Miss: Rebels are hoping, banking on good returns from Lane Kiffin 3.0

No. 24 Washington: Huskies' Morris looks like the quarterback to run with — for now

No. 23 Louisiana: Billy Napier could be college football's next big thing (if he wants that)

No. 22 Penn State: Nittany Lions' safeties honed their craft at Lackawanna

No. 21 Oklahoma State: The next Gundy (Gunnar) begins his Cowboys career

No. 20 Iowa: Hawkeyes' Dane Belton knows path to NFL goes through team's success

No. 19 Coastal Carolina: Ready or not, the Chanticleers intend to stay awhile

No. 18 Texas: Bijan Robinson looks ready to carry the load for Longhorns

No. 17 Wisconsin: Spirited spring helped Badgers bond, players say

No. 16 Miami: Manny Diaz seems intent on building Hurricanes from local talent

No. 15 Oregon: Ducks' program is now  reaching recruiting, NFL draft high marks

No. 14 LSU: Questions that Tigers have taken with them this summer

No. 13 Indiana: Texas A&M transfer Camron Buckley gives Hoosiers another weapon

No. 12 USC: All signs are pointing up for Trojans, making it sunny again in California

No. 11 Florida: Gators have holes to fill, but already sounding confident

No. 10 North Carolina: Tar Heels' Sam Howell managing the hype, expectations