CINCINNATI -- We hear all the time about this or that contest being a "big game" for some college football team. But it's not too often that a team can definitively say the next date on the schedule is the biggest game in the history of its program.
That's what Cincinnati has on the docket this week. There's really no precedent for what the 19th-ranked Bearcats can accomplish this weekend. If they beat No. 20 Pittsburgh on Saturday, they will be the Big East champions unless they somehow stub their toe at home against Syracuse the following week. The school had some nice teams in the 1950s under Sid Gillman, but winning the Mid-American Conference doesn't really compare to going to a BCS game.
"It's definitely the biggest game in UC history," senior defensive end Connor Barwin said. "I don't see how you could say it isn't.
"Everybody's jumped on the bandwagon and people are excited around campus. Nippert Stadium is going to be as exciting as it's ever been. I'm pumped to see what it's going to be like. The Bengals haven't been doing so good this year, so we've even got some Bengals fans behind us now."
Cincinnati (8-2, 4-1 Big East) is entering what Brian Kelly called "unchartered territory." But the coach says this should be just the beginning for the Bearcats.
"There's no reason why this shouldn't be the largest crowd in the history of Nippert Stadium -- right now," he said. "We don't want this to be the end of where we are, relative to attendance. We see this thing growing as we continue to do this, as the stadium increases and the fan size increases. This is just the start. We want to see how high we can go."
Kelly said he wants Cincinnati fans to come to view this as "old hat," that the team will be competing for conference championships late in November from here on out. First, though, it must take care of business, and remember to treat this as a normal game.
The Bearcats are coming off three straight emotional victories. First they beat South Florida at home on a Thursday night ESPN game. Then they went to West Virginia and held on in overtime to beat the Mountaineers for the first time in league play. Last week, they withstood some sloppy weather conditions and a second-half deficit in Louisville to snap a five-game losing streak in the Keg of Nails rivalry.
Now comes Pittsburgh, which has never lost to Cincinnati in seven tries, including three Big East contests. The Panthers had last week off to rest and prepare, while the Bearcats have been through the meat grinder, playing five of their last seven games away from home. Kelly said his team was a little "road-weary" at Louisville last week. But he expects them to have plenty left in the tank for this game, and he's talked to them about staying on an even keel.
"We're keeping poised and not trying to be as rushed up," wide receiver Dominick Goodman said. "We're eager to play but we want to stay focused until gametime comes and then let all our emotions out."
Kelly sure seemed loose on Tuesday. He came to his news conference wearing a brand new, XXL red fleece pullover, piggybacking off Cincinnati's request that all fans wear red at Nippert this weekend. He promised the pullover to whichever reporter asked the best questions, then took it off and handed it over to Cincinnati Enquirer beat reporter Bill Koch midway through the session.
This is a team that's confident in itself, believes it can achieve things Cincinnati has never done before. That comes from senior leadership and Kelly's self-assured manner.
"Last year, we thought there was one team that was more talented than us, and that was West Virginia," Kelly said. "The only way we were going to catch them is if we got stronger physically in the offseason, and I thought our kids did a great job closing that gap.
"I think, in the Big East, our kids can go out now and feel comfortable that they can compete against anybody."
Their next competition will be the biggest game in the history of the program. Win that, and even bigger things will come.
"Everybody's just so happy that we're at this stage," Goodman said. "People wouldn't think the Cincinnati Bearcats would be on this rise, but it's happening."