CINCINNATI (AP) — Nobody gave Cincinnati much thought heading into coach Luke Fickell's second season since he made the 90-minute drive down Interstate 71 from Ohio State to rebuild a bottoming-out program.
Look at the Bearcats now.
After going 4-8 in consecutive seasons, the Bearcats became one of the nation's best teams last year with one of its least-experienced rosters. They went 12-2, including a win over Virginia Tech in the Military Bowl — Cincinnati's best season since 2009. The Bearcats finished the season at No. 24, the first time they were ranked at the finish since 2011.
The optimism has carried over. With a deep and experienced roster, they're picked to be one of the American Athletic's title contenders.
"Coming off a season like that, finishing like we did with the energy and momentum going into the offseason, I think you saw guys grow," Fickell said.
The Bearcats had one of the nation's five youngest rosters when they opened last season. They had an eye-opening 26-17 victory at UCLA to start the season and put together six straights wins before a loss at Temple.
Where did that come from?
"Everybody wants to always ask: What's the magical thing that happened? What's the one thing that made the biggest difference from year one to year two?" Fickell said. "It's hard to say other than some momentum, some confidence, some things came to fruition that you had been talking about."
The other loss was 38-13 at UCF, the only game in which Cincinnati looked overmatched. Otherwise, it was a steady progression from that opening win on the West Coast.
"You could just see the locker room kind of change in front of your eyes and grow throughout the season," Fickell said.
Some things to watch with the Bearcats in Fickell's third season:
SPOTLIGHT: Although the Bearcats returned to the rankings last season, they remained mostly under the radar. There will be no sneaking up on anyone this time around. How will they respond to being in the spotlight?
"I like being the underdog," tight end Josiah Deguara said. "It's definitely a different mindset coming into it. Last year, we really didn't have a target on us. We know people definitely want to beat us."
CHALLENGING SCHEDULE: The Bearcats open at home against UCLA and at Ohio State, Fickell's previous stop. They also host UCF on Oct. 4, giving them a tough opening stretch of games.
"We've got to be smart knowing the emotions and the energy of the first three, four, five, six games is going to be different — the stages they're going to be on, the energy and emotion it's going to take just to play in those games," Fickell said.
LOADED ON OFFENSE: The quarterback/running back tandem of sophomore Desmond Ridder and junior Michael Warren II is back, along with a deep group of tight ends and receivers. Warren ran for 1,347 yards and a school-record 18 touchdowns. Ridder threw for 20 touchdowns with only five interceptions as a redshirt freshman, winning the league's newcomer award. The coaching staff is trying to keep the expectations for Ridder in check.
"Desmond is a perfectionist," Fickell said. "He wants everything right now. Sometimes it doesn't happen that way."
DEEP DEFENSIVE SECONDARY: Cincinnati lost three members of a line that was the strength of the defense, including tackles Cortez Broughton and Marquise Copeland. The secondary was a strength last season, and looks to be again.
HOME SWEET HOME: Despite their impressive season, the Bearcats had trouble drawing crowds at Nippert Stadium, where fewer than 30,000 showed up for each of the final two games. They're looking for more home-field support from the start.
AP College Football Writer Ralph D. Russo contributed to this report.
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