We have finally reached that point in the Notre Dame Fighting Irish football offseason where we can talk about this year’s opponents without thinking about it all as an event still months away. The conference media days are underway (lol conference things) and camp is just right around the corner. So, we’re dedicating each day (other than Chick-fil-A Day) to Notre Dame’s 2021 opponents, and starting off those days with a quick look preview. Join the conversation in the preview and the editorial in their respective comment section, and/or use the FanPost/FanShot feature to share something more in depth.
Game 5 - Notre Dame vs. Cincinnati
Where: Notre Dame Stadium, Notre Dame, Indiana
When: Saturday, October 2 at 2:30pm ET
How to Watch: NBC
The Cincinnati Bearcats
The Bearcats will come to South Bend on October 2 looking to avenge yet another coach-poaching by the Irish. This offseason saw defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman decamp to South Bend, following in the footsteps of defensive backs coach Mike Mickens and, of course, the head man himself - Dick Corbett Head Football Coach Brian Kelly. Freeman also brought along former Bearcats recruiting director Chad Bowden to serve as an analyst for the Irish, making this year’s harvest a twin killing.
Aside from running an excellent management-training program for future Notre Dame staff members, the ‘Cats have been up to quite a bit in recent years. Despite the challenges they face playing and recruiting outside the Power 5, Cincinnati has consistently run a solid football program with great on-field performance, going 31-6 over the last three seasons and coming within a hair’s breadth of beating the Georgia Bulldogs in last year’s Peach Bowl. They accomplished this despite averaging a #55 national recruiting ranking from 2017-2020, a testament to the program’s achievements in talent development and attractiveness in the transfer portal. Head coach Luke Fickell is widely and deservedly considered one of the hottest up-and-comers in college football, and most Notre Dame fans see him as a prime candidate to continue the Cincinnati-ND pipeline when Brian Kelly retires.
That strong performance should continue into 2021, as the Bearcats return a talented squad full of proven playmakers. Quarterback Desmond Ridder was last year’s AAC Offensive Player of the Year and a true dual-threat menace, with 19 touchdowns through the air and 11 on the ground. Skill players like running back Jerome Ford, tight end Josh Whyle and former Irish receiver Michael Young are dangerous as well. Much will depend on Cincinnati’s ability to replace two starting tackles on the offensive line, but the pieces are there for a very dangerous Bearcats offense to re-emerge.
On defense, Cincinnati returns a bunch of talented players from an outstanding 2020 unit, including defensive end Myjai Sanders and defensive backs Ahmad Gardner and Coby Bryant. Cincinnati also landed a former top-75 transfer in defensive tackle Jowon Briggs. The good news for Irish fans is that the biggest offseason loss for the Bearcats will be standing on Notre Dame’s sideline. Marcus Freeman’s coaching prowess was one of the primary factors in Cincinnati’s success, and we all know what can happen to a once-dominant defense if the wrong coordinator takes over.
That said, when you put it all together, you are likely to see a motivated and highly competitive Cincinnati team with experienced, well-coached players at most positions.
Notre Dame - Cincinnati All-Time
Somewhat shockingly given their geographic proximity, the Irish and Bearcats have played each other exactly once. The game, a 58-0 beatdown won by the team not yet known as the Fighting Irish, took place in 1900. The Chicago Cubs have, incredibly, won three World Series titles since this game was played, at which time the following things still existed:
- The Ottoman Empire
- The Qing and Romanov Dynasties
- The Habsburg Empire
And the following things did not exist:
- The Model T Ford
- The states of Arizona, Alaska, Hawaii, New Mexico and Oklahoma
All this to say: it’s exciting to see the Bearcats on the schedule, and hopefully we won’t have to wait 121 years for the next meeting.
From what I can see from our friends at Down the Drive, Bearcat fans are pretty pumped for this season and see it as an opportunity to finally break through to the College Football Playoff. The Notre Dame game in particular is viewed as the lynchpin to these hopes - if the Bearcats can beat the Irish and run the table, they will have the strongest case for inclusion of any G5 team in the CFP era.
Top 3 Players to Watch
- Desmond Ridder: A dark-horse Heisman candidate, Ridder is a major problem for every defense the Bearcats will face this year. He will rack up yards and score through the air and on the ground, and the Irish must have a good plan to slow him down.
- Myjai Sanders: Sanders is a major impact player on the edge for Cincinnati’s defense, racking up 7 sacks and 31 tackles in 2020. With inexperienced players likely manning both tackle positions for Notre Dame next year, Sanders could pose a major challenge.
- Michael Young: On a team that will come into this game hungry to prove themselves, Young stands out as a former Irish starter who was bumped from the roster and transferred. After a solid 2020, Young will likely be looking to prove himself against his former team.
Between solid talent development and transfers at a few key positions, Cincinnati has assembled what looks like a very good team heading into 2021, and they will come into South Bend out for blood for a number of reasons. A playoff opportunity on the line? Check. A chance for an underdog program to prove skeptics wrong against the bluest of blue bloods? Check. A chance to beat a coaching staff that is in no small part made up of their former coaches? Check. This is a dangerous, dangerous game for an Irish team that could come in beat up from the previous week’s collision with the Wisconsin Badgers.
That said, the Irish have a lot going for them as well. For all the talk about holes in Notre Dame’s offensive line, Cincinnati’s has a few as well - and they do not have the same talent to fill them that the Irish do. If Notre Dame’s pass rush can consistently disrupt Desmond Ridder, they could protect a vulnerable secondary from Cincinnati’s receivers and the entire Bearcat offense could see major disruptions. I also don’t expect Cincinnati to get a consistent push against Notre Dame’s front seven, which is stacked with a level of size and talent the Bearcats don’t normally face. And while the Bearcats’ defense has plenty of experience, we haven’t seen their new system and we don’t know how much of their success last season came down to scheme. If the Irish offensive line plays up to its potential, they should be able to outmuscle Cincinnati up front and run the ball with Kyren Williams consistently and effectively, which will should allow the passing game some opportunities against a strong Bearcats secondary.
All in all I expect this to be a great game, which is exactly why I plan to be at Notre Dame Stadium on October 2 to see it in person. Ultimately, I think you will see it unfold a lot like last year’s matchup with the North Carolina Tar Heels - a hard-fought and competitive game throughout, with the physicality and grit of the Irish on both sides of the ball eventually winning out and allowing them to pull away late. Look for a final score somewhere in the 34-24 range.
Difficulty 1-10: 8
Early win or loss prediction: Irish win