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Morgan McKenzie

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Morgan McKenzie

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Can Desmond Ridder lead Cincinnati to the College Football Playoff?

Written by on October 1, 2021

Desmond Ridder lofts the football, his touch so featherlight it’s more like a graze. The ball arcs slightly then drops, right on cue, into the hands of his receiver. Ridder claps, a job well done. On his left hand, he sports a blue wristband. “Lack of worries,” it says.

The quarterback of the seventh-best team in the country looks smooth and in command out here on the practice field. Only three days earlier, he engineered a come-from-behind win against Indiana on the road. He floated a perfect-touch 19-yard fade toward the back right corner of the end zone to retake the lead in the fourth quarter. He shimmied off one defender, then loped 7 yards for a touchdown to ice the game for good. He mostly spent his afternoon in Bloomington doing what he’s done for three-plus years in Cincinnati, scoring through the air (64 career passing touchdowns) and on the ground (24 career rushing touchdowns) and more than his opponents (33-5 record as starter). So, yes, he’s got a devil-may-care vibe happening right now; it’s unclear if he’s even broken a sweat just yet.

It’s late September, the last official day of summer, and the city of Cincinnati got the memo. Clouds have threatened rain all day, and the University of Cincinnati football program doesn’t have an indoor facility — just a seasonal bubble that will go up sometime around October over the practice field they share with the women’s lacrosse team. In the meantime, Ridder and company contend with the drizzle and wet ground and all-around sloppiness. The neon glow of a red Walgreens sign is visible just beyond the field. Passersby could steal a glimpse if they were motivated enough. It’s not Fort Knox — or Alabama, or Clemson, or Oklahoma, or Ohio State — here.

Still, Ridder is as breezy as the afternoon is damp, and he has earned this breeziness. His Cincinnati Bearcats are 3-0. He’s chipping his way, slowly, relentlessly, into Heisman contention. The biggest game in what is perhaps the biggest season in the history of this Bearcats program is hurtling his way.

But all this general buoyancy and good cheer? It obscures the Power 5-sized asterisk next to Ridder’s prowess and his team’s outsized success. Ridder and the Bearcats are reaching for something that might just be institutionally and perennially outside their grasp: A real, honest-to-goodness chance to break through to the College Football Playoff.

The Bearcats are plucky underdogs in hearts and minds the country over. Never mind that they’ve been coronated as a top 10 team for 17 weeks straight now, a longer active streak than any team in the nation, save Alabama. Never mind that they’re ever-so-slightly favored to beat Notre Dame this weekend. Undefeated, 9th-ranked Notre Dame. In South Bend. In a potentially paradigm-shifting game for this Cincinnati football program. If Ridder does manage to lead this “upset,” and he continues to oversee wins all the way to an American Athletic Conference title, you can bet there will be big concerns come College Football Playoff-picking season. A sampling of the discourse:

And if they win the right way against the right opponents, did enough other teams lose?

These caveats, and the caveats to the caveats, are all window-dressing, really, for the broader point, the ethos that grounds this whole college football enterprise in the playoff age. Cincinnati — no elite Group of 5 team, for that matter — is all that welcome here. Since the advent of the playoff in 2014, six Group of 5 teams have finished the regular season with an unblemished record, and the playoff committee has ranked exactly none of them higher than No. 8 at season’s end. Their average final rank? 13. But here’s a neat thing about Desmond Ridder: He has the stomach to barge into places where he’s not especially wanted.

He doesn’t sound perturbed, when asked to consider those caveats. He doesn’t look it either, splayed out as he is on a leather couch in the athletic facility. He stretches his arms, and a flash of tattoos peeks out from his sleeve — 502 for his hometown and a pair of tiny footprints and a line that shows a heartbeat, both belonging to his daughter, Leighton, who was born in April. (Which might also explain why, in addition to his general aura of unflappability, he also sounds tired. Leighton is teething and just starting her sleep training. A few months back, some of his teammates caught him dozing on a training table during physical therapy and texted Ridder’s mother, Sarah: “New dad! New dad!”)

Ridder is 6-foot-4, a lean 215 pounds, and all limbs, so he has to contort himself to get comfortable as he lounges on the couch. “We were kind of talking about this the other day in the quarterback room,” he says. “If Alabama or Clemson or Georgia goes out and loses one of their games … is there a dagger in their body of, ‘We’re not going to win a national championship this year?’ We don’t have that pressure.”

There’s freedom in resignation: He doesn’t shoulder the weight of that same pressure because the system doesn’t allow for it. Ridder knows if Cincinnati stumbles once, his team is out of playoff contention. Ridder knows if Cincinnati barnstorms through every single game, his team is likely out of playoff contention then, too. He is very let-go-and-let-god about it all, considering his lot in life: Group of 5 quarterback in a Power 5 world. It’s second-class college football citizenship, and if he looks sure-footed when it comes to the peaks and valleys of this road, it’s because he’s walked it before.

At his high school, former coach Will Wolford from Saint Xavier High points out, Ridder wasn’t a hat-chooser. He didn’t park himself at a desk on National Signing Day, an array of ballcaps with college football’s sexiest logos fanned out in front of him. He was a two-star or three-star afterthought, depending on your recruiting connoisseurs of choice, and if he squinted, he could maybe, sort of see all of this. One of the winningest quarterbacks in college football this century (87%). Intriguing Heisman odds (+1800, behind only Ole Miss’ Matt Corral and Alabama’s Bryce Young, heading into Week 5). Whispers of fringe first-round potential for next year’s NFL draft (No. 8 among Mel Kiper Jr.’s eligible 2022 quarterbacks; plaudits from Todd McShay for his exceptional arm strength and ability to both scoot and hang tough in the pocket).

But for a spell, he was just a guy standing in front of a coach — any coach, seriously any single one would do — asking them to take a flyer on him. He pretty much went full-stalker on Miami (the Ohio version), because he knew the staff was interested, had said Ridder was “their guy” if the current quarterback on tap decommitted. He called when that quarterback did, in fact, decommit, and the staff told Ridder to call back in a week. He did, and they told him to call back in another week. Then, nothing.

“We have a ramp going up to our locker room at St. X,” Ridder says. “And I remember sitting out on that ramp, making these phone calls, and just thinking, ‘Man, what am I doing? What do I need to do?’”

Cincinnati, then helmed by Tommy Tuberville, came through at the tail end of Ridder’s full-court press on Miami. The Bearcats staff asked to come watch him throw on a Friday; incidentally, it was the Friday of Derby weekend, and like any good native Louisvillian, he was using the day off from school to attend the day-before event, Kentucky Oaks, to watch the fillies race. He rounded up some willing teammates for an early-morning throwing session, went home immediately after to get dressed for Oaks to “look all fly,” then got a call a few hours later when he was milling around the infield at Churchill Downs. He ducked into the only place he could find a modicum of quiet, which turned out to be a porta-potty, where he received his first (and only) offer to play college football at the FBS level. His college career began in a literal toilet.

Even once he committed to Cincinnati, and stuck with the school as the Tuberville era morphed into the Luke Fickell era, he was embraced, perhaps, but not coveted.

“[Offensive coordinator] Mike Denbrock went down and met him, and it wasn’t like, ‘Oh, this is our guy,’” Fickell says, with all the sizzle of a lukewarm bath.

He wasn’t their guy in 2017, when he redshirted, though Fickell paints Ridder as something of a 21st century Rudy Ruettiger scout teamer — the guy who got manhandled and bloodied and then got back up for more. He wasn’t their guy to start the next year either, until he came off the bench in relief of senior Hayden Moore in the first game of the season. He helped spoil Chip Kelly’s debut in UCLA, and never let go of the starting spot.

Before all that, though, in February 2018, Cincinnati was fresh off a 4-8 dud in Fickell’s debut season. He told his players that no one’s job was safe, and Gino Guidugli, who was newly appointed as the quarterbacks coach, remembers Ridder taking it upon himself to move up the front of the stretch line — where starters lined up — in practice. Ridder, for his part, maintains he was merely being a dutiful foot soldier, that another coach told him to move on up, and he thought, sure, of course. No matter the provenance, by the time Ridder made his way up to Moore, the team’s incumbent starter, awkwardness ensued.

“What the f—?” Moore said. “What are you doing?”

Ridder wasn’t angling for a fight. Moore was his friend, and he respected his role on the team. But he also remembers thinking, as soon as his coach told him to join the starters, he was finally right where he should be.

This is where I belong, Ridder thought at the time. You don’t have to tell me twice.

If Cincinnati discovers the Rosetta Stone, the one that offers the team passage to the College Football Playoff, you can practically hear Ridder’s rejoinder, the truth he knows in his gut. That’s where we belong. You won’t have to tell him twice.

It’s part of the reason he’s back here at all, this legacy business. Ridder was sure that last year, his redshirt junior season, would be his final one in Cincinnati. Claire Cornett, his longtime girlfriend, was so sure he was sure, that she assembled a photo album to celebrate his collegiate career coming to a close. The final page shows an oversized, gauzy photo of Ridder walking into a cloud of smoke. “On to the next…” she wrote.

The book remains stashed on the glass coffee table in their living room, around which lie the lone tokens of evidence that this house belongs to the winningest active quarterback in college football. Ridder’s Peach Bowl jersey is framed and propped up against the fireplace; a cache of trophies and plaques, declaring him rookie of the year, MVP and something called an Iron Bearcat, are displayed on the floor, behind the many, many more tokens of Leighton’s arrival, among them, her sit-to-stand activity center. Their entire basement, Claire says, is dedicated storage for diapers — Ridder’s teammates threw them a diaper party a few months back, and now there’s a surplus.

So, yes, they had very much been prepared to leave, but Ridder’s draft feedback came in and it wasn’t all that rosy of a picture, with fourth-to-sixth round projections. Then he and Claire got to thinking it might be nice to have some stability with Leighton on the way, to know the town they’re living in and have their families 100 miles down 71-South to help out. And plus, he had this gnawing sense, like when you leave your house and are sure you’ve neglected to turn the oven off, that he was forgetting something. That something was left undone.

“I just felt like I could still … as a team, we could push this university to be something great,” he says.

He won’t confess to it outright, having the playoff in his sights, but he led Cincinnati to an undefeated regular season last year and a conference championship, too. If it weren’t for a 53-yard, time-expiring field goal, the Bearcats would have capped the whole thing off with a Peach Bowl victory over Georgia. There isn’t that much that’s left undone.

What Cincinnati didn’t do is merit playoff consideration, at least not according to the committee in charge of dispensing it, which ranked them No. 8 and well out of arm’s length of a playoff spot. Committee chair Gary Barta offered a job well done, the verbal equivalent of a pat on the head, but not much else. “I don’t know that anything held them back,” he told ESPN’s Rece Davis at the time. “The committee has great respect for Cincinnati. … A terrific team, but it was just believed by the committee that [other] resumes are stronger, overall, than Cincinnati’s resume.”

Now they have scar tissue. They played no Power 5 opponents last year — no can’t-miss, undeniable statement games — but they won every single game that was on their slate and still only came kind of close. Close-ish, a bleak reality undergirded by an equally bleak Group of 5 track record. Central Florida climbed as high as No. 8, too, back in 2018. That was only after two straight undefeated regular seasons. (Along the way, they crowned themselves national champions — a move that was met with collective patronization.) So now? Now the playoff is discussed in hushed tones around Cincinnati, like a dirty secret. Or not at all, depending on who you ask.

“I do not think since I’ve been here, or even in the past six months, past year, year and a half, whatever it is, we have ever, ever, ever talked about making it to the playoff,” Ridder says.

His quarterback coach, Guidugli, at least cops to it being on everybody’s minds if not on the tip of their tongues. But Guidugli, too, stays on message. For him, for Ridder, for Fickell, for this team, the championship they care about, they mean it, they swear it, they preach it, is the conference one. All this studied nonchalance — what us, worry about the playoff? — winds up feeling a bit like a defense mechanism. They can’t get hurt by the playoff committee if they don’t expect anything from the playoff committee in the first place.

It’s as useful a modus operandi as any, as they suss out who and what they are, in their waning days outside the Power 5. All this success was good enough to earn a big-time conference invitation, if not a ticket to the playoff. Cincinnati will join the Big 12 no later than 2024. For now, but maybe not for long, they’re something more than an upstart with spunk and something less than a blueblood.

Within that purgatory, Fickell and Ridder are tasked with reaching for a goal that this sport has told them time and time again may just be out of reach for them — an undertaking that seems vexing, but Fickell promises is not.

“That’s the beauty of having 18 to 22-year-olds,” Fickell says. “They’re impressionable.”

Every preseason, the football team heads to Camp Higher Ground, a rural enclave on the eastern edge of Indiana. They spend roughly two weeks in isolation with each other. The Bearcats were grinding in the muck of August 2020, while the rest of college football crumbled around them. The Big Ten canceled its season, as did the Pac-12 and MAC, too. It all began to feel futile to them, wasting energy on a season that might not happen or matter, and Fickell figured if that’s how they felt, none of them had to be there.

“We’ll get the buses out here tomorrow and we can pack our s— up and we can go home,” Guidugli remembers him telling everyone. They could call time of death on their season too, Fickell said. He was leaving it up to the team.

The players met in the cafeteria that night, and Guidugli watched the makeshift convention from outside, then met with Ridder and defensive end Myjai Sanders. Sure, these other conferences might not play, Guidugli figured. But then, what an opportunity for the spotlight, which finds this team so rarely, to finally, fully be on them.

“That’s an unbelievable opportunity for us,” Guidugli told them.

They were, it turns out, impressionable. Even though the Big Ten and Pac-12 reentered the fray, stealing back some of that shine, they liked the idea of that opportunity.

And they came close. They announced themselves, which is no small feat, because if any Group of 5 team anywhere is going to invade a four-team playoff, they’ll need some outside help (perhaps a year where Clemson and Ohio State and Oklahoma don’t like world-beaters). They’ll also need to have established themselves as a legitimate force for disruption the year before by winning all their regular season games, capturing a conference title and going blow for blow with an SEC heavyweight. Then maybe, if they spend one more year doing the same, they’ll be given a chance to do the actual disrupting.

In other words, now all Ridder and Cincinnati have to do in 2021 is run it back.

Back on the practice field, as the team goes about the business of trying to do it all again, Ridder enjoys a rare few minutes off. He hardly takes a snap as practice winds down. Even with the Notre Dame just days ahead, it’s a bye week — a chance for the next Desmond Ridders to take some reps. He’s an admirable cheerleader, sprinting downfield when junior Jack Perry heaves a bomb to the end zone, bum-rushing the referee to lobby for pass interference a few plays later, standing by the pylon and signaling for a touchdown.

He’s loose, like he actually does have a lack of worries. Notre Dame, with its undefeated record, shiny pedigree and potential to be a springboard, awaits. Will it be enough, if Ridder and Cincinnati come away with a win? Perhaps. Probably not. But for there to even be a chance to be enough, Ridder will have to help Cincinnati do again what it did last year, this time with even more juice.

All of a sudden, the voice of god rings out over the field. No, wait, it’s just Morgan Freeman, playing narrator for 21 Savage’s most recent album, which is currently blasting through a huge amp. So, close enough. In a velvety baritone, Freeman wonders about life and timing and second chances, and it’s all very on the nose.

Are things better or worse the second time around?

Can we really do anything more than once?

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