A run to 6-2 will only be remembered as the appetizer to a meaty four-week main course for the 2013 Bearcats.
CINCINNATI -- Before this season began, little could be predicated about how it would unfurl. New coach, new system, new league, heck, even new turf.
Amid the months of transition and scrambling, one fact could be prognosticated fairly easy. The season would be judged by the month of November.
Non-conference wins against Purdue and Miami were nice for bragging rights and testing who will respond under bright lights. The first four four games of conference play would assure the Bearcats could improve against inferior competition.
The running through the dregs of the new American conference saw the last five games come against teams who currently own a 4-35 record. Only Memphis entered the game with a victory.
Those days are gone.
Beginning Saturday against SMU this final stretch will determine how the 2013 Bearcats are remembered, success or failure. The final four opponents are a combined 22-9 overall and 11-4 in conference.
SMU, Houston, Rutgers and Louisville all hover around the top of the conference standings.
Do the 6-2, 3-1 Bearcats belong alongside them? The record would infer yes, but we really don't know how good the Bearcats are because they've rarely been forced to be.
"I am excited to show the world who we are, what we do," senior Jordan Stepp said. "I feel like the last few weeks we put a few full team games out on the field."
The schedule couldn't break much better for a new year coach installing two new systems and personnel adjusting to them. Eight games in, Tommy Tuberville and his players understand what they do best and learned the hard way twice what they must avoid.
Finding a way to motivate players through a 4-35 proves a challenge. Tuberville can't hide the standings. He can't hide the ESPN bottom line. Kids know the deal, they research the scores. Yet, even a team whose struggled can pull an upset if the energy level doesn't match.
Just ask USF.
"It's going to be tougher," Tuberville said. "I told our team we can't play like we have been playing. We shoot ourselves in the foot we won't win a game the week we do that."
Not against these offenses. Sure, the Bearcats are ranked as the No. 4 defense in the country right now. Those stats can't be argued, but placed against perspective of competition lack bite. Keep in mind, there are only 125 teams in the FBS.
Three of the final four opponents rank in the Top 25 of national offenses. If the Bearcats defense wants to be recognized as one of the premier groups in the country, the time has come to prove it.
"We always come with that mentality we have to showcase we are the best defense in the nation regardless of what we are ranked," Blair said. "That's why I say that we always have something to prove until we are the No. 1 defense in the nation."
The beauty of this setup, all UC wants is within reach. Conference title, defining win, BCS bowl - a clean sweep of the final four games could likely deliver all three. They'd need only a single loss by UCF to share the title. The Knights still have Houston and SMU on the schedule.
Of course, it would mean a sweep of arguably four of the five best teams in the conference. Turning this closing run into a defining one will assure nobody claims the Bearcats didn't earn the position.
The schedule layout allowed Cincinnati to fade as a forgotten team in this title race, an unfamiliar role for a program who at least shared four of the last five conference titles. All the injuries, upsets and transitions are in the past now.
Time for this season to be judged.
"It's how you finish," Stepp said. "It's one of the strong suits of not only this football team but the players, the teams of the past. It's kind of in our DNA."
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