CINCINNATI -- Defensive tackle Cortez Broughton loves to tell the story now about how people reacted at the American Athletic Conference media day this summer when he told them the University of Cincinnati football team was going to contend for the conference title.
The idea of the Bearcats going from back-to-back 4-8 seasons to a conference championship seemed a little farfetched for Luke Fickell's second year as head coach.
"People just thought I was on a different planet," Broughton said. "They would say, 'What's your goal this season?' and I'm like, 'Conference championship.' They look at me like, 'You're coming off a 4-8 season, and you're talking about a conference championship? That's impossible.' Anything is possible. We just have to come out and have fun."
That conference championship doesn't look so out of reach now. The No. 19-ranked Bearcats (9-1) will be in the national spotlight Saturday when they travel to play No. 11 Central Florida (9-0), which hasn't lost since 2016 and was recognized as an NCAA national champion last year.
The game is so big, it's being put on ESPN's College GameDay (9 a.m. to noon ET) and slotted for prime-time national television at 8 p.m. on WCPO -- 9 On Your Side. WCPO also will show a pre-game special from 7-8 p.m. on air and online.
Lee Corso, one of the GameDay hosts and a Central Florida resident, said he expects Saturday's broadcast from UCF to have one of the largest crowds since GameDay began in 1987.
"It’s a perfect matchup," Corso said.
Fickell said it's attention the conference deserves, though it's something completely new for this Cincinnati squad.
. @UCF_Football ... ARE YOU READY?
We'll see you in the morning 👋 pic.twitter.com/GGxeUretnC
— College GameDay (@CollegeGameDay) November 16, 2018
"You can't not talk about it," Fickell said. "We addressed it. We hadn't talked too much about it until we will today, but we kind of have to get those things out of the way. It's, 'Hey, you go on the road, a big game, you have to remember what it comes down to.' We'll address that and talk about that as a team."
The former Ohio State University assistant even needed that reminder, or so mentor Jim Tressel thought. Tressel texted Fickell on Monday night with a message about how to win big games on the road.
Tressel always preached "relentless defense, opportunistic offense and superior special teams," but he offered some different advice for this game.
"It's kind of one of those things you just have to shift yourself back into and make sure these games are won on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday preparation," Fickell said. "They aren't won just on Saturday with the energy and the hype."
The hype is a "catch-22," Fickell said, because it's good for the program, fans and players, but it is a distraction, as well.
Broughton said the upperclassmen on the team have tried to step up as leaders this week to remind the young players to not get caught up in everything surrounding the game.
"You stay calm," he said. "You know you're going to face adversity in certain situations throughout the game, and that's one of the biggest things. Obviously, people try to get you riled up. You saw how we played USF last week and certain things happened in that game that the old us would have reverted to old feelings in old situations that happened in the past, but you've got to see what's bigger and better ahead of you. Sit back and smile and do what you've got to do."
How the Bearcats handle the pressure of a big-game environment is almost as big of a test as the Knights will be on the field.
UCF ranks third in total offense (543.0 yards per game), fourth in rushing offense (271.4 rushing yards per game), eighth in scoring offense (44.2 points per game) and second in turnover margin.
Quarterback McKenzie Milton is completing 60.2 percent of his passes for 2,309 yards and 21 touchdowns with five interceptions and is one of the least sacked passers in all of Division I football. Greg McRae (673 yards and four touchdowns) and Adrian Killins (546 yards and four touchdowns) lead the ground attack.
The Knights won 51-23 last year and Fickell said they are even faster offensively this year, so the key will just be getting pressure on the quarterback. UC brings the sixth-ranked defense (allowing 277.4 yards and 14.9 points per game).
"Some of our best games don't always have the most sacks," Fickell said. "That's one of the things you can't get frustrated with. A batted-down pass is just as good as a sack sometimes. They do a great job. You can't get frustrated because the ball is coming out in 1.6 seconds or 2.2 seconds; pressure is about the things you need to do up front to make it tougher for him to do his job."
In some ways UCF is a team Fickell wants to emulate, not in scheme or how they play, but just in how they've achieved success in a short period of time. He said the Knights have "played above their ability" to get where they are these past two seasons.
The same could be said of this year's UC team, which most probably thought it should just be aiming for a bowl game achievable with just six wins.
Fickell hasn't had much time yet to actually think about how far the Bearcats have come, but he does try to make sure his players take time to enjoy victories. Hopefully, they have another one to celebrate Saturday night.
"It starts with leadership, not just the players, but the coaches and their ability to build relationships with these guys and get them to believe in what we're doing, to see that and see us brick by brick continue to build things and gain momentum," Fickell said. "People ask, 'When did you realize you guys were a good team?' I don't know that there is any one particular game or situation, but ... it's just been an incredible building process."
"It wasn't as big of a surprise to me as it might be to other people," he added. "I'm not saying that I looked and said, 'Hey, this team has potential to win nine or 10 games and play for a championship,' in January, February, March, April of this past year. I would have said that in September or October, really, but I don't think this team has reached its potential."