CINCINNATI -- The unbeaten University of Cincinnati football team is just outside the top 25 rankings almost halfway through Luke Fickell's second season, but he won't say whether his Bearcats deserve to be there or not.
All he cares about is how much growth his players have shown since finishing 4-8 a year ago.
UC is off to a 5-0 start coming off back-to-back four-win seasons, and the only real knock against the Bearcats is their strength of schedule. That won't change much over the next few weeks, as their next four opponents are a combined 8-11, starting with Saturday's homecoming game against Tulane (2-3), but all Cincinnati can do is keep working to prove itself.
"It's not something I spend a whole lot of time with," Fickell said. "If we win three or four more games, then I'll worry about that, but we're where we are right now and that's what we deserve. We deserve to be 5-0 and that's where we are. What anybody else thinks, there will be a lot of opportunities down the next seven-game stretch that we will have an opportunity to prove some things to people outside of here but to me, the most important thing is to continue to build what's in here as opposed to worrying about what's out there. ... We want what we deserve, but I truly believe we will get it."
Cincinnati is 58th in ESPN.com's power rankings, but came in 29th in the voting for this week's Associated Press Top 25. The team's strength of schedule ranks 83rd, according to ESPN, but 127th on Bill Connelly's S&P strength of schedule listings.
A year ago, the Bearcats were sitting at 2-3 with losses to Michigan, Navy and Marshall, who finished with a combined record of 23-16, and UC was at 75th in the S&P strength of schedule rankings.
"The teams we have played, we can't control that," junior tight end Josiah Deguara said. "They are on our schedule and we have to do what we can do against the teams on our schedule. We can't put different teams on the schedule based on how our season is going. So we have to just control what we can.
"It's a lot different than the last few years where teams we should be beating are close games or we lose, and now we're going in and handily beating those teams. It's a credit to the work we put in. We just have to continue to do that."
UC opened with a 26-17 win at UCLA, which is now 0-4, but Fickell said regardless of the Bruins' record now, the victory was key to his team's success since then. The Bearcats went on the road and beat a Chip Kelly-led squad at the Rose Bowl in a game they weren't expected to win.
After that, they shut out rival Miami (Ohio) 21-0, beat a quality Ohio University team projected by many to win the Mid-American Conference and collected routs against Alabama A&M, 63-7, and Connecticut, outscoring the two teams 112-14.
"I feel like it was a big footprint," senior defensive tackle Cortez Broughton said of UCLA win. "Coach always emphasizes being road warriors and that one was big going on a five-hour flight to California and making an impact. Then, beating Miami, one of our rivals, that was great for spirits to have a shut out there and then we beat OU, where their culture in that program is top of the MAC, so it makes a big difference."
Overall, UC's opponents are 6-17, but each game has been an important step for his program, either for growth in facing adversity or in developing young players or just for building momentum.
Against Miami, the Bearcats battled weather but managed the shutout, and the blowout of Alabama A&M allowed them a chance to test out their passing game before bringing in several players off the bench that hadn't played much yet. Ohio took a big lead early, but UC battled back for the narrow win, and even at Connecticut, there was adversity in the offense losing lineman Garrett Campbell to a broken ankle early on. UC led just 14-7 until late in the second quarter after UConn missed a field goal when the Bearcats responded with a touchdown drive.
"It's been good progress for us throughout the entire year," Fickell said."We've had some challenges, we've gotten some other opportunities (to play young guys) and it's given us opportunity to build momentum and some positive stuff inside our program."
Along with those positives comes a little buzz about the program that hasn't been there in a while. Fickell has the Bearcats off to their best start since 2012 and they are already one win away from being bowl eligible.
Not all the poll voters have bought in yet, but Fickell said others seem to be taking notice.
"I'm starting to get calls and text messages with people wanting tickets, so it will be a little more filled up, and because people do recognize, people do see, let's face it, we all love a winner," Fickell said. "I don't care as long as they get on the bandwagon. We just have to be able to handle it, continue to move forward and don't change what you do because it's working."
Cincinnati ranks second nationally in scoring defense while allowing just 12.2 points per game. The team is 14th in red zone offense with points on 21 of 22 trips and 28th in scoring offense (38.6 ppg).
The Bearcats are led by sophomore running back Michael Warren, who ranks second with 10 rushing touchdowns and 11th in rushing yards with 541, and redshirt freshman quarterback Desmond Ridder, who averages 177.6 yards passing per game with eight touchdowns. Deguara is the team's leading receiver with 247 yards and three touchdowns on 18 catches.
"We're leaps and bounds ahead of the last two years, because at this point we had already lost two or three games," Deguara said. "It feels like that was 10 years ago now because we are so far ahead of where we were last year. It's been a great start, and we're excited."
Fickell doesn't worry too much about how his team is handling the success. It's something new for the Bearcats to deal with, but so far, the players aren't getting too carried away with the wins.
Broughton said the 5-0 start isn't that big of a surprise to him so it's not difficult not to get too caught up in success.
"It's kind of surreal because at the same time it doesn't feel any different because we knew we had it in us, so it's not like, 'We're 5-0, it's a miracle,'" he said. "It feels good to be 5-0, but it feels normal, and we still have a lot more to accomplish. We just don't want to get complacent."
Upcoming games against Tulane, Temple, SMU and Navy are all winnable, but that's been the case before and the results didn't come. Sitting at 5-0 is a much better position to be in than past years, though, and the Bearcats will need to keep the momentum going as long as they can with two of their final three matchups coming against Central Florida and South Florida, who are both 4-0.
The second half of the season will be when UC finds out just how far it has come.
"Already being one win above last year and then being one game away from bowl eligibility is a big thing for us," Deguara said. "It's a feeling we haven't had before, especially me being a part of the team the past two years, to get to 6-0, that's not even where we want to be. It's a checkmark on the list, but we want to be way ahead of that. We've got to be greedy with what we want to do, but we can't be too cocky. We have to keep pushing because if you get complacent you can't keep building."