University of Cincinnati football coach Luke Fickell equates the first game of each season to Christmas morning.
On Christmas Day, anxiety and excitement fill the air as kids awake bright and early to find out what Santa Claus left under the tree. In Fickell's case, he'll wake up early Saturday and travel to Nippert Stadium to find out what his No. 8/10-ranked (Associated Press/Coaches) Bearcats are made of when they open the 2021 season against in-state rival Miami University (3:30 p.m. on ESPN+).
"As always, for me in Week 1, (it's) really to see what kind of team we have," Fickell said. "We know we've got some really good football players, but how do we mesh together as a team?"
For the first time since 2019, Cincinnati will face the RedHawks, a squad the Bearcats have defeated in 14 straight matchups. Last season's matchup was postponed due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. It marked the first pause in the rivalry series since World War II.
Saturday will be the 125th Battle for the Victory Bell.
"Really, it all comes down to the respect you have for your opponent and the way that you prepare and the things that you do," said Fickell, who is entering his fifth season at the helm of the Cincinnati program. "Everybody will be excited about Saturday, everybody will be fired up about Saturday, but I think, for us, it put a lot of heightened awareness in the last 10 days of practice. ... We're not just getting ready for any game, we're getting ready for a rivalry game."
Our First Look at the Miami RedHawks
SERIES HISTORY: The nation's oldest non-conference rivalry series dates back to 1888. Despite the Bearcats owning a lopsided advantage in the matchup in recent history, Miami leads the all-time series 59-58-7.
Fickell has managed to keep Cincinnati's winning streak against the RedHawks alive, but it hasn't been easy.
The Bearcats fell behind 10-0 in the first quarter of the 2019 meeting, only to claw back and coast to a 35-13 win.
Amid heavy rain, Cincinnati took a slim 7-0 lead into the fourth quarter of the 2018 matchup before ultimately pulling away for a 21-0 victory. The 2017 meeting, Fickell's first in the series, still has the coach scratching his head.
"There was about a 95% chance with two minutes to go in the game that they were going to win the game," Fickell said.
The Bearcats scored 18 points in the fourth quarter, including 15 unanswered in the final 2:52, to escape Oxford with a 21-17 victory.
"There have been some battles," Fickell said.
HEAD COACH: After leading the RedHawks to a 2-1 record in a shortened three-game slate in 2020, Chuck Martin is back for his eighth season at Miami.
The 53-year-old coach is 32-46 during his tenure in Oxford, with his best season coming in 2019 (8-6, Mid-American Conference championship).
"It probably doesn't get any better for us than this," Martin said. "Miami football, we're playing Cincinnati right out of the chute, it's our huge rival, they're No. 8 in the country, we're on the road. I'm anticipating a packed house based on what they did last year. So I don't know how it gets any better for us."
Prior to Miami, Martin spent four seasons at Notre Dame where he served as the Fighting Irish's offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach in 2012 and 2013.
Before joining Brian Kelly in South Bend, Martin was a two-time American Football Coaches Association National Coach of the Year during his time as the head coach at Division II Grand Valley State (2004-09). Martin led the Lakers to back-to-back national championships in 2005 and 2006.
KEY PLAYERS: Miami, which was picked to finish second in the East Division of the MAC by the league's 12 coaches, has 13 starters returning from the RedHawks' 2019 MAC championship-winning team.
Quarterback Brett Gabbert, the 2019 MAC Freshman of the Year, and tight end Andrew Homer lead the way on offense. The 6-foot-6, 246-pound Homer, a St. Xavier High School product, had standout efforts for Miami in 2018 and 2019 before missing all of last season with an injury.
Running back Tyre Shelton scored the RedHawks' only touchdown, a 1-yard run, in their meeting against the Bearcats in 2019. The 5-foot-11, 191-pound Shelton also did not play last season.
Wide receiver Jack Sorenson, who was named the 2019 MAC Championship Offensive Player of the Game after hauling in eight catches for 123 yards and a touchdown, is also back for Miami.
Defensively, the RedHawks are led by junior Sterling Weatherford, who had eight pass breakups in 2019, tying for the seventh-most among FBS safeties.
In all, Miami has 26 players on the 2021 roster that participated in the 2019 MAC Championship Game.
FUN FACT: Cincinnati enters Saturday's home game on a 20-game winning streak at Nippert. The Bearcats have gone unbeaten at home in each of the past three seasons.
Fickell said he's looking forward to seeing the capacity home crowd (40,000 fans) after playing last season in front of limited fans due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
"I think they're (the players) more excited about really getting back into Nippert and getting 'The Ruckus' and getting the crowd, something that was truly, truly missed last year."