It was more than a decade ago that two kids in the Akron area, Tre Tucker and Tyler Scott, first met. They ran track together. They became close friends — more like brothers, Tucker says — by the time they were seven or eight years old.
Their paths diverged a bit in high school, with Tucker going to CVCA and Scott attending Norton, though they remained friends. Tucker, a year older than Scott, eventually committed to the University of Cincinnati prior to the 2019 season. Scott followed a year later.
Both were recruited as three-star prospects largely based on their speed and big-play ability as wide receivers. The chance to reconnect with Tucker became a factor in Scott's recruitment.
"Growing up in Northeast Ohio, everyone wants to go to Ohio State. That's the number one thing when you're a kid growing up," Scott said in a phone interview. "But as I was going on visits, I knew Tre was at Cincinnati, but it didn't really hit me until I actually got here and was I like, 'Hey, Tre's at Cincinnati.' We hooked up and we were talking and reminiscing about it all, and that connection refueled all of that."
UC duo has shot at college football national championship
The speedy duo, reunited from their days running track as kids and wearing the same uniform, wanted to make history. But even they couldn't have imagined the journey the Bearcats would take this season. Even they couldn't have foreseen the heights the Bearcats have reached.
Now standing before No. 4 Cincinnati, at 13-0 and already having won a second consecutive American Athletic Conference championship, is No. 1 Alabama.
The big, bad Crimson Tide. It isn't difficult to see who is playing the role of David and who is the Goliath. Alabama and Cincinnati will meet in a college football semifinal in the Cotton Bowl at 3:30 p.m. on Friday. Michigan and Georgia will meet in the other semifinal in the Orange Bowl at 7:30 p.m. The winners will play for the national championship in Indianapolis at 8 p.m. on Jan. 10.
It's the showdown of a lifetime for Tucker and Scott, who will be stepping onto the game's biggest stage. It's also a level the two couldn't have dreamed about as kids.
"For us to get back on a team together, growing up and always being really close but not playing on the same high school team ... to think about it now is great because if you would have told 7-year-old or 8-year-old us we'd be playing in the playoff and on the same team together, I'd be like, 'What? Where?'" Tucker said in a phone interview. "It's unbelievable. It's been great."
How national title dreams unfolded for UC
The Bearcats entered the season ranked No. 8 in the AP Top 25 preseason poll, but it came with the knowledge that no non-Power 5 school had ever made the four-team college football playoff. The focus was on another American Athletic Conference championship.
At 2-0, Cincinnati picked up its first marquee win on the road against Indiana, beating the Hoosiers 38-24 with the help of Tucker's 99-yard kick return for a touchdown. The next week was the big one: a 24-13 win at Notre Dame. And just like that, the Bearcats were firmly in the conversation to be the first non-Power 5 school to force its way into the playoff.
But they weren't naive. They knew they'd be judged differently. They knew a one-loss SEC or Big Ten school could potentially get in over them, even if they were undefeated. They knew there was no room for error, either. The Bearcats would have to be 13-0 to have a chance.
Tucker and Scott have been major contributors to Cincinnati's storybook season. Scott has played in all 13 games, with seven starts, and has caught 26 passes for 477 yards and five touchdowns.
Tucker has also played in all 13 games, one start, and has 32 catches for 414 yards and two touchdowns. He also has 22 kickoff returns for 557 yards and one touchdown.
There are other area players on the UC roster as well. Former Archbishop Hoban standout Jabari Taylor has played in all 13 games as a defensive lineman and has 28 tackles, two sacks and five and a half tackles for loss.
Running back Ethan Wright of Manchester has played in 12 games and has 29 carries for 153 yards and three touchdowns.
Hoban grad Devin Hightower, a linebacker, has played in four games and has two tackles and offensive lineman Jake Burns of Hoban has not played.
How UC helped overcome adversity through the season
As the season dragged on, and as the national conversation continued to revolve around who deserved to be in the playoff, Cincinnati had a few near-stumbles. And the Bearcats knew the national audience would be watching them with a critical eye, searching for flaws.
"Just knowing how we are as Cincinnati, not being a Power 5, we know that we're judged differently than some of the other schools," Scott said. "We felt like we had to almost play to a [higher] standard than everybody else, so to speak."
Coach Luke Fickell's message was to take care of their own business and trust that everything else would work out. Yes, over the final few weeks of the season, the Bearcats might need some help for them to reach their goal. But they can only control what's in front of them. Any misstep would eliminate the possibility altogether.
"Coach Fick is a guy who, as he says, always likes to put the blinders on," Tucker said. "He doesn't really look at social media. He doesn't care what people on the outside are saying. So I kind of take to that as well. At the end of the day, we're the ones putting on the pads and we're the ones inside the locker room. If you win, all that stuff takes care of itself."
But it was impossible to not at least be aware of the momentum of support from Bearcat Nation and the wave of interest — both positive and negative — from the nation as a whole. Some now want Cincinnati to pull off the upset, beat Alabama and make it to the title game. Others think the Bearcats don't deserve to be there in the first place.
How the national spotlight has turned to the UC Bearcats
The attention has reached an all-time high. ESPN's GameDay traveled to Cincinnati's campus for the first time in school history. The national spotlight has been firmly fixated on the Bearcats.
And with wins over Indiana, Notre Dame and then Houston in the AAC title game, which Cincinnati won handily 35-20 in part thanks to Scott's 25-yard touchdown catch, the Bearcats earned their way into the playoff.
"Coach Fick's biggest motto has been, 'Just be who we are,'" Scott said. "He's said that every week since we hit the national spotlight. 'Just be us. Don't worry about what this person has to say or what this analyst has to say.'"
Support from UC fans has been 'amazing'
The mountain of support from the Cincinnati faithful has been noticeable, of course. The 13-0 Bearcats, in making the playoffs, have already put together the best season in school history. And it has sent Bearcat Nation into a frenzy.
"It's been amazing," Tucker said of the support. "It really feels great when it comes from the city of Cincinnati. We want to do everything for them. And the national thing, it's pretty cool. ... I was in the hotel for the [AAC title] game, and a guy said he came from Texas, all the way up here to watch us play, and he's been a big fan for the past few years.
"And it just so happened we were playing Houston, but he said he was going to be in the stands as a Bearcat fan. That was pretty cool, to see people recognize what we're doing."
As the Bearcats walked off the field as AAC champs following their win over Houston, the support was such that Scott actually missed Fickell's post-game speech. He simply couldn't wade through the sea of fans fast enough. If anything, that's indicative of how the Bearcats have been swept up in something special.
"Yeah, I was still on the field trying to get to the locker room," Scott said. "I finally got there, making my way up, and Coach Fick was walking back down the stairs and he was like, 'So, you missed it?' And I was like, 'Yup.'"
They're just two kids from Akron who ran track a long time ago and remained friends long enough to reunite and try to make some history at Cincinnati. They've already accomplished that, but the journey isn't finished.
When it was announced that the committee had indeed chosen the Bearcats to be the No. 4 seed in the playoff, both of their phones, of course, blew up with messages.
Tucker's message to them: "The work's not done."