Bearcats bruised by Sugar blowout

NEW ORLEANS -- In the course of one postseason, Cincinnati went from perfection to prostration.

The Bearcats, 12-0 and ranked third in the final BCS standings, were one second away from playing in the BCS National Championship Game. Then they proved in a 51-24 Allstate Sugar Bowl loss to Florida that they're at least a light year away from the defending BCS champs.

Thank goodness for Cincinnati -- and even more so for college football fans everywhere -- that this embarrassing display didn't happen in Pasadena. The Bearcats merely became the biggest BCS bust since Hawaii brought its undefeated record to New Orleans two years ago only to be humiliated by another SEC runner-up, Georgia.

Of course, those Warriors were highly suspect from the start because of their conference and their schedule. This was a BCS conference champion that was supposed to put up a fight.

"We didn't live up to our end of the bargain," Cincinnati left tackle Jeff Linkenbach said. "So people can say what they want."

Here's what they're saying now, and will be for the next eight months: that the Big East's top team didn't belong on the same field as the second-best from the SEC.

That's the bruised legacy these Bearcats leave, despite a marvelous regular season. Since that season ended, things have all gone downhill. They lost head coach Brian Kelly the week after beating Pitt in the finale, and now they've lost some credibility.

Would things have gone different if Kelly had been at the Superdome instead of the Golden Dome? Not unless he could block and tackle. But clearly the weird coaching transition -- Jeff Quinn served as interim coach with one foot in Buffalo, while incoming coach Butch Jones watched from athletic director Mike Thomas' box -- didn't help matters.

"It's never easy to have coaching changes right before your season ends," Quinn said. "It's hard to do. You go through this thing all together, and it's just like a player not being there that's a key guy. "

Quinn had conferred with Kelly about the game plan. Perhaps he should have contacted a higher power. Defensively, Cincinnati hoped to shut down Florida quarterback Tim Tebow as a runner, forcing him to rely on a throwing arm that has always been the shakiest part of his game. Bearcats defensive tackle Alex Daniels wore the words "Lex Luthor" on his eye black, hoping to play foil to the Gators' Superman.

What's the opposite of kryptonite? Cincinnati's defense somehow made Superman stronger, as Tebow shredded it for 31 completions in 35 attempts, a Sugar Bowl-record 482 passing yards and a BCS bowl-record 533 total yards. Florida only punted once, in the fourth quarter, and had 659 total yards.

"We knew what was coming, but it's hard to simulate that," linebacker J.K. Schaffer said. "The hardest thing was probably just mentally. He would motion someone out, we'd change our defense, and then he'd motion them back in and snap the ball real fast. They caught us on our heels a couple of times, and the guys in the secondary ended up not knowing exactly what we were doing."

The defense hasn't looked like it knows what to do since October. This is a team that gave up 45 points to UConn, 44 to Pitt and 36 to Illinois. So should we really be surprised that Florida exceeded a half-century on the scoreboard? This performance might have hurt defensive coordinator Bob Diaco's chances of joining Kelly at Notre Dame, and when your defense looks worse than the Irish's did this season, that's saying something.

The Bearcats figured they'd need to score a bunch of points to have a chance, and that's what they did all season long.

But against a defense that smothered their receivers from the line of scrimmage on down the field and brought waves of pressure without leaving gaping holes, Quinn's offense couldn't score a touchdown until there was 4:46 left in the third quarter. And that was after trailing 37-3. Outgoing Florida defensive coordinator Charlie Strong must feel confident about taking over Louisville if this is the best attack the Big East has to offer.

"We just didn't get rolling," said Cincinnati wideout Mardy Gilyard, who had seven catches for only 41 yards. "Kudos to Florida. They were Florida. They came in and did exactly what they were scripted to do."

It's hard to knock Cincinnati's ascendancy. Kelly took the program from mediocrity to dizzying heights, winning 33 games in three seasons and making back-to-back BCS appearances. But both BCS bowls ended in deflating defeats to superior teams. This wasn't like last year's 20-7 loss to Virginia Tech, when quarterback Tony Pike flung four interceptions. Neither he nor his teammates committed a single turnover against Florida; they just couldn't match the Gators' talent and skill, which makes you wonder how far away they are from being truly elite.

"To be honest, I don't think they were faster than us," Daniels said. "They were more prepared, and they were ready from the point.

"Whoever thinks we're not at the level to play with the big guys needs to take a look at the whole season. We played with the big guys week in and week out. Just go look."

Better to look at the perfection of that regular season if you're a Bearcats fan. The postseason was too ugly to watch.

Brian Bennett covers Big East football for ESPN.com.