Concentrating on the task at hand likely has never been as difficult for the University of Cincinnati football team as it has been the past two weeks.

Concentrating on the task at hand likely has never been as difficult for the University of Cincinnati football team as it has been the past two weeks.

A day after the Bearcats edged Pittsburgh 45-44 in the Big East championship game Dec. 5, it became official that they would come up short of playing in the BCS national championship game despite completing a 12-0 regular season.

Then on Dec. 10, coach Brian Kelly announced at the team's awards banquet that he was leaving after his third season to take over at Notre Dame.

Sophomore running back Isaiah Pead, an Eastmoor Academy graduate and one of 11 central Ohio natives on the Bearcats' roster, believes that those reasons don't give his team an out in terms of focusing on what's next.

For Cincinnati to complete a perfect season, it must beat Florida - which captured BCS titles in 2007 and last year - in the Allstate Sugar Bowl on Jan. 1 with offensive coordinator Jeff Quinn serving as interim coach.

Butch Jones, who had been coaching at Central Michigan, was named the new coach Dec. 17.

"There's the distraction of course that we wanted to play for the championship," said Pead, whose team finished third in the final BCS rankings behind Alabama and Texas. "We're going to the Sugar Bowl without our head coach, which wasn't really a shock, but it was more of a sigh. (Kelly) just said that he was going to meet with (Notre Dame) but that he hadn't signed anything yet, and then we started to hear that he'd signed but he still hadn't told us anything. It was kind of hurtful that he won't be able to coach our Bowl game, but we can't let it be a distraction."

Despite starting only three games, Pead ended up leading the Bearcats in regular-season rushing yards with 795 while scoring nine touchdowns. Senior Jacob Ramsey, an Independence graduate, had 450 yards and four touchdowns as the other primary running back.

Brookhaven graduate Alex Daniels, a defensive lineman who started 11 games, finished with 6.5 sacks and eight tackles for losses. Gahanna Lincoln graduates John Hughes (DL) and Charley Howard (WR/DB) and Olentangy Liberty graduate Wesley Richardson (DB) are others who have contributed.

This marks the second consecutive season the Bearcats will play in a BCS Bowl. Last year, they lost to Virginia Tech 20-7 in the Orange Bowl.

"We just set a goal of having fun this year, especially after the loss to Virginia Tech last year," Pead said. "I've seen some of Florida's games, and they look like Florida. They're going to be a great opponent, but they're not flawless."

ARMED, READY -- Air Force faces Houston at 11 a.m. Dec. 31 in the Armed Forces Bowl, marking the second consecutive season the teams will meet in the postseason. Last year, Air Force beat Houston 31-28 during the regular season but lost to the Cougars in the Armed Forces Bowl 34-28.

DeSales graduate Chris Thomas, who is a senior strong safety for the Falcons, knows what his team will be in for when it faces junior quarterback Case Keenum and the Cougars. Keenum has thrown for 5,449 yards and 43 touchdowns this season and has tossed 101 career touchdowns.

Senior Justin Moore, who also is a DeSales graduate, also is a key member of the Falcons' defense at linebacker.

"It should be really fun for me and Justin," said Thomas, who also will play in the East-West Shrine game Jan. 23 in Orlando. "We have a lot of confidence in our defense. We've been in the top 10 in passing defense in the nation. I'm looking forward to it because this will be my last game with my teammates."

Hilliard Davidson senior Connor Dietz served as the Falcons' backup quarterback for most of the season until breaking his right hand in late October.

Dietz, who helped the Wildcats capture the Division I state title as a junior in 2006, completed 18 of 38 passes for 197 yards with one touchdown and rushed for 381 yards and one score in seven games.

In addition to what he hopes is a celebration of a Bowl game victory, Dietz has plans once the Falcons' season is over to enjoy another game for the first time: Davidson's 16-15 state championship victory over Cleveland Glenville on Dec. 5.

"I was home for Thanksgiving, so I saw (Davidson's state semifinal victory), which was awesome," Dietz said. "We had practice the day of the state final so I didn't get to watch it, but I was ecstatic."

REPRESENTING OHIO -- Ohio State has 20 players listed on its roster who are natives from central Ohio.

Ohio University's breakthrough season means that 15 additional players with central Ohio ties can enjoy participating in the Bowl schedule.

The Bobcats, who won just four games last year but are 9-4 this season, play Marshall in the Little Caesar's Pizza Bowl on Saturday.

Hilliard Darby graduate Taylor Price was Ohio's leading receiver with 52 catches during the regular season and is the school's all-time leader in career receptions. Brookhaven's Idris Lawrence (DB) was a key player on defense before getting hurt in a 20-10 loss to Central Michigan in the MAC championship game Dec. 4.

Bowling Green, which plays in the Humanitarian Bowl on Dec. 30 against Idaho, has six central Ohio natives on its roster.

ALSO FROM THE BIG TEN -- In addition to the Buckeyes' contingent, Michigan State (five players), Northwestern (five), Iowa (one), Penn State (one) and Wisconsin (one) all have area players on their rosters.

After splitting its first four games, Northwestern bounced back to win six of its final eight to secure a bid to the Outback Bowl against Auburn on Jan. 1 in Tampa, Fla.

Jeremy Ebert, who was the ThisWeek Super 25 Captain as a senior quarterback for Hilliard Darby in 2007, was moved to wide receiver last season and had 15 catches for 162 yards this year.

"All of our hard work and offseason preparation is paying off," Ebert said. "We were young on offense this year and had a couple tough losses early, but our leaders kind of arose on offense and we finished strong. I've never been to Tampa before, so this is going to be a fun experience."

Pickerington Central graduate Brian Peters had two interceptions and 63 tackles while serving as a defensive back mostly in nickel packages.

Auburn lost its last two of the regular season and is 7-5, but one of those losses came by less than a touchdown to No. 1-ranked Alabama (26-21 on Nov. 27).

"It'll be a great matchup," Peters said. "They're a tough SEC opponent that battled Alabama to the end. Our defense is pretty tough up front, and our linebackers and defensive backs have all been pretty physical. We went 3-0 in November, and our offense, defense and special teams all played well."