CINCINNATI (AP) -Three games, three emphatic wins. A defense ranked among the nation's best. More than a few votes for the Top 25. Cobwebbed ticket windows starting to do a brisk business.
The opening month has gone close to perfect for Cincinnati, where things have been so-so, at best, for a very long time.
The Bearcats (3-0) have forced themselves into the national conversation with their strong early showing under coach Brian Kelly, who has turned an 8-5 team into one that believes it deserves better.
A run at a Big East title, perhaps?
``That's something we didn't really think about here,'' safety Haruki Nakamura said. ``We knew Louisville, Rutgers and West Virginia were always going to be in the top half of the bracket. We were just trying to fit in.
``When he came in and said, 'Hey, we're going to try to win a championship,' we were like, 'Oh, he believes we can be one of those teams.' Now everybody's got that confidence, and we understand that we can do it.''
Early results suggest it's not only daydreaming.
The Bearcats put themselves on the map last season with their 30-11 victory over Rutgers under coach Mark Dantonio, who left for Michigan State after the last regular season game. Kelly got the job, led the Bearcats to their International Bowl victory over Western Michigan, then overhauled a conservative offense that failed to capture the fans' imagination.
For the last 13 years, the Bearcats had been coached by former defensive coordinators. It showed in their plodding offense. Even though the Bearcats had one of the conference's best defenses last season, they struggled to score points in the most important games.
Kelly installed the no-huddle, spread offense that he polished at Central Michigan. He raised the standards, saying a middle-of-the-pack finish wasn't good enough. And he started promoting a program that was an afterthought locally - an average of 21,000 fans showed up for games last season.
They're starting to notice.
On Monday, the school sent out a notice informing fans they won't be allowed to stand on concourse areas of Nippert Stadium anymore because large crowds are expected for the rest of the home games.
``It's a lot different,'' senior running back Doug Jones said. ``You look at the success we've had in the past, it hasn't been very good.
``I've been through hard times, been through good times. This is the best team and the most disciplined team I've ever been part of. We felt we deserved a little national recognition, and we're finally getting it. It's a great feeling for us.''
The defense is getting the bulk of the attention from opposing coaches. The Bearcats have a lot of speed on a unit that returns seven starters and was among the Big East's best last season. So far, it's been even better.
The Bearcats have given up only one touchdown in the first three games. They lead the nation in turnover margin, with 11 interceptions and six fumbles already. The 16 points allowed is the second-fewest among bowl subdivision teams.
``Most of the people on this defense have been playing together for three years,'' junior end Anthony Hoke said. ``We've got that camaraderie. We can trust each other. So I think we've got a lot going for us.''
A victory on Saturday against winless Marshall would leave them 4-0 for the first time since 1954.
They'll get a better feel for where they rank in the Big East hierarchy when they play at Rutgers, home against Louisville and at Pittsburgh in successive weeks. Until then, the idea is to learn how to handle high expectations and high praise, something new for the Bearcats.
``We talk about it now,'' Kelly said. ``We talk about it every day. Last week, we talked about: Don't become infected with success. This week we talked about: That bandwagon is starting to fill up a little bit. So with that come other things.
``There's going to be some adversity, there's no question about that. The road and the climb to the top is difficult. We used the analogy yesterday of the climb on Mount Everest. The top is a championship. We've just started.''

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