With three more wins, the Cincinnati Bearcats will qualify for their seventh consecutive bowl game. However, last Saturday's 26-20 upset to previously winless South Florida makes some wonder just how far Cincinnati will advance this season.
Cincinnati was picked to finish second in the preseason American Athletic Conference media poll. At 3-2 with one conference loss, Cincinnati must treat every game as a must-win, starting tonight against Temple. If the Bearcats lose one more game before the season finale against Louisville, Cincinnati will find itself in the Belk Bowl.
By running the table, the Bearcats will set up a winner-take-all with Louisville for the title and, more importantly, a BCS bowl game. Rutgers and the Bearcats themselves are the biggest obstacles standing in the way of a Cincinnati-Louisville title game.
Louisville might be vulnerable enough for Cincinnati to mount the upset bid. Thursday night, Louisville barely remained undefeated as Rutgers forced three turnovers and contained Teddy Bridgewater for most of the night, likely torpedoing his Heisman hopes. Rutgers could have won if not for the Scarlet Knights committing four turnovers themselves.
A BCS appearance would provide a much happier ending to an extremely turbulent season where very little has gone right. In head coach Tommy Tuberville's inaugural season, Cincinnati lost starting quarterback Munchie Legaux to injury, was blown out by Illinois and barely squeaked by rival Miami (OH) with a 14-0 win.
Following the Miami (OH) game, freshman offensive lineman Ben Flick died in a tragic auto accident. Playing with heavy hearts, Cincinnati traveled to South Florida only to lose a heartbreaker. But hope exists for the Bearcats after they rallied against South Florida and scored 14 points in the fourth quarter.
Excluding the blowout at Illinois, the defense has been Cincinnati's strong point, allowing 17.4 points and an impressive 251 yards per game. Most of Cincinnati's issues reside with the offense.
According to Tuberville, the offensive issues include getting beaten up front, younger receivers not running routes correctly and an inconsistent running game.
"Normally the team with the most adversity is the team that comes out on top," Cincinnati running back Ralph David Abernathy IV said in an interview with Tom Groeschen of the Cincinnati Enquirer. "To me, the only way to go for us is up."
Cincinnati must rely on its defense and a run game currently averaging 200 yards per game until quarterback Brendon Kay demonstrates the ability to carry the offense. Kay has an easy three-game series against Temple, Connecticut and Memphis to become more confident. Cincinnati should win all three games while simultaneously qualifying for a bowl game.
After Memphis, Cincinnati's schedule toughens with Southern Methodist, Rutgers and Houston before the showdown with Louisville. Cincinnati's final four games will determine which bowl the Bearcats will play in.
CBS Sports' Jerry Palm predicts Cincinnati will play in the Pinstripe Bowl on December 28th against Notre Dame. USA Today agrees, though predicts Cincinnati will take on West Virginia.
Bill Bender of Sporting News projects Cincinnati versus Missouri in January 4th's Compass Bowl. ESPN's Mark Schlabach and Brad Edwards also place Cincinnati in the Compass Bowl but differ on the opponent—Mississippi State and Vanderbilt, respectively. Backing Edwards up is Jason Kirk of SBNation who also pits the Bearcats against the Commodores.
Scout.com leaves Cincinnati completely out of the postseason.
PREDICTION: Cincinnati loses to Rutgers and Louisville. Plays in the Belk Bowl versus ACC #5.