The 2009 college football season will kick off in a little over a month. To make the time go a little faster, I have been counting down my top 50 teams one team at a time.
No. 38 West Virginia Mountaineers
No. 37 CINCINNATI BEARCATS
After the program’s most successful two-season stretch in school history, Cincinnati fans are wondering if coach Brian Kelly can capitalize and keep the momentum going.
The Bearcats, who won the Big East championship, the school’s first outright conference title since 1964, were clearly built for 2008, brimming with returning starters and getting a stunning six players drafted by the NFL in April.
Now that 14 starters have departed, including 10 on defense, Kelly must rebuild quickly if he hopes to have his team in contention to defend their championship.
Fear not, Cincy fans—there is reason for hope.
The biggest reason is that Kelly continues to be on the sidelines, despite being the target of top-shelf programs following each of the last two seasons. In fact, he recently signed a contract extension designed to keep him around through the 2013 season.
Kelly can flat-out coach kids up—a good thing, considering most of the region’s best talent usually ends up in Columbus.
Quarterback Tony Pike, who passed for more than 2,400 yards and 19 TDs last season, will lead one of the nation's most explosive offenses.
The Bearcats are loaded at receiver, with superstar in waiting Mardy Gilyard, D.J. Woods, Armon Binns, and Jamar Howard, and sophomore Isaiah Pead and redshirt freshman Darrin Williams have big-play ability in the backfield.
If a revamped offensive line can protect Pike and open seams for Pead and Williams, Cincinnati won’t have many problems scoring points.
They better not have trouble scoring points because the defense will most likely be a work in progress for the better half of the season.
New defensive coordinator Bob Diaco is charged with overhauling a defense that ranked 31st in the nation in total defense last season. Under Diaco, the Bearcat defense will switch from a 4-3 alignment to a 3-4.
It comes as no surprise that the defense was a huge focus in the spring.
"We've done a very good job implementing a system of defense that I think fits the personnel that we have," said Kelly. "I think we've got good depth in certain areas, in particular on the defensive line."
Gone from last season are top pass rusher Connor Barwin, run stuffer Terrell Byrd, and top cornerback Mike Mickens. In their place, Diaco has just one returning starter, defensive back Aaron Webster, although senior middle linebacker Andre Revels played extensively in 13 games.
The Bearcats do bring back a few seniors who earned significant playing time as juniors. Alex Daniels, Ricardo Mathews, and Curtis Young likely will anchor the defensive line.
Kelly’s success with moving Barwin from tight end to defensive lineman worked so well last season that the coach is experimenting again.
Quarterback Demetrius Jones is moving to linebacker, wide receiver Marcus Barnett to cornerback, and tight end/fullback Marcus Waugh to linebacker, while former quarterback Craig Carey was switched to defense last season.
It's not a gimmick either. All are expected to start or contribute.
Diaco told the Cincinnati Enquirer that he wanted the defense to remain fluid, but that the Bearcats would not to commit to a 3-4 scheme on every down.
"We're going to try to do the things to keep the points down," Diaco said. "If that means rush seven, then we're going to do it. If that means drop nine, we'll do that too."
In what could shape up as a semi-rebuilding year in Cincinnati, a fourth consecutive postseason game would be evidence that the program is firmly on the tracks. Kelly understands that this season the Bearcats may have to win with offense, and he’s ready for it.
"I want to find the best way to win. Last year, the best way was to win 13-10 against Rutgers. The score might be 52-50 this year. If that's the case, we're prepared to go down that road. We think we've got the weapons to do it."
With a schedule that includes trips to Rutgers, Oregon State, South Florida, and Pittsburgh, and visits from Fresno State, Connecticut, West Virginia, and Illinois, anything more than seven wins would be an achievement.
Kelly and the Bearcats have bigger plans.
UP NEXT: Conference USA checks in at No. 36. Can this exciting second year coach reach the championship?