By my count five different teams have been picked to win the Big East Conference this year by various sources. People seem to think the Bearcats will finish anywhere from 1 to 5 in the league.
Coming off of their first Big East Championship (and first outright league title in decades) can the Bearcats repeat?
With the target on their backs and a defense that only returns one starter it would seem a tall order. In good news, however, Brian Kelly remains the coach of the Bearcats and the offense returns almost entirely intact...with all that in mind lets take a detailed look about what to expect this season.
The first thing everyone notices about this Bearcat defense is everything they lost. Gone are drafted secondary members Mike Mickens, DeAngelo Smith, and Brandon Underwood. Gone is Big East sack leader and second round draft pick Conner Barwin. Gone is All American Defensive Tackle Terrill Byrd.
All told the Bearcats lost 10 of 11 starters. Also missing is Bearcat defensive coordinator Joe Tressey with his 4-3 zone defense and in his place steps Bob Diaco with his aggressive 3-4. Truth be told this Cincinnati defense could not at first glance look any more different from the 2008 version that helped lead the Bearcats to a Big East Championship.
The good news is this may not be as bad as it appears. The Bearcats appear to have a big, strong, and fast defensive line. Every player returning contributed positively last season. By all accounts Derek Wolfe has been an imposing force throughout camp.
At 6'5 and over 300 pounds Wolfe offers a combination of size and skill that has been rarely seen on the Bearcat defensive line. He seems ideally situated to be a force at nose tackle.
Combined with other strong, athletic players like John Hughes, Rob Trigg, Ricardo Mathews, Alex Daniels and Dan Giordano I have little doubt the Bearcat defensive line will be able to occupy offensive lineman and allow the linebackers plenty of opportunities to make plays. Any added pressure these guys can put on the quarterback will be a complete bonus for the defense.
With the defensive lineman making life very difficult on opposing offenses it should free up space for the linebackers and safeties to make plays. The starting safeties for Cincinnati are ideally suited to do just that. Aaron Webster was great against the run last season. He was consistently in on tackles, delivering big hits, without allowing big yards.
When healthy, Bearcat coaches have been very impressed with the play of Drew Frey and I have little doubt he will be very solid in run defense.
Linebacker is a position with far more questions, but lets start with the good news. The outside linebacker position in the 3-4 defense seems like an ideal place to showcase the skills of Curtis Young. Young was somewhat limited in action last season playing behind all Big East defensive end Conner Barwin, but in that limited action he yielded four sacks and 8.5 tackles for a loss.
Young is the type of player who can line up with his hand on the ground at more of a defensive end position and can play straight up like a linebacker. I look for him to be disruptive in opposing backfields all season long.
Andre Revels becomes the full time starter for the first time in his career at middle linebacker. Revels has been solid essentially splitting time with Manalac 50-50 over the past two season.
The rest of the Bearcat linebacking corp does not lack for strength or athleticism.
Former quarterback Demetrius Jones may be the most athletic player on the Bearcat roster. Craig Carey and Marcus Waugh have also taken their abilities and moved to the defensive side of the football.
Players like Colin McCafferty, J.K. Schaffer, Robby Armstrong and Dorian Davis will get their chance to make plays. These linebackers probably have more athletic ability than last years and I think this will translate into players who perform strongly against the run all season.
Which brings me to the big question for the Bearcat defense... pass defense.
How well will these linebackers, playing in a completely new system and starting for the first time be able to understand and execute the pass defenses Bob Diaco asks them to play? If the Bearcat defense is going to struggle to me this is the obvious area that will give them problems.
Beyond the linebackers, will the Bearcats be able to adequately replace the contributions NFL bound Mickens, Smith and Underwood were able to give them?
I have a great deal of confidence in Dominique Battle because he was able to do it on the field late last season. Brad Jones has the experience and the size, but he has not been asked to be a full time corner before... will he be up to the task?
The Bearcats will need Battle, Jones and some of the other young cornerbacks like Reubon Johnson, MJ James, Chris Williams, and Camerron Cheetham to step up in a big way if they are going to repeat as Big East Champions.
All in all I feel very good about the Bearcat run defense and see some obvious questions when it comes to their pass defense. If the Bearcats can answer those concerns they can be every bit as good, if not better than last years championship squad.
There has never been a season where I have had more confidence about a Cincinnati Bearcat offense heading into week one. In Gino Guidugli's final season he had a completely new head coach who ran a different type of offense.
When Brian Kelly arrived he was trying to switch from power running to shotgun spread and was trying to do it with a relatively undistinguished transfer QB with pins in his arm.
Last season everyone was wondering would it be Mauk, Grutza, Pike or someone else leading the show? When Coach Kelly decided on Grutza everyone remembered his mediocre career as Dantonio's starter. Could Kelly turn him into a star?
Eventually Grutza went down and Pike took over leading Cincinnati to a Big East Championship. The great part about that was now Cincinnati fans have an idea of what they can get from Pike and the possibilities have us excited.
Not enough is being made of the fact that this is the first time Brian Kelly has known his quarterback going into the spring since he was coaching at Division II Grand Valley State.
Think about that for a second.
Think about how good Brian Kelly's offenses have looked at Central Michigan and now at Cincinnati and remember that he has done that without getting an entire offseason to really prepare one quarterback.
Tony Pike has been the guy all offseason. He has taken the first team reps, been able to continually up his connection with his receivers and running backs, enhance his feel for the offensive lineman and their protections, as well as really master the offense.
Last season because of all the injuries and uncertainties the Bearcats slowed things down. They did not get to the line as fast or change the pace like they had in Kelly's first season.
Now with Pike being the guy and being prepared all offseason I expect to see everything Kelly wants to throw out there this season. To me this is huge and the biggest story going into the season for Bearcat football. I just cannot imagine this offense not clicking on all cylinders.
This of course would be less relevant if the Bearcats had lost a bunch of players on offense, luckily that is not the case. Pike has back his entire left side of the offensive line to protect his blind side in Linkenbach and Kelce, as well as he gets his starting center back in Chris Jurek.
The Bearcats are replacing the right side of the line, but they are doing so with talent that saw plenty of action last season and have the potential to be very good. Alex Hoffman, C.J. Cobb, and Sam Griffen are expected to really solidify the offensive line.
The Bearcats have their top three running backs returning and fans expect to see more of play making type backs such as Isaiah Pead and Darrin Williams this season. Perhaps the deepest position on the Bearcat roster is wide receiver where they return first team all Big East wide receiver Mardy Gilyard as well as talented contributors Armon Binns, D.J. Woods, and Marcus Barnett.
With all of this talent back, an entire offseason working with Kelly, and the prospect of repeating as Big East Champions; I have little doubt Tony Pike will lead this offense to huge accomplishments this season. I really believe this will be the best Bearcat offense of the modern era.
On Special Teams:
You do not replace Kevin Huber. The man led the nation in net punting back to back seasons. I am not sure how often that happens but I am willing to bet it is incredibly rare. I have never seen a punter consistently put the ball inside the 10 or at the very least 20 as often as Huber did.
When the Bearcats were banged up it was Kevin Huber that allowed the Bearcats to play much more conservatively than I am sure Brian Kelly is used to or ideally wanted to. My hope is the Bearcats get solid punting. If they do that I really feel with the strong offense they can offset the loss of Kevin Huber. Still in close games against top notch defenses that is a worry.
Throwing out Huber, however, I am very confident in Bearcat special teams. Mardy Gilyard took two kickoffs back for touchdowns in 2008 and was one of the premier kickoff returners in the country. I think D.J. Woods has to potential to come into his own as a punt returner this year.
Jake Rodgers has gotten his share of grief as a Bearcat but his sophomore year was considerably better than his freshman year and when you look at the numbers he was very good. Now he has another year of experience.
He already has a huge leg (3-4 from 50+) and I really believe this is the year he puts it all together and becomes a huge weapon for the Bearcats (though ideally we will be scoring touchdowns not field goals).
@ Rutgers, Monday September 7: Talk about an enormous way to open the season. This is a Labor Day conference game against two of the favorites to win the conference. This really is a game the Bearcats cannot afford to lose if they want to win the Conference.
Rutgers is returning a bunch on defense and their offensive line is completely intact from last year. They do, however, lose their quarterback and top two receivers. I really believe there is not a better time to catch Rutgers, because once they get their quarterback situation settled they are going to be as good as anyone in the league.
Rutgers has the advantage of playing all of the projected contenders at home (Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, West Virginia, and South Florida). If Cincinnati can win this game they will have a huge leg up on the other contenders who will have to go to Rutgers after they get their QB situation in order. Leaning Towards Win
Southeast Missouri State, Saturday September 12: The first home game of the year should be a route. WIN
@ Oregon State, Saturday September 19: A huge non-conference road trip where the Bearcats will really get the opportunity to represent the Big East. Two years ago the Bearcats absolutely abused the Beavers at Nippert.
Oregon State has one of the best running backs in the country in Jacquizz Rodgers. They return a good amount of starters from a team that tied for second in the Pac Ten. It is never easy to win in Corvallis...just ask Pete Carroll and USC who lost the last 2 times they went there(including last season).
I like the Bearcats' ability to stop the run, but this will be a very difficult road environment. Tossup
Fresno State, Saturday September 26: Fresno State is always a tough non-conference test for BCS teams. They seem to always come ready to play and have consistently competed for WAC titles.
This game is sandwiched in between a trip to the west coast and a traditional rivalry game so we have to hope the Bearcats remain focused. That being said I do not anticipate a loss. WIN
@Miami (OH), Saturday October 3: A rivalry that is going to be one-sided for a while. WIN
@ USF, Thursday October 15: The Bearcats are lucky in that they get their first bye week to prepare for a Thursday night game at league rival USF (USF also has a bye so it is not an advantage).
The Bearcats have owned the Bulls and particularly Matt Grothe the past few seasons, however, this game has an interesting twist with former Bearcat defensive coordinator Joe Tresey running the Bulls defense.
Tresey and his knowledge of the Bearcats and what they do scares me a bit, but in the end I still like this team to get the job done. Leaning Towards Bearcats
Louisville, Saturday October 24: Homecoming... I know it is a rivalry, but I expect Louisville to be really bad. WIN
@Syracuse, Saturday October 31: It is Syracuse...they are starting a Duke Flopper who has not played football in four years at quarterback... I have confidence. WIN
UCONN, Saturday November 7: Big revenge game for the Bearcats who absolutely fell apart last season in the forth quarter against UCONN. Last year was the first game where I have really questioned Kelly's strategy as he refused to run the ball even with Anderson looking awful.
UCONN is never an easy team to play. They are well coach and have plenty of talent on the defensive side of the ball. I really do not think they have enough offense. WIN
West Virginia, Friday November 13: It is Friday the 13th and the Bearcats have a huge conference game against WVU. To me this is the game that really could decide the conference championship. West Virginia had owned the Bearcats in Big East play up until last season.
I personally believe that Brown is going to do a very good job running an offense that will be very balanced this year for the Mountaineers. Can the Bearcats beat the Mountaineers and repeat as Big East champions?
I think being at home gives the Bearcats a slight advantage... very slight. Leaning Towards Bearcats (barely)
Illinois, Friday November 27: The Bearcats get a week off to refocus after the WVU game. That is nice, because this is another great chance for the Big East to show what they have out of conference.
It is hard to know what to expect from Illinois. Last year they really struggled, two years ago they made the Rose Bowl. The talent is there, will they perform? I say not in a hostile Nippert. WIN
@Pittsburgh: I think the loss of McCoy hurts more than many believe. Pittsburgh has a very good defense, but to me not as dominate as some have made it out to be. I think the Bearcats are able to score enough to win while Pittsburgh struggles to run the football on the Bearcat defense.
This game scares me a bit because if Pittsburgh can get consistent production from the quarterback position they could be as good as anyone in the conference (and potentially a top 15 team). I, however, have not seen anything to really prove that will happen. WIN (but worries me a little)
Looking back at my projections I have seven solid wins for the Bearcats to go with one win that worries me a little, three leaning towards win and 1 true tossup. Of those five non wins I am going to assume the Bearcats lose no more than four and lose at least one.
With all that said my range for the Bearcats this season is 8-4 to 11-1. I am leaning towards the higher totals that fits with my projection that has many of the tossup type games as close Bearcat wins.
My projection is 10-2 with a 6-1 or 5-2 conference record. If we go 6-1 in conference I think we have a great shot at a Big East Championship. Looking at everything I still think the Bearcats have the best odds of any team in the conference to win the Big East. (Last year my projection was 11-2 and said if 1 of the wins was at WVU we'd be Big East Champions)...
So there you have it. Monday cannot get here soon enough. Still to come this week is my full Big East Preview... until then... OHHHHHHHHHHHHHH OHHHHHHHHHHHH OHHHHHHHHHHH OH OH OH OH UC!!!