After a 4-8 season in 2010, the Cincinnati Bearcats saw a five-game improvement in 2011 en route to a 9-3 record.
They improved dramatically on both sides of the ball, particularly defense.
The hard work in the offseason paid off for the players on the field, and the Liberty Bowl awaits.
There were a lot of players who improved and some who didn't progress like they had hoped.
Here are five players who surprised us, and five who need to step it up for the bowl game after disappointing seasons.
While the season Derek Wolfe had does not come as a huge surprise, given the fact that he was a three-year starter, he was the key to the improvement on the entire defense.
Wolfe was a space-eater at defensive tackle.
He finished the year with 64 tackles, 19.5 of them for loss and 9.5 sacks.
He also had six quarterback hurries, two forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries.
Not enough can be said about the job Derek Wolfe did all season on the defensive line for Cincinnati.
Not a lot was expected of Anthony McClung coming out of high school.
He was not as highly recruited as some other players, but after 22 receptions, 217 yards and two touchdowns as a true freshman, McClung stepped into the starting role this year.
He was originally thought of as a complement to three-year starter D.J. Woods and junior college transfer Kenbrell Thompkins, but by the end of the season, McClung was the go-to receiver for Cincinnati.
His 48 receptions, 675 yards and five touchdowns led the team in all categories, and a lot will be expected the next two years out of McClung.
When Zach Collaros went down with a season-ending injury, many thought there was no chance Cincinnati could hold on to win a Big East title.
The play of backup quarterback Munchie Legaux helped Cincinnati do just that.
Legaux stepped into the starting role and improved dramatically every time out.
He finished the season with 749 yards passing in three starts and five touchdowns to go along with four interceptions. He also rushed for 185 yards and two touchdowns.
Cincinnati can expect a lot out of their starting quarterback the next two seasons.
Alex Chisum was expected to spend a year watching and possibly redshirting.
But as the season progressed, he developed into a backup and then the fourth receiver in the four-receiver sets.
By the last game of the year, Chisum was catching more balls than anybody except McClung.
The true freshman finished the season with 290 yards and two touchdowns on the season.
He will likely step into the starting role next season and will be a big threat for Cincinnati the next three seasons.
Cincinnati should get used to getting good field position for the next three seasons, as true freshman kick returner Ralph Abernathy IV gave them that on kickoffs all season.
He is a running back who will likely spend his career as a backup, but he could end up being the best kick returner the school has ever seen.
Abernathy IV averaged 24 yards a return on 31 tries with a long of 74.
He made huge plays when Cincinnati needed them most and will be counted on the next three years on special teams.
D.J. Woods is a third-year stater who has improved every year heading into 2011.
This season, however, he has been a big disappointment for Cincinnati.
After 57 receptions, 898 yards and 10 total touchdowns last season, Woods regressed drastically this year.
He finished with 37 receptions for 444 yards and two touchdowns in a year he was expected to be the No. 1 receiver for Cincinnati.
While Adrien Robinson is a solid tight end, a little more was expected out of him this year.
Robinson had 10 catches for 174 yards and a touchdown two years ago as a sophomore.
He had six catches last season while still serving as a backup to Ben Guidugli.
This year, his eight catches, 167 yards and three touchdowns were a slight disappointment, considering he was a starter.
While Butch Jones does not seem to use his tight ends as much as Brian Kelly, a bigger season from Robinson would have helped Cincinnati.
After having to sit out last year, junior college transfer Kenbrell Thompkins was poised for a big season in 2011.
A nagging hamstring injury slowed him down early in the season, and he never fully recovered.
Thompkins finished the year second in receiving for Cincinnati.
He had 44 receptions for 536 yards and two touchdowns.
This was his first year playing after taking a year off, and more will be expected out of Thompkins next season.
Defensive end Walter Stewart made perhaps the play of the year in the victory over Connecticut, stripping Huskie quarterback Johnny McEntee in the end zone for a touchdown, but he struggled most of the season.
A lot can be attributed to his switch from linebacker to defensive end.
He only totaled just over 40 tackles on the season and 5.5 sacks.
While it was not a bad year, much more will be expected out of Stewart in 2012.
Like Stewart, linebacker Maalik Bomar did not have a bad season, but he only finished with just over 50 tackles after he and J.K. Schaffer were expected to have big seasons for Cincinnati.
He only had one sack and three tackles for loss.
Bomar will be a senior next year and a three-year starter.
He will be counted on heavily as one of the leaders on defense.