This has been an incredible run for University of Cincinnati football. On November 28, 2006 the University of Cincinnati Bearcats took the field vs. the #6 Rutgers Scarlet Knights. The Bearcats were sitting at 5-5 on the season. To that point they had been 9-12 over the past two seasons and 28-31 over their past five seasons. The Bearcats went on to beat the #6 Rutgers Scarlet Knights and since they took the field that day are 36-7. Since that day they have been to 4 bowl games, 2 BCS games, had 3 top 20 finishes, won back to back outright Big East Championships, had an undefeated regular season and a top ten finish. This is a run that would have been hard for the most ardent Bearcat fans to see coming and it is a level of success fans now not only want to see continue but are starting to expect.
These are the stakes for the 2010 edition of the University of Cincinnati football team. Anything short of another Big East title will be a disappointment to them and to many fans. None of the past two Bearcat teams have been perfect but they have achieved their success by constantly making plays when the stakes were high late in games. They have achieved their success by finding ways to win games. Make no mistake there is talent across the board, but there are clear holes too and it has been an ability to pick each other up despite their flaws that has been the true brilliance of the Bearcat's run of success.
Last season the Bearcats had to replace ten starters from an experienced defense that had carried the Bearcats at times the prior three seasons. At times they performed very well, particularly early in the seasons. They slowed down Rutgers, they held what turned out to be a very good Oregon State offense to 18 points, they frustrated South Florida in the second half and made life tough for West Virginia for much of that game. The defense was clearly not the strength of the team, but for much of the year they were not a huge liability either. Still there were times, particularly late in the year when the Bearcat defense looked downright dreadful. A defense that was designed not to give up big plays gave up a ton of big plays against both UCONN and Florida. And for much of the first half against Pittsburgh the defense was nonexistent.
The hope from Bearcat fans is that many of the problems the Bearcats had were not just personnel related but also scheme related. The Bearcat defense was a 3-4 and much of the talent probably was not suited for the 3-4. The 3-4 defense also left their smaller linebackers more vulnerable to being blocked by big offensive lineman. So there hopefully is some truth in that, but ultimately the Bearcats issue this year is going to be inexperience and depth.
This year's defense at least in terms of senior leadership is less experienced than last year's. Gone are key senior leaders like Aaron Webster, Andre Revels, Alex Daniels and Curtis Young. The Bearcat 2 deep this year features only 2 seniors and that includes no seniors among the projected starters. On the plus side the Bearcats do returns 6 starters from last season (or at least players who started a significant amount of games last season). Derek Wolfe begins his third season (second as a full time starter) and should be poised for a huge year. Wolfe was forced to be the lone defensive tackle last year in the 3-4 defense and still managed strong numbers with 41 tackles, 5 sacks and 8 tackles for loss. The switch back to the 4-3 should free up Wolfe to make more of an impact in the backfield. The Bearcat defensive line as a hole lacks ideal size (outside of Wolfe and Hughes), but have some explosive players who do get into the backfield. I think the defensive line will continue to be very good about getting after the quarterback (something Bearcats teams have done going back to the Minter era), but the major question for the group will be do they hold up against the big, strong offensive lines from teams like Oklahoma, UCONN, Pitt and to a lesser extent Fresno State?
I am hoping that though Walter Stewart is listed as a starting linebacker that Bearcat fans will get to see him line up at end on some passing downs as he is great when attacking the quarterback. To me Walter Stewart is the Bearcat whose progress I am most excited to see this year. I was incredibly impressed with what Stewart was able to do last year filling in for Curtis Young. All indications are that Stewart has had a great off-season. Like much of the defense he will be shifting his role some, specifically for him to an outside linebacker in the 4-3 where his ability to cover and support in run defense will be a factor. I think Walter is a talented guy and should excel, so I am anxious for play to start. The Bearcat linebackers are a bit small as a group particularly on the weak side with Maalik Bomar getting the nod. Still I think this can be a position of strength for the Bearcats as Stewart is incredibly gifted and JK Schaffer has shown very good instincts in his two years as a linebacker for UC. Plus I think moving back the the 4-3 you can get away with having smaller faster linebackers as long as the defensive lineman are disruptive.
The Bearcats are replacing two starters in their secondary, the biggest loss being Aaron Webster who had a great senior season. With two starters returning this is seemingly a reasonably experienced group and yet the 2 deep features 5 sophomores, 2 juniors and a freshman. Drew Frey though is not your ordinary Sophomore. By the time he leaves he will seemingly have been a Bearcat for a decade. Frey and Battle are two relative knowns for the Bearcat defense, so the key to the secondary will be how young players like Reubon Johnson, Camerron Cheatham, Adrian Witty and Chris Williams fair. Getting good play from Wesley Richardson in his first year starting at free safety will be key as well. Overall I think there is some good talent back there and am anxious to see how they perform.
The area of concern that everyone who follows the program closely seems to harp back on when they talk about the 2010 Bearcat defense is finding quality depth. As noted earlier much of the two deep is very young and though the Bearcat defense in general is somewhat undersized the backups are considerably undersized at certain areas. If somehow the Bearcats can get really solid years from the likes of Jordan Stepp, Rob Trigg, Colin Lozier, Obadiah Cheatham and Robby Armstrong than maybe the defense can hold up better throughout the season this year. The thought is that the Bearcats may once again have to win some shootouts this year, if this defense can take a big step forward this season and become not necessarily a strength but at least a positive this could be yet another banner year for Bearcat football.
On the first drive of the season against Rutgers last year the Bearcat offense set the tone for what they would be. The Bearcats went 81 yards in 9 plays taking just over 2 minutes to score. It was play after play for positive yards, in quick succession and they were in the end zone. For much of the year the Bearcats were unstoppable on offense, playing at a breakneck pace with ruthless efficiency. They seemingly scored every time they wanted to and they had weapons all across the field When Tony Pike went down with a broken arm, the offense made some subtle adjustments to their style and Zach Collaros continued the trend of ruthless efficiency.
The 2010 Bearcat offense has the potential to be every bit as good as the 2009 offense, though at times slightly different in their style. The Bearcats will still primary be a shotgun spread offense. They will still come at you with multiple receivers, tight ends and running backs. This season though there seems to be a more a focus on running the football. In fact when I look at what Bearcat offense I expect to see, the West Virginia game sticks out in my mind from last season.
Zach Collaros will begin his first full season running the show. Zach was absolutely brilliant in his 4.5 games last year. He completed 75 percent of his passed throwing for 1434 yards and 10 touchdowns. He also ran for 334 yards and 4 touchdowns giving Butch Jones a duel threat quarterback much like he had at Central Michigan. I know the general consensus has been that it seems unreasonable to expect Zach to be as brilliant as he was in those 4.5 games...but why not? Indeed what is there to make us think he cannot be even better?
Last offseason Zach was splitting the second string reps with two other backup quarterbacks while Tony Pike was being prepared to start. This offseason Zach has been getting the first string reps, he knows he is the quarterback and he is getting to work more and more extensively with the rest of the first team. I have to believe that counts for a whole lot.
Last season the offensive line was a big strength for the Bearcats. Pike and Collaros both had time to throw and when UC ran the ball they almost always ran it effectively. The line also gave up very few sacks despite passing a high percentage of the time. The Bearcats return three starters on the offensive line in Griffin, Kelce, and Hoffman. If the offensive line can continue to be a strong as it was last season this offense should once again have a chance to put up huge numbers. Griffen slides over to Left Tackle to take over for Linkenbach. While Kelce slides back to center to take over for Jurek. Alex Hoffman and Evan Davis will be the guards while CJ Cobb plays right tackle. All these guys were key parts of the offensive line productivity last season. It will be very important to get good production from guys like Hoeey, Martinez and Cuerton. If the offensive line can open holes and protect Collaros that will open up opportunities for the abundance of talent and athleticism the Bearcats have at their skill positions.
With the stated focus on running the ball we can expect Isaiah Pead to have a very big season. Pead averaged a stellar 6.7 yards per carry last season though he only carried the ball 121 times. With the increased workload it may be unrealistic to expect that type of yards per carry (as teams will be more aware of run), but because of all the Bearcats weapons teams really will never have the chance to simply key on Pead. As long as Pead stays healthy I think we can expect to see a 1200-1400 yard season. A couple reasons I don't think Pead will go much over that are that I think we'll see Zach getting some runs on the read option and I expect to see the other running backs get in on the action as well.
Most importantly, though the Bearcats will be more committed to the run this year, I still think they will throw more than they run. In the end this team is at its best when they are putting pressure on teams by getting the ball in the hands of their playmaking wide receivers. That will be just as much the case this season as last season. Despite the loss of Mardy Gilyard the Bearcats may be as good as any team in the country at the skill positions. The Bearcats will look to Vidal Hazelton to take over for Gilyard as the explosive playmaker and will once again be strengthened by Armon Binns (a premier down field threat) and DJ Woods another big time receiver with explosive playmaking ability. Ben Guidugli is back for his senior year after a very good junior campaign and anything the Bearcats get from talented guys like Marcus Barnett and Adrien Robinson is gravy.
It will be very, very difficult for opposing defenses to match up with the depth of talent UC can run at them if Collaros has time to throw the football. If I had to guess I would still bet on UC throwing the ball close to 60 percent of the time when the game is in doubt (now in blowouts we may run more and kill clock) simply because I firmly believe that is where this team has its biggest strength (this is obviously with know inside knowledge, I'm sure those closer to the program may know better). My hope is that this offense can control the ball a bit more, keep the defense fresh and be just as ruthlessly efficient as last years squad.
Special Teams (and intangibles):
And here is where the question of how do you replace Mardy Gilyard comes full circle? How do you replace the three absolutely enormous returns Mardy had to set up touchdowns against Pittsburgh (most notably the one down 21 at the end of the half, but lets not forget the field position he gave them on the game winning drive)? How do you replace a guy who continually did it on the biggest of stages? I have to admit I have never enjoyed watching anyone on any team more than I enjoyed watching Mardy the past couple of years and it all came down to just his unreal ability to do it when it mattered most.
The Bearcats might be better this year at wide receiver, but will they have that hidden something Mardy gave them. In general I am pretty confident in the return game. I think there are a number of guys the Bearcats could put on special teams who would consistently give them great field position and pose a threat to opposing teams. It sounds like that duty is going to fall in the hands of Vidal Hazelton and DJ Woods. Woods we have seen do it in the past, Hazelton is the guy all Bearcat fans are aching to see. I think once again we will see the return game be a huge plus for the Bearcats, but it is hard to imagine it being better without Mardy.
I also expect big things from Jake Rogers who has just gotten better every year for the Bearcats. Jake's powerful leg gives the Bearcats a huge advantage in kickoff coverage and it was an advantage we saw time and time again last season. To me Jake was very impressive last year in that he was asked to punt (all be it not that often) and asked to kick field goals. I have grown in confidence when Jake kicks every year and though I hope he does not have to kick too many field goals I think we will have one of the better kickers in the nation when he does,
Punter to me is an unknown commodity. What I have heard of O'Donnell is he has a huge leg and just has to get his consistency in order (reminds me of Adam Wulfeck in that he could boom a seventy yarder and a 25 yarder on back to back punts). UC has really been good in their punt games the past few seasons first with Huber and then to a lesser extent with Rogers last year.
I think special teams has been one of those things that has really put UC over the top and allowed them to win some of those tossup games that got them to a conference title the past couple of years. Can that continue to be a huge strength? That will go a long way to determining if UC can win a third straight Big East title.
Saturday, September 4 @ Fresno State- This is a game that really worries me. Fresno State returns their entire offensive line, an offensive line that could potentially give the Bearcats smallish defensive line trouble. I think the shift back to the 4-3 will help the Bearcats deal with them better this year. Fresno State, however, is more than the smash mouth run team we saw last year. They have an experienced, capable quarterback and talent at wide receiver. They will probably score some, but I think the defense holds and their defense has a hard time stopping us. WIN
Saturday, September 11, Indiana State- Nothing to say here... UC will dominate a wretched team. WIN
Thursday, September 16 @ NC State- The good thing about playing Indiana State is that UC can probably start looking at NC State a little early for the short week. NC State will be a big test for UC's secondary. Russell Wilson is one heck of a quarterback and he will put pressure on UC with his feet and his arm. Ultimately I think UC will be able to put enough pressure and score enough to win, but this is another scary game. WIN (But Worries Me)
Saturday, September 25, Oklahoma- A day many of us Bearcat fans have really looked forward to as the Sooners make the return trip to Cincinnati (I know we are planning an all out tailgate and will flag down all OU fans to join us because of the hospitality they showed a couple years ago). Oklahoma has the type of offensive line that could give this defense trouble. Still there is a reason Oklahoma struggled at times last year and I do not know if they are as dominate as they were two seasons ago in Norman. UC will be really up, it will be in Cincinnati... who knows... That said. LEANING TOWARDS LOSS
Saturday, October 9, Miami (OH)- The Bell Stays in Cincinnati... now and forever. WIN
Friday, October 15 @ Louisville- I think this will be a tougher game than last year. It's never easy to go down there and win especially in a rivalry game. That said UC is just a much better team. WIN
Friday, October 22, South Florida- We had their number when Grothe was in charge and frankly I just do not think they are good enough to come up here this year and win. They are going to be vulnerable on defense and not consistent enough on offense. WIN
Saturday, October 30, Syracuse- Our first three games in conference come against what I think will be the bottom three teams in the Big East this season. The schedule makers certainly are giving the Bearcats plenty of time to get their game in order this year, but they are setting up one hell of a difficult finish. WIN
Saturday, November 13 @ West Virginia- The last bye week comes before the start of the four game stretch that will decide the conference. Two years ago Cincinnati went into West Virginia and got the big win they needed to win the conference. This year we get an extra week to prepare and that will be huge (of course WVU gets the extra week as well). WVU returns more starters than any team in the conference and they will be hungry after the last two seasons. I think UC matches up better against the WVU running attack than they do the Pitt/UCONN running attacks. If it was at UC I would favor the Bearcats, but it is on the road... what the hell I still favor the Bearcats. LEANING TOWARDS WIN (barely)
Saturday, November 20, Rutgers- The other team the Bearcats have seemingly owned the past few seasons. I think by this time Rutgers will really be playing good football. Savage will have been the quarterback for nearly two seasons and the defense will be clicking. That said...it is at Nippert and I just do not think Rutgers is coming here and winning (night game please). WIN
Saturday, November 27 @ UCONN- Finally the Bearcats get the chance to avenge their last loss in the Big East and what a game this could end up being. UCONN has the advantage of playing WVU/PITT/UC all at home and will already have played WVU/PITT at this point. We will know then if UCONN has lived up to their hype coming into the season. I think the balance of UCONN's power blocking offensive line and their late found passing game could give UC trouble again this year. Still it is hard to shake the big lead UC had last year. UC will be coming off back to back very tough games. I keep playing this game in my head and have a harder time figuring out the result every time. TOSSUP
Saturday, December 4, Pittsburgh- Could the Big East title come down to a game with Pittsburgh for the third straight season? I would say the odds are are fairly decent of that happening. Pittsburgh could give UC trouble in many of the same ways they gave UC trouble last year, but this year I do not know that Pittsburgh's offensive line will be as good and I my hope is UC will have developed enough depth that their defense will be playing much better by this game. In the end playing at Nippert Stadium at the end of the year, in what I hope will be another prime time Big East game... I have to take the Bearcats. LEANING TOWARDS WIN
Looking back at my projections I have 7 solid wins. I have the NC State game as a win, but it does worry me a bit. I have two games (WVU and Pitt) where I am leaning towards a Bearcat win, one true tossup game against UCONN, and the Oklahoma game where I am leaning towards loss. That puts my range of record anywhere from 7-5 to 12-0 (yeah, unlike last year when I idiotically made 11-1 my best case scenario...never doing that again). In all honesty I have this team losing 2 of those 5 games to finish 10-2... and I have them as the team with the Best chance to win the Big East title. The last three years I have had the Bearcats predicted for 9-3 (2007, dead on), 11-2 (2008, dead on) and 10-2 (2009, two games below actual). Lets hope the trend of me being right or undervaluing the Bearcats continues...because I still want to dream National Championship. All in all very excited for football to begin.
OHHHHHHHHHHH OHHHHHHHHH OHHHHHHHHH... OH OH OH OH...UC!!!