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The Countdown

A bottom-to-top assessment of the F.B.S. landscape heading into the 2012 season.

The Countdown

No. 42: Cincinnati

In a parallel universe, Zach Collaros rolls to his left, eludes one potential tackler and then slides ahead for a short gain. In another parallel universe, Collaros simply accepts his fate, and is swallowed under by three, four, five West Virginia defenders. In a third parallel universe, Collaros stiff-arms a pass rusher, rolls to his right and throws the ball three rows high in the stands. Instead, Collaros took the shotgun snap, stepped back three yards, hopped two paces to his right, reversed course, paused, pump-faked and ran diagonally towards the goal line before being ripped down to the turf, falling with his full weight upon his right ankle, the ball popping high into the air and into the end zone, where it was recovered by West Virginia’s Julian Miller for a touchdown. His regular season was over: Collaros underwent surgery for a broken ankle two days later before returning in time for Cincinnati’s bowl win over Vanderbilt. In his place came Munchie Legaux, a sophomore, and out went the Bearcats’ chances at winning the Big East. It’s a short, jam-packed season: one play can make all the difference in the world.

Conference
Big East

Location
Cincinnati, Oh.

Nickname
Bearcats

Returning starters
10 (4 offense, 6 defense)

Last year’s ranking
No. 55

2011 record
(10-3, 5-2)

Last year’s
re-ranking

No. 26

2012 schedule

  • Sept. 6
    Pittsburgh
  • Sept. 13
    Delaware St.
  • Sept. 29
    vs. Virginia Tech (in Landover, Md.)
  • Oct. 6
    Miami (Ohio)
  • Oct. 13
    Fordham
  • Oct. 20
    at Toledo
  • Oct. 26
    at Louisville
  • Nov. 3
    Syracuse
  • Nov. 10
    at Temple
  • Nov. 17
    Rutgers
  • Nov. 23
    U.S.F.
  • Dec. 1
    at Connecticut

Last year’s prediction

Cincinnati’s going to make a nice improvement. The Bearcats are headed back to bowl play, as this team is far too talented to not make a three-game improvement in the win column. But U.C. cannot be considered a Big East title favorite — alongside Pittsburgh and West Virginia — with these two major question marks: the offensive line and the defense as a whole, the secondary in particular. Even with this line, I don’t think the offense is going to struggle: I think the offense will be better than it was a year ago. Collaros is a very good Big East quarterback, Pead can clearly get it done on the ground and the receiver corps, though unproven, has more than enough talent to get by. It just all comes back to this defense. It will be better, pushing this team away from the bottom of the Big East, but it won’t be good enough to vault U.C. past the conference favorites.

2011 recap

In a nutshell It was a nice bounce-back year for Butch Jones, who led Cincinnati to its fourth double-digit win season in five tries after his disappointing debut. The most noticeable development was the improvement on the offensive side of the ball, where the Bearcats scored nearly an additional touchdown per game than in 2010; after ranking 57th nationally in scoring in Jones’ first season, the Bearcats moved up to 26th in the F.B.S. last fall. The offensive growth overshadowed the great strides taken on defense, where the Bearcats were in their second season playing in a base 4-3 set after using a 3-4 look under Brian Kelly. Cincinnati finished sixth nationally in rush defense, ahead of Georgia, Michigan State and Virginia Tech, among others, and only yards behind teams like L.S.U. and Stanford.

High point Wins over Louisville and Pittsburgh, which along with a win over South Florida gave the Bearcats a perfect start to Big East play. Also in the running: Cincinnati’s 44-14 destruction of N.C. State in September, one the Bearcats led by 41-14 after three quarters, and the bowl win over the Commodores.

Low point The loss to West Virginia. The Bearcats still had a shot at the Big East title heading into the final week of the regular season, but the Mountaineers were able to get past U.S.F. to clinch an Orange Bowl berth.

Tidbit With West Virginia now part of the Big 12, Cincinnati is the only Big East program with four double-digit win seasons over the last five years. Scratch that: Cincinnati is the only Big East program with more than one double-digit win season over the last five years. Pittsburgh, which won 10 games in 2009, is the only other program in the league with a double-digit win season since 2007. The Bearcats have won 55 games over the last six years, also the most among current members of the Big East. The rest, in order: Rutgers (49), South Florida (47), Pittsburgh (44), Connecticut (42), Louisville (41), Temple (36) and Syracuse (26).

Tidbit (old, old edition) Cincinnati bills itself as one of the five oldest programs in college football. Unfortunately, that isn’t true – though the university isn’t too far off. While not the fifth-oldest program in the F.B.S., Cincinnati, which played its first game in 1885, is the ninth-oldest among those schools that have traditionally been part of the F.B.S.; this does not include Massachusetts, which played its first game in 1879 but will only join the division in September. Those programs older than Cincinnati, with first season of play in parentheses: Rutgers (1869), Northwestern (1875), Michigan (1878), Navy (1879), Kentucky (1881), Penn State (1881) – each christened its program on Nov. 12 of that year – Minnesota (Sept. 30, 1882) and California (Dec. 8, 1882). Cincinnati is mere months older than Michigan State, which played its first game on June 5, 1886.

Former players in the N.F.L.

23 LB Connor Barwin (Houston), WR Armon Binns (Cincinnati), OG Trevor Canfield (New York Jets), TE Brent Celek (Philadelphia), DE Trent Cole (Philadelphia), WR Mardy Gilyard (Philadelphia), TE Ben Guidugli (St. Louis), WR Vidal Hazelton (Cincinnati), P Kevin Huber (Cincinnati), DT John Hughes (Cleveland), C Jason Kelce (Philadelphia), OT Jeffrey Linkenbach (Indianapolis), DT Ricardo Mathews (Indianapolis), S Haruki Nakamura (Carolina), RB Isaiah Pead (St. Louis), TE Adrien Robinson (New York Giants), LB J.K. Schaffer (Jacksonville), DE Monte Taylor (Philadelphia), CB Brandon Underwood (Oakland), LS Mike Windt (San Diego), DT Derek Wolfe (Denver), WR D.J. Woods (Tennessee), DE Mike Wright (New England).

Arbitrary top five list

Authors with Cincinnati ties, with notable work
1. Harriet Beecher Stowe, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”
2. Thomas Berger, “The Feud.”
3. Frederic Brown, “Knock.”
4. Michael Cunningham, “The Hours.”
5. Curtis Sittenfeld, “Prep.”

Coaching

Butch Jones (Ferris State ’90), 14-11 after two seasons at Cincinnati. It wasn’t a great start for Jones, who won four games in his debut season, but he led the Bearcats to another double-digit win campaign last fall – replicating yet another one of Brian Kelly’s feats. Jones was tabbed as Central Michigan’s new coach in 2007 after Kelly left C.M.U. for Cincinnati, and in some regards he took the program to new heights. His record at C.M.U. was 29-13, with a 12-2 season and MAC championship in 2009 bringing Jones into the conversation for a handful of B.C.S. conference openings. Through two seasons, his 16 victories and 13 wins in conference play were the second-most of any MAC coach over his first two years. He also led the Chippewas to three consecutive bowl trips, a program first. Yes, Kelly was the coach who first brought C.M.U. out of its generation-long malaise, but don’t allow that in any way to detract from the job Jones did smoothly transitioning his coaching staff while keeping in place the same offense that Kelly had implemented to perfection over his three-year term in Mount Pleasant. It was a happy return to C.M.U. for Jones, who served as an assistant coach with the Chippewas from 1998-2004, including a three-year stint (2001-3) as offensive coordinator. Following the 2004 season, Jones left to serve as Rich Rodriguez’s wide receivers coach at West Virginia. A two-year stint under Rodriguez allowed Jones to at least gain a measure of familiarity with the Big East. It also allowed him to familiarize himself with the spread offense, though Jones was very wise to merely continue running Kelly’s offense at Central Michigan instead of implementing a new system. The comparisons between Jones and Kelly won’t end soon, but Jones is beginning to make a name for himself thanks to the way he rapidly rebuilt Cincinnati into a Big East contender.

Players to watch

Munchie Legaux didn’t play himself out of contention for the starting job during his four-game audition last November, but neither did Legaux play well enough to be the undisputed starter heading into spring ball. If nothing else, Legaux’s unpredictable play as an injury replacement for Zach Collaros indicated some substantial room for growth – that’s looking at things positively, as it would be easy to say that his struggles in the starting lineup proved that Legaux simply doesn’t have what it takes to run Cincinnati’s offense at full tilt.

The truth lies somewhere in between. Based on last season, Legaux would give U.C. the sort of dual-threat quarterback Jones seems to favor in his system; at the same time, he does need to show drastic improvement come September to maintain his starting role. Over four games as Cincinnati’s primary quarterback, Legaux completed 50 of 107 attempts for 688 yards with 5 touchdowns and 4 picks; he added 147 yards on the ground, including 77 yards in the narrow loss to West Virginia. His running ability distances him from Cincinnati’s other leading options at quarterback, but Legaux simply must become more consistent and reliable as a passer for this offense to reach its full potential.

And it’s way too early to anoint Legaux as the starter – partly due to his own inefficiencies, to be honest. Senior Brandon Kay made a push for the starting job with a strong spring, but he has his own faults to overcome: Kay has been prone to injuries throughout his career, beginning with a knee injury he suffered in 2008. But due in large part to his injuries, Kay lacks Leeaux’s mobility; when push comes to shove, Jones will want Legeux’s athleticism at quarterback. Still, the junior has much to prove – to his coaches, his team and the rest of the Big East.

U.C. also needs to find a replacement for running back Isaiah Pead, who left as one of three backs in school history to post two 1,000-yard seasons. While senior George Winn (219 yards) will open the year as his replacement, it will be interesting to see how Jones and his staff utilize two very, very promising sophomores: Ralph David Abernathy IV and Jameel Poteat. Abernathy – the grandson of civil rights hero Ralph Abernathy – has proven himself as a weapon in the return game; after failing to grab a role in the backfield last fall, he must show that he can translate his speed on special teams to the offensive side of the ball. Poteat, a pretty major recruit, was likewise a secondary asset in Cincinnati’s running game last fall.

But both will play, with one likely pushing Winn out of the starting role over the course of this season. Why? Because Winn’s ceiling is lower, for starters, but both Abernathy IV and Poteat bring more big-play ability – Abernathy IV is a burner, as evidenced by his work in the return game. You can even see the two sophomores complimenting each other well, with Poteat doing the dirty work and Abernathy IV being used outside the tackles.

The Bearcats have a really nice top trio at receiver – again, whether Legaux can get them the ball is another question. As was the case down the stretch last fall, U.C. will start senior Kenbrell Thompkins (44 receptions for 536 yards), a former JUCO transfer; junior Anthony McClung (49 for 683 and 6 scores), last year’s leading receiver; and sophomore Alex Chisum (19 for 302), who began moving into a larger and larger role as last season progressed. The issue, as elsewhere, is depth. But depth, now an issue, could become a strength if a few younger contributors step into the second level on the depth chart: Chris Moore, Shaq Washington, Dyjuan Lewis and a few others, for example.

Washington is a player to watch; if healthy – he’s still working back from an ankle injury – he could be a nice weapon inside. Likewise with Moore, whose early career has been hampered by academic issues. U.C. could also rely on converted quarterback Jordan Luallen, a former Georgia Tech transfer who could be used in a number of different ways. The Bearcats could also use Abernathy IV in the slot, should he fail to land significant carries at running back. This offense will also need a big year out of senior tight end Travis Kelce (13 for 150) – Legaux should use Kelce as a security blanket, something he didn’t do as Cincinnati’s starter last November and December.

Cincinnati returns three players who started at least six games up front a season ago. Two will shift positions to help U.C. replace the three full-time starters since lost to graduation: left tackle Alex Hoffman, left guard Randy Martinez and center Evan Davis. After taking over at right tackle midway through last season, sophomore Eric Lefeld moves over to blind side, replacing Hoffman. Junior Austen Bujnoch does the same, moving from right to left guard – he started all 13 games a year ago. Senior Sean Hooey, a 6’9, 300-pound protector, regains his starting job at right tackle. Junior Dean Sprague is locked in as Cincinnati’s starter at center – he was last year’s backup – but the staff still needs to settle on a right guard: Andre Cureton holds the edge, but he’ll need to solidify his starting role in August.

The best move Jones made heading into last season was, in a way, his easiest – it didn’t take a genius, with all due respect to Jones, to see that Walter Stewart was being misused as one of Cincinnati’s outside linebackers. Stewart (44 tackles, 11.0 for loss, 6.0 sacks) was moved down to end, his more natural position, and the impact this had on Cincinnati’s defensive front was palpable: Stewart was in a more comfortable position; the pass rush was improved; it gave U.C. an outside presence to team with all-American tackle Derek Wolfe; and it pushed senior Brandon Mills (30 tackles, 5.5 sacks) into a well-fitting role as a pure pass rusher.

Stewart’s back this fall, as is he partner in the starting lineup, senior Dan Giordano (34 tackles, 5.0 sacks). Both should challenge for all-Big East honors as seniors, with Stewart even more comfortable at end and Giordano working at full capacity after suffering a few dings and bruises a season ago. Mills’ usefulness stems from his ability to bring pressure on clear passing downs – though his usefulness runs dry if U.C. is forced to play him more than 25-30 snaps per game.

Mills could even move inside on third down, though he’s much smaller than your typical tackle; why Mills can have some success along the interior is due to his low center of gravity and quick first step. Why Mills could be needed at times at tackle is simple: Cincinnati is going to need help replacing Wolfe’s lost production, not to mention the steady play John Hughes brought to the table on the nose. This is the Bearcats’ most pressing concern heading into September – how can this defense replace the player most responsible for last season’s successful turnaround?

Cincinnati’s only option is to throw numbers at the problem. Sophomore Cameron Beard, junior Jordan Stepp, Brandon Mitchell, Elijah Shuler – this quartet, if not one or two incoming freshmen, must gel together as one cohesive unit, with Beard and Stepp as the starters, for U.C. to maintain a strong presence along the interior of the line. The issue isn’t just the lost production; U.C. is also short on experience, and even if there’s reason for some degree of optimism – there is some talent here – it’s obvious that Beard, a sophomore, and Stepp, a junior, need at least a few weeks in the lineup to gain some degree of comfort as full-time starters.

In all, you can raise the red flag over two groups on this defense: the interior of the line and at linebacker. But the Bearcats are terrific at end – I’d say better than any team in the Big East – and very strong in the secondary, where U.C. returns three of last season’s starters. There’s wonderful depth at cornerback, where starters Camerron Cheatham (59 tackles, 3 interceptions) and Deven Drane (42 tackles, 3 interceptions) are joined by nickel back Chris Williams (46 tackles). U.C. is also hoping to get a full season – or somewhere close to a full season – out of Dominique Battle, a former starter who has missed most of the last two years with a pair of knee injuries.

When he does return, it’ll be in a secondary role. Drane, a senior, took the opportunity handed to him midway through last season and ran with it, showcasing the sort of blanket-like coverage – see his game against Rutgers, for example – that should net him all-Big East honors in his final season. Williams is like Mills, in a way: Cincinnati shouldn’t use him anywhere but at nickel back, lining him up in the slot, but he’s a great fit for this role. And like Mills, Williams gives U.C. some big-play ability in a secondary role.

If not the star, strong safety Drew Frey (73 tackles, 2 interception) is the rock of the Bearcats’ secondary. A senior, Frey is also the most experienced and battle-tested member of this defense as a whole; he’ll be counted on to lend some vocal leadership as U.C. breaks in five new full-time defensive starters. One new starter will be at free safety, where junior Arryn Chenault – who started one game in Frey’s absence last fall – replaces Wesley Richardson.

One area where Cincinnati stands above its fellow Big East contenders is on special teams. Abernathy IV is the league’s most consistent return man. Senior punter Pat O’Donnell is the league’s best punter, not to mention the program’s best at the position since Kevin Huber earned all-American honors in 2008. Sophomore kicker Tony Miliano flashed some all-conference ability as a freshman – he’ll earn postseason honors before he’s through.

Position battle(s) to watch

Linebacker The competition for starting jobs is over, for all intents and purposes. Barring injury or some fairly unforeseeable development – an incoming recruit breaking loose, a holdover making a statement in August – Cincinnati will go forward with senior Maalik Bomar on the weak side (61 tackles, 3.5 for loss), sophomore Nick Temple on the strong side (35 tackles, 1 interception) and sophomore Solomon Tentman in the middle. The Bearcats have other options, mind you, but each seemed to cement a starting role during the spring: Bomar is an incumbent, Temple played extensively as a rookie and Tentman simply outplayed his primary competition for the job as J.K. Schaffer’s replacement.

Cincinnati doesn’t run your typical 4-3 set, which does slightly minimize the importance of featuring three set-in-stone starting linebackers. A healthy portion of the Bearcats’ defensive snaps will come with a fifth defensive back on the field, often Williams – and when Williams comes in, Tentman will step out. That helps, in a way, but U.C. still has two significant question marks at linebacker: Bomar’s health and Tentman’s ability to replace Shaffer’s lost production on first and second down.

Bomar shouldn’t encounter the same upper-body injuries that gave him issues over the second half of last season. But despite playing well during the spring, Tentman simply won’t duplicate all that Shaffer brought to the table; in addition to his production, Shaffer was a captain in every sense of the word – he was an every-snap linebacker, a strong presence against the run and an experienced, steady hand who could be counted on to keep U.C. aligned correctly from down to down. This is a concern: Tentman may have impressed the staff in March and April, but it’s only natural to expect the Bearcats’ linebacker play to take a step back.

Game(s) to watch

Cincinnati won’t play a true road game until Oct. 20, though the date with Virginia Tech, in Landover, Md., is a de facto home game for the Hokies. That’s one piece of good news, as is the fact that the Bearcats get four Big East home games – and two of three road games come against Connecticut and Temple. It’s a schedule conducive to an eight-win regular season. But it’s also one that could run off the rails early, should U.C. lose to Pittsburgh and Virginia Tech, and one that could find trouble at the midway point, with road games against Toledo and Louisville – and one that could end poorly, even if Rutgers and U.S.F. come to Nippert Stadium. One thing to keep in mind: Cincinnati plays two F.C.S. teams, Delaware State and Fordham, so it will need seven regular season wins to become bowl eligible.

Season breakdown & prediction

In a nutshell I have Cincinnati very much in the mix for a Big East title – and when gauging how most view the Bearcats heading into September, I feel like I’m in the minority. This program has matching blueprints on both sides of the ball: the offense is built for success and the defense, despite some changes, will remain the same blitzing, attacking, aggressive group it has been for several seasons. Despite some losses, and despite the holes that still exist at several key spots, U.C. is not going to slide back out of Big East championship contention; from top to bottom, the Bearcats are too strong to simply fall off the map. This shouldn’t come as a surprise to those who have seen U.C. go from irrelevance to the Big East’s most consistent program – remember, this is the league’s best team since 2006.

But like most, I do see some issues that should keep the Bearcats from making a run at Rutgers and Louisville. One is quarterback: Legaux needs to make some drastic strides before giving U.C. the consistency it demands from the position. Another issue is running back: Poteat and Abernathy IV are the future, but it’s too early to say that both are ready to give U.C. 100-plus carries in 2012. Then there’s this defense, which is weak where it counts: up the middle. Can U.C. survive if it can’t get adequate run support at tackle and linebacker – better yet, can its tackles demand enough attention for U.C. to get the necessary production out of its three very strong ends? Of these concerns, none loom larger than Legaux at quarterback. Obviously, U.C. will need to maintain its offensive excellence to win the Big East crown. For now, it’s these issues that make the Bearcats the third-best team in the conference. Eight wins is doable, but the Scarlet Knights and Cardinals enter the fall with fewer concerns.

Dream season Cincinnati loses once during non-conference play, to Virginia Tech, and once during Big East play, at Louisville. The Bearcats head into the postseason at 10-2, earning a B.C.S. bid for the third time in four seasons.

Nightmare season The Bearcats are 3-4 heading into November – beating only Delaware State, Miami (Ohio) and Fordham – and notch only win over the season’s final five games. For the second time under Jones, U.C. goes 4-8.

In case you were wondering

Where do Cincinnati fans congregate? Bearcat News and Bearcat Banter are the independent sites. Fans can also locate fine Cincinnati chatter and recruiting coverage at Bearcat Insider and Bearcat Lair. For a Cincinnati blog, check out Down the Drive.

Cincinnati’s all-name nominee QB Munchie Legaux.

Word Count

Through 83 teams 327,387.

Up Next

Who is No. 41? Tomorrow’s program has won at least seven games in each of the last four years, something it had done only four times since 1930.

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Comments

  1. Tulsa says:

    Tulsa is next.

    Paul: It was, but not any more. Forgot to update hint. Had made a few changes to list since finishing Cincinnati on Thursday.

  2. In That Case... says:

    It’s the University of South Carolina, then.

  3. Scott Wallace says:

    33 days to game day

  4. Clayton says:

    Cincinnati has a lot of potential with players that have yet to accomplish anything. Poteat, Legeaux, Thompkins specifically. Paul did a nice job showing that the talent is there, but most UC fans I know are expecting 7-8 wins this season because it’s difficult to replace all the talent that was lost last year (Collaros/Wolfe/Schaffer being the major losses). Jones has been able to recruit and pull in some talented high school players, now it’s just time for them to deliver on the fly.

    One correction is that Drane is actually a junior, which makes his play that much more impressive.

  5. AF says:

    To Clayton:

    I would say Pead is the next major loss to Collaros and you seemed to forgot him

  6. David says:

    Another difficult one. South Carolina doesn’t fit, but I can’t figure out what team does.

  7. Parker says:

    So Paul’s top candidates for BCS-Busters (the “Top 12/Top 16 rule”) this year are:

    Louisiana Tech – predicted WAC champ
    Boise State – predicted MWC champ
    Ohio – predicted MAC champ

    And whoever emerges from Tulsa, Houston and UCF as the C-USA champ.

    With 3 teams in the Top 41, it also seems like Paul ranks C-USA as the toughest league outside the 6 auto-bid leagues.

  8. Vacated Wins? says:

    Depending on the interpretation of the hints, the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill may fit if the recently vacated wins are counted.

  9. peace says:

    That’s interesting, so paul how many times do you change the list in between 120 and #1?

  10. CUSunBelt says:

    @Parker:
    “With 3 teams in the Top 41…”

    Check it, 2 of those 3 teams will be leaving after the upcoming season. And essentially replaced with FCS move-ups in 2014 & 2015.

    I’ll be interesting to see if CUSA stays above the Sun Belt in the upcoming 2014/2015 seasons.

  11. Class of 85 says:

    Pretty nice article, except for some factual inaccuracies:

    First, Munchie’s last name is spelled “L-E-G-A-U-X,” not “Legeaux.”

    Second, Cincinnati actually did win a share of the Big East title last year. The players have rings to prove it.

    And Deven Drane is a junior, not a senior.

    But I think you got the issues mostly right. Although I think at least one of the freshmen RBs will get major PT. Also, I don’t think Bomar missed any time injured last year, so I don’t think you can question his durability.

    It will be interesting to see what happens on September 6, when Pitt comes to town. I think CBJ and the Bearcats are going to surprise again.

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