No. 43: Cincinnati
By Paul Myerberg // Jul 22, 2010
What will Cincinnati fans take away most from last season? Bombing confident Rutgers to open the season? Squeezing past West Virginia and Connecticut? The unforgettable win against Pittsburgh? Or will the lasting memory of 2009 be Brian Kelly’s departure for greener pastures? I would hope that Cincinnati remembers Kelly more for the good he did over his three seasons – a combined 34-6 record, by the way – than for the way he left the team prior to the biggest game in program history. His replacement, Butch Jones, knows a thing or two about stepping into big shoes: he’s replaced Kelly once before, three years ago when Kelly jilted Central Michigan for the Bearcats.
14 (9 offense, 5 defense)
Last year’s ranking
- Sept. 4
at Fresno St.
- Sept. 11
- Sept. 16
at N.C. St.
- Sept. 25
- Oct. 9
- Oct. 15
- Oct. 22
- Oct. 30
- Nov. 13
at West Virginia
- Nov. 20
- Nov. 27
- Dec. 4
Last year’s prediction
U.C. is my pick to land the automatic B.C.S. bid, based on a number of factors. The first and foremost is my faith in the U.C. offense. This offense alone, in my mind, will propel the Bearcats to a second straight Big East crown, though it might not come with a repeat of last fall’s 6-1 mark (I’m thinking more like 5-2, with the help of tiebreakers). My final prediction: 9-3, 5-2 in the Big East. With the issues this team faces on defense, Kelly should be the conference coach of the year (again) if U.C. takes its third straight Big East crown.
In a nutshell An unforgettable season. This was, without a doubt, the finest team in school history. The Bearcats stormed through the regular season undefeated, besting opponents by margins big — by 32 points against Rutgers, 31 against Louisville — and small — by two points over Connecticut, one point at Pittsburgh — at home or away, against teams good and bad, until it ran into a supremely motivated Florida team in the Sugar Bowl. When all was said and done: a new program record 502 points, a second consecutive Big East championship and a third straight double-digit win season. An unforgettable season, plain and simple.
High point A dream season, as I said a moment ago. A 28-18 win at Oregon State in September, though forgotten as Big East play opened, was especially impressive. Cincinnati ran the table, of course, but not without a little help: its final three Big East wins came by a field goal or less. A 45-44 win at Pittsburgh on Dec. 5 – it clinched Cincinnati’s B.C.S. birth – was one for the record books, or at least ESPN Classic.
Low point The Sugar Bowl loss to Florida. In Cincinnati’s defense, the Bearcats came across a Florida team primed to make a statement. But after a season of excellence on offense, it was disappointing to see Cincinnati total only 246 yards of total offense in its biggest game of the season.
Tidbit Cincinnati has won at least 10 games in each of the last three seasons. (The Brian Kelly era, if you will.) It joins West Virginia (2005-7) and Pittsburgh (1979-81) as the only programs in the Big East to have done so.
Tidbit (maintaining momentum edition) Cincinnati is one of two programs replacing its coach following a double-digit win season in 2009. The other? Central Michigan — Butch Jones. What is the track record for teams breaking in a new coach coming off a season with 10 or more wins? There were t20 such scenarios heading into the 2009 season: Ball State, coming off a 12-2 season under Brady Hoke; and Oregon, 10-3 under Mike Bellotti. Oregon maintained its pace, taking the 2009 Pac-10 crown under Chip Kelly. Ball State, on the other hand, dipped to 2-10. What about heading into 2008? Two more instances of a coach leaving after a double-digit win season: Junes Jones, 12-1 at Hawaii in 2007; and Rich Rodriguez, 11-2 at West Virginia. The Warriors fell to 7-7 in 2008, with the Mountaineers finishing 9-4 under Bill Stewart. Let’s look at one more year. Heading into 2007, Boston College lost Tom O’Brien (10-3 in 2006), Louisville lost Bobby Petrino (12-1) and Central Michigan lost, yes, Brian Kelly (10-4). The Eagles made a one-win improvement to 11-3 under Jeff Jagodzinski. Louisville dropped all the way to 6-6. And Central Michigan — don’t draw too much from this — went from 10 wins to 8-6 under Jones, though the Chippewas repeated as MAC West champs.
Former players in the N.F.L.
21 DE Connor Barwin (Houston), C Digger Buinoch (Baltimore), OG Trevor Canfield (Detroit), TE Brent Celek (Philadelphia), DE Trent Cole (Philadelphia), DE Alex Daniels (Oakland), LB Troy Evans (New Orleans), LB Andre Frazier (Pittsburgh), WR Mardy Gilyard (St. Louis), P Kevin Huber (Cincinnati), CB Brad Jones (Baltimore), OT Jeffrey Linkenbach (Indianapolis), CB Mike Mickens (Cincinnati), S Haruki Nakamura (Baltimore), QB Tony Pike (Carolina), CB DeAngelo Smith (Cleveland), CB Brandon Underwood (Green Bay), LS Mike Windt (Cincinnati), DE Mike Wright (New England).
Arbitrary top five list
Best coaches in recent (since 1990) Big East history
1. Brian Kelly (34-6 at Cincinnati, 2007-9).
2. Greg Schiano (55-55 at Rutgers, 20001-present).
3. Rich Rodriguez (60-26 at West Virginia, 2001-7).
4. Bobby Petrino (41-9 at Louisville, 2003-6).
5. Paul Pasqualoni (107-59-1 at Syracuse, 1991-2004).
Butch Jones (Ferris State ’90), entering his first season at Cincinnati. As mentioned earlier, Jones is replacing Kelly for the second time. He was tabbed as Central Michigan’s new coach in 2007 after Kelly left C.M.U. for Cincinnati, and in some regards 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 MAC play were the second-most of any 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 to run Kelly’s offense at Central Michigan instead of implementing a new system. The comparisons between Jones and Kelly won’t end soon, and they won’t be kind if Jones is unable to maintain a semblance of the momentum Cincinnati accumulated under Kelly’s watch. The best thing that Jones can do is exactly what he did at C.M.U.: Don’t just maintain, but surpass Kelly’s success. Of course, doing so at Cincinnati would involve winning a national championship. But the Bearcats can dream, can’t they?
Players to watch
There was a four-game stretch in Big East play where Zach Collaros played as well as any quarterback in college football. It began with an injury to Tony Pike, the departed two-year starter, which gave Collaros the start on Oct. 24 against Louisville: 15 of 17 for 253 yards and 3 touchdowns through the air, 11 carries for 52 yards on the ground. Oct. 31 at Syracuse: 22 of 28 for 295 yards and 4 scores. Connecticut, the following week: 29 of 37 for 480 yards and a touchdown; 13 carries for 75 yards and 2 scores on the ground. Finally, on Nov. 13 against West Virginia: 17 of 24 for 205 yards through the air, 10 carries for 44 yards rushing.
Yes, that’s what Collaros is able to accomplish. Now, doing so over an entire season is a different matter, of course. Yet Collaros brings a proven track record to the table — not just an impressive series, half, or game — and brings the potential for a monster season to the table. Though it would seem improbable, Cincinnati’s life after Pike won’t be so bad; it could be even better, at least in terms of quarterback play.
Armon Binns was overshadowed by Mardy Gilyard last fall, even if Binns, now a senior, did earn all-Big East honors. By the catch, however, Binns was just as integral to Cincinnati’s success in the passing game as the departed starter: 61 receptions for 888 yards and 11 scores, with his 14.6 yards per catch average nearly a full yard per reception more than Gilyard averaged in his 87 grabs. Expect Binns to step into that open role as Cincinnati’s lead receiver, with the numbers befitting that spot. The receiver corps will also feature senior Vidal Hazelton, who has yet to be eligible for game action since transferring into the program from the West Coast. Rust, of course, may be a concern. Talent, on the other hand, is not.
Junior D.J. Woods (51 receptions for 640 yards) rounds out the starting lineup. Keep an eye on senior Marcus Bennett, who return to wide receiver after playing cornerback a year ago. The Bearcats can also rely upon a capable receiving tight end in senior Ben Guidugli, who made 27 grabs for 364 yards last fall. Much of that damage came in one game: Guidugli had 7 catches for 149 yards and a pair of scores in Cincinnati’s late-season win over lowly Illinois.
The Bearcats return three players on the offensive line, though the loss of two all-conference linemen is a concern. The coaching staff made a good choice, however, in opting to replace left tackle Jeff Linkenbach with senior Samuel Griffin, the starter at right tackle last fall. Such a move made far more sense, given Griffin’s experience, than inserting a new starter, such as sophomore Sean Hooey. When it comes to strong side tackle, Griffin’s old spot, the Bearcats can go with either senior C.J. Cobb or junior Alex Hoffman. In a perfect world, the job would fall to Cobb, who struggled with injuries during the spring; that would allow Hoffman to remain at right guard, where he landed second-team all-Big East honors last fall.
Hoffman is one of two returning linemen to earn all-conference accolades in 2009. The other, senior Jason Kelce, returns at left guard. Even with a new starter at center — junior Evan Davis — Cincinnati looks to be in solid shape on the inside of the line. As a whole, however, the U.C. offensive front is a concern. Offsetting this concern is the fact that Cincinnati has mobility at quarterback, both with Collaros and his reserves.
Cincinnati has three options at running back. The first is junior Isaiah Pead, who should challenge for 1,000 yards rushing in 2010. He came close last fall: 806 yards and 9 touchdowns, despite making only three starts. Pead will share carries with senior John Goebel, who is poised to take on a larger role after being limited to only 12 carries last fall. In 2008, Goebel rushed for 607 yards and 8 scores. Barring injury, this duo will do most of the heavy lifting in the running game. Sophomore Darrin Williams might present a nice change of pace to this pair, however, and will take over for Gilyard in the kick return game.
A position change opened things up at linebacker at bit, with Cincinnati now needing to fill two open spots, not one. The lone returning starter can get it done: junior J.K. Shaffer filled up the stat sheet last fall, finishing second on the team in tackles (100) and interceptions (3). While he returns to the weak side, the Bearcats will insert new starters in the middle and on the strong side. Due to attrition, junior Robby Armstrong will be the man on the strong side come September — if he’s healthy. Sophomore Maalik Bomar is an option behind Armstrong; however, while Bomar can run, making plays in space, he might lack the size to stand up on the strong side. Senior Dorian Davis, a former Tennessee transfer, will move into the starting lineup in the middle.
Cincinnati has two defensive backs ready to take the next step. The first is sophomore strong safety Drew Frey, a former cornerback who has taken well to the job at safety. On the year, Frey made 64 tackles and 2 interceptions. The second rising all-conference defensive back is junior cornerback Dominique Battle, who is coming off a 60-tackle, 2-interception 2009 campaign. Two pretty solid performers upon which to build a secondary, in my opinion. Depth is a concern, however, as is locating experienced contributors capable of standing up in starting roles.
Battle will be joined at cornerback by one of the sophomore pair of Cameroon Cheatham and Reuben Johnson, who bring little game experience into the 2010 season. The biggest loss in the secondary is that of free safety Aaron Webster, who led the team in interceptions en route to first-team all-Big East honors. Junior Wesley Richardson, a former walk-on, is his likely replacement.
Position battles to watch
Defensive line The pain of lost starters will be exacerbated by Cincinnati’s scheme change on defense. Already thin up front, depth will be severely tested by the need for four starting linemen, not to mention a capable second line. One returning contributor is ready to go: junior Derek Wolfe, an all-Big East candidate, is coming off a 41-tackle, 5-sack 2009 season. He, along with fellow junior John Hughes (23 tackles, 2 sacks) will start on the inside, with Hughes starting on the nose. Again, the main issue will be depth, depth, depth: as Cincinnati enters fall practice, redshirt freshmen Sean McClellan, Michael Hilty and Jordan Stepp are the second-team interior linemen. The Bearcats made a wise move in moving strong side linebacker Walter Stewart, a sophomore, down to end; he’ll be an immediate starter, allowing U.C. to play fellow sophomore Brandon Mills in a reserve role, both at end and at tackle. In 11 starts last fall, Stewart made 59 tackles (8.5 for loss) and 4.5 sacks, the latter good for third on the team. He’ll join Dan Giordano (42 stops, 7 for loss) in the starting lineup. Even with a player like Wolfe on the inside, a talent like Stewart on the edge and a few experienced players poised to take on larger roles, Cincinnati’s defensive line is a question mark.
Game(s) to watch
The rest of the Big East will be gunning for the Bearcats, though perhaps none more so than West Virginia and Pittsburgh, last year’s second-place finishers. The non-conference slate is slightly tougher, with N.C. State and Oklahoma joining Fresno State, a holdover from last season. The Sooners scored 52 points on Cincinnati during a 2008 meeting in Norman.
Season breakdown & prediction
In a nutshell Surely, Cincinnati can repeat as Big East champs. Don’t underestimate continuity, which Jones brings to the table. While not exactly the same, the new offense will greatly resemble Kelly’s, both in its no-huddle mentality and spread passing philosophy. Kelly is a wonderful offensive mind — as Notre Dame will soon discover — but don’t look for much decline in production on the offensive side of the ball. If Cincinnati fails to match last year’s scoring numbers, it will be due to the loss of Pike and Gilyard, not the coaching change. The defense must do more than just locate new starters and depth on every level; it must also reverse the troubling trend that defined the final five games of last season, when the Bearcats struggled mightily getting stops. Now, one word of warning — for myself, more than anyone: Cincinnati loves being the underdog, revels in the doubt, adores being counted out. With its ranking in this spot, I’m projecting the Bearcats to pull in fourth in the Big East, close to the third-place team but not, in my mind, a conference title-caliber team. I’m thinking eight wins, with a difficult non-conference slate preventing Cincinnati from breaking into Big East play on its typical hot streak. In my opinion, Pittsburgh, West Virginia, even Connecticut are more viable contenders for the conference crown. Now watch Cincinnati prove me wrong, as the program often did under Kelly. Of course, it’s up to Jones to keep the Bearcats in title contention.
Dream season New coach, same story. The Bearcats finish 11-1, losing only to Oklahoma, and return to the B.C.S. for the third consecutive season.
Nightmare season Jones is not an immediate success: 5-7, 3-4 in the Big East. That would stand as one more loss than Kelly posted in three whole seasons at Cincinnati.
In case you were wondering
Where do Cincinnati fans congregate? Bearcat News is the only independent Web site I could find, but fans can locate fine Cincinnati chatter and recruiting coverage at Bearcat Insider and Bearcat Lair. As always, let me know of any blogs, message boards or beat reporters deserving to be included in this section. One person already has, informing me about the presence of Bearcat Banter.
Who is No. 42? As a player, our next program’s head coach was an all-American for a nine-win team as a senior.
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Tags: Butch Jones, Cincinnati
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