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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. 55: Cincinnati

Cincinnati has been under-the-radar consistent since 1995, when the Rick Minter-led Bearcats notched the first of 11 non-losing seasons in the years since. You see only two truly bad teams: 1998, when U.C. was outscored by 197 points in a 2-9 finish, and 2005, when the Bearcats went 4-7 under Mark Dantonio. What you do see are plenty of not-terrible teams, good teams that weren’t great, not bad, just good. Then you have the outliers: 10-3, 11-3, 12-1 — the Brian Kelly years. And you know what? Cincinnati grew to like the taste of success, as any program would. You know what else? Perhaps solid mediocrity — seven, eight wins a year — isn’t good enough anymore for the program and its fan base.

Conference
Big East

Location
Cincinnati, Oh.

Nickname
Bearcats

Returning starters
16 (5 offense, 11 defense)

Last year’s ranking
No. 43

2010 record
(4-8, 2-5)

Last year’s
re-ranking

No. 88

2011 schedule

  • Sept. 1
    Austin Peay
  • Sept. 10
    at Tennessee
  • Sept. 17
    Akron
  • Sept. 22
    N.C. St.
  • Oct. 1
    at Miami (Ohio)
  • Oct. 15
    Louisville
  • Oct. 22
    at U.S.F.
  • Nov. 5
    at Pittsburgh
  • Nov. 12
    West Virginia
  • Nov. 19
    at Rutgers
  • Nov. 26
    at Syracuse
  • Dec. 3
    Connecticut

Last year’s prediction

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.

2010 recap

In a nutshell Cincinnati was .500 on Oct. 16, but it wasn’t an ugly .500, if there is such a thing. There were wins over Indiana State, Miami (Ohio) and Louisville, but the losses weren’t terrible — again, if there is such a thing as not-terrible losses: at Fresno State, at N.C. State and at home against Oklahoma, the latter by only two points. So what happened from there? The defense crumbled, that’s what, and while the offense also failed more often than not it was clear that the U.C. defense was not up to the task of hanging with the top half of the Big East. It was this defense that allowed 33.4 points per game over the second half of the year, compared to 21 points per game during the 3-3 start. The offense remained out of the bright spotlight, but it was clear that the Bearcats were simply not the same as they were in 2009, Brian Kelly’s final season.

High point The best win: a 35-27 win at Louisville. The one for bragging right: a 45-3 mauling of Miami (Ohio). The most impressive: a 69-38 victory over Rutgers. The Bearcats scored 20 points in the first quarter, 21 in the second and 14 in both the third and fourth.

Low point The faulty play of the defense over the second half of the season. In all, Cincinnati was just far less competitive: after losing by eight points to U.S.F., the Bearcats lost games by 24 points (Syracuse), 27 points (West Virginia), 21 points (Connecticut) and 18 points (Pittsburgh).

Tidbit Cincinnati scored 177 fewer points in 2010 than in 2009, when the Bearcats set a new school-record with 502 points scored. On its own, the 177-point differential would be more points than the Bearcats scored in 70 individual seasons since the program’s inception in 1885. The scoring decline was also the second-most in program history, trailing only a 184-point dip from 1936-36 (241 points to 57).

Former players in the N.F.L.

18 DE Connor Barwin (Houston), OG Trevor Canfield (Detroit), TE Brent Celek (Philadelphia), DE Trent Cole (Philadelphia), DE Alex Daniels (Dallas), WR Mardy Gilyard (St. Louis), LB Tyjuan Hagler (Indianapolis), P Kevin Huber (Cincinnati), C Jason Kelce (Philadelphia), OT Jeffrey Linkenbach (Indianapolis), DT Ricardo Matthews (Indianapolis), S Haruki Nakamura (Baltimore), QB Tony Pike (Carolina), CB DeAngelo Smith (Cleveland), CB Brandon Underwood (Green Bay), LS Mike Windt (San Diego), DE Mike Wright (New England), LB Curtis Young (Green Bay).

Arbitrary top five list

Recent misguided N.B.A. draft entrants (2008-11) 
1. C Byron Mullins (Oklahoma City, 2009).
2. PG Josh Selby (Memphis, 2011).
3. SG Xavier Henry (Memphis, 2010).
4. C Kosta Koufos (Utah, 2008).
5. SG Lance Stephenson (Indiana, 2010).

Coaching

Butch Jones (Ferris State ’90), 4-8 after his first season at Cincinnati. Not a great start for Jones, though he has been in this sort of scenario before. Jones was tabbed as Central Michigan’s new coach in 2007 after Brian 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 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. It wasn’t a great start, but Jones has plenty of time — and a long leash — to turn things around.

Players to watch

Quick: name which Big East quarterback earned first-team all-conference honors a year ago. Done? It was Cincinnati’s Zach Collaros, who led the Big East in passing yards (2,902), touchdown passes (26), completions per game (20.5) and total offense per game (282.2 yards). We should have seen this coming with Collaros, who played superbly when replacing an injured Tony Pike in 2009. He didn’t quite match his four-game totals from that season — a period where he was one of the best quarterbacks in the country — but Collaros did very well, especially during the first half of the year. Here’s a scary thought for the rest of the Big East: he’ll be even better in 2011.

Collaros needs to do only two things: one is avoid injuries, which is out of his control, by and large; the other is avoid longer periods of sour play, as Collaros, like the team as a whole, struggled down the stretch in 2010. Perhaps it was due to injuries, as he wasn’t the same after injuring his knee against U.S.F. on Oct. 22. Over his last four starts, Collaros threw six touchdowns against 10 picks; if you take out the Rutgers win, the ratio was even worse. Already one of the Big East’s best, Collaros needs only to button up his play against the conference’s better defenses. And the Bearcats need him healthy, as his projected reserves bring no experience to the table.

Senior Isaiah Pead blossomed in an offense that put a slightly greater emphasis on the running game. Not that Pead didn’t make an impact in 2009, when he led the Bearcats with 806 yards on the ground; he just took a step forward last fall, rushing for 1,029 yards — despite missing two games — en route to all-conference honors. And Pead did this without getting a high level of touches: he carried the ball only 157 times, leading the Big East with 6.6 yards per carry. Look for more of the same on the ground in 2011, and look for Pead to continue to play a significant role in the passing game. George Winn and Darrin Williams will again be the primary reserves, though freshman Jameel Poteat should be a factor.

Senior D.J. Woods (57 catches for 898 yards and 8 scores) takes on the job of being Cincinnati’s top receiver, a role held with all-conference results by Mardy Gilyard and Armon Binns over the last two years. Unlike that pair, however, Woods won’t have much in the way of proven help. Cincinnati will rely heavily upon two receivers, Kenbrell Thompkins and Dyjuan Lewis, who have loads of potential but no game experience — as of today, this pair are in the starting lineup with Woods. U.C. does bring back Anthony McClung (22 catches for 217 yards), but will need a few incoming freshmen to be ready from the start.

Any issues at wide receiver pale in comparison to those along the line. This group has two sure things, one almost-sure thing and two large holes, and unless we see a massive improvement from a handful of would-be starters the Bearcats are again going to have issues up front. First, the sure things: right tackle Alex Hoffman — the line’s best — and left guard Randy Martinez. U.C. knows this pair will deliver, particularly Hoffman, a former all-Big East pick at guard. The almost-sure thing is left tackle Sean Hooey, who has the talent to excel but is new to the blind side. Now, the holes: center and right guard. Center above all, as projected starter Evan Davis fared poorly in his one start, the Fresno State game, in 2010. Cincinnati could go with either Austen Bujnoch or Andre Cureton at right guard; the pair share youth, good size and a troubling lack of experience.

I’m going to lay off the secondary for a couple paragraphs, but beware: it’s not quite a train wreck, but the secondary needs work. It’s the pass defense that came up and bit U.C. a year ago, and I have little doubt that this will be the case again in 2011. But the front seven will be far, far improved, thanks to one position change and a tremendous amount of depth back in the fold.

Moving Walter Stewart (60 tackles, 2 sacks) back down to end from outside linebacker, where he spent last season, does four things for this defense: one, it puts Stewart back in a more fitting role; two, it beefs up the pass rush; three, it gives U.C. another presence to take some pressure off tackle Derek Wolfe (48 tackles, 4 sacks); and four, it pushes Brandon Mills (58 tackles, 12.5 for loss, 6 sacks) into a situational role, one where he’ll be a menace. It’s amazing what one move can do, isn’t it?

Stewart will team with Dan Giordano (38 tackles, 8 for loss) at end, though expect to see plenty of Mills — both there and along the interior, especially in passing situations. Wolfe leads the way at tackle, where he’ll look to recapture his 2009 form, but the Bearcats can also feel secure with senior John Hughes and sophomore Jordan Stepp. The defensive line is an unquestioned strength.

Not so at linebacker, though this group should do a better job with a strong front four in place. Depth is the key: Cincinnati didn’t have any last fall, thanks to injuries and an overall lack of bodies, which did a number on starters forced to play far too many snaps. That helped J.K. Schaffer’s bottom line — he cracked the 100-tackle mark for the second straight year — but he could be more productive if given occasional breathers. Schaffer could start on the strong side or in the middle; if he moves outside, it’ll be because Solomon Tentman is fully healthy or JUCO transfer Greg Blair can make an immediate impact.

Stewart’s move down does open up a hole at linebacker, one that could be filled by Schaffer or one of several true and redshirt freshmen. Maalik Bomar (70 tackles, 8 for loss) is locked in on the weak side, where he did a nice job as a first-year starter in 2010. Bomar, like Schaffer, could use a break on the sidelines every now and then.

Position battle(s) to watch

Secondary The Bearcats were thin everywhere on defense last fall, but no place more so than in the defensive backfield. And it showed: U.C. couldn’t stop anyone, even before Dominique Battle was lost for the year with a knee injury, and while the front seven looks to be in far better shape the secondary remains a tremendous concern. And it’s not merely due to the question marks on the roster; it’s also because, quite simply, the players seemed to be out of position more than often than not in 2010, something that falls directly on the coaching staff, which must also improve. Getting Battle back into the mix at cornerback is a good start. His 2010 season was cut short by that injury, but he brings 15 career starts into the fall, and if he’s fully healthy he’s the sort of consistent presence this secondary desperately needs. It seems like Battle and safety Drew Frey (52 tackles, 2 interceptions) are the lone defensive backs assured of starting roles; there’s plenty of competition elsewhere. Even calling Frey a sure starter may be a stretch, as while his experience is unquestioned Frey does battle periods of inconsistency. Wesley Richardson started 10 games alongside Frey a year ago, but he may be pushed out of the lineup by JUCO transfer Malcolm Murray, who was on campus during the spring. There are several cornerbacks vying for the starting role opposite ofBattle: Reuben Johnson is the leader, but U.C. could also go with Camerron Cheatham, who didn’t fare all that well as a 10-game starter last fall, or perhaps sophomore Deven Drane, a sophomore who should start sooner or later. Chris Williams is another option, but he’s penciled in as the team’s nickel back.

Game(s) to watch

The non-conference schedule features two tough games against B.C.S. conference opposition, but it’s fairly possible that Cincinnati can enter Big East action at 4-1. That would provide this team with a huge boost, both in the win column and in terms of confidence. There are four conference road games: U.S.F., Pittsburgh, Rutgers and Syracuse. The Bearcats need to win at least one, if not two.

Season breakdown & prediction

In a nutshell 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. The defensive line will be better, which should help the pass defense at large, but U.C. does not have what it takes in terms of depth and proven talent in the secondary to stop the sort of teams that await on this schedule. The offensive line, weak in pass protection a year ago, has big holes along the interior and dangerously little depth, though the Bearcats can feel at least somewhat secure in what they have at left tackle, left guard and right tackle. 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. Maybe next year.

Dream season From 4-8 to the top of the Big East: 10-2, 6-1 in conference play. Thanks to this offense, but with a nod towards a vastly improved defense.

Nightmare season Another year of eight losses, which would give U.C. its first back-to-back losing campaigns since 1998-99.

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. A new addition in the blog category: check out Down the Drive.

Word Count

Through 66 teams 193,601.

Up Next

Who is No. 54? Tomorrow’s program is the oldest one in the F.B.S. to have never won any championship of any kind.

You can also follow Paul Myerberg and Pre-Snap Read on Twitter.

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Comments

  1. Eksynyt says:

    I think the Ohio University Bobcats are next. School has existed since 1804 and they have zero national titles.

    Paul: Not the university itself but the football program. And Ohio has won a few MAC division titles.

  2. Clayton says:

    Like Paul said, the comparisons of Butch Jones and Brian Kelly won’t end anytime soon. There are some real differences in their offenses, one being Jones doesn’t use the TE and I find that fairly irritating to completely abandon a position that could help immensely.

    Ultimately, I don’t have a lot of confidence in Butch Jones. It looks like he can really dominate non-BCS competition. His time at CMU showed that and you can also see that in the Miami win last season. When it comes to non-bcs schools, Butch Jones has their number. But I really wonder if he and his coaching staff has what it takes to lead UC back to a Big East championship. There were times when he looked truly lost on the sidelines last season and if next year is another losing campaign, I don’t expect Butch Jones to last more than 3 seasons. UC’s 2012 schedule is brutal so if Butch can’t get it done now, just wait until 2012.

  3. Mendenhall4Pres says:

    I know they are brand new to the FBS but my guess is South Florida

  4. Mendenhall4Pres says:

    Just one complaint – Navy claims the 1926 National Championship.

  5. Zach says:

    Does the hint on this one mean that you consider Rutgers as having tied for the 1869 national championship? Because if not, though they’ve appeared already on the countdown, I think they’d be older without winning anything.

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