In the college football context, I take the phrase ‘ahead of schedule’ to mean a program that had recently bottomed out became good in a shorter amount of time than expected. No program was more ahead of schedule last year than the Cincinnati Bearcats.
After the entirely expected crash and burn of Tommy Tuberville’s last year as head coach, Cincy made a smart hire: Luke Fickell. They hired just about the most Ohio guy possible for the position, which isn’t a bad strategy if your school is in Ohio.
Fickell played at Ohio State from 1993-96 (he made a school-record 50 straight starts) and after a brief pro career, began his coaching career as a grad assistant at OSU in 1999. Other than a stint as Akron’s defensive line coach from 2000-01, Fickell didn’t coach with anyone other than OSU until he took the Cincy job in 2017.
The strategy of getting a coach familiar with Ohio has paid huge dividends on the recruiting trail. The Bearcats had the AAC’s top-rated 2018 signing class, the 2nd best average recruit rating for the 2019 class and even the 3rd best for the transitional 2017 class.
Style-wise they look like you would expect out of a team coached by a former Jim Tressel and Urban Meyer assistant. The Bearcats have a run-first offense that will control the clock and allow a nasty, aggressive defense to work with some breathers (the UC defense only faced 64.6 plays per game in 2018).
The Bearcats finished 11-2 last year in a season where 6 or 7 wins and bowl eligibility would’ve been greeted with genuine enthusiasm. And as you’ll see in the coming sections, a lot of key contributors are back for a 2019 season that was penciled in as the one where UC would take their big step forward under Fickell.
The Bearcats Offense:
Beating out a senior with multiple years of starting experience like sophomore QB Desmond Ridder did had to raise some eyebrows among Bearcats fans. Ridder was the lowest rated recruit of the 3 freshmen QBs on the Cincy roster last year but finished the season as the AAC Rookie of the Year.
It was a deserved honor as Ridder threw only 5 interceptions in 311 pass attempts to go along with 20 passing touchdowns. He was almost savant-like in 3rd down and long (7 yards or more) situations last year, completing over 63% of his passes at over 17 yards per completion. Finally, he was also 2nd on the team with 583 net rush yards and had 5 rushing touchdowns.
Other than maybe UCF’s Adrian Killins, I don’t think there’s a better returning running back in the conference than junior Michael Warren II. The 1,329 yard and 19 TD output from Warren is even more impressive when you consider he was expected to be a backup last year and finished it being named 2nd team All-AAC. Incredibly, he lost only 18 yards total on his 244 carries.
Both primary backups from last year return: sophomore Tavion Thomas (499 net rush yds, 6 TDs) and sophomore Charles McClelland (485 net rush yds, 4 TDs). Both Thomas and McClelland were part of the Bearcats’ ballyhooed 2018 recruiting class.
As if that weren’t enough, they also return 2017’s leading rusher: junior Gerrid Doaks, who missed all of 2018 with a sports hernia. Doaks was maybe the most promising playmaker on abysmal Cincy offenses in 2016 and ’17, rushing for 513 yards at 5.9 yards/carry two seasons ago. He was a full participant in this year’s spring practices and spring game.
The Bearcats do lose their top receptions and yards guy (Kahlil Lewis) from last year’s team, but return basically everyone else in the receiver group.
Maybe unsurprisingly considering the style of play this team operates with, the #2 receiver last year was a tight end: senior Josiah Deguara. Last season Deguara had 38 receptions and 5 TDs while being named 2nd team All-AAC.
The most explosive receiver from last year: senior Rashad Medaris, returns after averaging easily the most yards per reception (18.2) on the team. Medaris only caught 26 passes last year but will probably get more opportunities this year with Lewis’ graduation and a more experienced QB. Two other Bearcats receivers with 20+ receptions last year return: sophomore Jayshon Jackson and senior Thomas Geddis.
If you are looking for a reason to ‘sell’ or a potential weakness on this Bearcats offense, its an offensive line that loses 3 regular starters, including 2 All-AAC selections. But on the flip side, if you’re looking for encouraging signs last year the Bearcats only had 1 offensive lineman with more than 10 career starts and they were still a good run blocking group.
The returning starters are 2 seniors: right guard Morgan James and right tackle Chris Ferguson. Neither had started any games prior to last year. Sophomore Jakari Robinson started 6 games in 2018 and is the only other Bearcat lineman with any starting experience.
Maybe the most intriguing O Line prospect the Bearcats have is German redshirt freshman Lorenzo Metz, who is listed at a behemoth 6 foot 9 and 322 pounds on the Cincy spring roster.
Without overlooking an inexperienced offensive line and the fact that Ridder is still a work in progress as a passer, this should still be a nasty Bearcat offense.
The Bearcat Defense:
Fickell’s background is on the defensive side of the ball, so its not too surprising that he got that figured out quickly. Still, the Bearcats smashed even optimistic projections when they allowed only 17.2 points per game, 3.3 rush yards per carry and the nation’s best opponent completion percentage.
The Bearcats’ offense on average possessed the ball just over 35 minutes per game. That meant on defense they could be as aggressive as they wanted. This also meant they gave up more big plays than average, but more often than not the consistent aggression paid off. Sustaining a drive against this Cincy defense was nearly impossible, it was hope you hit a big play or nothing for opposing offenses.
One of the most absurd stats I’ve seen since beginning these 2019 previews was the Bearcat defense only allowing 9 rushing TDs total last year. For comparison, the Houston defense allowed 8 rushing TD each to Temple and Army.
The final absurd stat I’ll get to here is that the Bearcats defense only allowed opponents to convert 28% of the time on 3rd downs last year. Being able to consistently force opponents into 3rd down and then win those downs at that rate is about the surest recipe for success you can create.
Up front the Bearcats have plenty of questions as they graduate 3 regular starters, including 2 All-AAC selections, on the defensive line.
The saving grace is they return maybe the best defensive lineman from 2 years ago, senior DE Kevin Mouhon (younger brother of All-Universe name team member Silverberry Mouhon). The younger Mouhon started most of the 2016 and ’17 seasons and had 56 total tackles, 7 TFLs and 2 sacks in 2017. I am also interested to see what sophomore DE Malik Vann, one of the top 2018 recruits, does after appearing in 12 games as a reserve last year.
The Bearcats also return their primary starter at the ‘Jack’ position, a hybrid rush end/linebacker: junior Michael Pitts. Last year Pitts had 34 total tackles and 4 sacks, while starting 10 games.
In the interior of the line there’s essentially no starting experience returning. The most experienced reserves to watch for starting positions are: juniors Elijah Ponder, Curtis Brooks and Marcus Brown.
Apparently, Cincy DC Marcus Freeman aggressively rotated his D line last year, so some of these reserves may be more ready for their new roles than I am giving credit for in this space.
In contrast to the defensive front, the Bearcats linebacker group will be one of the most experienced in the AAC. They lose last year’s top tackler (Malik Clements) but return anyone else who played meaningful game action in 2018.
While only playing 8 games of the season senior Perry Young was named 1st team All-AAC. Young rotated at the weakside linebacker position with junior Jarrell White who tied for last year’s team lead with 36 solo tackles and leads all returnees in total tackles (58).
The returning leader in TFLs and sacks is senior middle linebacker Brian Wright, who started all 13 games last year. The most likely returning player to replace the departed Clements at the strong side linebacker position is probably sophomore RJ Potts, who had 11 total tackles.
As importantly, the Bearcat secondary returns every starter from a year ago, though not much proven depth beyond those starters.
I realize I mentioned this stat earlier, but I want to reiterate that the team’s pass defense allowed opponents to complete only 48.76% of their passes. They also had an impressive 18/18 touchdown to interception ratio in 2018.
Junior safety James Wiggins started 12 games and tied for the team-lead in solo tackles last year and had a team-best 4 interceptions while being named 2nd team All-AAC. Starting opposite of Wiggins is junior Darrick Forrest who had 49 total tackle and also started 12 games.
Between the previously mentioned Sillverberry Mouhon and recent UC football alumnus Mike
Junior CB Coby Bryant is the latest memorably named Bearcat and he led the team’s cornerbacks with 2 interceptions and 9 pass breakups last year. Returning opposite of Bryant is the only senior among this group of projected starters: Cam Jeffries (34 total tckls, 4 TFLs, 1 INT).
Even with the losses from last year's defense I believe the Bearcats will have the AAC's best defense by a wide margin for a 2nd straight year.
The Bearcats Special Teams:
Both the primary kicker and punter return from last year’s team. I don’t think any team in Division 1 FBS had a bigger gulf between their specialists’ performance than the Bearcats.
The positive news is junior James Smith had a good case for being the country’s best punter and was a finalist for the Ray Guy Award, given to the country’s top punter. Smith, a native of Wanagaratta, Australia, averaged 46.7 yards per punt and led the country with a 44.1-yard net punt average, while having 22 punts downed inside opponents’ 20-yard line. He was naturally named 1st team All-AAC and an Associated Press 3rd team All-American.
On the flip side, the Bearcats’ placekicking last year was some of the absolute worst in college football. Sophomore Cole Smith was 5 of 12 on field goals and a horrendous 2 of 9 on attempts 30 yards or longer. There are 2 incoming freshman and a grad transfer from Western Illinois on the latest Bearcat roster, so there’ll be competition a plenty.
Last year’s deep snapper in 12 of 13 games, senior Zach Wood is back after beginning his career at Marshall and returning to his hometown college. Side note: there are 24 players on the UC roster from Cincinnati proper (not including numerous others from suburbs) which is impressive local representation.
The return game wasn’t great for kick or punt returns, but basically everyone who was involved in the return game last year is back in 2019. The Bearcats also didn’t allow a kick or punt return touchdown.
The Season Outlook:
This Bearcat team is going to be really not fun to play, which is about the highest compliment I can pay an opponent.
They were already an above average rushing offense last year and they return basically everyone who made that happen. The offensive line only returning 31 starts is significant, but I think that just means we won’t see the Bearcats get any more pass happy for at least another year.
At worst the defense will regress a little bit with their losses up front, but I have a hard time seeing them not being one of the best 2 defenses in this conference when 2019 is in the books.
Next year’s schedule is quite the challenge. Cincy will go to Houston and Memphis in conference play and to Ohio State in non-conference. Going 1-2 out of that stretch of games wouldn’t be bad at all.
Getting UCF in the conference opener may be good if the Knights are still trying to figure out their QB situation, but won’t be an easy game regardless. Some of the more winnable conference games like USF and ECU will be road trips in 2019.
If the Bearcats can go 9-3 or better in the regular season against this schedule, they’ll probably be the best team in the league according to the metrics. Even 8 wins against this schedule shouldn’t sour anyone on the long-term viability of Luke Fickell and his staff. That kind of season may be a blessing in disguise as Cincy on paper will be even more nasty in 2020 as their best recruits enter their 3rd year of college.
Matching Up with Houston:
At this point in the year we’ll be approaching the halfway mark of both Houston and Cincinnati’s 2019 season and know a lot more about the positives and negatives of each team. This is where I feel like what I write in this match-up section becomes a lot more volatile and based in total guesswork.
If the Cougars have managed to stay healthy and taken to the new defensive scheme, then the Bearcats’ very run first offense might not be a terrible match up. But let’s say the Coogs’ run defense is only slightly improved from the abysmal run defense of 2018, then this game could get pretty gruesome.
While there’s a lot of unknown, whatever Holgorsen’s offense does with D’Eriq King will be pass-first and that’ll match them up with a nasty Cincy secondary that as mentioned earlier kept opposing offenses from completing half of their passes. For what it’s worth, when Cincy played UCF with a healthy McKenzie Milton at QB they were scorched for over 10 yards per attempt and 3 pas TDs as part of a 38-13 loss.
King is much more like Milton than any other QB the Bearcat defense faced last year, so I still believe the Coogs have a good chance in this one. If a less experienced Bearcat defensive line can’t create the same kinds of problems they did last year, that’ll have a cascading effect on the rest of the UC defense.
Despite this game being in week 6, this will only be the 2nd true Cougar home game of 2019 and the first against an opponent who isn’t cannon fodder (sorry, Prairie View). That alone will ensure at least a decent crowd at TDECU Stadium and if the first 5 weeks have gone well for UH, I can see this being a hugely hyped game.