Cincinnati’s 2016 schedule may not be world class, but it does contain contests against some of the nation’s better quarterbacks.
According to Sports on Earth (and many others, including myself), the Bearcats will face four of the FBS’s top 30 gunslingers this upcoming season. In order to compete for an American Athletic Conference championship as an underdog for the first time in several years, the defense will need to progress as a unit after finishing No. 73 nationally in opponent passer efficiency (130.48) in 2015.
Here’s a closer look at the four best quarterbacks Cincinnati will face this year:
1. Greg Ward, Jr., Houston: Arguably the most athletic quarterback in the country, Ward shredded opponents last season with his electrifying dual-threat abilities. He is back for more in year two under Tom Herman’s lightning fast power spread offense. As a junior, Ward completed 67.2 percent of his pass attempts for 2,828 yards, 17 touchdowns and eight interceptions and ran for an additional 1,108 yards and 21 scores, leading the Cougars to a 13-1 record, an AAC title and a convincing win over Florida State in the Peach Bowl.
Coincidentally, the only time Ward threw more than one pick in a game was against Cincinnati in a close 33-30 victory, where he also tossed two touchdowns and averaged 7.4 yards per carry. His best performance came against Navy in a pivotal Week 13 matchup to determine the AAC West champion. He lit up the Midshipmen for 391 total yards (nearly eight yards a play) and five touchdowns.
The Bearcats will get another shot at defending Ward on Thursday, Sept. 15 at Nippert Stadium in Cincinnati.
2. Quinton Flowers, USF: Coach Willie Taggart took a gamble by naming sophomore Quinton Flowers the starting quarterback leading into the 2015 season, and it ended up paying off big-time. Through four games, Flowers had totaled just 734 yards of offense (183.5 per game) with eight touchdowns and four interceptions; USF was 1-3. Then the emerging star was let off his leash; in his final nine performances, Flowers’ production increased by over 100 yards (283.7), finding pay dirt 26 more times with just another four interceptions. The Bulls won seven of those nine games.
He tossed a career-high four touchdowns against Cincinnati in a dominant 65-27 victory, but there’s a strong possibility that he’ll reach that number more than once in 2016.
Flowers and company will head to Nippert Stadium on Saturday, Oct. 1.
3. Taysom Hill/Tanner Mangum, BYU: New coach Kalani Sitake and offensive coordinator Ty Detmer both said last week that there’s no timetable or deadline to name the starter. The competition between senior quarterback Taysom Hill and sophomore Tanner Mangum continues into the middle of fall camp. Hill, a 25-year-old dual-threat signal caller, is most known for his breakthrough 2013 season in which he passed for 2,938 yards and rushed for 1,344 more with 29 total touchdowns. However, he’s played in only eight games since, due to several injuries. Mangum brings more of a pro-style look to the offense. He’s right in the thick of things for the QB1 designation after throwing for 3,377 yards and 23 scores of his own last season, following Hill’s season-ending foot injury in Week 1.
Mangum went 19-for-32 (59.4 percent) with 252 yards, two touchdowns and one interception in a 38-24 win over Cincinnati last season.
“Once we show that there is a clear leader, then we will go ahead and make that decision,” Sitake told The Salt Lake Tribune. I can’t tell what the timetable is going to be. I just know it will be before the game. I don’t want it to be day of, or day before. You would like it to be time enough for our guys to be used to running with that quarterback.”
Cincinnati will know which dynamic to prepare for by the time it hosts the Cougars on Saturday, Nov. 5.
4. Dane Evans, Tulsa: Evans’s 2015 performance was reminiscent of something along the lines of a Baylor quarterback, and that would only make sense with first-year coach Phillip Montgomery, who previously served as the Bears’ offensive coordinator under Art Briles. As a junior, Evans completed nearly 63 percent of his pass attempts for 4,332 yards, 25 touchdowns and eight interceptions. His 485 pass attempts (37.3 per game) were No. 9 among all FBS quarterbacks who played 13 games or fewer, and his 8.9 yards per pass ranked 10th (and led The American).
He threw for 375 yards and two touchdowns in a loss to Cincinnati, but his best two games came against Power Five competition (College Football Playoff contestant Oklahoma and then Virginia Tech, in Frank Beamer’s last coaching appearance). He combined to throw for 801 yards, seven scores and no picks. It’s no coincidence that Tulsa totaled 90 points those two games.
With arguably the most explosive wide receiver corps in the conference and another year in the system, Evans could be poised for a 5,000-yard year. The Bearcats will go on the road and do their part to prevent that in the season finale on Friday, Nov. 25.