Even after its 40-16 loss at home versus No. 6 Houston on Thursday night, Cincinnati can still rebound to win the American Athletic Conference East Division for a potential rematch against the West favorite Cougars. Coach Tommy Tuberville just needs to make one small adjustment to his strategy.
He needs to start Gunner Kiel at quarterback.
Sophomore Hayden Moore is the long-term answer for the Bearcats and should feel safe about his position for 2017, but if Tuberville is serious about being a contender in the East with USF, he needs to strip the “third-string” title from his former five-star, No. 1 overall quarterback. He needs to ride with the once-predicted future first-round NFL draft pick and let him take charge under center.
Otherwise, Cincy’s ceiling is another seven- or eight-win season. That’s not terrible, but after watching a slugfest for the better part of three quarters against a top-10 opponent, I’m expecting more from the ‘Cats as the year progresses — now I’m beginning to think this team has a roster that is built for more than just the Boca Raton Bowl.
It was missing a single element during Thursday night’s game, though, and that’s Kiel’s commanding presence in the pocket.
In six games against teams with a winning record, Moore has completed 128-of-219 (58.4 percent) pass attempts for 1,781 yards (8.13 ypa), nine touchdowns and 10 interceptions (which could have been 11 or 12 after a few bad drops by Houston’s secondary on Thursday). Cincinnati is 1-5 in such games, losing by an average of almost 24 points.
You could make the argument that the lack of a running game (30 yards total) forced Moore into some uncomfortable situations and made the offense one-dimensional. You would be correct, but if you dug a little deeper, you would have begun to find a trend that is unkind to the Clay, Alabama, native.
In those six games, Cincinnati’s backfield has averaged 104 yards at just 3 yards per carry. This is not the first time it’s happened.
Kiel has faced quality competition during his time in the Queen City, having played against nine opponents with winning records (with at least 16 total pass attempts in each game). Three of those are Power Five teams (Ohio State, Miami, Virginia Tech).
Against those nine foes, he’s hit 204-of-350 (58.3) passes for 3,161 yards (9.03 ypa), 25 touchdowns and 15 interceptions, which includes a 350-yard, four-touchdown performance against the national champion Buckeyes in 2014. The Bearcats were only 3-6 in these games, but with a closer discrepancy in losses at 16.2 points, roughly eight points fewer than Moore’s margin of defeat.
With Kiel, UC has produced 113.8 yards rushing in those nine games with an average of 3.9 per carry. Is that better? Yes. Is that good? No, not really. It’s hard to blame it solely on the running game.
Finally, throughout the course of his entire career (706 total attempts), Kiel has proved he can take care of the ball much better than Moore. For every 14.1 attempts, he throws a touchdown. For every 29.4 attempts, he tosses an interception.
In comparison, Moore (328 attempts) connects for a TD on every 21st pass attempt, while throwing a pick once per 23.4 attempts. That’s a pretty big difference and can matter in a close game against formidable opposition, as we saw on Thursday night.
Moore is a good quarterback and can do great things for Cincinnati in the future, there’s no doubt about it. However, if the goal is to win the East this year — and compete with Houston for the AAC — it’s time to go with the veteran, who brought more individual hype after transferring from Notre Dame than the program had ever seen before.
ESPN’s FPI now predicts a second straight 7-5 finish for the Bearcats this season (and just a 1.5 percent chance to win the conference), with upcoming losses to USF, Temple, BYU, and Tulsa. That’s likely assuming Moore continues to get the nod.
I’d imagine the formula would change in Cincinnati’s favor if Tuberville announced a QB change on Monday morning.