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5 daring predictions for Cincinnati’s 2016 season

Ian Johnson/Icon Sportswire

Cincinnati has yet to appear in the AP Top 25 poll under coach Tommy Tuberville, who is entering his fourth season as coach in the Queen City. For the Bearcats to turn the tables (and their fortunes, being selected to finish third in the AAC East), they’ll need a lot to go their way this fall.

Preseason predictions can be difficult, and a large majority of the time they end up being wrong. That could be a really good thing for UC fans, considering the prevailing expectation of another seven- or eight-win year; the Bearcats could be flying under the radar this preseason, primed to throw a wrench into most projections.

To be great, you must be bold. Here are five (very) bold predictions for Cincinnati’s 2016 season:

1. Cincinnati will be accepted into the Big 12 Conference

It’s been reported that the Big 12 has been diligently sorting through 17 different candidates for expansion, either by two or four more schools. It seems the consensus is that Cincinnati has launched itself as a front-runner along with Houston and BYU.

Adding Houston sounds like a good idea, but I would bet against the Big 12 adding another Texas program to its southwestern arsenal — especially one that will take away even more recruits from the Longhorns. At this point, if the conference really does decide to expand, the Bearcats would be a sure bet.

A few weeks ago, Big 12 representatives said they’d prefer to get this taken care of before the start of the 2016 season. Whether they’re able to accomplish this by Sept. 2 is to be determined, but a decision (one way or another) is coming soon.

This might not seem like a bold call, but when considering how scattered and disordered the Big 12 has been in its decision-making processes — not just over the past two years, but dating back to Dan Beebe in 2010 (remember him?) — nailing a major Big 12 decision feels significant … and should not be taken for granted.

2. Nate Cole will lead the AAC in all major receiving categories

Cincinnati lost six senior receivers from 2015, including the school’s all-time leader in receptions (Shaq Washington) and its all-time leader in touchdown catches (Chris Moore). Cole, who is the only senior among 14 wide receivers on the Bearcats’ roster, enters his final season with 38 career catches for 446 yards (11.7 yards per catch). He appears to be the top target for a passing game that finished No. 6 nationally in yards per game (359.9).

Last season, ECU’s Isaiah Jones led the American with 98 receptions. Tulsa’s Keyarris Garrett was first with 1,588 yards, and there was a two-way tie between Courtland Sutton (SMU) and Rodney Adams (USF) with a league-high nine touchdowns. A former three-star prospect who turned down offers from Alabama, Kentucky, and Ole Miss, Cole has the opportunity to emerge as one of the nation’s biggest receiving threats on an offense that will put a heavy focus on the passing game once again.

3. Cincinnati will finish with a top-10 nationally-ranked scoring offense

If they were just playing at home, the Bearcats would have accomplished this last season, having scored 41.7 points per game at Nippert Stadium. However, the UC offense was much more inconsistent on the road (27.1). In 2015, a total of 12 teams finished with an average of at least 40 points — the most in FBS history.

UC hasn’t finished with a top-10 scoring offense since 2009, when it averaged 38.6 points per game (No. 4 overall) and went 12-1. Defense is one thing, but it wouldn’t be a shock to see the offense back on top in this category.

4. Hayden Moore will be the AAC Offensive Player of the Year

Earlier this week, Tuberville named sophomore Hayden Moore the team’s starting quarterback for its Week 1 contest against Tennessee-Martin. Redshirt freshman Ross Trail will serve as the backup, which means fifth-year senior, two-year starter and former No. 1 overall QB prospect Gunner Kiel enters as the third-string option. Wow, right?

The move seemed to be inevitable since the beginning of fall camp, but it still brings a degree of astonishment.

I digress (if you want to read more about Kiel’s fall from grace, click here).

Tuberville made the following statement:

“Hayden was our most consistent quarterback from spring football all the way through training camp. He gives us the best chance to win right now. Gunner Kiel and Ross Trail will continue to battle for the backup QB spot, but it’s important all three be ready to play when we kick this thing off in 10 days. It’s important to us to name a starter now so Hayden has some time working exclusively with the first-team offense to continue to develop timing and a comfort level with our offensive skill players.”

As a true freshman, Moore gained action in nine games and started two, finishing 133-of-225 (59.1 percent) with 1,885 yards, nine touchdowns and 11 interceptions. He led Cincinnati to an impressive win over Miami (Florida) and threw for a school-record 557 yards against Memphis.

Last season Navy senior quarterback Keenan Reynolds won AAC Offensive Player of the Year, totaling 2,576 yards and 32 touchdowns. Assuming Moore averages 35 pass attempts per game — a safe assumption, considering UC threw the ball 42.1 times per game in 2015 — his performance last year would suggest he’s poised for a 4,000-yard sophomore campaign. If he can improve his TD-to-INT ratio, he’ll be an automatic contender for the award as a first-year starter.

5. The Bearcats will win The American, finish 13-0 (8-0), and earn a bid to play a notable Power Five opponent in a New Year’s Six bowl

Unlikely? Yes. Possible? Yes.

If Cincinnati was to escape the regular season with an unblemished record for the first time since 2009, this would be the year to do it.

Its 2016 schedule isn’t easy, but it’s not severely challenging, either. Three of its four most difficult games — Houston, USF and Memphis — come at home, with Temple on the road in late October. An early road contest against Purdue could indicate if this is a possible feat.

Unfortunately, claiming victory over the 77th-ranked schedule probably wouldn’t be enough to push the ‘Cats into the College Football Playoff (unless Houston beats Oklahoma and a few other things happen, but that’s too much speculation for now). It would, however, place them in a New Year’s Six bowl against a premier Power Five opponent.

Can you say, “Ohio State?”

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