Team: Cincinnati Bearcats
2014 record: 9-4 (7-1 AAC)
Recap: Had Cincinnati’s first two quarters in the season opener against Toledo been a preview of what was to come for the rest of the year, we might be talking about a team that blew past AAC competition en route to a New Year’s Six Bowl over Boise State. The highly-anticipated Bearcats offense stormed out to a 41-7 lead before the first half had even ended, and a Heisman campaign for Notre Dame transfer quarterback Gunner Kiel was beginning to trend on Twitter by the time they took the field for remaining 30 minutes.
Unfortunately, the second half was much more indicative of how Cincinnati’s season would play out—that 41-7 quickly became 41-34 only seconds into the fourth quarter, and while the offense was able to create some separation with a few more scores, the fact that Toledo even had a chance to come back was a major concern.
When Kiel was healthy—he was in and out of games for a good chunk of the season—the offense was excellent. It finished third in the conference in scoring (34.0 points per game) and averaged 6.3 yards per play, which ranked 27th nationally. The ‘Cats were somewhat reliant on the big pass play, but when you have 34 plays of 30-plus yards, that’s not really a bad thing.
The other side of the ball is what held UC back from being anything more than your typical scrappy non-Power Five team; Cincinnati finished t-98th in the nation in yards per play allowed (6.0) and struggled to keep up against opponents that played with any type of competence, yielding 41.4 points to teams that finished the season with a winning record.
Key player: Gunner Kiel, RS Jr., QB
If he’s 100 percent healthy, he’s arguably the best quarterback outside of the Power Five and could potentially earn a first-round draft grade.
Biggest strength: Passing game
Every major receiving threat returns to the field in 2015, including Shaq Washington (66 receptions, 761 yards, 4 touchdowns), Mekale McKay (44 rec, 745 yds, 8 TD), and Chris Moore (30 rec, 673 yds, 8 TD). Three starters return to the offensive line, where continuity and health remain as vital factors to create more running lanes for a group of backs that have the opportunity to make the pass all the more dangerous. Altogether, this unit has the chance to put up surreal numbers—like, 2009 Houston type of numbers—but again, it all starts with Kiel and his ability to stay away from the sideline and in the pocket.
Biggest weakness: Defensive back seven
In games 1-5, Cincinnati’s defense gave up 204 points (40.8 per game), 1,512 passing yards (302.4), 14 passing touchdowns, and allowed opposing offenses to covert 51.9 percent of their downs, which would have ranked in the bottom three nationally had it kept that rate for the rest of the year. Facing lower tier AAC foes helped balance things out, but that doesn’t mean there was any improvement. With a few new faces in at linebacker, it will have to be Tuberville’s focal point to create different blitz schemes for a better pass rush to take off the pressure from a secondary that time and time again broke down in 2014.
Most important game: at Houston (Nov. 7)
Tom Herman and the Coogs are my early favorite to win the West, and this could be the game that sets UC up for a rematch in the AAC title game.
Best-case scenario: 12-0 (8-0)
Ohio State is no longer on the schedule, and Miami (Fla.) hasn’t shown that it is on track to resemble its glory days under Al Golden. Cincinnati has the weapons to score on anyone with relative talent. If the defense comes together by limiting the number of big plays and increasing the amount of turnovers forced, the Bearcats have a legitimate chance to match their regular season record from 2009.
Worst-case scenario: 7-5 (5-3)
Kiel was injury prone, and when he was out or playing hurt, there was a significant drop off in offensive efficiency and overall scoring production. Without him, Cincy becomes one-dimensional with the running game and then has to rely more on the defense to win games—and neither are an overwhelming strength. We can assume he’ll be able to play every down in 2015, but if not, the ‘Cats are in trouble, especially with road matchups at Memphis, BYU, Houston, and ECU on the schedule.
Early prediction: 9-3 (7-1)
I’ll take somewhere right in the middle, simply because this seems about right for a Tuberville-led team and high expectations. There’s no doubt that Cincinnati has the pieces to win an AAC championship, and by all accounts, it should. But Tuberville hasn’t coached a 10-win team since Auburn in 2006 (11-2), and he has just two total in 19 years with four different programs. Can the Bearcats do more? Yes. Should they? Yes. But will they? Let’s see.