When a team loses 16 starters and 26 lettermen, it's difficult to be realistically optimistic about the upcoming season. To make matters even worse, the Bearcat football program suffered devastating loses in all three key areas: offensive line, defensive line, and quarterback. Of those ten crucial positions, UC lost eight quality players including six that are presently in NFL camps. Of the two returnees, Steve Eastlake is rehabbing a shoulder injury while Adam Roberts is switching positions.
The offensive line returns only Eastlake at left tackle. Upper classmen Ryan Brown (Sr.), Jeff Reinstatler (Jr.), and Matt Webster (Sr.) provide some maturity to the interior line but very limited experience. Sophomore Digger Bujnoch projects as the starting right tackle despite being a back-up tight end last season. Trevor Canfield, Khalil El-Amin, J. P. Simon, and Frank Straub will all compete for playing time but only Straub is a letterman. This unit is extremely inexperienced.
The Bearcat defensive line returns no one at last year's position since Roberts will move from defensive tackle to defensive end, and Andre Frazier, Trent Cole and Mike Wright are in NFL camps. With Jordan Roth's injury, there are no returning lettermen at defensive tackle. True freshmen like Terrill Byrd, Patrick Mimms, and Thomas Claggett will compete with returnees Jon Newton, D'arrell Brown, Jamie Wimmer, and Adam Hoppel for playing time on the defensive front. Sophomore Anthony Hoke is another possibility at defensive end, but Hoke finished the spring playing linebacker. The defensive line has to be an area of major concern for the Bearcat coaching staff especially when combined with no returning letter winners at linebacker.
The quarterback position has no shortage of contenders but includes no one that has ever thrown a pass on the major college level. Interestingly, the Bearcat roster will include twelve high school quarterbacks this year since UC position players Earnest Jackson, Mike Daniels, Carlos Simpson and Jared Martin join QB contenders Dustin Grutza, Nick Davila, Tony Pike, Todd Spitzer, Craig Carey, David Wess, Dominick Goodman and Akron transfer Kurt Shoemaker, who will be ineligible this season. Some of these guys will have to be moved to other positions and could give offensive coordinator, Don Treadwell, some interesting options for his offense, but again "inexperience" best describes this group.
The media recognized the obvious inexperience of this squad and recently voted it to finish last in its inaugural season in the (New) Big East Conference, but despite this prediction, there's finally some reason for optimism. The Bearcats have changed leagues in football five times, and in their initial season have finished below .500 only once. In 1910, Cincinnati joined the Ohio Conference and posted a 6-3 record. UC had its longest league affiliation with this conference being a member for 15 years. In 1925, the Bearcats joined the Buckeye Conference and finished a respectable 4-5. This is the only time UC had a losing first season in a league. The Mid-American Conference became UC's home in 1947, and the Bearcats won the league title with a 7-3 record. In fact, the Bearcats won the league championship five of its six seasons in the MAC. The Missouri Valley Conference was the next league stop in 1957. The Bearcats finished 4th with a 5-4-1 record. Conference USA came on the scene in 1996 and saw the Bearcats record a 6-5 record, good enough for a 3rd place finish.
If the Bearcats are to finish above .500 in 2005, these are their six best chances for wins. The opener against Eastern Michigan is a "must" win but may be much tougher than many Bearcat fans expect. The Eagles ran a spread offense last season that ranked 6th in the country. Quarterback Matt Bohnet, an Iowa transfer, returns with six other offensive starters to make the Eagle offense one of the more potent ones the Bearcats will face. The inexperienced Bearcat defense will be tested.
Western Carolina is the absolute best bet for a victory this season. The Catamounts are a Division IAA program and are picked 4th in their conference. They were 4-7 last year.
The Battle for the Bell against Miami is always a big game, but if the Bearcats are to have a chance for a winning record, it's doubly important this year. It's tough for anyone to win in Oxford, but the Bearcats are a respectable 4-5-1 in their last ten trips with no lose by more than a touchdown. The Redhawks return fifteen starters including four offensive linemen and their quarterback, Josh Betts, who finished 13th in the country in total offense. Like Eastern Michigan, the Miami offense with star receivers Ryne Robinson and Martin Nance will test the Bearcat defense primarily through the air.
The Homecoming contest on October 15 against Connecticut is also a critical game for UC. The Bearcats will be facing a team with similar loses to graduation. Both schools have huge holes to fill on offense and defense, including replacing record setting quarterbacks. Having this game at Nippert on Homecoming should give the Bearcats an edge.
USF is Cincinnati's best shot at a road victory despite the Bulls' returning seventeen starters. Raymond James Stadium provides little in a home field advantage. Plus this inexperienced Bearcat team will have nine games under its belt and ten days to prepare for the game.
Many of the experts are expecting big things from this Rutgers team, but I see some potential problems for the Scarlet Knights and a chance for the Bearcats to steal a win in Piscataway on the final weekend of the season. The Scarlet Knights return fifteen starters including their record holding quarterback, Ryan Hart, but Hart has thrown 38 interceptions in the last two seasons, and their defense has been awful. So awful that head coach, Greg Schiano, named himself defensive coordinator this year. In addition, Rutgers needs to overcome a history of losing. They are 22-41 in "new" Rutgers Stadium and have not had a winning season since 1992. Rutgers began last season with an upset of Michigan State and a 4-2 start before losing its final five games for a 4-7 record. Finally, the Scarlet Knights have lost their final game eleven of the last twelve seasons.
If the Bearcats were to lose a game to one of the above opponents, their next best shots at a win would probably be at Syracuse on October 29th or at home against West Virginia on November 9th. The Orange are going through a coaching change which could lead to a slow start, but the Bearcats don't play the 'Cuse until the end of October. The Mountaineers return as few starters as UC but will be looking for revenge after UC's upset win in Morgantown in 2003.
I'm not totally discounting the possibility of a win at Penn State, but UC is 8-35-2 all-time against the Big Ten, and 1-17 against them since the Penn State upset in 1983. The Bearcats could win and do have nine days to prepare, but the Nittany Lions are at home with plenty of seniors and eighteen returning starters.
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