In his three seasons as head coach, Brian Kelly raised the bar for the Cincinnati program, leading it to consecutive Big East Conference titles and BCS bowl appearances. Kelly is now rebuilding at Notre Dame, so it's up to first-year Bearcats head coach Butch Jones to maintain the momentum.
Jones inherits a championship-caliber team that is coming off a 12-1 season and Sugar Bowl appearance. But, there are skeptics. UC has been picked as low as fifth in the Big East, largely due to Kelly's departure and a porous defense that ranked 67th in the nation last year.
Jones, a Kelly protégé from Central Michigan, also is known for a wide-open offense. And, the Bearcats are not lacking for offensive firepower. Zach Collaros, who passed for 1,434 yards and 10 touchdowns in 12 games -- including four starts for the injured Tony Pike -- will lead an offense that ranked 11th nationally.
Despite having Collaros and a top-flight receiving corps led by Armon Binns and USC transfer Vidal Hazelton, look for Jones to put more emphasis on the running game than his predecessor. He's more likely to pull in the reins of the offense, especially with a lead late in games.
Many feel junior running back Isaiah Pead, who led the Bearcats with 843 yards and nine rushing touchdowns, is due for a breakout season. Senior tight end Ben Guidugli is a difficult matchup, as well.
Aside from the usual uncertainty surrounding a new coaching staff, UC's biggest concern is on defense. Co-coordinators Tim Banks and John Jancek are moving the Bearcats back to a 4-3 set to create more pressure on opposing quarterbacks. There is some talent returning, however.
Early eyes will be on Jones and the Kelly-less Bearcats with stern road tests at Fresno State and North Carolina State, and a matchup against Oklahoma at Paul Brown Stadium. How the Bearcats emerge from their first four games could set the stage for the remainder of the season.
-- Junior QB Zach Collaros is one of 30 players on the watch list for the Davey O'Brien Award, given to the nation's top quarterback. Collaros is among 15 juniors on this year's list. Collaros was also the 12th addition to the Manning Award watch list.
--By mid-July, Cincinnati had surpassed 20,000 season tickets sold for the first time in school history, and it was on pace for a possible preseason sellout of all available season tickets. UC has set attendance records each of the past four years.
SPOTLIGHT ON SEPTEMBER: While the signature game is Sept. 25 against Oklahoma at Paul Brown Stadium, Cincinnati has a couple of tough road tests sandwiched around the home opener against Indiana State. The Bearcats play at Fresno State and at North Carolina State before returning home to face the Sooners.
KEYS TO SUCCESS: The Bearcats return 13 starters from last year's Big East Conference championship squad. There's a wealth of talent on both sides of the ball, particularly on offense with junior QB Zach Collaros and a deep, talented receiving corps. Under Brian Kelly, the Bearcats were a high-wire act, scoring quickly and in bunches. This put added pressure on a defense that lacked depth. Under coach Butch Jones, if the Bearcats are going to be successful, the running game will need to be more of a factor, especially with leads late in games. Jones appears to be more inclined to utilize the running game to run clock, a contrast to Kelly's unrelenting fast-break approach.
AREAS OF CONCERN: The Bearcats will score, but can they stop anyone? In the final five games of last season, including the Sugar Bowl loss to Florida, Cincinnati allowed more than 39 points per game. The Bearcats offense was prolific enough to pull out victories in all but one of those contests, but it's no way to live. Co-coordinators Tim Banks and John Jancek are switching UC back to a 4-3, hoping to put more pressure on opposing quarterbacks. UC returns four of its top six tacklers, but this unit must show significant improvement.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "It shows you the passion and the commitment that this great city has for us. It speaks volumes about where our football program is and where it's going. There's something to be said about being part of a great venue in college football. That's what makes college football special. Obviously, Nippert Stadium is a special place. We're just excited to get the season started." -- Coach Butch Jones, on the Bearcats selling season tickets at a record pace.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
HEAD COACH: Butch Jones, first season at UC; fourth year as head coach, 27-13.
MOST IMPORTANT PLAYER: RB Isaiah Pead -- The junior is crucial to the Bearcats' success for a variety of reasons. A big year from Pead could mean less pressure on QB Zach Collaros, more extended drives to rest the defense, and an important time-killing weapon to finish games. Pead provides an added dimension to Cincinnati's already potent offense, but don't look for him to just grind out yardage in small chunks. Pead averaged 6.7 yards per carry last year, including one 67-yard run.
BREAKOUT STAR: WR Vidal Hazelton -- The senior sat out last season after transferring from USC, and injuries cost him most of 2008. He had 540 receiving yards and four touchdowns for the Trojans in 2007, and his physical prowess and athletic ability has Bearcats coaches salivating over his potential. Hazelton's only question mark is how he responds at game speed after not playing for two seasons. But many are predicting Hazelton to emerge as UC's top receiver by season's end.
NEWCOMER TO WATCH: WR Dyjuan Lewis -- The freshman is a four-star recruit who has impressed coaches with his speed and playmaking ability. Lewis is a 6-2, 186-pound high-jumper who runs a 4.5-second 40-yard dash. He's athletic and a smooth route-runner, but there are concerns that it will take him some time to grasp UC's complex offensive system.
PROJECTED STARTING LINEUP
Defense -- DE Brandon Mills, DT Derek Wolfe, DT John Hughes, DE Dan Giordano, WLB J.K. Shaffer, MLB Ricardo Thompson, SLB Walter Stewart, DB Dominique Battle, DB Camerron Cheatham, SS Drew Frey, FS Wesley Richardson.
--Senior WR Marcus Barnett will compete with junior D.J. Woods for the slot receiver position. Barnett briefly played cornerback last season, but is being moved back to offense full time.
--All-American kick returner Mardy Gilyard is gone to the NFL, so the competition is wide open for primary punt and kick return duties. Among those getting an early look are D.J. Woods, Darrin Williams, Vidal Hazelton, Isaiah Pead and John Goebel.
--Junior OL Evan Davis will be the starting center. Davis backed up Chris Jurek the past two seasons.