Cincinnati won a share of last season’s conference title, and thanks in large part to the preseason favorite for AAC Offensive Player of the Year, the Bearcats find themselves a popular pick to repeat as conference champions. Quarterback Gunner Kiel leads what should be another explosive offense and will look to build on a 30-touchdown, 3,000-yard season. But the key to Cincinnati’s season will be the defense, which surrendered 27.2 points per game a season ago and has struggled mightily against Power Five teams. Let’s look at who’s gone, who’s back and the expectations for the team who couldn’t decide if it wanted to be a bear or a cat. (That has to be how Cincinnati got its name, right)?
The conversation starts with Kiel. The former five-star recruit and Notre Dame transfer showed he could light up a defense for 300 yards on any given night. But the redshirt junior battled a rib injury that hampered him in a few games. If he’s healthy, 40 touchdowns, 3,500 yards and AAC Offensive Player of the Year honors are reasonable targets.
Kiel’s supporting cast returns most of its keys from 2014. The Bearcats return their top six receivers, led by possession type Shaq Washington and explosive downfield threats Chris Moore and MeKale McKay. All six of them are seniors as well. The running game loses Rodriguez Moore, a reliable but not critical piece. Mike Boone should see a lot of work after posting 650 yards (6.4 yards per carry) and nine scores as a freshman, but Hosey Williams and Tion Green should be healthy and will contribute too. Cincinnati’s biggest offensive loss was in the trenches: gone is left tackle Eric Lefeld, a three-time all-conference pick. But three other starters offensive line starters return, including first-team All-AAC guard Parker Ehinger. And lastly, Cincinnati took a hit in the awesome name department with backup quarterback Munchie Legaux exhausting his eligibility.
This was the weakness that was exposed fairly often in 2014. The Bearcats ranked 101st in total defense and were throttled by Power Five opponents Ohio State and Miami, surrendering 50 and 55 points, respectively. They also gave up 33 points in a not-that-close bowl loss to Virginia Tech, an average at best offensive team. And that was with first-team all-league picks LB Jeff Luc and DE Terrell Hartsfield (AAC-best nine sacks). Both are gone, as is LB Nick Temple, an all-conference honorable mention pick. Safety Zach Edwards, cornerback Adrian Witty (above) and defensive end Silverbery Mouhon should anchor the defense. Edwards is an all-league type player.
Since 2013, Cincinnati is 1-5 against Power Five teams (not including then-AAC Louisville, which still beat Cincinnati in 2013). The one win came against Purdue, whom you and 10 friends could have held to seven points. Each of the bowl games in two seasons under head coach Tommy Tuberville (a defensive background guy) has been a blowout loss. New defensive coordinator Steve Clinkscale will attempt to right the ship, but he’s the third coordinator in the last three seasons, so temper the optimism for now.
Cincinnati has the ability to win eight or nine games again, and it probably will. But how much of an accomplishment would it be if 2015 were essentially a repeat of 2014? Quite frankly, it would not be as impressive as it would seem. Why? The lack of overall defensive speed, talent and progress has been fairly obvious. It has kept the Bearcats stuck in neutral and unable to compete with bigger and better teams. Tuberville needs a bowl win or another Power Five win to truly take the team to the next step. If the defensive woes continue, it’s fair to wonder if Cincinnati will ever get better than it was in 2014. That’s not a good standard for a program that should be a top Group of Five program.
The chance for that signature Power Five win is against Miami, a home game on Oct. 1. It’s the only scheduled Power Five game, although a win at BYU would be a big achievement too. Cincinnati’s final two nonconference games are easy ones, Miami (Ohio) and FCS Alabama A&M. In AAC play, it plays conference contenders Memphis (away), Houston (away) and UCF (home), plus a home game with last year’s AAC surprise, Temple. The offense will carry the team and put up big numbers, but unless the defense overcomes the losses and makes significant progress, Cincinnati will keep up the same narrative as it has the last two seasons. If the defense does make strides, the Bearcats should capture the conference crown and reach double-digits wins with a shot at a New Year’s Six bowl.