Still, the Bearcats wonder what might have been had starting quarterback Zach Collaros not been injured.
But the Bearcats persevered. Jones' mantra throughout the season has been "snap and clear," not to allow adversity to impact the next play or game. Cincinnati's players used last year's hardship as a source of motivation, and resiliency became a trademark for the team.
"Everyone has a role in our football program ... not just on the field, but off the field from a leadership standpoint," Jones said. "I'll tell you what, I love our senior class. They have been champions for our football program. For them to be playing for a third Big East Conference championship speaks volumes about them as individuals and football players."
The Bearcats will face Vanderbilt in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl on Dec. 31 in Memphis.
"We are pleased to accept a bid to the Liberty Bowl," Jones said. "It's a great honor to be part of a game with the prestige and storied history of the Liberty Bowl. We look forward to a great number of Cincinnati fans ... helping us ring in the New Year in Memphis."
A much-improved defense has keyed the Bearcats' resurgence. Despite a series of key injuries and inexperience in the secondary, Cincinnati has made strides, largely because of a revamped defensive line that generated 35 sacks in one nine-game stretch. The Bearcats also are among the nation's leaders in turnover margin.
Behind an opportunistic defense and the big-play ability of senior running back Isaiah Pead, the Bearcats managed to remain in the Big East race despite losing Collaros for the season after he fractured his ankle Nov. 12 in a game against West Virginia.
Collaros passed for more than 1,800 yards and 14 touchdowns, and his presence as an emotional on-field leader is greatly missed. In his place, Jones has settled on a dual-quarterback approach with sophomores Munchie Legaux and Jordan Luallen sharing duties.
"You do it by feel of the game," Jones said of his two-headed QB system. "Jordan brings a great spark to our team. Munchie continues to progress, and we have great belief in him."
Legaux showed measurable improvement in his final two games. He passed for 217 yards and two touchdowns in the regular-season finale against Connecticut. The Bearcats will be looking to put the finishing touches on their turnaround against the Commodores.
"We're sitting there (last year) in December and January watching bowl games from our couch," senior linebacker J.K. Schaffer said. "That definitely motivates you. We weren't used to losing. Last year was a wake-up call. I'm just glad we got it corrected."
PLAYERS TO WATCH:
--RB Isaiah Pead is the Bearcats' big-play threat. Pead has rushed for more than 1,000 yards for the second straight year (1,110). He has touchdown runs of 65, 50 and 40 yards and averages better than 5 yards per carry. With the pass offense stymied by the loss of starting QB Zach Collaros, Pead has become the focal point of Cincinnati's offense. He is developing as a pass catcher and was successful returning punts in limited opportunities.
--QB Munchie Legaux, only a sophomore, was thrust into the starting role when Zach Collaros suffered a season-ending ankle injury. Legaux struggled early on, but he's coming off his best performance, when he passed for 217 yards and three touchdowns in the regular-season finale vs. UConn. Jordan Luallen, a transfer from Georgia Tech, can make plays with his feet and is used primarily in Wildcat sets. Luallen and Legaux are being used interchangeably.
--LB J.K. Schaffer is the emotional leader of Cincinnati's defense and its top playmaker. The Big East Conference's active leader in tackles, Shaffer has recorded 100 or more tackles in three consecutive seasons, only the fifth Cincinnati player to accomplish the feat.
--WR Anthony McClung is an emerging big-play target in the Bearcats' offense. He enjoyed a career afternoon in the regular-season finale against Connecticut with eight catches for 142 yards and 2 TDs.
BOWL HISTORY: Cincinnati is 6-6 all-time in bowl games. The Bearcats, who did not qualify for a bowl last season, lost their last two bowl games, both BCS bowls. Cincinnati lost to Virginia Tech in the 2009 Orange Bowl and to Florida in the 2010 Sugar Bowl. After going 46 years without appearing in a bowl in one stretch, the Bearcats will be making their eighth bowl appearance in the past 10 years.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "Sometimes you have to lose to really appreciate this. You never take winning for granted. Being home over the holidays (last year) ... I was so disappointed. I knew our players were disappointed. When we came back and had our team meeting, I could tell we had a very focused football team." -- Cincinnati coach Butch Jones, on returning to the postseason after not qualifying for a bowl last year.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
Scouting the running game: Isaiah Pead is the engine that drives the offense, particularly with quarterback Zach Collaros out due an ankle injury. Pead rushed for 1,000 yards for the second consecutive season, becoming the first Cincinnati player to do so since 1986. He is consistently a big-play threat with touchdown runs of 65, 50 and 40 yards.
Scouting the passing game: With Collaros' status uncertain for the bowl game, the passing game continues to be a work in progress with sophomore Munchie Legaux at quarterback. Legaux completed 49.4 percent of his passes with two TDs and two interceptions.
Scouting the run defense: Cincinnati allowed less than 100 yards rushing in four consecutive games, including negative yardage totals in two straight. But the Bearcats were more vulnerable later in the season, with Rutgers' Jawan Jamison rushing for 200 yards and Syracuse's Antwon Bailey rushing for 135 against them.
Scouting the pass defense: The Bearcats' pass rush has been a strength. While injuries and inexperience have hampered the secondary, the team has recorded 44 sacks, including 35 in one nine-game stretch. The consistent pressure has contributed to 14 interceptions.
Scouting the special teams: Freshman kicker Tony Miliano has been consistent throughout the season, as has junior punter Pat O'Donnell. Both have earned Big East Conference weekly honors this season. The return game has been in flux, with senior D.J. Woods losing his punt return duties earlier this season after a pair of fumbles.
Intangibles: Last year's 4-8 record in Butch Jones' first season has been a source of motivation for the Bearcats all year. One of the most successful senior classes in school history will be looking to end its career on a positive note. It is unlikely that Collaros will recover from his fractured ankle in time for the bowl game, so Cincinnati probably will have to get by without one of its most inspirational leaders.
--Senior QB Zach Collaros, who passed for 1,860 yards and 14 touchdowns and rushed for 242 yards and eight TDs in nine games, suffered a fractured ankle Nov. 12 vs. West Virginia. Surgery was successful but Collaros' hopes of returning for the bowl game are a long shot.
--Sophomore Munchie Legaux and sophomore Jordan Luallen, a Georgia Tech transfer, share QB duties with Collaros out. Both can run, but Luallen is primarily used in Wildcat sets. Brendon Kay is listed as No. 3 on the depth chart.
--Senior DB Dominique Battle is out for the year with a torn right ACL suffered in a victory at South Florida on Oct. 22.
--Junior DB Malcolm Murray is out for the year with a torn ACL suffered in practice.