Cincinnati Bearcats Season Primer
- Formidable DB and DL group should worry AAC offenses
- Key losses at LB could limit what would otherwise be a top 20 defense
- Ridder returns at QB but needs to improve in his consistency
- Replacing Warren II will not be easy but will be key
- 13 preseason All-AAC selections according to Athlon (Athlon All-AAC Team)
- SP+ 34th overall
Cincinnati Offense preview
Luke Fickell inherits a pretty stout team in 2020 with their eyes set on an AAC Championship coming off back-to-back 11 win seasons. This could also be Fickell’s last year (on repeat) with the Bearcats and you know he wants to win it all.
Ridder returns at QB and should improve on his 2100 yard season, with his main issue being his 55% completion percentage. He has to improve on his throws. The passing offense was ranked 107th in the NCAA. Scoring offense was 60th overall, and it can be said that Ridder has been asked to be more of a game manager than actually needing to win it. Ben Bryant is the presumptive 2nd string but lacks a lot of experience. 4 star QB recruit Evan Prater is likely the future, but for now Ridder will have to lead the offense but he will be without his top target in Deguara…more on that later
Michael Warren II has moved on to the NFL. Gerrid Doaks will step into the starter role and many are expecting him to have a fine season, including Athlon Sports which has him as 1st team All-AAC. Behind him and likely to split the load is former Alabama commit Jerome Ford, who was a 4 star recruit and has been granted immediate eligibility. Mcclelland offers an option as a pass-catching back and is coming off injuring his ACL in 2019 and productive 2018 despite limited opportunity. He presents as a good change of pace option out of the backfield. I don’t want to overlook a guy like Montgomery who could be sprinkled in and also made Athlon’s 3rd team special teams. No problems at RB for the Bearcats.
The offensive line has a few concerns but brings back tremendous talent. Jakari Robinson is your guy at center. Darius Harper and Vincent McConnell have starting experience at tackle and guard, respectively. My expectation is that James Hudson will anchor at left tackle after sitting out a transfer year and seeing limited action as a R-FR in 2018 at Michigan. Jeremy Cooper should be able to play at LG after missing the end of last season due to injury. Dylan O’Quin has some rotational experience and can provide depth at guard. Overall this unit needs to improve if the offense is to get better. There is some starting experience and the talent is there, especially their 2020 recruiting class. But overall it remains decent question mark heading into the season.
At WR/TE the Bearcats really need to find themselves a star. Alec Pierce was Ridder’s 1a option last year and should have himself a strong season. Mbodj will step in as the clear #2 and behind those two guys is a big shoulder shrug. Jayshon Jackson has seen action in every game the last two seasons but only has 40 receptions. Tre Tucker, who does most of his damage on special teams but also has seen his fair share of explosive plays, is also an option as a slot WR. Their 2020 recruiting is LOADED at WR, especially for a G5 program. The true freshman will have an opportunity to make their mark.
Overall the Bearcats return 69% of their offensive production, ranking them 51st overall in the country per ESPN (Returning Production). That’s not bad at all and with Ridder having another off-season to study the playbook and get familiar with the offense will certainly help. Plenty of options at RB and WR, especially the young guys.
Cincinnati Defense Preview
Defense is where Cincinnati has made their money in recent seasons. There is no shortage of talent on this Bearcats defense that features 6 members of Athlon’s first and second team all-AAC. As a whole they return 78% of their production, which ranks 33rd. The early SP+ projections keep the defense at 28th overall. They were 24th in the country in scoring defense, 12th in redzone conversions, and 28th in rush yards/attempt. They will return NFL talent at DL and DB, including DE Myjai Sanders who is also Pro Football Focus’s #9 DL in the entire country (PFF).
Sanders is going to be in the NFL and will be complemented by first team All-AAC DT Elijah Ponder. When you have two first team All-Conference playmakers on the same unit, that’s going to be a problem for most OL. DT Curtis Brooks will return with a measly 38 games of experience and 80 tackles. Michael Pitts is another name to know, occupying the JACK position (hybrid DL/LB). He alone accounted for 5.5 sacks, 9.5 TFLs, and 29 total tackles. Ethan Tucky (27 games) has similar stats in the JACK role and doubles as a ace special team ace. They have good rotational talent with DE/DT Malik Vann (26 games), Harrison Hill, who transfers from Davidson after making 2nd team All-Pioneer, and Jabari Taylor who will add some depth at DT. A ton of underclassmen with high upside are waiting in the wings as well. This is going to be a formidable unit but will have to improve situational pass rushing in order to be mixed in with the elite. 61st overall in standard down sack rate isn’t elite enough. Similarly, they are tied for 111th in power success rate, suggesting opposing teams in 3rd and 4th down with a yard or two to go had been able to convert too much (FootballOutsiders).
The biggest concern on defense is replacing their tremendously talented duo of Bryan Wright and Perry Young, who accounted for 180 tackles, roughly 66% of the Cincinnati’s total LB production. White returns with the highest upside to make up for lost production. They are going to ask Dublanko to step up after posting 34 total tackles last season and Darrian Beaver who totaled 36 tackles. Positional journeyman Wilson Huber is probably also going to be asked to step up but he has lacked game experience. Again, the JACK position can cover the OLB spot depending on the play call. So there is some flexibility with the personnel in their hybrid 4-3 defense. That being said, I can’t say for sure “Hey, this is their starting LB and these are their backups”.
Safeties James Wiggins and Darrick Forrest are preseason 1st and 2nd team All-AAC. Wiggins suffered and injury that saw him miss 2019 but Forrest had a solid 2019 that found him on the post-season All-AAC squad. Ja’von Hicks started much of the season and may be an NFL talent along with Wiggins and Forrest.
True sophomore DB Garner is turning NFL heads and received a PFF coverage grade of 90 while allowing for 0 touchdowns on 320 snaps.
Coby Bryant will man the other DB spot and has 26 career stars under his belt. He isn’t flash, but he is effective. Arquon Bush is the likely backup DB with true sophomores Justin Harris and Taj Ward seeing some rotational time last year and figuring to have a more consistent workload this year. Not a tremendous amount of depth but the top 4 guys are solid.
The secondary as a whole was a mixed bag, coming in 60th in pass yards allowed per game, 30th in passing first downs allowed, 36th in pass yards/attempt, and 6th in the country in completion percentage. The East Carolina game especially stands out from an otherwise solid season in the defensive backfield (CFBStats).
Altogether it is pretty reasonable to expect a strong season, particularly with the top-end talent at DL and DB/S. The concerns at LB can be overstated by some and many possibilities can exist with the defensive scheme to mask some of the LB deficiencies.
At the end of the day
In my opinion they are a half-tier below AAC member Memphis and are paired with UCF, but without a doubt can win it all. The formula appears simple, win with defense. They remind me of 2016 Temple, who rolled out a stout defense and inconsistent offense on their way to winning the 2016 AAC Championship.
The schedule will dictate the season and without the added headache of trying to guess on what that will look like, I’m going to say Cinci would have gone 10-2 had the schedule stayed the same. Games at UCF and at Temple to end the season would be interesting. So is the away game at SMU. Memphis coming to Nippert would have also made for an interesting contest. I think Cinci will stumble in two of those, which one I’m not sure.
If Cinci finds its groove on offense and the defense can take a step up into elite status (particularly the DL), this should be a title contender. I’m expecting all of those things to happen.