After winning 23 games and consecutive Big East titles in 2008 and 2009, Cincinnati only posted four victories last season. The Bearcats dropped five of their last six games and finished seventh in the conference. It was the first year under new Head Coach Butch Jones and the school’s worst finish in the conference since their inaugural Big East season of 2005.
Luckily for Bearcat fans, Cincinnati is on the rise this year:
“The Bearcats were very young last year on defense and return almost everybody back on that side of the football so there is really no place to go but up on defense. On offense this team has a lot of senior leadership (Collaros, Pead, Woods) and led the Big East last year in scoring and total yardage. Everything seems to be in place for the Bearcats to make a quick turnaround this year. If Cincinnati can fix their turnover issues from last year they will be a team to watch in the Big East. We turned to the SB Nation blog Big East Coast Bias to get their take on the 2011 Bearcats.”
Offense: Cincinnati’s offense didn’t miss a beat last season without Brian Kelly. Quarterback Zach Collaros earned first-team All-Big East honors in his first season as a starter and runningback Isaiah Pead finished the year with over 1,000 yards rushing. With both back for the 2011 season, the Bearcats offense will only get better.
Collaros is a dual-threat QB with a respectable arm. Often times running quarterbacks are not strong passers. Not so with the Cincinnati senior. He has 36 touchdown tosses over the past two seasons to go along with his eight rushing scores. Collaros led the Conference in passing yards and touchdowns all while being sacked 30 times. The only glitch in his game was his 14 interceptions–which also led the Big East.
With an all-star cast at wide receiver and a 1,000 yard running back behind him, Collaros should be able to limit the turnovers this season. WR DJ Woods is one of the best in the conference and there is hype surrounding JUCO transfer Kembrell Tompkins. Also look for sophomore Anthony McClung to earn some time after impressing last season. Considering it will be Collaros second year as the starter and with the new offense, cutting his interceptions to single digits is not unreasonable.
Pead was dynamite last season, leading the Big East with 6.6 yards per attempt. He has a total of 18 touchdowns over the past two years and ranked fifth in Conference rushing last season despite missing two games. The senior was given a larger role in the Jones-run system and should carry the ball close to 200 times this season.
While the Bearcats have all the talent necessary to succeed at the skill positions, their offensive line will be the key to this season. Unfortunately, the outlook isn’t great for the group:
“This group has two sure things, one almost-sure thing and two large holes, and unless we see a massive improvement from a handful of would-be starters the Bearcats are again going to have issues up front. First, the sure things: right tackle Alex Hoffman — the line’s best — and left guard Randy Martinez. U.C. knows this pair will deliver, particularly Hoffman, a former all-Big East pick at guard. The almost-sure thing is left tackle Sean Hooey, who has the talent to excel but is new to the blind side. Now, the holes: center and right guard. Center above all, as projected starter Evan Davis fared poorly in his one start, the Fresno State game, in 2010. Cincinnati could go with either Austen Bujnoch or Andre Cureton at right guard; the pair share youth, good size and a troubling lack of experience.”
Good news for the OL is that since Jones rotated starters so much last season there is some experience at the position. At the very least, Cincinnati’s line should provide enough leeway to allow Collaros and the offense another top-three finish in the Big East.
Defense: To put it lightly, the Bearcats defense has nowhere to go but up. Back to back abysmal seasons have plagued the Bearcats. Ten returning starters this season should help anchor the unit though.
“The defense wasn’t that great to begin with, and all the turnovers didn’t help matters. The Bearcats ranked either last or next-to-last in total defense in the Big East in the past two seasons. Like the offense, the defense didn’t help itself in turnover margin. Cincinnati forced the fewest turnovers in the Big East (14).”
There are stars in the making on this side of the ball. Linebacker JK Schaffer has posted more than 100 tackles in each of the past two seasons and will vie for Big East Defensive Player of the Year honors this season. Freshman Dwight Jackson is ready to make a splash at linebacker as the unit continues to transition from a 3-4 to a 4-3. Don’t discount the tole changing formations took on the unit last season. Some stability will certainly help the linebacking core. There is a little more depth at the position than in previous years, but Schaffer will handle the bulk of responsibilities yet again.
Walt Stewart will make the transition back to defensive end after serving as an LB last season. The move will only help the unit as Stewart will team up with T Derek Wolfe to form one of the most formidable line duo’s in the conference. Stewart’s position change allows for a steady rotation at DL that should help pace the line. Any one of six guys will be able to step in and contribute on a moments notice. With tremendous depth and lots of experience, expect the Bearcats defense to vastly improve simply because of a strong front four.
Dominique Battle is back at cornerback for Cincinnati after missing nine games last year due to injury. He will team up with safety Drew Frey to lead a spotty secondary. The other two positions will be up for grabs and may not be determined until after the season starts. There are plenty of options for Jones to examine but no players that are obvious stars. The logjam is a perfect case of quantity, not quality.
Overall, with an improved front seven the defense will at least make noise this season. Having ten starters return and coaching stability for the first time in three years will only help the unit.
Outlook. The offense will depend on the line but should once again rank among the best in the conference. It is hard to imagine Collaros, Woods, and Pead–all who performed extremely well last season and are only a year older–slowing down at all.
Defensively, there are major improvements. Schaffer will be a menace while the line should rank as one of the best in the Big East.
A reasonable expectation for the Bearcats this season would be seven wins. But, for a program who has won two of the last three championships and returns the league’s best offensive weapons, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Cincinnati in the race for yet another title.