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College Football Preview 2021: 8. Cincinnati Bearcats

Desmond Ridder, Cincinnati

 8. Cincinnati Bearcats

Cincy is the best of the best in the Group of Five, but they're a step below "Playoff" good

2020 Review
Even as they battled through the chaos that was 2020, Cincinnati proved to be one of the most consistent teams anywhere in the country. They regularly dominated opposing foes, and put together an 8-0 regular season before beating a tough Tulsa team in the AAC Championship Game. A heartbreaking loss to Georgia in the Peach Bowl cast a shadow over an otherwise tremendous season, but the game still proved the Bearcats would compete with the college football elites for an entire sixty minutes. As they prep for 2021, the goal isn't just getting to a New Year's Six Bowl, but winning one.

2021 Outlook
Offense: The Bearcats don't play a flashy brand of offense, but it's one that has proven to be effective. Last year, they averaged over 450 yards per game and 37 points per game, putting up some of the best efficiency numbers anywhere in college football. Even as they lose their top rusher from last fall, expect the numbers to be similar once more in 2021.

Quarterback Desmond Ridder likely would have been a first round selection in this spring's NFL Draft, but he instead opted to stay one more year in Cincinnati. Ridder has grown into a reliable passer and great leader, and he's always been an elite athlete for the position. Currently second on Cincinnati's all-time passing list, the veteran is hoping to smash even more records in 2021.

Ridder's backup, Ben Bryant, hit the transfer portal over the off-season, but the Bearcats have a replacement ready to step up in Evan Prater. Prater was the big name in the 2020 recruiting class, and while he didn't see the field last fall, Cincy will likely use him in some packages this year. As the former Mr. Football for the state of Ohio, Prater has a proven pedigree, and he has the look of a future star at the position.

Tailback Gerrid Doaks is now playing for the Miami Dolphins, meaning that Alabama transfer Jerome Ford is likely to step into a larger role. Ford made just one start in 2020 but still saw a healthy amount of action, finishing with 483 yards. He's got a little bit more shiftiness and burst than Doaks, which could help this offense become even more explosive. Charles McClelland tore his ACL for the second time a year ago, but the Bearcats are hopeful he can stay healthy this fall. He totaled 485 yards in 2018 but injuries have crippled his promising career.

Cincinnati under head coach Luke Fickell is not a school known for producing elite wide receivers, but they might have their most complete group in a long time this season. Former Notre Dame transfer Michael Young impressed in his first season with the team, while Alec Pierce proved to be productive, even after missing several weeks. Sophomore Tre Tucker is likely to slide into the No. 3 role now that Jayshon Jackson is gone, but he should still see an abundance of targets after managing 236 yards in 2020. Then there's tight end Josh Whyle, who was an All-AAC performer last fall. Tight ends have been a valued part of Cincy's offense over the years, and Whyle has great hands and decent athleticism for the position.

While Ridder's continued growth has been huge for this offense, the real reason for the jump in 2020 was the offensive line. It was one of the better groups in the AAC last year and even as several starters move on, it should still be a quality unit. It should be particularly strong in the middle, as center Jake Renfro and guards Vincent McConnell and Jeremy Cooper are back. The competition is at the tackle spots, where Cincy has some experience, but not clear starters. Sophomore Dylan O'Quinn is the favorite at right tackle, but the LT spot is up for grabs. John Williams played in four games last season and is the early leader, but Stony Brook transfer James Tunstall may challenge. Expect 6'9" behemoth Lorenz Metz to fill in somewhere; he started 13 games in 2019 but was relegated to a supporting role in 2020. Metz can play either tackle or guard, providing the Bearcats with nice options.

Cincinnati may have the best offense in the American this year, with a veteran quarterback slinging the ball to a host of different weapons. The only possible questions may be at those tackle spots, but Fickell and staff have proven they can develop the position. 

Defense: The immense success of Cincinnati's defense was enough for defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman to become a hot name on the coaching carousel. Freeman flirted with the LSU DC job before instead taking a detour and ending up at Notre Dame. His departure was a tough pill to swallow for Fickell and the Bearcats, but they responded by poaching former Michigan State DC Mike Tressel. Tressel should keep the defense firing on all cylinders, and there's stars at every level.

The Bearcats' pass rush has been significantly improved over the last three years and the prognosis for 2021 looks excellent. Junior defensive end Myjai Sanders has become one of the best pass rushers anywhere in college football and returns, hoping to build on his seven sack 2020. It's unclear who will start opposite him at the other end spot, but there are a few candidates. Junior Malik Vann has seen a solid amount of playing time over the years and may be in line for a transition to a starting role, but Virginia transfer Jowon Briggs may beat him out. Briggs made 14 starts during his time with the Cavaliers and proved to be a solid contributor. Up the middle, proven senior Curtis Brooks will handle nose guard duties. 

The linebacker corps loses a key piece in Jarrell White, an All-AAC defender who led the Bearcats in tackles. However, the unit should still be a strength, with Darrian Beavers and Joel Dublanko leading the way. Beavers, a former UConn transfer, finished just behind White in tackles, compiling 58, with five of them going for a loss. He's the type of intelligent, hard-nosed linebacker that perfectly fits the culture Fickell and staff have developed on defense. Dublanko, who will handle middle linebacker duties, is a proven veteran who can make an impact as a blitzer. At the linebacker spot left open by White, sophomore Ty Van Fossen and freshman Deshawn Pace are the top contenders. Van Fossen has proven experience and is the favorite, but Pace impressed in eight games a season ago.

As strong as Cincinnati is in the front seven, the secondary may be the strength of the entire defense. They boast one of the best cornerback combos in the entire country, with sophomore Ahmad "Sauce" Gardner and senior Coby Bryant. Gardner is one of the best corners anywhere and the accolades have rolled in. He is a two-time All-AAC defender and last year made the All-American team. Don't be surprised if he contends for the Jim Thorpe Award this fall. Bryant isn't quite as dominant, but he's certainly no slouch. He's made 36 starts in his Cincy career and last season, he totaled 11 pass deflections. The cornerback spots also have a nice amount of depth, with names like Taj Ward an Ja'Quan Sheppard sticking around.

Safety isn't as strong of a position group right now, with Darrick Forest and James Wiggins both moving on to the NFL. There is still experience here, as senior Bryan Cook was a regular starter in 2017 and 2018 before losing his job, and junior Ja'Von Hicks has seen playing time. Neither are quite as rangy as the combo of Forrest and Wiggins, but they'll still find ways to contribute.

Even with Freeman moving on, Cincinnati's defense should keep on rolling. This is a deep, experienced group that has personified the program's mantra of toughness and discipline. They have everything you could want in a defense, with skilled pass rushers, proven linebackers, and elite defensive backs. This should be a Top 5 - Top 10 group nationally.

Special Teams: Junior kicker Cole Smith is hoping that 2021 is the year he puts it altogether after several rollercoaster campaigns. He was decent in '20, knocking down seven of ten field goals, but the Bearcats would still like more. At punter, All-Conference specialist James Smith moves on, meaning the position is a real question. Redshirt freshman Alex Bales has some experience, but he is likely to be pushed by Australian newcomer Mason Fletcher. 

Bottom Line: After coming agonizingly close to a perfect season in 2020, Cincinnati has plenty of motivation for the fall. They've proven that they are the elite of the elite in the Group of Five, with 29 victories over the last three years, but can they take the next step and seriously contend for a Playoff berth? The system is obviously working against them, but there's reasons to believe this team could be the first Group of Five team to do it. For one, they have stability throughout the program, headlined by a star quarterback. Secondly, there's nobody in their conference that can seriously push them, even with UCF looking dangerous now that Gus Malzahn is on the sidelines. And then lastly, the schedule actually works out in their favor. With road tilts against Indiana and Notre Dame, the Bearcats might have a chance to build a resume strong enough for the Playoff Committee. It's still a tough road ahead to try and make the four-team Playoff, but the Bearcats have a serious chance to do it. At the least, a New Year's Six Bowl would be an awfully nice consolation prize.

Further Breakdown
Team Projections
Projected Record: 12-1 (8-1 AAC, Win AAC Championship Game)
Offensive MVP: QB Desmond Ridder
Defensive MVP: CB Ahmad Gardner
Breakout Player of the Year: RB Jerome Ford
Impact Freshman: OL Luke Collinsworth

Recruiting Breakdown
Not only is Cincinnati out-pacing their Group of Five foes on the field, they're also doing so on the recruiting trail. They finished the 2021 cycle with the best group in the G05, edging out AAC rival Memphis. A pair of athletes lead the Class, in Chamon Metayer from Florida and Byron Threats from inside the state of Ohio. Metayer can play a wide variety of different positions, but most scouts believe he'll end up at either wide or tight end at the next level. The Bearcats did a fine job landing offensive linemen who will contribute in the future, including Luke Collinsworth, Mao Glynn, and Luke Fickell's son, Landon. Collinsworth may compete for playing time right away, considering the Bearcats are fairly thin at tackle.

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