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College Football Preview 2022: 14. Cincinnati Bearcats

Tyler Scott, Cincinnati

14. Cincinnati Bearcats

Another undefeated regular season is too much to ask for 2022, but the Group of Five's premier program has earned the benefit of the doubt

2021 Review
Cincinnati's 2021 schedule opened with a pair of easy wins in the friendly confines of Nippert Stadium, as they pounded Miami (Ohio) and Murray State to begin the year. The road trip to Indiana originally looked like it could be a Top 25 clash, but the Hoosiers were one of the most disappointing teams in the country, and the Bearcats dispatched them with a 38-24 victory. 3-0 going into their bye, any chance of a CFB Playoff run for the Bearcats hinged on beating Notre Dame in South Bend; after building a 17-0 lead, Cincy let the Irish make it interesting before securing a massive victory. The schedule the rest of the way held various traps to avoid, but Cincinnati answered the call at every opportunity. They survived upset bids from Tulsa and Navy, then went on to defeat one-loss Houston in the AAC Championship. With enough help from teams losing around them and a perfect record, Cincinnati became the first Group of Five team to gain entry into the four-team Playoff field. They unsurprisingly struggled against Alabama in the Cotton Bowl, losing 27-6, but the entire program deserves all the credit in the world for their achievements during the 2021 campaign. Naturally, head coach Luke Fickell was once again the subject of coaching carousel rumors over the offseason, but remains with Cincinnati, gearing up for an encore in 2022.

2022 Outlook
Offense: Cincinnati was not known for their offense in 2021, but the unit finished with solid numbers across the board and was 13th nationally in scoring offense, averaging 36.4 PPG. However, the offense underwent a major renovation over the offseason, leaving some questions.

Offensive coordinator Mike Denbrock left to join Brian Kelly's staff at LSU, but was quickly replaced by UC's QB coach, Gino Guidugli. Guidugli did a fabulous job with quarterback Desmond Ridder over the last several seasons, but will now have to make do without him, as the program's winningest QB in school history is off to the NFL. 

The absence of Ridder has resulted in a fascinating quarterback conundrum. Ben Bryant backed up Ridder for several years before transferring to Eastern Michigan for the 2021 campaign; he started 11 games for the Eagles, led them to a bowl, and tossed for over 3,000 yards. He opted to transfer back to Cincinnati this offseason, but will now face off against Evan Prater, the highest-rated recruit in program history. Prater hasn't seen the field much during his first few years on campus, but he's an electrifying player with the raw tools to be even better than Ridder. Don't be surprised if Bryant starts the year, but it's going to be hard for this staff to keep Prater off the field; I wouldn't be shocked if he's one of the breakout stars of this college football season.

Running back is also due for a change-of-pace, as Jerome Ford is gone after running for 1,319 yards in 2021. Cincinnati has several veteran holdovers waiting in the wings with Ryan Montgomery and Charles McClelland, but don't be surprised if a transfer quickly asserts himself here in LSU's Corey Kiner. The Cincinnati native had flashes of brilliance playing for LSU as a true freshman, with 324 yards, with the potential to be a real game-changer. 

Leading receiver Alec Pierce may have graduated, but the receiver corps has a chance to be a real strength. Tyler Scott emerged last season as the team's top deep threat and the type of dynamic weapon that has at times alluded UC during the Fickell era. He'll take as the top target, but will have plenty of help on the outside, with Tre Tucker and Jadon Thompson returning. Thompson played in just eight games a year ago but has vast upside; he could be a breakout star even with in this deep and experienced depth chart.

Tight end has been a position Cincinnati has done a superb job at developing in recent years and they have two legit John Mackey Award candidates in Leonard Taylor and Josh Whyle. "Matchup nightmare" can often be overused with tight ends, but Taylor fits the description; it's not common you see players his size move the way he does. Whyle had six touchdown receptions a season ago and will be a red zone threat once more this fall.

Even though Prater, Kiner, and Scott will add some real explosiveness to this offense, the Bearcats at their core are a physical, smash-mouth football team. Fortunately, just about every big name is back along the offensive line and three were All-Conference selections in 2021 in Jake Renfro, Dylan O'Quinn and Lorenz Metz. The other two starters are likely to be seniors James Tunstall and Jeremy Cooper, set to handle left tackle and left guard.

It's going to be a bit strange seeing a Cincinnati offense without Desmond Ridder under center, but the offense should still be among the best in the American Athletic. Although both quarterback and running back will have position battles unfolding through fall camp, both position groups have players the program feels comfortable with competing for the starting job. This unit finished 58th in total offense last fall; I actually wouldn't be surprised if they crack the Top 50 with so many pieces returning at wide out and on the O-Line.

Defense: Mike Tressel took over as Cincinnati defensive coordinator following Marcus Freeman's departure to Notre Dame and oversaw a unit that finished Top 10 nationally in both scoring and total defense. Doing so in 2022 will be a bit tougher; with several key pieces off to the NFL, there will be some reloading at multiple levels for the Bearcats.

The defensive line may be short on star power, but brings back a proven veteran trio in Jabari Taylor, Malik Vann, and Jowon Briggs. Briggs proved to be a quality addition after transferring in from Virginia, with 42 tackles and three sacks, while the returns of Vann and Taylor should be more than enough to make up for the loss of Myjai Sanders. 

Junior outside Deshawn Pace headlines a linebacker corps that loses program stalwarts Joel Dublanko and Darrien Beavers. Pace was one of the team's breakout stars a season ago, finishing fourth in tackles, adding 9.5 tackles for loss, and picking off four passes. Is he ready for a leadership role? He's now joined by his brother, Ivan, an All-MAC player at Miami (Ohio) who comes in and has a good shot to start at the opposite, weak-side linebacker spot. Senior Ty Van Fossen is also set to play important snaps after finishing just behind Pace in tackles last fall, but the big question is at middle linebacker. Sophomore Jaheim Thomas is expected to fill in, and there's no question he can contribute, but I wouldn't be surprised to see a drop in production here.
The group that fueled Cincinnati's success last season was on the back-end, as the nation's second-best pass defense allowed just over 169 yards per game. Unsurprisingly, that group sent a trio of stars to the NFL, including shutdown corners Ahmad "Sauce" Gardner and Coby Bryant. That's not an ideal scenario in a conference with some fun quarterback play, but the Bearcats are hopeful others can step up in their place.

A trio of seniors, Taj Ward, Justin Harris, and Ja'quan Sheppard, will battle for starting snaps at the two corner spots. It goes without saying, they probably aren't going to be able to replicate what Gardner and Bryant did; those two were a special pair and the type of talents that don't come around a Group of Five program often, even a successful one like UC. However, these three have spent several years in the program at this point and play the brand of physical, man-to-man defense that Cincinnati covets. Again, it's fair to suspect a slight drop-off here, but I don't envision a major one.

It helps that there's plenty of experience and All-Conference talent elsewhere in the secondary, namely nickelback Arquon Bush and Ja'Von Hicks. Bush is the type of long, athletic defensive back that makes life incredibly difficult for opposing quarterbacks. He notched three interceptions and six pass deflections in 2021 and will be all over the field this fall. Hicks had some early growing pains in his first season as starting safety a season ago but acclimated quickly and finished the year with 56 tackles. With those two back in the fold, the Bearcats could still manage one of the top pass defenses in the AAC, regardless of the cornerback position.

It's always a bit concerning when you lose so many familiar faces from either side of the ball and it's impossible to fully define what Gardner, Bryant, Sanders, Dublanko, and Beavers meant to this program. But, the fact of the matter is that this staff has recruited well and has a track record of developing this side of the ball. Expecting another Top 10 unit may be a slight stretch, but Top 25-30 seems within the realm of possibility.

Special Teams: As if all the new faces on both offense and defense weren't enough, Cincy will also be breaking in a brand new placekicker. The thing is, Delaware transfer Ryan Coe may actually be an improvement over what the Bearcats had last season, when three players combined to go 9-19 on field goals. Punter will be a strength, as Mason Fletcher returns after a solid freshman season where he averaged nearly 43 yards per punt.

Bottom Line: The group of guys that departed this offseason changed the trajectory of the program and will forever be legends on Cincinnati's campus. Sure, this program had long been a respectable one, but managing to break through and reach the CFB Playoff was an inspirational story and one that will be difficult to ever repeat, even when they move to the Big 12. The expectations should and will be a bit more reasonable; there's still enough talent here to win the American Athletic and earn a spot in a New Year's Six Bowl. There's also forces of nature working in Cincinnati's favor that they didn't quite have in 2021. For one, not having to travel to South Bend is the major one (although going to Arkansas isn't exactly easy), plus the fact they didn't get Houston during the regular season and get a bye before their toughest two-game stretch of the year, at SMU and at UCF. With those items working in their favor and a superb coaching staff, I have no qualms about picking the Bearcats to once again be a Top 15 team in the nation.

Program Profile
Coaching Staff
Luke Fickell is an Ohio native who enters Year Six on the sidelines in Cincinnati. Before taking the job, he was a long-time assistant at his alma mater and operated as their interim head coach when Jim Tressel was let go right before the 2011 season. He's become one of the most popular names on the coaching carousel but so far has stuck firm with the Bearcats and unless OSU opens up, I don't envision him leaving anytime soon. Gino Guidugli gets his first crack at a coordinator position, after previous stints as the team's QB and RB coach. He's a Cincinnati alum who spent time in the NFL, IFL, AFL, and CFL before beginning his coaching career with Central Michigan. Mike Tressel is in Year Two as the defensive coordinator here; he's most well-known for his work as Michigan State defensive coordinator, but he has previous experience with the Bearcats, serving as their LB coach and ST coordinator from 2004-06.

Recruiting Breakdown
Cincinnati has become the recruiting power in the Group of Five, once again landing the top group among non-P5 schools. It's a class punctuated by a trio of four-star recruits, all coming in on the defensive side of the ball. Mario Eugenio is a four-star from the Tampa area who has an NFL future but will need to bulk up before he sees major playing time. Safety J.Q. Hardaway and linemen Derrick Shepard are the other two four-star prospects to arrive. Hardaway was quite a big get from SEC who looks the part at 6'2", 190 pounds. Offensively, the name I'm keeping a close eye on is back Stephan Byrd, who the staff managed to keep in-state. Byrd had a bunch of interest from major Power Five schools before deciding on Cincinnati and has a bit more wiggle than the last couple tailbacks we've seen carrying the load in this offense; he could end up being a big get for this program.

2022 X-Factor: Deshawn Pace, LB
Losing arguably the best QB in school history and a tailback who ran for 1,300 yards will negatively impact any offense, but the Bearcats return enough on that side of the ball to feel good about their chances in 2022. Defense is the much larger concern, as the back seven were hit hard by departures, most notably losing Ahmad Gardner and Coby Bryant. There isn't just a loss of production here, but a loss of leadership and playmaking. That means the defenders that do return, like junior linebacker Deshawn Pace, will play an outsized role for this defense this fall. Pace was a revelation a season ago, finishing fourth on the team in tackles and also picking off four passes. He's a fearless defender off the edge with a limitless motor; expect him to be all over the field. Can he not only become a better linebacker, but a real leader for this defense? If so, Pace has a chance to be one of the best overall defenders in the American Athletic and spearhead a defensive group that should still be a Top 25 group.

Five-Year Trend

2022 Projections
Projected Record: 11-2 (7-1 AAC, Win AAC Championship Game)
Offensive MVP: WR Tyler Scott
Defensive MVP: LB Deshawn Pace
Breakout Player of the Year: QB Evan Prater
Impact Freshman: DL Derrick Shepard

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