Welcome to the Deadspin 25, a college football poll that strives to be more democratic and less useless than every other preseason poll. Leading up to the college football season kickoff, we will give you previews of the 25 teams that you, the readers, voted to be most worthy of writing about. Now, No. 2 Cincinnati.
Believe it or not, there once was a time, not too long ago, during which seeing Cincinnati pop up on their non-conference slate struck more dread than relief into the hearts of Power Five ADs and coaches.
Since the turn of the century, the Bearcats have employed some of the biggest names in the college football coaching scene, hiring the likes of Mark Dantonio, Brian Kelly, Butch Jones, and even staging the last act of Tommy Tuberville. But for three years now, the national college football community has hardly had to give thought to Cincinnati, save the cruel, fleeting moments in which the Bearcats thought the Big 12 would actually expand and take them in.
From 2007 to 2014, Cincinnati dipped under nine wins just once (it was Jones’s first season; he bounced back with a pair of 10-win years that earned him his current job at Tennessee). The Bearcats have since been trying to regain the elite status they attained under Kelly—in the matter of one offseason, he took a program that had leveled out at around seven wins in Conference USA and crushed what remained of the Big East, compiling a three-year run that ended with a combined 33 wins and an appearance in the 2009 Sugar Bowl (they got creamed by Tim Tebow). Jones followed up Kelly’s run with an admirable one of his own, winning 23 games in three seasons and then bolting for Knoxville.
Unfortunately for Cincinnati, in opting for an established candidate like Tuberville over the likes of another hungry up-and-comer, the Bearcats quickly fell to pieces, going from a pair of nine-win years to a combined 11 wins over his last two seasons. Tuberville’s resignation marked the first time since its C-USA days that Cincinnati had lost a coach for any other reason than a big-time school making a better offer. This opening was performance-based, and Cincinnati, while making ground, is still saddled with the same issues it had under Tuberville; the only difference is that they reverted back to their old hiring formula.
Luke Fickell was born, raised, and schooled in Columbus, Ohio—he started 50 straight games at nose guard for the Buckeyes before joining the program as a grad assistant. Starting in 2002, he spent nine years working his way up the ladder at Ohio State before Jim Tressel’s departure, which left him named interim coach for the 2011 season. He led the Buckeyes to a 6-7 finish, which, combined with his past work, was good enough for Urban Meyer to keep him around and name him co-defensive coordinator in 2014. After two years of leading the Buckeyes defense, Fickell decided it was finally time to fly the coop; through four games, I can’t say for certain this was the best team for him to strike out on his own over.
One of the most frustrating things about Tuberville’s final season in 2016 was his indecisiveness regarding the quarterback situation. See, last year, Cincy had three guys that were all somewhere in the Meh-to-Fine range, and rather than use the offseason to determine who’d be the best fit, Tuberville used the whole damn season as a tryout, starting Hayden Moore, Ross Trail, and Gunner Kiel multiple times and never announcing who the starter would be until the last minute. Maybe this stumped defenses for the first couple plays on the opening drive, but the only noticeable effect this had on the offense was the creation of a disjointed attack. None of the quarterbacks were able to find their footing and the offense ended up being one of the weakest in all of college football—the Bearcats finished the year ranked 123rd in the nation in scoring, posting just 19.3 points per game
Hoping to remedy this, Fickell went out this past January and hired away Notre Dame offensive coordinator Mike Denbrock to run the Bearcats attack. Thankfully, Denbrock and Fickell were able to reach a conclusion on the starter question, siding with Moore before the start of the season—while Trail reportedly had a solid spring outing and the overall better arm, Moore had him beat in turnovers and experience. And through four games and two losses, that decision, for better or worse, has been the one Cincinnati’s stuck with, as Moore is the only Bearcats player to have thrown a pass this year.
The running game has sputtered and stalled out, but the passing game has steadily improved week-to-week—after being held to under 200 yards against both Austin Peay and Michigan, Moore and the Bearcats started stringing some completions together against Miami (OH) and Navy. His 381-yard, three-score outing against the Midshipmen last weekend was the second-best performance of his career (kind of hard to top his 557-yard, four-score 2015 outing against Memphis). It helps that Cincinnati returns its top two wideouts from a year ago, with both Kahlil Lewis and Devin Gray back in black for 2017; they’re joined by Thomas Geddis, who’s eclipsed his 2016 totals in just four games.
Although Gerrid Doaks and Mike Boone have the words “running back” in their bios, I’m not entirely convinced that’s what they do. See, Cincinnati isn’t just terrible at running the ball, its almost completely apathetic about the whole idea. Through four weeks, the Bearcats average 90.5 yards per game and manage just 3.1 yards per rush. In fairness to Cincy, Boone has missed the past two games with an ankle injury, forcing Doaks into the role of featured back, but the team is currently 30 rushing yards behind last year’s four-win team’s average while the passing game is barely holding steady. The point is to move the ball through a mix, and with a safety valve of a quarterback, struggling to crack 100 yards on the ground in this day and age is almost certainly a marker of a team too shitty for even the most anonymous of bowl games.
Defensively, it’s not quite as easy to tell how good this unit can be just yet—under fellow former Buckeye and current defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman, Cincinnati’s on-field product has varied wildly, with the only constant being that the Bearcats suck ass at defending the run, a fact punctuated by last week’s five scores and 569 rushing yards allowed to Navy. Tackle Cortez Broughton and junior Marquise Copeland are both back up front. Senior Jaylyin Minor is the only remaining experienced linebacker, as Bryce Jenkinson was lost to a season-ending knee surgery in the offseason. One bright note has been the play of linebacker Perry Young, who ranks third on the team with 24 tackles, including three for loss, and has posted a pair of defended passes.
The passing defense, meanwhile, let up consecutive weeks of 221 yards to Michigan and Miami (OH), but has performed well against Austin Peay and the Midshipmen, though if you allow more than 100 yards to either of those teams, you may want to reconsider the whole football career path. Going into the season, the secondary was supposed to be the strongest part of this defense, with returning starters in corners Linden Stephens and Grant Coleman and safety Carter Jacobs. As the AAC slate continues, it’ll become a bit clearer just how good, if at all, this group can be. Lucky for Cincinnati, it skips the cross-divisional clash with Memphis this year.
A first-year starter, senior Jaylyin Minor is Cincinnati’s best hope for stringing together a decent defense this year. Along side Young, Minor has established himself as the team’s leading voice and tackler, compiling 31 tackles thus far; according to 24/7, Minor ranks first in the AAC with 20 run stops, a statistic this team desperately needs more of if they want any shot at going to the postseason.
In a linebacker corps that lost all three starters in the offseason, having a program guy like Minor available to immediately step in and be a support beam for a front that’s as rickety as Cincinnati’s is immensely helpful, and possibly even saves the season. Were it not for Minor and his machine-like tackling nose, lord knows the Midshipmen would still be running, with a Bearcat or two still caught in their face mask. Next time you’re watching a Cincinnati game and get frustrated that a team’s running all over them, look at No. 33 and remember it could be a lot worse.
Sadly, that ship has sailed, but there’s still plenty time to post what folks would call an improvement season, which, as far as first seasons with limited talent goes, is about all Fickell can hope for. The Bearcats have a favorable AAC schedule, skipping out on Memphis and getting USF, Temple, and SMU at home, so the four wins necessary to make the postseason and appease fans is there—the key will be to not save those five for the season-ending cushion that is the back-to-back matchups of ECU and UConn. If Cincy’s only looking at three wins heading into those games—contests that all three of those teams have circled as Games Against Teams That Might Be Shittier Than Us—then I’d expect another four-win season and a barren offseason on what’s been a decently hot recruiting trail for the Bearcats.
Aug. 31 Austin Peay (W 26-14)
Sept. 9: @ Michigan (L 36-14)
Sept. 16: @ Miami (OH) (W 21-17)
Sept. 23: @ Navy (L 42-32)
Sept. 30: Marshall
Oct. 7: UCF
Oct. 14: South Florida
Oct. 21 SMU
Nov. 4: @ Tulane
Nov. 10: Temple
Nov. 18: East Carolina
Nov. 25: UConn