Anybody who expected Cincinnati to roll out another college football playoff team this year wasn’t paying attention.
It’s not just that the Bearcats had to replace four-year starter Desmond Ridder at quarterback, they also lost nine players to the NFL draft. Maybe Alabama or Georgia could survive such a loss (in fact Georgia’s romp of Oregon shows that the Bulldogs have moved on quite well after having 15 selected in the NFL draft).
While Cincinnati has improved dramatically as a program under Luke Fickell and will be a P5 team when joining the Big 12 next season, there is still a huge gap between that and the aforementioned SEC behemoths, who can sustain the losses by refueling with an array of five-star recruits.
Simply put, Cincinnati’s 31-24 loss at Arkansas shows that the sky isn’t falling in on the Bearcats. (Actually can the sky fall at all? That’s a question for another day.)
Cincinnati is a team still capable of winning the American Athletic Conference this year before the AAC loses the Bearcats along with Houston and UCF and gains six Conference USA teams. Winning what is still considered the top G5 conference still means a lot.
As for the College Football Playoffs, sorry, but a G5 team realistically has to be undefeated as Cincinnati was last year when earning one of the four invitations.
Not only was this just a seven-point loss, but Cincinnati got to within 31-24 with 5:49 left when Ben Bryant hit Leonard Taylor on a 15-yard scoring pass. This is where the old Cincinnati of a year ago failed to surface. After a touchback on the ensuing kickoff, Arkansas never gave Cincinnati the ball back. Ten plays – all runs – and three first downs later and Arkansas had run out the clock in an impressive version of keep-away.
So it was a tough loss, but the Bearcats were highly competitive. And they were playing a very good team. In fact, Arkansas could be the third best team in the SEC, after Georgia and Alabama, or Alabama and Georgia, whatever one’s preference is.
Some might suggest Texas A&M is better than Arkansas, but that issue will be decided on Sept. 24 in Arlington, Texas.
Either way, being considered among the top four in the SEC, is still hanging around with pretty heady company. Plus, playing a quality ranked team on the road in the opener adds to the degree of difficulty.
So the Bearcats acquitted themselves well.
That doesn’t mean they are infallible against the rest of the schedule. A two-week stretch of games at SMU on Oct. 22 and at UCF on Oct. 29 will surely test the Bearcats.
Probably the most pleasant development was the debut of senior linebacker Ivan Pace Jr., a transfer from Miami of Ohio. Pace had 12 tackles, and 3.5 tackles for loss, including one sack. What a debut, although it didn’t match the moment he is most known for – recording an NCAA record six sacks as a freshman in 2019 during a 20-17 win over Akron.
Speaking of his Mid-American Conference roots, think Pace might be a little pumped up when the Bearcats visit Miami of Ohio on Sept. 17?
Back to the field.
The Bearcats defense gave up big plays and that will have to be corrected. Yet the key will be quarterback Ben Bryant, who overcame a shaky start to have a decent game.
Bryant has had an unusual career. He spent his first three seasons at Cincinnati backing up Ridder. Last year he transferred to Eastern Michigan, where he completed 68.4 percent of his passes for 3,121 yards, 14 touchdowns, and seven interceptions. Then with Ridder departing for the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons, Bryant returned to Cincinnati and beat out highly touted Evan Prater for the job.
Against Arkansas, Bryant completed 25 of 42 (59.5%) for 314 yards, two touchdowns, and one interception. Bryant threw this early interception on a deep out, the type of throw that defines a quarterback.
That is a throw he wouldn’t have gotten away with in the Mid-American Conference.
To his credit, he settled down and was a major part of Cincinnati’s second-half highlights after trailing 14-0 at halftime.
If Bryant can be relatively mistake-free and the defense can show improvement that should come with experience, Cincinnati still has a chance to achieve a special season, even if it is a notch below what the Bearcats enjoyed a year ago.