In the 100 days leading up to the kickoff of the college football season on Saturday, Aug. 25, HERO Sports is ranking the top 100 teams in the FBS. Each day, starting May 17 and ending Aug. 24, a new team is revealed in the HERO Sports Top 100.
Cincinnati is not the 92nd-most talented team in the country. In fact, they might have top-50 talent. That (young) talent, however, needs a year or two to develop.
The Bearcats return an experienced quarterback, two rising sophomore running backs and a strong interior defensive line but still need big plays on both sides of the ball to take the next step. For now, they're a fringe .500 team, though player development is a heck of a lot more important than record right now.
For just the second time in 25 years, Cincinnati failed to win at least five games in back-to-back seasons.
Tommy Tuberville's roster management errors left Luke Fickell with a pile of issues, so while expectations were low in his first season, losses like their 28-point demolition to a terrible East Carolina team are tough to swallow.
The offense was stale, predictable and usually incapable of big plays, while the defense couldn't apply any pressure, ranking 118th nationally in both turnovers and sacks.
Head Coach: Name (Luke Fickell, 4-8)
Luke Fickell knows the state of Ohio as well as anyone and it's showing. The first-time head coach (2011 at Ohio State doesn't count) have signed more than 40 three- and four-star recruits in their first two classes. Now it's time for proof of concept.
Fickell, who admitted he made mistakes in his one, crazy year as interim head coach at Ohio State and said last year was "difficult," is balancing a rebuild while trying not to alienating veteran players.
"You don't want to say to say it's a process and it's a rebuilding thing because that's not fair to the older guys," he said in October, "but you understand about the journey. We told you nothing is truly guaranteed to us. . . . That's the game of life."
RB Mike Boone, WR Devin Gray, OT Korey Cunningham, OT Kendall Calhoun, LB Jaylyin Minor, CB Linden Stephens, S Carter Jacobs
Devin Gray was one of the few Bearcats who delivered big plays the last two years. He averaged 14.8 yards per reception in 2016 and 15.9 in 2017. Starting tackles Korey Cunningham, an All-AAC Second-Team selection, and Kendall Calhoun both graduated.
It's always tough to see seniors leave after a breakout season for a first-year coach that is clearly building for the future. That's the case with leading tackler Jaylyin Minor, who registered 125 tackles and 4.5 tackles for loss last year.
Returning Offensive Players
QB Hayden Moore, QB Ross Trail, RB Gerrid Doaks, RB Michael Warren II, WR Kahlil Lewis, WR Thomas Geddis, OT Kyle Trout, G Garrett Campbell, P James Smith
A miserable season offensively (100th or worse nationally in scoring, rushing, red-zone scoring, yards per completion and dozens of other areas) led to a staff shake-up. Mike Denbrock remained coordinator but his positional responsibilities were moved from quarterbacks to tight ends. Running backs coach Gino Guidugli was moved to quarterbacks.
Hayden Moore is the returning starter, though his grip on the job is tenuous. Coaches said throughout practice that Moore has "first dibs" or it's his job "right now." He threw 20 touchdowns and nine interceptions but averaged just six yards per completion, struggling to throw it beyond 10 yards and routinely missing short passes. Ross Trail, who relieved Moore a couple times last year, could push him in fall camp.
This was their offense last year (and when this wasn't open, they struggled):
"Obviously Hayden is a returning starter, so he has the first dibs," Fickell said in April. "He's been probably taking more reps with the 'ones' than anybody, but the greatest thing we can do as a program is to continue to create competition.
Their receivers didn't help, failing to separate downfield and blowing easy opportunities. Kahlil Lewis is the No. 1 option. His athleticism and tape don't blow you away but he can be a reliable slot target that moves the chains. Gerrid Doaks and his 5.9 yards-per-carry average is back at running back. The 6-foot, 220-pounder played well early in his freshman season but really came on late, averaging nearly nine yards per tote vs. USF, SMU and Tulane.
Kyle Trout and Garrett Campbell anchor a line that lost three starters and is breaking in a ton of youngsters with little or no game experience. And All-AAC punter James Smith returns.
Returning Defensive Players
DE Kevin Mouhon, DT Marquise Copeland, DT Cortez Broughton, LB Perry Young, LB Joel Dublanko, CB Marquis Smith, S Chris Murphy, S Tyrell Gilbert
Marcus Freeman, a linebacker under Fickell at Ohio State, returns for his second season as defensive coordinator in search of some pressure. They hired former Cincinnati assistant (and most recently Tennessee assistant) Steve Stripling to coach the defensive line.
Ed Oliver is the best defensive tackle in the AAC (and country) but Marquise Copeland and Cortez Broughton may form the best interior duo in the conference. With both commanding attention inside, they must generate more pressure on the edge with end Kevin Mouhan and Will linebacker Perry Young. Stripling's Cincinnati teams averaged 34 sacks per season from 2010-12, including 46 in 2011.
"I'll be moving around, trying to get in more blitz packages just so I can help the defense make more plays," Young said this spring. "They have me covering slots or running backs out of the backfield. I've always kept a chip on my shoulder. I've always told myself and my Mom that I'm gonna make you guys proud, do the best that I can to make a name for myself."
Leading tackler Jaylyin Minor is gone but nine of the top 12 tacklers return, led by Young, an athletic freak who can cover and jump through the roof. They did a good job in the red zone, allowing touchdowns on barely 50 percent of possessions (but scores on 87 percent of possessions, 93rd in the FBS).
Even if the pass rush improves, the pass defense numbers could get worse. With all their top corners gone, Cincinnati turns to sophomore Marquis Smith and a bunch of guys with a handful of career snaps. Either Chris Murphy or Tyrell Gilbert — or probably both — need a breakout year at safety to ensure the secondary isn't gashed by McKenzie Milton, Ben Hicks and other AAC quarterbacks.
TE Leonard Taylor, DE Malik Vann, CB Noah Hamlin, CB Arquon Bush, CB Taj Ward
Malik Vann was one of five top-500 high school recruits in Cincinnati's 2018 class. The three-star end from Fairfield, Ohio, picked the Bearcats over some big-time offers, enrolled early and will play immediately.
“He’ll play,” Fickell said. “What capacity [he plays] will really be determined by how well he picks things up. I’d say the toughest two positions to play at a young age are offensive line and defensive line. The physicality and the speed of the game is much different in those areas than it is in high school.”
Hamlin (redshirt freshman), Bush (true freshman) and Ward (true) will all compete for playing time in fall camp.
Cincinnati has a huge opportunity vs. UCLA in Week 1 to prove they're not a year or two away from AAC contention. Granted, UCLA won't be great this season, but still, a win vs. the Bruins in Chip Kelly's return to college football would turn heads.
Their first home game isn't until Week 3 but they do have two separate stretches with three home games in four weeks.
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