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1. More to prove
Each year when the preseason polls are released, we find some variation of the same post: Which teams are most constantly overrated in the polls, and which are underrated? For a long time, Florida State was the king of over-estimation; the Seminoles started sixth in 2001 and finished 15th, started third in 2002 and finished 21st, started fifth in 2004 and finished 15th. It goes on, of course: from 14th to 23rd in 2005, from 11th to unranked in 2006, from 19th to unranked in 2007, and from 18th to unranked in 2009, Bobby Bowden's final season.
Apparently the new kings of the overrated world are Oklahoma and USC. The most underrated teams, on the other hand are Stanford, Cincinnati, TCU, Oregon, and Utah. And since Stanford has begun this season ranked fourth in the AP top 25, I'd say they're off the list.
Cincinnati has won 20 games in two seasons and shared each of the last two Big East titles. The Bearcats ranked 23rd and 26th, respectively, in the 2011-12 F/+ rankings and have finished in the top 30 five times in six years. They return a middle-of-the-road 12 starters, which suggests neither improvement nor regression. They received three votes in both the AP and USA Today preseason polls.
This is nothing new, of course. In 2007, Cincy went 10-3 and finished 17th in the polls. The next year, the Bearcats started 30th in the polls, won 11 more games, and finished 17th. The next year, they started 33rd in the polls, won 12 games, damn near reached the BCS title game, and finished eighth. They tumbled in 2010 after the departure of head coach Brian Kelly, quarterback Tony Pike, etc., but rebounded to 10-3 and 25th in 2011 … and started 38th the next year. For established powers, we assume a turnaround is right around the corner. For non-powers, we assume the same about the downfall.
Now, Cincinnati is not in any way elite. That's not the argument here. While the Bearcats have ranked in the F/+ top 30 six times, they've only ranked in the top 20 twice (and not since 2009). The UC defense was sketchy at best last year and will probably be the same again this fall, and the Bearcats' yards-per-point margin from last year (as seen at the bottom of this post, fourth-highest in the country) was almost unsustainably efficient. Plus, they'll be breaking in a new head coach after Tommy Tuberville replaced Tennessee-bound Butch Jones. There are plenty of reasons to doubt whether, say, Cincinnati can challenge Louisville for conference supremacy. But this program has proven its top-30 bona fides even though it can never seem to garner many top-25 votes.
It's a frustrating time to be a Cincinnati fan. The constant downgrade in the polls is a reminder of perceived fortunes, as is the fact that the Bearcats are probably the second-best football program (behind Boise State) to get left out of a major conference during conference realignment. All they can do is keep winning and keep making solid hires and hope that status changes at some point in the future. And claiming the scalp of a supposed national title contender in the season finale wouldn't hurt, either.
2012 Schedule & Results
|Record: 10-3 | Adj. Record: 9-4 | Final F/+ Rk: 26|
|Date||Opponent||Score||W-L||Adj. Score||Adj. W-L|
|6-Sep||Pittsburgh||34-10||W||43.6 - 26.1||W|
|15-Sep||Delaware State||23-7||W||25.0 - 35.6||L|
|29-Sep||Virginia Tech||27-24||W||39.7 - 33.5||W|
|6-Oct||Miami (Ohio)||52-14||W||25.2 - 24.6||W|
|13-Oct||Fordham||49-17||W||31.1 - 39.1||L|
|20-Oct||at Toledo||23-29||L||27.7 - 23.5||W|
|26-Oct||at Louisville||31-34||L||23.9 - 30.0||L|
|3-Nov||Syracuse||35-24||W||30.6 - 24.0||W|
|10-Nov||at Temple||34-10||W||34.2 - 19.3||W|
|17-Nov||Rutgers||3-10||L||38.0 - 39.3||L|
|23-Nov||South Florida||27-10||W||28.2 - 20.1||W|
|1-Dec||at Connecticut||34-17||W||42.7 - 25.3||W|
|27-Dec||vs. Duke||48-34||W||41.7 - 39.4||W|
|Points Per Game||32.3||39||18.5||14|
|Adj. Points Per Game||33.2||34||29.2||72|
2. Kay d. Munchie
There are some serious questions to ask on the defensive side of the ball, and there are just as many questions to ask about what new offensive coordinator Eddie Gran will actually try to build. We'll ask those below. But because of these pieces at hand, we know that the offense is probably going to be pretty damn good. And we know it will probably be even better if Brendon Kay is behind center. Kay took over for Munchie Legaux after eight games, and the Cincy offense went from solid to outstanding.
Adj. Points Per Game (first 8 games): Cincinnati 30.9, Opponent 29.6 (plus-1.3)
Adj. Points Per Game (last 5 games): Cincinnati 37.0, Opponent 28.7 (plus-8.3)
The Bearcats alternated between obliterating bad defenses (7.7 yards per play versus Temple, a hilarious 10.5 versus Duke) and dinging good ones (5.8 versus Rutgers, 5.7 versus UConn) as Kay brought a more high-percentage, low-mistake brand of football to the field. He has struggled with shoulder issues in practice recently (for one reason or another), and Tuberville has held off on naming a winner to this year's Kay vs. Munchie battle thus far, but in an admittedly small sample size, Kay certainly proved he was better in last year's offense.
|Q1 Rk||58||1st Down Rk||43|
|Q2 Rk||59||2nd Down Rk||69|
|Q3 Rk||36||3rd Down Rk||53|
3. A mix of flavors
You know when you were a kid and thought mixing together every drink at the soda fountain sounded like fun? And what did you call that drink? Suicide? (Or was that just an Oklahoma thing?)
Last year, Eddie Gran was the running backs coach for a Florida State offense that was one of the most plodding, conservative units in the country. FSU protected its quarterback from tough decisions at all costs (passes on standard downs, runs on passing downs), operated at the slowest possible pace, and basically used its offense to win the field position game and occasionally score points.
Gran's résumé also includes lengthy time on Tommy Tuberville's Ole Miss and Auburn staffs, where he was, again, running backs coach for a run-happy, mostly pace-resistant attack.
A position coach for nearly 25 years, Gran has put in his time in earning an offensive coordinator position. And hey, each man has his own ideas for how to run an offense -- you're not limited by what your bosses have done. Still, it was a little bit confusing to see Gran's staff filled with assistants with spread and high-pace backgrounds. And it's going to be interesting to see Gran and his "pro-style" (again, whatever that means these days), methodical background pushing buttons for players recruited to run Butch Jones' version of the spread. Whatever we see from Cincinnati's offense in 2013 is going to be a blend of almost every offensive influence. And to be sure, if not everybody's committed to the same vision, then talent won't save the offense from ending up hopeless and directionless (see: Tuberville's and Gran's last Auburn offense). But I'm assuming that at the end of the day, we're going to see something similar to what we saw last year: typical run-pass rates, a slightly slower-than-normal pace, and a reasonably high level of quality.
Note: players in bold below are 2013 returnees. Players in italics are questionable with injury/suspension.
|Munchie Legaux||6'5, 200||Sr.||*** (5.7)||120||230||1,716||52.2%||13||9||5||2.1%||7.1|
|Brendon Kay||6'4, 228||Sr.||** (5.3)||87||138||1,298||63.0%||10||2||10||6.8%||8.4|
|Bennie Coney||6'3, 216||RSFr.||*** (5.7)|
|Ralph David Abernathy IV||RB||5'7, 161||Jr.||*** (5.5)||69||366||5.3||8.3||3||+1.9|
|Munchie Legaux||QB||6'5, 200||Sr.||*** (5.7)||50||375||7.5||8.7||4||+10.2|
|Brendon Kay||QB||6'4, 228||Sr.||** (5.3)||38||358||9.4||9.0||2||+13.7|
|Tion Green||RB||6'0, 220||So.||*** (5.7)||16||70||4.4||6.2||1||-1.9|
|Jordan Luallen||FB||6'3, 240||Sr.||*** (5.7)||15||51||3.4||3.0||1||-1.9|
4. Every team needs a Ralph David Abernathy IV
Ralph David Abernathy IV is just fun. I mean, first of all, the name is just immaculate. But beyond that he is something every team needs: a jitterbug, a guy who is without a defined position or incredible technical skills but is blessed with the simple ability to dance around with the football and scare the hell out of an opponent and its fans.
Take, for example, his 14-yard touchdown run against Louisville. It featured a bad pitch and a bad block, and Abernathy did exactly what you're not supposed to do (retreat 10 yards), and it resulted in six points.
Abernathy is 5'7, 161 pounds; he runs like he is magnetized, careening off tackles as if he's of the opposite pole and proving impossible to wrap up. Of his 161 pounds, 154 are in his ab muscles. He doesn't necessarily have A-grade speed, but it would be unfair to the rest of college football if he did.
The question for 2013 is, how much of a load can he shoulder? Last year, he had George Winn to take on most of the rushing load and was the No. 4 pass target, and including kick returns and incomplete passes, he got 140 intended touches, just under 11 per game. This year, Winn's gone, as are star tight end Travis Kelce and No. 1 target Kenbrell Thompkins. The DAT rule is in place here -- "You never wanna know the limit on carries your tailback can have, because that means they're hurt" -- but the more times RDA IV can touch the ball in 2013, the better Cincinnati's offense will be.
|Anthony McClung||WR||6'0, 177||Sr.||*** (5.5)||67||34||539||50.7%||8.0||18.8%||46.3%||8.8||79.5|
|Ralph David Abernathy IV||RB||5'7, 161||Jr.||*** (5.5)||39||28||341||71.8%||8.7||11.0%||69.2%||9.0||50.3|
|Alex Chisum||WR||6'3, 195||Jr.||*** (5.6)||31||9||140||29.0%||4.5||8.7%||54.8%||4.3||20.7|
|Chris Moore||WR||6'1, 190||So.||*** (5.6)||5||4||113||80.0%||22.6||1.4%||60.0%||22.7||16.7|
|Shaq Washington||WR||5'9, 174||So.||*** (5.7)||4||3||23||75.0%||5.8||1.1%||100.0%||3.5||3.4|
|Jeremy Graves||WR||6'2, 190||So.||*** (5.6)|
|Max Morrison||WR||6'1, 173||So.||** (5.3)|
|Nate Cole||WR||6'1, 193||RSFr.||*** (5.7)|
|D.J. Dowdy||TE||6'4, 223||RSFr.||*** (5.7)|
|Travis Johnson||TE||6'4, 249||Fr.||*** (5.7)|
|Tyler Cogswell||TE||6'4, 248||Fr.||*** (5.7)|
|Tshumbi Johnson||WR||5'11, 175||Fr.||*** (5.6)|
|Eric Lefeld||LT||6'6, 309||Jr.||** (5.4)||20 career starts; 2012 1st All-Big East|
|Austen Bujnoch||LG||6'5, 290||Sr.||*** (5.6)||25 career starts; 2012 2nd All-Big East|
|Dan Sprague||C||6'3, 290||Sr.||** (5.3)||13 career starts|
|Sam Longo||RG||6'5, 305||Sr.||*** (5.7)||12 career starts|
|Parker Ehinger||RT||6'7, 292||So.||*** (5.5)||12 career starts|
|Sean Hooey||RT||11 career starts|
|Andre Cureton||RG||6'6, 310||Sr.||** (5.3)|
|Kevin Schloemer||LG||6'7, 312||Jr.||*** (5.7)|
|Cory Keebler||LT||6'7, 294||Jr.||** (5.2)|
|Dominic Mainello||C||6'3, 280||Jr.||** (5.2)|
|Justin Murray||RT||6'5, 294||So.||*** (5.6)|
|Ryan Leahy||OL||6'6, 282||RSFr.||*** (5.6)|
|Deyshawn Bond||C||6'2, 287||RSFr.||** (5.3)|
5. One of the best lines in the midwest
There are indeed question marks for this offense, and they go beyond what the heck Gran is going to build or how many touches Abernathy can handle. After Abernathy, Tion Green is the only running back with any experience, and while he showed some explosive potential, he only got 16 carries last year. Meanwhile, Anthony McClung and Alex Chisum are the only two returning members among the top six targets in last year's receiving corps (not including Abernathy, who was basically two-thirds running back, one-third receiver). The tight end position is devoid of experience, and while there are quite a few interesting, rather highly touted true and redshirt freshmen (D.J. Dowdy, Travis Johnson, Tyler Cogswell), they are freshmen. The skill position unit as a whole has a lot of potential and athleticism and almost no proven quantities.
We do know that Kay and Legaux will indeed have both Abernathy and McClung at their disposal, and that's a good thing. While Kenbrell Thompkins was the No. 1 target last year, he was disturbingly hit-or-miss; when Cincy had to complete a pass last year, it looked to McClung, who saw more than half of his targets on passing downs.
But the most known quantity in Cincinnati's favor comes up front. All five starters from a line that ranked around 30th in both run blocking and pass blocking return, including an all-conference left side (tackle Eric Lefeld, Austen Bujnoch). The line was mostly good in 2012 despite inexperience. This year there is no "despite." As long as Gran finds an identity and sticks to it, and as long as there's a healthy quarterback taking snaps, this offense should be pretty good even if freshmen are in the mix at the skill positions.
|Q1 Rk||83||1st Down Rk||117|
|Q2 Rk||78||2nd Down Rk||62|
|Q3 Rk||76||3rd Down Rk||56|
6. Get better on first down
Cincinnati's defense was confusing last year. It featured a nice, aggressive front seven that struggled to generate a decent pass rush and an experienced secondary that made a lot of young-player errors, and it was weird enough that even the numbers couldn't get a consistent read on it. There are always going to be disagreements between my numbers and Brian Fremeau's, but the discrepancy in Cincy's numbers was jarring: the Bearcats ranked 76th in my play-by-play measure and 13th in his drive-based measure. The result was a top-30 Def. F/+ ranking for a defense that wasn't particularly great in any one area (other than stopping drives, one way or another, before points were scored).
Whether the Bearcats were mediocre or good on defense, though, we do know one thing: they were pretty awful on first downs. They were the third-least efficient defense in the country on standard downs, and while they tended to lock things down on passing downs (relatively speaking, anyway), when you're this awful early, you probably don't end up forcing as many passing downs as you should.
|Rivals||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Jordan Stepp||NT||6'1, 285||Sr.||*** (5.7)||13||27.0||3.6%||4||1.5||0||2||0||0|
|Camaron Beard||DT||6'5, 287||Jr.||*** (5.5)||13||20.5||2.7%||5||0||0||1||1||1|
|Silverberry Mouhon||DE||6'4, 248||So.||*** (5.5)||13||13.5||1.8%||1||1||0||1||1||0|
|Adam Dempsey||NT||6'2, 285||Sr.||NR||12||9.0||1.2%||1||0||0||0||0||0|
|Elijah Shuler||DE||6'3, 257||Sr.||** (5.2)||10||7.5||1.0%||3||1||0||2||0||0|
|Mitch Meador||DT||6'4, 290||Sr.||** (5.3)||13||4.5||0.6%||1||1||0||0||1||0|
|Josh Posley||DE||6'1, 252||So.||*** (5.5)||6||2.5||0.3%||0.5||0.5||0||0||0||0|
|Brad Harrah||DE||6'5, 258||Jr.||*** (5.5)|
|Brandon Mitchell||DT||6'2, 308||So.||*** (5.5)|
|Alex Pace||DT||6'2, 282||RSFr.||*** (5.6)|
|Jerrell Jordan||DE||6'3, 248||Jr.||*** (5.5)|
7. A rebuild for a line that needed it
The secondary was passive and didn't necessarily play like a group of seasoned veterans, but the biggest problem came up front. Cincinnati's line was good at pushing back in short-yardage situations but allowed a ton of opportunities against lines that weren't necessarily good at creating opportunities. Star end Walter Stewart played only five games, but he wasn't necessarily fantastic in the running game. Tuberville has fielded a lot of good defensive lines in his time, but he and defensive coordinator Art Kaufman will struggle to figure out the right mix up front, especially considering four of the top six tacklers from this shaky line are gone.
It appears Cincinnati will be taking a by-committee approach up front. That makes sense, I guess, when you've got a lot of interesting players and no proven standouts.
|Rivals||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Greg Blair||MLB||6'2, 252||Sr.||** (5.2)||13||103.0||13.7%||9||2.5||2||6||2||1|
|Nick Temple||SLB||5'10, 218||Jr.||*** (5.7)||13||43.0||5.7%||5.5||2.5||1||4||0||0|
|Solomon Tentman||MLB||6'2, 237||Jr.||*** (5.7)||9||14.5||1.9%||0.5||0||0||0||0||0|
(2011 Florida State)
|WLB||6'1, 251||Jr.||**** (6.0)||11||11.0||1.6%||2||0||0||0||0||0|
|Clemente Casseus||MLB||6'1, 227||Jr.||NR||11||8.5||1.1%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|Corey Mason||SLB||6'3, 223||Jr.||** (5.4)||13||4.0||0.5%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|Ey'Shawn McClain||LB||6'1, 234||RSFr.||*** (5.6)|
8. Few worries at LB
If the line can hold up, the linebackers should thrive. Unproven Greg Blair came out of nowhere in J.K. Schaffer's absence last year; he and the combination of Nick Temple and Florida State transfer Jeff Luc could make for one of the AAC's better linebacker units. And at the very least, the backups have wonderful names (Solomon, Clemente, Ey'Shawn).
The secondary is less-stocked, but compared to the line I can't necessarily worry much about it. Six of last year's top 10 tacklers are gone, but thanks to injuries and shuffling, 13 different players logged at least 7.5 tackles, and considering the experience level, players like Adrian Witty, Trenier Orr, and Kevin Brown did reasonably well with their opportunities. Combined with seniors Arryn Chenault and Deven Drane and some fun newcomers, this should be a decent, if thin, unit, one capable of making plays if it gets cooperation from the line.
|Rivals||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Arryn Chenault||S||6'0, 208||Sr.||*** (5.6)||12||40.5||5.4%||1.5||0||3||3||0||1|
|Deven Drane||CB||5'11, 187||Sr.||** (5.4)||12||34.0||4.5%||1||0||2||7||0||1|
|Adrian Witty||NB||5'10, 187||Jr.||** (5.3)||11||20.5||2.7%||4.5||3||0||2||1||0|
|Trenier Orr||CB||5'11, 177||So.||*** (5.5)||8||15.0||2.0%||0||0||0||4||0||0|
|Kevin Brown||S||6'1, 206||So.||** (5.4)||9||8.5||1.1%||0||0||0||2||0||0|
|Leviticus Payne||CB||5'9, 183||So.||*** (5.6)||13||7.5||1.0%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|Andre Jones||S||6'1, 197||RSFr.||*** (5.6)|
|Marcus Foster||S||6'1, 204||RSFr.||*** (5.6)|
|Darren Doston||CB||6'2, 198||Jr.||*** (5.6)|
|Zach Edwards||NB||5'11, 186||Fr.||*** (5.5)|
|Tony Miliano||6'2, 186||Jr.||7||59.0||1||14.3%|
|Tony Miliano||6'2, 186||Jr.||51-53||10-11||90.9%||7-11||63.6%|
|Ralph David Abernathy IV||KR||5'7, 161||Jr.||32||25.0||0|
|Anthony McClung||PR||6'0, 177||Sr.||16||9.9||0|
|Special Teams F/+||60|
|Field Goal Pct||37|
|Kick Returns Avg||15|
|Punt Returns Avg||49|
2013 Schedule & Projection Factors
|21-Sep||at Miami (Ohio)||113|
|5-Oct||at South Florida||67|
|Five-Year F/+ Rk||27|
|Two-Year Recruiting Rk||59|
|TO Margin/Adj. TO Margin*||+9 / +9.4|
|Approx. Ret. Starters (Off. / Def.)||12 (7, 5)|
9. A top-25 team might start 11-0 with this schedule
It does take a leap of faith to envision Cincinnati as a top-25 team (and as proven up top, poll voters are never willing to show faith toward UC). The Bearcats do have identity questions to answer on offense, quality issues at defensive line, and potential depth issues in both the offensive skill positions and secondary. Coaching changes are never a promising thing for continuity; hell, the only time Cincinnati did poorly in the last seven years was in the year after a coaching change. Still, Cincinnati won't have to be that good to post a good record.
A schedule that seems aggressive and rough on its face -- two Big Ten opponents and a trip to a historically solid MAC school -- actually isn't (the Big Ten opponents are Purdue and Illinois, and the MAC school is a directionless Miami program), and AAC home games versus Temple, UConn, and SMU are all safely in the likely win department. If Tuberville does push the right buttons and maintains Cincy's recent level of quality, the Bearcats could conceivably start between 9-2 and 11-0. I think trips to USF and Rutgers are a lot tougher than the numbers do, but regardless, a good record is in the works.
That, of course, leads us to the season finale. In Louisville's final AAC game before a move to the ACC, the Cardinals could very well be positioning themselves for either a BCS bowl game (if they haven't already wrapped up the title) or the BCS title game. I'm on the record saying that Louisville is a bit overrated, but the Cardinals' own schedule is easy enough to make a lavish record likely. Is Cincinnati (and its coach, a known giant-killer) going to be good enough to take down the Cards? Or will the Cards even be the undefeated team involved in the game in the first place?
Cincinnati has a lot to prove in 2013, but that's an every-year thing at Nippert Stadium. The Bearcats have gotten used to this.
10. AAC balance of power
As we've done at the end of every set of conference previews, let's talk tiers. These aren't predictions of finish -- this is just how I see the conference's balance of power taking shape on the eve of the season (!).
Louisville's better, but UL-UC is at Nippert, and it could have some high stakes.
3. South Florida
I've talked myself into USF being a potential top-30 or top-40 team, and I'm putting a lot of faith in Rutgers' ability to rebuild its defense on the fly.
5. Central Florida
UCF's a known quantity that is rebuilding its own steady defense, while Houston is the conference's second-biggest wildcard (behind RU).
SMU's a year away, and UConn still has epic offensive issues.
I was originally going to create a fifth tier for Memphis and Temple, but Temple's not that far removed from success, and I really, really like the rebuilding job Justin Fuente is doing. So we'll show them some faith here. And yes, any of these four teams could end up in Tier 3 with a bowl bid.
And that's 125 previews in the books. Bring on the 2013 season.