2011 Season Preview: Reality, Gravity And Cincinnati Bearcats

CINCINNATI OH - DECEMBER 04: Zach Collaros #12 of the Cincinnati Bearcats reaches for a fumble during the Big East Conference game against the Pittsburgh Panthers at Nippert Stadium on December 4 2010 in Cincinnati Ohio. Pittsburgh won 28-10. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

Cincinnati was one play from the national title game in 2009, but gravity took over in a major way. In Butch Jones' second year replacing Brian Kelly, the Bearcats return a healthy, dynamic quarterback and their entire (shaky) defense. A bounce back is likely, but how much of one?

NOTE: Confused? Don't miss the definitions and footnotes at the bottom.

Two years ago, the Cincinnati Bearcats came within one second and one upright of a spot in the national championship game.

It's amazing to just stare at that sentence for a bit, isn't it? I mentioned yesterday that Stanford had shaken up my core beliefs regarding college football and success; that single sentence shakes them up even more. That a non-traditional (to say the least) power, five years removed from the Conference USA, with zero Top 15 finishes, was in position to reach the BCS title game if Nebraska upset Texas in the 2009 Big 12 title game, goes against everything I've come to believe about college football, and in the best possible way.

And in the worst possible way, starting with the moment Colt McCoy's wayward, forgot-how-the-clock-works lob hit the ground a few milliseconds from infamy, Cincinnati was jerked back to reality. Their spot in the title game was revoked by Hunter Lawrence's field goal, their coach was yanked away by Notre Dame, and in 2010, their win total fell by two-thirds. Now, a team that, in terms of recent history, has outperformed the likes of Michigan, Notre Dame, Nebraska and countless other historically well-established programs, is starting over with an athletic offense and a humbled, hungry defense. Without Brian Kelly and in an improving Big East, can Cincinnati hope to recreate the heights they established from 2007 to 2009, when they won 33 games and finished in the AP Top 20 three times in a row? History says no, but history also would have vetoed their 2009 run.

2010 Schedule & Results*

Record: 4-8 | Adj. Record: 4-8 | Final F/+ Rk**: 54
Date Opponent Score W-L Adj. Score Adj. W-L
4-Sep at Fresno State 14-28 L 13.6 - 27.2 L
11-Sep Indiana State
40-7 W 28.8 - 31.9 L
16-Sep at N.C. State 19-30 L 33.9 - 35.1 L
25-Sep Oklahoma 29-31 L 37.3 - 24.6 W
9-Oct Miami (Ohio)
45-3 W 53.9 - 24.4 W
16-Oct at Louisville 35-27 W 48.7 - 32.8 W
22-Oct South Florida 30-38 L 37.7 - 40.4 L
30-Oct Syracuse 7-31 L 19.2 - 29.7 L
13-Nov at West Virginia 10-37 L 26.3 - 32.2 L
20-Nov Rutgers 69-38 W 46.6 - 37.2 W
27-Nov at Connecticut 17-38 L 25.4 - 34.0 L
4-Dec Pittsburgh 10-28 L 16.1 - 28.7 L
Category Offense Rk Defense Rk
Points Per Game 27.1 57 28.0 68
Adj. Points Per Game 32.3 27 31.5 98

The 2010 season saw some major collapses, from Austin to Lawrence to, in some degree, Gainesville. But the one that took place in Cincinnati was hard to overlook. Cincy's win total fell from 12 to four, with a defense springing leaks and an offense carving out a mountain range of peaks and valleys. Injuries, inexperience and the coaching change from Kelly to Butch Jones (who also succeeded Kelly when he moved to Cincy from Central Michigan) wreaked havoc on continuity, and Cincy looked like a completely different team almost every week.

There were still pretty high highs (their offensive performances against Miami (Ohio), Louisville and Rutgers were masterful), but either everything clicked (notice that only one of their four wins was by fewer than 31 points), or everything fell apart (only two losses were by single digits, and each of the last four losses were by more than 17 points). With almost the entire defense returning intact and the offense bringing back plenty of skill position talent, the bar should be set a bit higher in 2011.

Offense***

Category S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 22 19 25
RUSHING 19 7 32 Adj. Line Yards:
PASSING 27 38 25 12
Standard Downs 11 17 8 Adj. Sack Rate:
Passing Downs 44 17 68 56
Redzone 5 12 6
Q1 Rk 23 1st Down Rk 7
Q2 Rk 6 2nd Down Rk 83
Q3 Rk 45 3rd Down Rk 11
Q4 Rk 45

Before he suffered a bruised knee and missed the Syracuse game, quarterback Zach Collaros had amassed an incredible raw stat line since the beginning of the 2009 season (in which he served as backup to Tony Pike): 232-for-349 (66%), 3,352 yards (9.6 per pass), 30 touchdowns, eight interceptions. That includes games against Oklahoma, West Virginia and South Florida (twice). When Collaros (full 2010 season: 2,902 yards, 7.6 per pass, 59% completion rate, 26 TD, 14 INT; 433 pre-sack rushing yards, -4.6 Adj. POE) is healthy and dialed in, the Cincinnati offense puts up some silly numbers. Post-injury Collaros, however, dragged the overall offensive numbers down a bit.

Cincinnati Offense, First Seven Games: 36.3 Adj. PPG
Cincinnati Offense, Last Five Games: 26.7 Adj. PPG

Before we get to any other departures or returns, the simple return of Healthy Zach makes a huge difference with the Cincy offense. (And the consequences of a reappearance of Injured Zach might have just become more dire with the transfer of wonderfully-named backup Chazz Anderson. Dual-threat quarterback Munchie Legeaux was relatively highly-touted out of high school, but a year of season after moving from receiver to signal caller would be preferable.) With Injured Zach, things grind to a halt. With Healthy Zach, Cincy does a lovely job of passing to set up the run and offers multiple threats in the run game.

With Healthy Zach, the Bearcats can focus on other issues, namely the departures of three key receiving options: Armon Binns (1,101 yards, 14.7 per catch, 60% catch rate, 10 TD), Marcus Barnett (333 yards, 13.3 per catch, 47% catch rate, 2 TD) and tight end Ben Guidugli (197 yards, 8.2 per catch, 63% catch rate, 2 TD). With a 31% target rate, Binns was perhaps the most important BCS conference receiver this side of Ryan Broyles. Cincinnati still has a strong downfield receiving option in D.J. Woods (898 yards, 15.8 per catch, 62% catch rate, 8 TD), but if Woods is now No. 1, who exactly is No. 2? Possession receiver Anthony McClung (217 yards, 9.9 per catch, 73% catch rate)? Redshirt freshman Dyjuan Lewis? Incoming freshmen or a junior college transfer like Kenbrell Thompkins? This is a high-risk, high-reward passing game that likes to go downfield, but you have to have confidence in your options to take some risks, no?

Other tidbits:

  • The receiver position may be up in the air, but Cincy still has a stalwart at running back: perpetually underrated Isaiah Pead (1,029 yards, 6.6 per carry, +6.3 Adj. POE, 6 TD). He was the catalyst for an extremely successful (when used) run game. The pass is more important to the Bearcats, but Pead is a strong weapon both in the backfield and flaring out of the backfield (190 receiving yards, 1 TD). Four-star freshman Jameel Poteat could work his way into a backup role as well. Cincy's overall recruiting has not necessarily been that strong, but there is depth in the backfield.
  • An experienced offensive line with three seniors was also instrumental in the Bearcats' 2010 rushing success. Cincy returns just 39 career starts on the line in 2011, however, 25 of which come from right tackle Alex Hoffman.

Defense

Category S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 100 83 109
RUSHING 58 32 73 Adj. Line Yards:
PASSING 113 113 112 23
Standard Downs 97 96 89 Adj. Sack Rate:
Passing Downs 81 63 91 88
Redzone 100 101 96
Q1 Rk 62 1st Down Rk 77
Q2 Rk 104 2nd Down Rk 92
Q3 Rk 93 3rd Down Rk 104
Q4 Rk 78

Like the offense, the Cincinnati wanted to be aggressive in 2010. They hung close to the line on standard downs and racked up quite a few tackles for loss; they attacked with vigor on passing downs and ended up with quite a few sacks to show for their troubles.

The problem came, unfortunately, when the ball actually crossed the line of scrimmage. If opponents were able to avoid pressure and advance the ball, they advanced it a long, long way. And if Cincy couldn't pull down the quarterback on passing downs, chances are the opponent was making an easy conversion against a secondary that was neither efficient nor capable of preventing big plays. For better or worse, the personnel barely changes this year. Teams returning 11 starters are almost guaranteed to improve to some degree, but this was quite a bad defense, and it has quite a bit of room for improvement.

The good news is, the defensive line should be pretty stout. The line registered a good portion of Cincy's sacks, mostly on passing downs (hence the high "Need for Blitzes" total) and stood up rather well against the run. End Brandon Mills (50.0 tackles, 12.5 TFL/sacks, 3 FF) is a potential star, but he's got quite a bit of help from fellow ends Dan Giordano (29.5 tackles, 8.0 TFL/sacks) and Monte Taylor (2.0 TFL/sacks) and three tackles: Derek Wolfe (38.5 tackles, 6.5 TFL/sacks), John Hughes (37.0 tackles, 4.5 TFL/sacks, and not this guy) and Jordan Stepp (17.5 tackles, 3.5 TFL/sacks). The line could be one of the best in the Big East, and ... the more favors it can do for the secondary, the better.

Other tidbits:

  • The secondary was paper thin last year, with only the four starters registering even 20 tackles. Obviously it's nice that all four starters return, but with the rate at which they gave up big plays, they might need a bit of a challenge. Safeties Drew Frey and Wesley Richardson combined for four interceptions, 1.5 TFL/sacks and three fumble recoveries, but if some others could crack the rotation, that might not be a bad thing. Look out for sophomore Arryn Chenault (who received marginal playing time with his redshirt removed last year), longtime backups Pat Lambert and Chris Williams, or highly-touted junior college transfer Malcolm Murray.
  • If the secondary wasn't the issue, then the all-or-nothing linebackers were. J.K. Schaffer (89.0 tackles, 9.5 TFL/sacks, 2 FF, 5 PBU), Maalik Bomar (58.5 tackles, 8.0 TFL/sacks, 2 FF) and Walter Stewart (52.5 tackles, 8.0 TFL/sacks) all had their moments, and this really was a front seven full of playmakers. Maybe maturity leads to fewer big plays allowed? Stewart has moved to defensive end, leaving a spot for a newcomer like Nick Temple or Dwight Jackson. Moving a starter to a new position: one way to guarantee a little bit of new blood in the starting lineup.

Cincinnati's 2010 Season Set to Music

How about a little "Gravity Talks" by Green On Red? Because gravity spoke loud and clear last fall.

Fun Stat Nerd Tidbit

Here.

Summary and Projection Factors

Below is a small handful of projection and change factors most pertinent to the Football Outsiders' preseason projections you will find in this summer's Football Outsiders Almanac 2011.

Four-Year F/+ Rk 27
Five-Year Recruiting Rk 62
TO Margin/Adj. TO Margin**** -15 / -9
Approx. Ret. Starters (Off. / Def.) 16 (5, 11)
Yds/Pt Margin***** +2.2

It's pretty easy to talk yourself into Cincinnati, isn't it? A potentially explosive offense is joined by a defense that improves significantly as the experience level increases, while some extremely negative YPP and fumbles luck (the Bearcats' minus-15 turnover margin was second-worst in the country) balances out and pushes Cincy back up into the top tier of the Big East. Zach Collaros and Isaiah Pead are stars, D.J. Woods is rock solid, and the defensive line could be excellent. Of course...

...their bounce back is far from a given. The receiving corps is one injury away from being destitute, the offensive line must replace quite a bit, and let's be honest, 11 returning starters from a bad defense might not mean much if certain players aren't pushed by some new people in the rotation. And not only has recent recruiting been less than stellar, but the best class in recent history has fallen apart. Program depth is a serious concern.

The schedule, meanwhile, is both a problem and an opportunity. If Cincy is a legitimate Top 35 team, then games against Tennessee (away), N.C. State (home), West Virginia (home), Pittsburgh (away), etc., are all within reach. Cincy won't be a threat to go undefeated by any means, but 10-2 would certainly be in play. More realistic, however, is a season in the seven- to eight-win neighborhood. Recent history and experience should make sure they take a nice step forward after last year's debacle, but no matter how much I enjoy Zach Collaros, I'm nowhere near confident enough in this team to predict anything more than a winning season and something like a St. Petersburg Bowl appearance.

 

 

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* For more on the 'Adj. Score' and 'Adj. Record' measures below, feel free to read this Football Outsiders column. Adj. Score is a look at how a team would have performed in a given week if playing a perfectly average team, with a somewhat average number of breaks and turnovers. The idea for the measure is simple: what if everybody in the country played exactly the same opponent every single week? Who would have done the best? It is an attempt to look at offensive and defensive consistency without getting sidetracked by easy or difficult schedules. And yes, with adjusted score you can allow a negative number of points, which is strangely satisfying.

** F/+ rankings are the official rankings for the college portion of Football Outsiders. They combine my own S&P+ rankings (based on play-by-play data) with Brian Fremeau's drives-based FEI rankings.

*** What is S&P+? Think of it as an OPS (the "On-Base Plus Slugging" baseball measure) for football. The 'S' stands for success rates, a common Football Outsiders efficiency measure that basically serves as on-base percentage. The 'P' stands for PPP+, an explosiveness measure that stands for EqPts Per Play. The "+" means it has been adjusted for the level of opponent, obviously a key to any good measure in college football. S&P+ is measured for all non-garbage time plays in a given college football game. Plays are counted within the following criteria: when the score is within 28 points in the first quarter, within 24 points in the second quarter, within 21 points in the third quarter, and within 16 points (i.e. two possession) in the fourth quarter. For more about this measure, visit the main S&P+ page at Football Outsiders.

**** Adj. TO Margin is what a team's turnover margin would have been if they had recovered exactly 50 percent of all the fumbles that occurred in their games. If there is a huge difference between TO Margin and Adj. TO Margin (in other words, if fumbles and unlucky bounces were the main source of a good/bad TO margin), that suggests that a team's luck was particularly good or bad and might even out the next season.

***** Phil Steele has long tracked Yards Per Point as a means of looking at teams that were a little too efficient or inefficient the previous season. A positive Yds/Pt Margin means a team's offense was less efficient than opponents' offenses, and to the extent that luck was involved, their luck might even out the next year.

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