In watching West Virginia secede to the Big 12 in 2011 (with two other stalwart programs, Pitt and Syracuse, to soon leave for the ACC), the Big East saw most of its perceived football credibility walk out the door. But with a four-team playoff seemingly on the horizon, it is certainly worth noting that, had a playoff been in place in recent history, the Big East as it will soon be constituted would have had a role to play in several playoff postseasons.
The 2006 Louisville team finished fifth in the regular season BCS rankings and would have gotten a playoff spot under a potential "conference champions only" requirement. Boise State, a 2013 Big East entry, may have had a spot in multiple recent seasons. And of course, the 12-0 Cincinnati Bearcats would have been included, conference champions requirement or not, in 2009, just two full seasons ago. (Sure, they probably would have been blown out by either Alabama or Texas in the semifinals, but that's not the point.)
For every season or two that the Big East is completely lacking of a national title contender -- and to be sure, 2012 is shaping up as one of those seasons -- there is a year where an up-and-comer catches fire. Despite being quite easily the worst of the six BCS conferences at the moment, the Big East's members can rise to prominence when all the pieces come together. As it pertains to Cincinnati, then, the question is simple: can the Bearcats make it back?
From quarterbacks Tony Pike and Zach Collaros, to running back Isaiah Pead, to linebacker J.K. Schaffer, just about every pertinent piece from that 2009 team has cycled out of the football program. Can head coach Butch Jones craft another big winner at Nippert Stadium?
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.
Football Outsiders founder Aaron Schatz became a regular participant on ESPN's Numbers Never Lie when it debuted last fall. During football season, the show is about 99 percent focused on NFL, but on the September 22 episode they touched on that night's N.C. State-Cincinnati game. Aaron asked me for a quick summary of the game in preparation. Here is what I sent him, verbatim:
Pretty evenly matched, it seems. NC State coach Tom O'Brien is catching hell because he not only allowed quarterback Russell Wilson to transfer but almost encouraged it. (Wilson was playing minor league baseball and didn't seem committed to football, and I think TOB was getting tired of it.) Wilson transferred to Wisconsin and is tearing things up, while NC State lost to Wake Forest a couple of weeks ago. New QB Mike Glennon isn't really the problem, though -- they can't run the ball, and their defense is mediocre at best. Cincy, meanwhile, is all offense and no defense.
"All offense and no defense." To date, that had more or less been true. The Bearcats had allowed 405 passing yards and 45 points to Tennessee, and while they had romped over both Austin Peay and Akron, a) those two teams were horrendous (meaning you had to romp over them for the numbers to view you in a favorable manner), and b) they had still allowed 626 yards to the two terrible offenses. They had not shown much, and their Adj. Scores backed that up.
That night, however, the Bearcats' defense changed the complexion of the 2011 season with a seven-sack performance and a 44-14 win. Over the next five games, Cincinnati was quite possibly the best team in the Big East. Then quarterback Zach Collaros got hurt, and the offense tailed off. The result, other than a general lack of college football content on Numbers Never Lie the rest of the season: an odd, three-act swing to Cincy's season.
First Three Games: Opponents 32.2 Adj. PPG, Cincinnati 31.3 (minus-0.9)
Next Five Games: Cincinnati 30.7 Adj. PPG, Opponents 24.2 (plus-6.5)
Last Five Games: Opponents 25.8 Adj. PPG, Cincinnati 25.1 (minus-0.7)
Despite the late offensive struggles, Cincy still won four of five one-possession games, finished 10-3 and ranked 27th in F/+. Collaros returned for the bowl game and struggled, but their Liberty Bowl win (shows what I know! I said
St. Petersburg Beef O'Brady's Bowl!) over Vanderbilt still served as a nice cap for the careers of Collaros, running back Isaiah Pead, tackle Derek Wolfe, J.K. Schaffer and a senior class that led Cincy to a fourth season of double-digit wins in five years.
With the departures of Collaros, Pead and receiver D.J. Woods, virtually every player you recognize from the strong run of Cincy offenses is gone. Here's where we find out if the recruiting bump you're supposed to get when you win a lot can take hold at UC. The replacements for these somewhat name-brand players were more highly touted from a recruiting perspective, but for Cincinnati to keep up with its recent history, they will need to produce quickly. Let's look at some of the new name brands:
- Quarterback Munchie Legaux. The junior from New Orleans is tantalizing, both because of his name (incredible) and the all-or-nothing quality he brings to the Cincy offense. Filling in for an injured Collaros, Legaux averaged 6.6 yards per non-sack carry and averaged 13.6 yards per completed pass. Unfortunately, he completed only 47 percent of his passes. He is a dual-threat quarterback from the old school, and he should fit in well with what was already a high-explosiveness (10th in Rushing PPP+), lower-efficiency (86th in Rushing Passing S&P+) offense. He finished spring in a dead heat for the starting job -- senior Brendon Kay had a nice spring after years on the bench -- primarily because while his upside is higher than anybody else's, his downside might be lower, too.
- Running back Jameel Poteat. One of Cincinnati's more marquee recent signings, the four-star sophomore saw minimal playing time last year behind Isaiah Pead and George Winn. He rushed 23 times for 108 yards and a perfectly average plus-0.0 Adj. POE. But average freshmen often turn into great juniors. Poteat will likely sit behind Winn, a senior, in 2012, but in terms of hope for the future, one needs to keep an eye on him, especially considering the way Cincy utilizes screens and involves backs in the passing game (Pead was the No. 4 target last year).
- Receiver Kenbrell Thompkins. A former four-star recruit himself, the senior from Miami came on strong during the middle portion of the season. Over a six-game span, he caught 31 passes for 390 yards, and he should make for an interesting contributor alongside the steady Anthony McClung (683 yards, 7.9 per target) and rising sophomore Alex Chisum, who had passed Woods on the pecking order by the end of last season,
While the skill position players receive the headlines, it is worth noting that Cincy must also replace three offensive linemen -- including all-conference guard Randy Martinez-- the three of whom had combined for 76 career starts. Three players return with starting experience (29 career starts), and a wealth of juniors (including Ohio State transfer Sam Longo) fill in the two-deep, but considering the line ranked 16th in Adj. Line Yards last year, a dropoff could be costly, especially if it results in Legaux scrambling around on passing down after passing down.
After a slow start, the Cincinnati defense really did round into an aggressive, exciting unit over the season's final 10 games. They forced opponents to pass, and they were among the biggest sets of ballhawks in the country, intercepting 16 passes, breaking up another 52, forcing 20 fumbles and recording 112 tackles for loss for good measure. Once they leveraged opponents into passing downs, all hell broke loose. The problems for 2012, however, come in threes:
1. They were quite poor on standard downs. The Bearcats ranked 17th in Passing Downs S&P+ but only 100th in Standard Downs S&P+. Their wheels just spun and spun when they weren't allowed to be fully aggressive. Now they face a season without last year's three best catalysts.
2. Derek Wolfe, John Hughes and J.K. Schaffer are gone. In terms of quantity, the losses for the Cincy defense are minimal -- they return four of their top six on the line, three of their top four linebackers and all but one defensive back. Not bad. Unfortunately, the players they DID lose were extremely influential. Wolfe and Hughes were probably the most disruptive pair of tackles in the country, combining to record an outstanding 34 tackles for loss and 14.5 sacks. Throw in an exciting linebacker in Schaffer (13 tackles for loss, three interceptions, six passes broken up, three forced fumbles), and this is akin to a college baseball team losing its star centerfielder and a great double-play combination. The depth looks solid, but these three players were more than depth.
3. It is difficult to do that well at ball-hawking for two straight years. Of the five teams that recorded at least 100 tackles for loss in 2010, none did so again in 2011. Of the seven schools that forced at least 19 fumbles in 2010, none did so again in 2011. Cincinnati's returning personnel in the secondary -- safety Drew Frey and corners Camerron Cheatham and Deven Drane each defended at least 10 passes in 2011 -- are strong and could keep up the Bearcats' pass-defending ways, but it will be quite difficult for Cincy to maintain its overall play-making totals.
There really is quite a bit of potential in the secondary with Drane, Cheatham and a healthy Dominique Battle at cornerback, as well as a pair of interesting playmakers in Frey and last year's blitz-heavy nickel back Chris Williams (4.5 tackles for loss). But the losses in the front seven suggest the secondary will have to cover receivers for a longer period of time; that quite obviously puts stress on a unit after a while. To be sure, there is still potential among the front seven -- former high three-star linebackers Nick Temple and Solomon Tentman could surge as sophomores, and a trio of ends (Walter Stewart, Dan Giordano and Brandon Mills combined for 27 tackles for loss, 16.5 sacks, nine passes broken up and five forced fumbles) should still be exciting to watch. But Cincinnati almost literally lost the heart of its defense; it is difficult to recover from that quickly.
Cincinnati is yet another Big East team that could see a large swing in fortune based on a small swing in quality. Home games against Delaware State, Miami (Ohio), Fordham and Syracuse should keep the win total relatively high, but with three home opponents projected to rank between 25th and 41st and four road opponents projected between 50th and 73rd, the Bearcats could end up anywhere between about 5-7 and 11-1 depending on whether they are a Top 35-40 team or a Top 50-55 team. As always, we'll split the difference. We'll say if Cincy can win seven or eight games after all of these interesting personnel losses, the season was a success.
Butch Jones weathered the storm following Brian Kelly's departure and produced another 10-win season in 2011, but now we enter the next cycle of recruits, and it is always difficult to figure out what happens next. In the name of depth, I can almost talk myself into Cincinnati as a Big East contender. The Bearcats do return most of their defensive two-deep, they do still feature exciting defensive ends and a potentially good secondary, and they do have some pretty highly-touted players seemingly ready to step up after some notable departures on offense.
But the trenches scare me. The offensive line is inexperienced, and the defensive tackle position goes from an extreme strength to a mystery. For that reason, I am leaning toward putting them in the middle tier of the conference alongside Pittsburgh and, depending on the day, Temple.
While we’re here, let’s watch some college football videos from SB Nation’s new YouTube channel together: