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Luke Fickell is Mr. Ohio, but can he make Cincinnati national again?

The Bearcats’ path back to being treated like a power program begins close to home.

MLB: Philadelphia Phillies at Cincinnati Reds
Luke Fickell
Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

It is one of the more startling quirks of recent college football history, a what-if of a what-if: for a couple of confusing minutes late on December 5, 2009, the Cincinnati Bearcats were headed to the BCS Championship.

That afternoon, Brian Kelly's squad had survived No. 14 Pitt on the road in a snowstorm in maybe the most fantastic game of the season.

That evening, in the Big 12 title game in Arlington, Texas' Colt McCoy threw the ball out of bounds to stop the clock and set up a game-winning field goal, but the clock seemed to expire. Mack Brown wagged his finger, replay put a second back on the clock, UT's Hunter Lawrence nailed a 46-yard field goal, and the Longhorns won, 13-12.

We remember that game because of Brown's finger and the dominance by Nebraska's Ndamukong Suh. Husker fans still occasionally bring up how screwed they were. (They weren't: there was time on the clock when McCoy's toss made contact with something out of bounds.) But Nebraska was only a proxy; the Huskers weren't going to the national title game with a win.

For a couple of minutes, it appeared as if Cincinnati would be playing Alabama for a shot at a ring. The Bearcats hadn't ever finished a season ranked until two years before.

Instead, they were on the outside looking in. They became only the second unbeaten major-conference champion to be left out of the national title game (and would later hire the coach of the first).

Within five years, through no fault of its own, Cincinnati was no longer a major-conference team, relegated through random silliness to the confines of the AAC, the best mid-major conference but a mid-major all the same.

Cincinnati began life with a new type of coach, too. After hiring three up-and-comers whom it would lose to Michigan State (Mark Dantonio), Notre Dame (Brian Kelly), and Tennessee (Butch Jones), the program brought in somebody FROM a major conference.

Tommy Tuberville fit from a poetry standpoint: the school that went unbeaten but missed out on a title shot hired a guy most known for going unbeaten in 2004 at Auburn but missing out on a title shot. The Bearcats went 9-4 in 2013 and 2014 and showed upside capable of double-digit wins. But in 2015, they suffered a crazy number of injuries and bad bounces and went from AAC favorite to 7-6. And in 2016, the end came. A 3-1 start begat a 1-7 finish; after a 31-19 win over ECU, the Bearcats lost four straight by an average of more than three touchdowns.

The win over ECU was Tuberville's last. He retired and moved to politics. In his absence, it appears Cincinnati has decided to embrace its Ohio roots. After bringing in outsiders, the school replaced Tuberville with Mr. Ohio.

Fickell was born in Columbus, graduated from Columbus DeSales High School, attended Ohio State, and has spent his entire career at Ohio State and Akron. Just about the only time he’s left the state is when he played for the New Orleans Saints for a year.

Fickell spent most of the last 12 seasons as Ohio State’s defensive co-coordinator, sans one year as interim head coach during the transition from Jim Tressel to Urban Meyer. He is regarded as a masterful recruiter. He is as Ohio as Ohio can be. He was evidently even endorsed by stats.

Fickell inherits a squad that lost its way offensively but boasts exciting defensive pieces. He has offensive questions to answer — he promised up-tempo but brought in a coordinator from a decidedly slow attack — but he is doing his best to embrace Cincinnati’s odd identity as a power program in a non-power universe. He brought in assistants with power-conference experience and has recruited like a power-conference head coach for 2018.

An Ohio guy leading Ohio’s No. 2 program. This certainly feels right, at least.


2016 in review

2016 Cincinnati statistical profile.

In last year’s Cincinnati preview, I said, “With the bounces that went against UC in 2015, the rough-draft talent that will show up in uniform in 2016, and the massive number of tossup games that the Bearcats will play this fall, this might be the biggest wildcard team in the country.”

Preseason S&P+ projections said the Bearcats had between a 38 and 61 percent chance of winning in 10 of 12 games, with two likely wins early on. That meant a run of good or bad fortune could have huge consequences.

Cincinnati took both of its likely wins and split the first two tossups, winning easily at Purdue and losing handily to Houston. But quarterback Hayden Moore injured his leg against Houston, setting off severe shuffling. Ross Trail threw five interceptions against Miami (Ohio) and USF, Moore returned against UConn but struggled, former starter Gunner Kiel looked great against ECU then struggled, and Moore returned to struggle twice in blowout losses to UCF and Memphis before rallying against Tulsa.

Cincinnati’s run game was mostly awful from start to finish. And when you don’t have a quarterback or a ground attack, you don’t have an offense.

  • First 4 games (3-1): Avg. percentile performance: 56% (~top 55) | Avg. yards per play: UC 5.7, Opp 5.4 (plus-0.3) | Avg. performance vs. S&P+ projection: minus-3.3 PPG
  • Next 7 games (1-6): Avg. percentile performance: 32% (~top 90) | Avg. yards per play: Opp 5.2, UC 4.7 (minus-0.5) | Avg. performance vs. S&P+ projection: minus-10.7 PPG

When Tuberville failed in his career, it was because of a struggling offense. And his career ended with maybe his worst offense.


Offense

Cincinnati offensive radar

Full advanced stats glossary.

The quarterback position turned into a mess, but falling into passing downs will limit the upside of any QB. Cincinnati couldn’t even pretend to run the ball, and that affixed a low ceiling.

Cincinnati ranked 52nd in Adj. Line Yards, which might say decent things about the line, but ranked just 112th in overall Rushing S&P+, which says awful things about the backs.

Tion Green and Mike Boone flashed almost no explosiveness, and the Bearcats finished with just five rushes of 20-plus yards all season. ALL SEASON. New Mexico nearly averaged four such rushes per game.

Fickell proclaimed that establishing the run was priority No. 1 for new coordinator Mike Denbrock, and it’s not hard to see why. That could be tricky with the loss of four-year starting center Deyshawn Bond and guards Ryan Leahy and Idarius Ray. But four returnees started at least two games last year, including backup guards Will Steur and Keith Minor, and the Bearcats have a few three-star youngsters.

NCAA Football: Brigham Young at Cincinnati
Mike Boone
Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

Cincinnati might have the pieces up front for a decent run game; does it have the backs? Depends on which Boone we see. The senior began his career with a bang, then hit a wall.

  • Boone’s first 17 games: 173 carries, 1,283 yards (7.4 per carry), 16 TDs
  • Boone’s last 12 games: 137 carries, 504 yards (3.7), 4 TDs

Boone missed the last three games with injury, but if he’s not only healthy but back to his early-2015 self, that could spark the run. And he’s a threat catching passes.

If Boone doesn’t work out, the onus might fall to a redshirt freshman: 2016 star recruit Gerrid Doaks is a big dude (6’0, 206 pounds) who chose Cincy over at least one Big Ten offer, and after missing part of spring with a hamstring injury, he had a nice spring game, combining 61 rushing yards with 35 receiving yards.

Denbrock was also tasked with picking up the pace. Cincinnati moved at a below-average tempo in 2016, and in his interview, Fickell promised an “up-tempo, spread offense.” Maybe Denbrock can deliver that, but he was an odd choice. Denbrock spent the last seven seasons with former Cincy head coach Brian Kelly at Notre Dame, which hasn’t exactly been known for pace.

(Granted, the Irish averaged a few more plays per game in 2014, his lone season as coordinator, than they otherwise did.)

It’s hard to operate with tempo if you can’t run, but if Boone rediscovers his 2015 self, and Cincinnati isn’t falling into second-and-9 or third-and-8 situations, the passing game might have enough experience.

Moore struggled for most of 2016 but looked great at times in 2015. His problem has been picks: when he throws one, another is soon to follow. He threw five in his last two games of 2015, and in just 470 career passes, he has thrown 18 interceptions; his INT rate of 3.8 percent is about twice as high as a QB’s should be. Trail completed an encouraging 66 percent last year, but they didn’t really go anywhere (10.7 yards per completion), and to say the least, he also had a picks problem (six in 70 passes).

Moore and Trail will continue to battle into the fall, and they could get a push from a third candidate: Ohio State transfer and former four-star athlete Torrance Gibson.

They’ve got receivers, at least. Senior Devin Gray averaged nearly 15 yards per catch last year, and junior Kahlil Lewis had a decent 48 percent success rate. Three-star sophomores Jerron Rollins and Thomas Geddis and four-star junior Avery Johnson, meanwhile, combined to catch 21 balls for 356 yards last year, and eight three-star freshmen (five redshirts, three true) could play a role. There are options here, and if Cincinnati can better avoid passing downs, it might be able to pass.

NCAA Football: Cincinnati at Tulsa
Hayden Moore
Joey Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

Defense

Cincinnati defensive radar

Cincinnati’s offense was not terrible on passing downs (71st in PD S&P+) but faced too many of them to succeed.

The Bearcats’ defense, meanwhile, faced the opposite problem. They created plenty of passing downs, but their bend-don’t-break approach sometimes let opponents off of the hook. They prevented big plays with aplomb, allowing just 18 gains of 30-plus yards all year (sixth in FBS). That alone was good enough to power a No. 53 overall Def. S&P+ ranking. But inefficiency backfired at times.

Cincinnati defensive efficiency & explosiveness

Fickell’s defensive reputation was established thanks in part to blue-chippers he will now have far less access to, but one assumes he and coordinator Marcus Freeman will be able to figure some things out on that side. The hire of Freeman is interesting — he’s only 32 years old (he played linebacker for Fickell at OSU) and has only been a full-time football coach for six years. But he’s a well-regarded recruiter and Ohio guy, and he inherits a defense that has all sorts of experience.

Cincinnati returns eight of last year’s top 10 tacklers on the line, and only one is a senior. Juniors Kevin Mouhon (end) and Marquise Copeland (undersized tackle) combined for 14 TFLs up front, but seven of the eight key returnees each had at least 2.5 TFLs. There is play-making depth up front, and while Copeland mans the interior at only 260 pounds, junior Cortez Broughton (6’2, 297) and mid-three-star freshman (6’3, 315) could each add some heft.

NCAA Football: East Carolina at Cincinnati
Marquise Copeland (44) and Kevin Mouhon (48)
Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

Though the Bearcats do have to replace a solid safety in Zach Edwards, everybody else is back in the secondary. That includes cornerbacks Linden Stephens and Alex Thomas (combined: six interceptions, 10 breakups) and four safeties who made at least 25.5 tackles in 2016. Cincinnati picked off 17 passes last year, and those responsible for 11 of them return. Now to do something about that 61 percent completion rate...

Generally speaking, the linebacking corps is the easiest place on the defense to replace production; Cincinnati will test that theory, as it has to replace all three starting linebackers. Eric Wilson, Antonio Kinard, and Mike Tyson combined for 196 tackles, 19.5 TFLs, 4.5 sacks, and 14 passes defensed, and only one returnee (middle linebacker Jaylyin Minor) recorded more than five tackles.

Junior and steady 2015 contributor Bryce Jenkinson returns, however, after playing just two games last year, and Tuberville’s parting gift to Fickell might be a trio of mid-three-star redshirt freshmen: Joel Dublanko, Tyquan Statham, and Ty Sponseller. The best recruit of the 2017 class is also a linebacker: RJ Potts of Fishers (Ind.), was a four-star per the Composite.

This defense made plays and gave up quite a few easy completions. The pass defense has something to prove, but unless the linebacking corps craters (which I doubt), the run defense should again force lots of passing downs.

NCAA Football: South Florida at Cincinnati
Linden Stephens
Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

Special Teams

The special teams unit returns everyone in 2017, and that might be a good thing. Josh Pasley was too inconsistent in the place-kicking department, and a poor kicking grade gave Cincy a No. 92 Special Teams S&P+ ranking. But punter Sam Geraci’s kicks are high and unreturnable, Brayden Beard is a semi-efficient punt return man, and while Mike Boone wasn’t consistent enough in kick returns, he was at least explosive.

And hey, if Cincinnati can actually run the ball, it might not have to ask Pasley to attempt as many field goals. Win-win.


2017 outlook

2017 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
31-Aug Austin Peay NR 43.5 99%
9-Sep at Michigan 10 -24.6 8%
16-Sep at Miami (Ohio) 88 1.9 54%
23-Sep at Navy 71 -3.7 42%
30-Sep Marshall 101 9.6 71%
7-Oct Central Florida 78 2.8 57%
21-Oct SMU 81 5.1 62%
28-Oct at South Florida 56 -8.2 32%
4-Nov at Tulane 94 3.3 58%
10-Nov Temple 67 -1.5 46%
18-Nov at East Carolina 100 4.5 60%
25-Nov Connecticut 125 16.7 83%
Projected S&P+ Rk 75
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 93 / 53
Projected wins 6.7
Five-Year S&P+ Rk 1.7 (61)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 67 / 68
2016 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* 1 / -2.3
2016 TO Luck/Game +1.4
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 67% (70%, 64%)
2016 Second-order wins (difference) 4.7 (-0.7)

Cincinnati plays in historic Nippert Stadium but, strangely, didn’t have much of a history before the 2000s. The Bearcats dominated early in the 1950s and moved to Division I, but when head coach Sid Gillman left to take over the Los Angeles Rams, they cranked through nearly four bowl-free decades, threatening to make noise but rarely making a ripple.

During the 2000s, though, UC has been one of the country’s more consistent programs, winning at least seven games 13 times in 17 years. But after four straight years of at least nine wins, the Bearcats trailed off in Tuberville’s last two years. And it’s up to Fickell to reestablish momentum.

I’m not going to lie: I get a little bit concerned when I see a coordinator hire made, seemingly, for recruiting purposes (Freeman), or when I see another coordinator (Denbrock) tasked with establishing an identity he hasn’t proven he can establish.

S&P+ projects Cincinnati an optimistic 7-5 and 75th overall. If the tempo clicks on offense and the run defense is as good as I think it will be, then that sounds realistic. But those “ifs” are not guaranteed, and as right as the Fickell hire feels, his Bearcats again have to prove that, in a conference full of up-and-comers, they can again be one.


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