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Luke Fickell’s Cincinnati recruiting is going gangbusters. How long until that translates to wins?

The Bearcats’ rebuild should have a head start, thanks to loads of local talent.

NCAA Football: Cincinnati at Navy Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

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Bill C’s annual preview series of every FBS team in college football continues. Catch up here!

The AAC is a good league, easily the best of the Group of 5 in football and, for the last three seasons (per Ken Pomeroy), one of the seven best basketball conferences in Division I as well. For those coming from the old Conference USA — ECU, Houston, Memphis, SMU, Tulane, Tulsa, UCF (plus former indie Navy) — it’s meant opportunity and prestige.

For those relegated from the old Big East, however — Cincinnati, USF, Temple, UConn — it has theoretically meant a lower ceiling. And for two specific programs, Cincinnati football and UConn basketball, the symbolism has been pretty obvious.

UConn basketball made the Sweet 16 in 10 of its last 19 years in the Big East, then won the national title in its first AAC season. Since then, the Huskies have won only 19 games per year with an average Pomeroy ranking barely inside the top 100. They just fired head coach Kevin Ollie.

Cincinnati football wasn’t that good, but the Bearcats still averaged a top-35 S&P+ ranking and won at least 10 games in five of their last six seasons in the Big East. Their first five years in the AAC: 6.6 wins per year with an average ranking of 73.

Now, this is more of a narrative device than a cause-effect relationship, especially for Cincy. Over three straight hires, the school brought in Mark Dantonio, Brian Kelly, and Butch Jones. The Bearcats still lost those guys despite having power-conference status. They also won nine games in Tommy Tuberville’s first two seasons as he ran out of gas, both on the field and in recruiting.

The hire of Fickell was an attempt to change that. On the field, it’s still probably another year or two before we find out if it’s working. The Bearcats had already fallen from 45th in S&P+ in 2014 to 85th in Tuberville’s final season, and Fickell’s first-year reset saw them sink another 17 spots. The offense has to replace about half its two-deep in 2018, and the defense is going to lose about seven starters after this coming season. The balance of classes is all out of whack.

Off the field, however, everything is progressing as planned. Fickell was hired to dominate the non-Big Ten recruiting market in Ohio, scooping up top local prospects who don’t get Ohio State offers. In an abbreviated recruiting session, Fickell brought in the third-best class in the AAC in 2017.

Given a full year, he inked a brilliant 2018 class. Per the 247Sports Composite, it ranked 47th overall — easily the highest in the Group of 5. Fickell’s class ranked ahead of four Big Ten teams and was nearly equal to Wisconsin’s, and 70 percent of it was from Ohio. He signed a four-star in tight end Leonard Taylor and four others who were nearly at his level.

The schedule is just friendly enough that a little bit of an on-field rebound could produce a bowl bid. I can’t imagine that would hurt recruiting.

Offense

Fickell proclaimed that the first goal for offensive coordinator Mike Denbrock last season was to establish the run. The Bearcats had been miserable in 2016 — 112th in Rushing S&P+, with the two leading rushers averaging just 4.3 yards per carry — and Fickell is going for talent and execution over funky tactics.

Denbrock was partially successful, as Cincy improved to 78th in Rushing S&P+. Redshirt freshman Gerrid Doaks was the primary reason. Over a three-game span in the middle of conference play, he rushed 32 times for 277 yards (8.7 per carry) and was the spark for a road upset of Tulane in early-November. He missed three games with injury, however, and then-senior Mike Boone didn’t appear particularly healthy until about the last three games.

The passing game was woefully inefficient for about the first two-thirds of the year.

There was an uptick late, though, and that has to be encouraging.

  • First 6 games vs. FBS opponents: 19.0 points per game, 4.7 yards per play, 23% average percentile performance
  • Last 5 games: 22.2 points per game, 6.0 yards per play, 49% average percentile performance

Quarterback Hayden Moore’s completion rate improved from 53 percent to 61 over those last five games, and his passer rating improved from 104.3 to 135.3. The Bearcats’ scoring average only improved a little, because they continued to stink at finishing drives, but improvement was still noticeable.

NCAA Football: Cincinnati at Navy
Gerrid Doaks
Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

With Moore, Doaks, and No. 1 receiver Kahlil Lewis back, it’s conceivable that this progress can be sustained. Doaks continued to struggle with injury this spring, but in sophomore Michael Warren II, one of the stars of the 2017 class, he’s got a pretty impressive backup. Warren averaged 6 yards per carry, though he carried the ball more than six times in just two games. Both Doaks and Warren are listed at 218 pounds or bigger, so there’s a nice combination of potential heft and explosiveness there.

The line could be an issue, though. Six linemen started at least seven games last year, and four are gone, leaving senior guards Garrett Campbell and Kyle Trout and almost no other known entities. Trout is a former four-star Ohio State signee, but Fickell has yet to make a huge recruiting impact here — Trout’s the only lineman with a higher than low-three-star recruiting ranking per 247.

Lewis wasn’t a particularly efficient receiver, but he went from averaging 9.1 yards per catch over the first eight games to 17.4 over the last four. He and Moore’s No. 3 target, junior Thomas Geddis, are both back, but the next leading wideout on the returnees list, junior Jerron Rollins, caught just 13 balls for 101 yards last year.

Recruiting could help. Fickell is bringing in four freshmen who were mid-three-stars or higher: tight ends Josh Whyle and Taylor and wideouts Meechi Harris and Alec Pierce. If one or two stick, along with perhaps sophomore Javan Hawes (eight catches last year) or redshirt freshman Trent Cloud, Cincy might have decent receiver depth.

That’s asking a lot of some young options, but a lot of the Denbrock passing game involves short, easy passes. Even if the young guys don’t do much after the catch, they could get involved.

Moore’s had a pretty unique career. The senior from Alabama filled in reasonably well for the oft-injured Gunner Kiel as a freshman in 2015, then beat out Kiel for the starting job in 2016 only to suffer some injuries of his own. With a healthy senior year, he could finish with nearly 10,000 career yards and 60 touchdowns, but Cincinnati’s Passing S&P+ ranking has fallen from 23rd to 76th to 115th over his three seasons.

His legacy will be one of a bridge-builder between the Tuberville and Fickell eras. We’ll find out how good a builder he is.

NCAA Football: Connecticut at Cincinnati
Kahlil Lewis
Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

Defense

The Cincy offense fell apart in Tuberville’s final season, but the Bearcats were competitive defensively, finishing 53rd in Def. S&P+. They have been in the top 75 in 10 of the last 12 years, and with Fickell’s own credentials — he was the Buckeyes’ defensive co-coordinator for 11 seasons — it was easy to assume success would continue.

Maybe it will, but 2017 saw quite the reset. UC fell to 86th in Def. S&P+, struggling equally against run (83rd in Rushing S&P+) and pass (96th in Passing S&P+) and on standard downs (89th in SD S&P+) and passing downs (88th in PD S&P+). And there weren’t that many injuries or youth issues — the top six tacklers on the line and the top seven defensive backs were juniors and seniors, and only a couple of regulars missed more than one game.

The youngest unit on the defense — the linebacking corps — was also maybe the best. Perry Young recorded nine tackles for loss and took part in 17 run stuffs; he led the team in havoc plays (TFLs, passes defensed, and forced fumbles) as a sophomore, and Jarell White held his own as a freshman. Another then-freshman, Joel Dublanko, made only 4.5 tackles, but 1.5 were behind the line.

NCAA Football: Connecticut at Cincinnati
Perry Young (6)
Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

Coordinator Marcus Freeman is an Ohio State product and well-regarded recruiter. He and Fickell have some things to figure out, but there are enough exciting young defenders to get some competition going.

Up front, you’ve got proven entities like tackle Marquise Copeland (eight TFLs plus participation in 18 run stuffs) and end Kevin Mouhon (seven TFLs, 12 run stuffs) mixing with youngsters like sophomore tackle Curtis Brooks and star freshmen Malik Vann, Lorenz Metz, Myjai Sanders, and Daeshon Martin. Plus, though junior end Bryan Wright has played only 14 games in two years, he’s made 6.5 TFLs in that span. So maybe there’s a disruptive cocktail.

The secondary needs help, though. Last year’s top three cornerbacks are all gone, and sophomore Marquis Smith is the only returnee who saw the field there. It’s almost going to be a necessity for redshirt freshman Noah Hamlin or true freshmen Arquon Bush and Taj Ward to see the field.

Extreme cornerback youth will put a lot of pressure on senior safeties Malik Clements, Tyrell Gilbert, and Chris Murphy, who have seen plenty of playing time but haven’t done much. The trio combined for just six TFLs and six passes defensed in 2017, though a non-existent pass rush probably didn’t help.

It might be a tenuous couple of years for the pass defense. Cornerback is starting over this year, and safety faces a reset in 2019. And the Bearcats will lose their only known pass rushers (Copeland and Mouhon) after this year. We’ll learn about these recent recruits’ — and Freeman’s — capabilities pretty quickly, I guess.

Cincinnati v Temple
Tyrell Gilbert
Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

Special Teams

Place-kicking carries significant weight in the Special Teams S&P+ formula; that was bad news for Cincy in 2017, as that was the Bearcats’ shakiest department. Three kickers combined to miss 11 percent of UC’s PATs and go just 8-for-11 on field goals under 40 yards and 1-for-6 over 40. Ew. Ryan Jones, perhaps the steadiest of the trio, returns.

On the bright side, Michael Warren II was a strong kick returner for a freshman, and punter James Smith (43rd in punt efficiency) held his own as a first-year guy.

But Cincinnati was bad at finishing drives, and the place-kicking made things much worse.

2018 outlook

2018 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
1-Sep at UCLA 39 -12.5 24%
8-Sep at Miami (Ohio) 82 -4.4 40%
15-Sep Alabama A&M NR 41.9 99%
22-Sep Ohio 68 -1.6 46%
29-Sep at Connecticut 124 8.3 68%
6-Oct Tulane 98 5.1 62%
20-Oct at Temple 81 -4.6 40%
27-Oct at SMU 74 -5.5 37%
3-Nov Navy 85 1.8 54%
10-Nov USF 56 -4.0 41%
17-Nov at UCF 17 -20.3 12%
23-Nov East Carolina 125 13.7 79%
Projected S&P+ Rk 88
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 87 / 90
Projected wins 6.0
Five-Year S&P+ Rk -0.4 (70)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 55 / 64
2017 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* -5 / -2.8
2017 TO Luck/Game -0.9
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 63% (69%, 56%)
2017 Second-order wins (difference) 4.3 (-0.3)

Thanks mostly to Moore’s return and excellent two-year recruiting, Cincinnati is projected to improve back into the S&P+ top 90. If some of the young guys start to figure things out, then further improvement is possible, but I’m going to assume major leaps don’t happen until 2019 or later.

The schedule is forgiving, though. UC plays more highly ranked teams like USF, Ohio, and Navy at home and faces winnable road games against teams like UConn, Miami (Ohio), Temple, and SMU. Cincy has between a 37 and 62 percent win probability in seven games; win enough of those, and the Bearcats can eke out a bowl bid.

That’s really the only goal on the table this year, though. Keep building the foundation, try to win more than four games, and keep recruiting your butt off.

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