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Luke Fickell’s Cincinnati rebuild is well ahead of schedule

Fickell’s Bearcats just exploded from 4-8 to 11-2. What happens if the offense figures things out?

NCAA Football: Tulane at Cincinnati
Luke Fickell
Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

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

In last year’s Cincinnati preview, I declared myself a huge fan of what Fickell was building as he headed into his second full season. Then I predicted the Bearcats to maybe eke out a bowl bid.

Thanks mostly to quarterback Hayden Moore’s return and excellent two-year recruiting, Cincinnati is projected to improve back into the S&P+ top 90. I’m going to assume major leaps don’t happen until 2019 or later.

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.

Had I known that a redshirt freshman quarterback (Desmond Ridder) would end up starting, leading returning rusher Gerrid Doaks and star defensive end Kevin Mouhon would miss the season with injury, safety Chris Murphy would miss most of the year (while another safety, Malik Clements, moved to linebacker) ... that Cincy would be much younger than I anticipated, in other words? Well, I probably wouldn’t have even predicted a bowl.

Fickell ended up leaning even more heavily into a youth movement than anticipated. And Cincinnati went 11-2.

That’s not the way that’s supposed to work.

The Bearcats were a revelation. They beat (an admittedly worse than expected) UCLA on their way to a 6-0 start, and when opponents adjusted to make life harder on Ridder and the young offense, they still landed some shots. They outlasted SMU and USF, walloped Navy and ECU, and fell only at Temple and at UCF. And when Ridder got hurt in the Military Bowl against Virginia Tech, Moore threw for 120 yards in a 35-31 win.

Cincinnati arrived ahead of schedule and then, perhaps most importantly, managed to hold onto Fickell despite interest from a few power conference schools. And with few scholarships to give out because UC just won 11 games with almost no seniors, Fickell inked a recruiting class with the second-highest per-recruit average in the conference.

It was a pretty good year, in other words. And now Ridder, 1,300-yard rusher Michael Warren II, all but one receiver, seven defensive starters, and Doaks and Mouhon return.

In one year, expectations did almost a 180, from “maybe make a bowl?” to “maybe win the AAC East?” Cincy gets UCF and Temple at home this time and gets shots at both UCLA (at home) and Ohio State (away). With this schedule, the Bearcats can make as much noise as they are capable of making. Per S&P+, they are projected favorites in nine games and one-possession underdogs in two more.

You excited yet? Great, now let me throw some cold water on everything: teams that make a major leap — and I would say going from 95th to 50th in S&P+ qualifies as “major” — don’t usually leap again the next year.

Of the 26 teams that jumped at least 45 spots in S&P+ between 2006 and 2017, only seven improved further the next year. Thirteen saw their rankings fall by at least 13 spots, and nine fell by at least 30.

If you think about the likely causes of unexpected jumps, that makes sense. A team that surges like that is more likely to lose its head coach, like Ball State after 2008, SDSU after 2010, Houston after 2011, SJSU after 2012, etc. Or maybe it leaps due to a terrific senior class, which leaves a young two-deep in its wake.

Teams that improve suddenly and then maintain their progress, however, often underachieved to begin with (giving them room to surge), then rebounded again with a new coach. Auburn, for example, surged in 2009 under first-year head coach Gene Chizik (who replaced Tommy Tuberville, the guy Fickell replaced at UC in 2017), then improved further in 2010.

I figure Cincinnati has a good shot at becoming one of the latter examples here. The Bearcats probably aren’t going to surge into the S&P+ top 25, but top 40? Top 35? You figure it’s on the table.


If you’re looking for signs that Cincinnati can climb higher in 2019, your biggest source of encouragement has to be that the offense still has a lot of room to rise.

The Bearcats enjoyed a top-50 Off. S&P+ ranking every year from 2011-15 but fell to 99th in Off. S&P+ in 2016 and 109th in Fickell’s first year. They improved to 74th last year, awfully impressive considering the freshman quarterback, but they were an unfinished product.

For one thing, the base offense didn’t work all that well. They ranked 91st in standard-downs marginal efficiency, which means they were constantly falling behind schedule and asking a freshman QB to catch them up.

NCAA Football: East Carolina at Cincinnati
Desmond Ridder
Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

He usually did. Ridder was incredible on third-and-long. He completed 33 of 52 passes on third-and-7 or more for 563 yards, six touchdowns, and two interceptions. Passer rating: 184.8. Cincinnati was 16th in passing-downs marginal efficiency and 11th in blitz-downs success rate, and arguably the only freshman quarterback who was better in these situations was Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence. Ridder’s a far more willing and able scrambler than Lawrence, too.

We maybe have to worry about sustainability here — Ridder’s passer rating on first down, when opponents were geared up to stop the run, was only 138.5, and maybe there was a fluky element to the third-and-long success.

In theory, though, he might face fewer third-and-longs if the run game develops.

NCAA Football: Military Bowl-Cincinnati vs Virginia Tech
Michael Warren II
Scott Taetsch-USA TODAY Sports

Fickell and offensive coordinator Mike Denbrock want to run the hell out of the ball — here’s your reminder that Fickell served for nine years under Jim Tressel and for five under Urban Meyer — and they’ll almost have to, to get every deserving player some touches.

Warren averaged just 4.7 yards per carry over his first month on the job, then averaged 5.9 from there. He came on strong, and his freshman backups, Tavion Thomas and Charles McClelland were even stronger, combining for 984 yards (6.5 per carry) and 11 touchdowns. Throw in Doaks, who averaged 5.9 per carry in 2017, when nothing was working, and this is one of the best RB corps in the country, one that is young enough to still have another gear or two of development to uncover.

The biggest question for the run game actually comes up front, where Cincy has to replace three starters, including all-conference performers Dino Boyd (LT) and Garrett Campbell (C). Two senior starters return, and lord knows Fickell’s recruited well in the trenches — among the younger players he might be calling on are four-star Michigan transfer James Hudson and mid-three-stars like junior Darius Harper and redshirt freshmen Jeremy Cooper and Lorenz Metz. Still, this could be a young line. Maybe Ridder’s not out of the third-and-long woods just yet.

When he’s got to throw, he’ll have some exciting options. No. 1 receiver Kahlil Lewis is gone, but everybody else is back, including big-play senior Rashad Medaris, tight end Josiah Deguara, senior Thomas Geddis, and the requisite exciting youngsters: sophomores Jayshon Jackson and Trent Cloud, freshman Tre Tucker, etc.


The defense doesn’t have nearly as much room to grow. The Bearcats rose from 68th to 36th in Def. S&P+ last year, dominating against the run and playing ultra-aggressive, on-ball pass defense. When you rank sixth in rushing marginal efficiency and first in completion rate allowed, you’re doing something right.

Tulane v Cincinnati
Cameron Jefferies (14)
Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

We’ll start with the good news: just about everybody in defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman’s linebacking corps and secondary are back.

  • Cornerbacks Coby Bryant and Cam Jefferies combined for three interceptions, 20 pass breakups, and four tackles for loss (all from Jefferies) and played on such islands that they ended up with 54 solo tackles and only 12 assists. They’re back, as is redshirt freshman Arquon Bush, a 2018 star recruit who managed to break up four passes, with only three tackles (solo, of course), in a four-game audition.
  • Safeties James Wiggins and Darrick Forrest are back after leading such an aggressive unit as sophomores. They combined for five INTs, seven breakups, and two TFLs.
  • At linebacker, Clements is gone after leading the team in tackles following his move from safety to SLB. But Jarell White and Bryan Wright return after combining for 15.5 TFLs, five sacks (all from Wright), 22 run stuffs, and a pair of passes defensed.

Senior Perry Young, junior Joel Dublanko, sophomore RJ Potts, Duke transfer Tinashe Bere, redshirt freshman Ty Van Fossen, and others should combine to give Cincy the deepest LB corps in the AAC. And the secondary isn’t exactly thin.

NCAA Football: Military Bowl-Cincinnati vs Virginia Tech
Bryan Wright (11)
Scott Taetsch-USA TODAY Sports

Now the bad news: the line needs a little bit of retooling. Last year’s top three — end Kimoni Fitz and tackles Cortez Broughton and Marquise Copeland — all depart, and while Freeman played a pretty large rotation up front, their production (33 TFLs, 14 sacks, 40 run stuffs, eight breakups) set a high bar.

Mouhon’s return should solve one of those problems, at least. The senior had 16.5 TFLs in 2016-17. And at the jack/DE hybrid spot, juniors Michael Pitts and Ethan Tucky combined for 11.5 TFLs and six sacks last year. There are still playmakers on the edge.

In the middle, though, lots of guys will be asked to punch above their weight class. There are plenty of breakout candidates — juniors Curtis Brooks, Elijah Ponder, and Marcus Brown, sophomore Jabari Taylor, redshirt freshman Blake Bacevich — but no particularly known entities. Run defense was such an important driver of success, and further improvement will depend on a couple of these tackles playing at a really high level.

Special Teams

There’s another good news, bad news scenario.

Cincy brings back maybe the best punter in FBS, James Smith. The junior averaged 44.3 net yards per punt and ranked first in punt efficiency.

But if the offense does improve, the Bearcats will have less use for Smith and will lean on place-kicker Cole Smith more. He ranked a ghastly 129th in FG efficiency as a freshman. He was just 3-for-7 on field goals under 40 yards, which is unfathomably bad.

The kicker’s struggles meant UC ranked just 82nd in Special Teams S&P+, and we don’t know if that will improve, even with this punter in tow.

2019 outlook

2019 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
29-Aug UCLA 63 6.5 65%
7-Sep at Ohio State 7 -19.7 13%
14-Sep Miami (Ohio) 93 14.5 80%
28-Sep at Marshall 77 5.8 63%
4-Oct UCF 27 -2.1 45%
12-Oct at Houston 73 4.3 60%
19-Oct Tulsa 95 15.6 82%
2-Nov at East Carolina 113 19.0 86%
9-Nov Connecticut 129 34.3 98%
16-Nov at USF 71 3.6 58%
23-Nov Temple 66 7.4 67%
29-Nov at Memphis 26 -7.7 33%
Projected S&P+ Rk 44
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 71 / 31
Projected wins 7.5
Five-Year S&P+ Rk 1.5 (68)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 69
2018 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* 0 / 2.6
2018 TO Luck/Game -1.0
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 71% (71%, 71%)
2018 Second-order wins (difference) 9.6 (1.4)

Cincinnati is going to be good again this year, but how good is very much a “see whatever you want to see” situation.

  • With an even more explosive run game and a passing-downs magician in Ridder, the offense could rise into the top 50.
  • Or, the new line starters will lead to a less consistent run game, and the passing-downs success will prove unsustainable.
  • The defense could find a couple new tackles and ride an incredible back seven to a top-30 ranking.
  • Or the run defense will regress, leading to fewer opportunities to make plays in the passing game.

The most likely scenario is that Cincinnati improves slightly overall. Granted, the record might not improve, thanks to trips to Ohio State, Memphis, Marshall, and Houston and visits from UCF, UCLA, and Temple. That’s a rugged schedule, and a top-40 team might lose four games.

Still, after a brief stumble, Cincinnati was basically back to looking like a power conference team last year. The Bearcats were nasty, physical, and fun. That probably won’t change as long as Fickell’s there.

Team preview stats

All 2019 preview data to date.