Thursday, May 20, 2010

Pre-Season Preview: Cincinnati Bearcats

2009 Record: 12-1 (7-0, Won Big East Championship)
2009 Bowl: Sugar Bowl (lost to Florida 51 to 24)
Final 2009 AP Ranking: #8
Head Coach: Butch Jones (first year at Cincinnati, 27-13 at Central Michigan)
Non-Conference Schedule: at Fresno State (9/4), Indiana State (9/11), at North Carolina State (9/16), Oklahoma (9/25), at Miami, Oh (10/9)

2009 Offensive Statistics
Scoring: 38.6 points per game (1st in Big East, 4th in Nation)
Rushing Yards/Game: 138 (5th in Big East)
Passing Yards/Game: 308 (1st in Big East, 8th in Nation)
Total Yards/Game: 447 (1st in Big East) 

2009 Defensive Statistics
Scoring: 23.1 points per game (5th in Big East)
Rushing Yards/Game: 143 (7th in Big East)
Passing Yards/Game: 230 (6th in Big East)
Total Yards/Game: 374 (last in Big East)

2009 Misc Stats
Turnover Margin: +0.69 per game (3rd in Big East)
Penalties: 45 yards per game (3rd in Big East)

Returning Starters
Offense: 8
Defense: 6
Kicker/Punter: 1

Top Returning Statistical Leaders
Passing: QB Zach Collaros, Jr (93 of 124 for 1434 yds, 10 TD, 2 INT)
Rushing: RB Isiah Pead, Jr (121 carries for 806 yds, 9 TD, 6.6 ypc, 62 ypg)
Receiving: WR Armon Binns, Sr (61 rec, 888 yds, 11 TD, 4.7 rec/game)
Receiving: WR D.J. Woods, Jr (51 rec, 640 yds, 4 TD, 4.3 rec/game)
Tackles: LB J.K. Schaffer, Jr (100)
Sacks: DT Derek Wolfe, Jr (5)
Interceptions: LB J.K. Schaffer, Jr (3)

2010 Pre-Season Rankings
Lindy's: #22
Mark Schlabach: #14
Rivals: #25
Scout: Not Ranked
Sports Illustrated: #19

In 2009 Cincinnati won the Big East Championship for the second consecutive year under Brian Kelly. Kelly has since moved on to Notre Dame. Cincinnati has once again positioned themselves as one of the teams to beat in the Big East. Mark Raines, from Bearcatmark's Blog, gives us his take on this season of Cincy football.

What are the major strengths and biggest weaknesses of the team?

It is easy to look at the Bearcats and say the offense as a whole will be their biggest strength this season and by in large this is true, but if you want to get more specific the Bearcats are as deep as any team in the country at wide receiver. Gone is Mardy Gilyard who continually did everything for the Bearcats, but returning are Armon Binns, D.J. Woods, and Marcus Barnett. Joining them are USC transfer Vidal Hazelton and the top rated juco wide-receiver in the country Kendrell Thompkins. The biggest questions with this group is will there be enough passes to go around. I have a hard time seeing any team being able to cover all of these guys. For opposing defenses they are going to have to pick their poison and hope to get pressure on the quarterback, because if not these receivers will kill them.

The Bearcats return 3 starters on an offensive line that allowed very few sacks last year. They do have to break in a new Center and a new Left Tackle so the progression at those spots will be key. There is no reason that this years Bearcat offense cannot be better than last years. Isiah Pead will be back with another year under his belt. Pead seemingly gashed defenses for yards every time he touched the football last season (though in Kelly's offense he often got limited opportunities). Expect to see his role in the offense expand this season.

Were it not for Tony Pike getting injured again last season and Zach Collaros stepping in to run the team for 4 and a half Big East Conference games there would probably be more concern at the quarterback position. All Big East quarterback Tony Pike is gone after leading the Bearcats to back to back conference titles and an unbeaten regular season. Still Collaros actually took more snaps in conference play than Tony Pike and looked great doing so. His performance against UCONN on a Saturday night in Nippert stadium remains maybe the most impressive performance I have ever seen in person. If Collaros can pick up where he left off last season, this offense should once again put immense pressure on opposing defenses. When all is said and done they could be the best offense in the country.

The lack of depth on defense seemingly caught up with the Bearcats as the season wore on last year. Cincinnati's defense surprised a ton of experts early by really coming out and looking impressive, but as the season wore on opposing offenses started to gash them in big ways. This year the biggest question will be how far the defense has progressed. The biggest ares of concern for the Bearcats are at cornerback where Florida absolutely lit them up in the Sugar Bowl and in linebacker, particularly on the inside. To reach their full potential and compete for a national title, the Bearcats will need the secondary to step up and the linebackers to be strong both against the run and pass.

I think the Bearcat front four anchored by Derek Wolfe will be very good. One exciting player to watch on defense will be Outside Linebacker Walter Stewart. Stewart was very disruptive last season and with added weight could become an all Big East caliber player this year. If the Bearcats defense can become a top 20 caliber defense, Cincinnati will once again be very difficult to beat.

Looking at the schedule who will be the first major test and why?

The Bearcats get three very tough tests in their first four games, particularly when you consider they will be operating under a new coaching staff and new systems on both sides of the football. Fortunately for the offense many of the principals will be the same and they will remain a shotgun spread team, but the defense is once again switching back to the 4-3. Because of this you can bet that no Bearcat fan is even looking past the Saturday night opener at a good Fresno State team.

The Thursday night trip to NC State two weeks later could turn into a shootout very quickly (just ask the Pitt fans from last year), but I suspect if the Bearcats have adjusted to the new staff by then they should be 3-0 heading into the game Bearcat fans have circled for a while...a home tilt with Oklahoma. This is a game that will likely be between two top 15 teams and very possibly two top 10 teams by the time week 4 runs around. Oklahoma's offense absolutely abused the Bearcats two seasons ago, so the key to getting a win will be the defense finding a way to get some stops. A victory over the Sooners would earn the Bearcats some of the national respect they have not been able to get with their prior two bowl game performances. This is a huge game for a program looking to show they are permanent contenders on the national stage.

What team on the schedule do you fear the most?

Oklahoma will likely be the best team the Bearcats play this year, so in that sense they are the easy answer. But the Fresno State worries me because it is the years first game and the first game under a completely new staff. It is a west coast game that starts later than UC would ever play in Cincinnati and Fresno State is not exactly chopped liver. Despite that this is a game the Bearcats will be expected to come out and take care of business in. To me that is a recipe for a scary game.

Who is the best player on your team that nobody talks about?

You will hear a lot about Binns and Hazelton nationally before the season, but probably less about D.J. Woods. I do not know if he is Cincinnati's best receiver, but I think there is a great chance he will lead the team in receptions. Kid is very good.

Who is the best offensive player on the team?
I do not think there is a good answer to this question right now. All of the wide receivers are poised for great years... who will emerge is anyone's guess. Isiah Pead is another guy who should have a great year. The safest answer is Zach Collaros only because he will be the most important player on the offense.

Who is the most impactful defensive player on the team?
I talked about him earlier, but I think it is going to be Walter Stewart. He is poised to have a great season. He has all kinds of speed and can be incredibly disruptive to opposing offenses.

What player(s) needs to step up this year in order for the team to reach it's full capability?

It has to be one or two of the cornerbacks. Dominque Battle is starting for the second year after getting some valuable experience as a freshman. He needs to be a leader for this secondary. For a second straight season I think the biggest question for the Bearcat defense is their secondary. Winning a third straight Big East title becomes awfully tough without it happening.

Who is the top offensive newcomer that can make an impact this year?

Vidal Hazelton. He will be an impact player in the Bearcats passing attack.

Who is the top defensive newcomer that can make an impact this year?

I am really anxious to see what Jordan Stepp can do on defense. He is a big strong kid who should play a good amount spelling Wolfe and Hughes. He also gives them needed depth in an area where you always need more.

Gut feeling on the teams final record at the end of the regular season and what makes this a successful season in your eyes?

A successful season for this team is going to be at least ten wins and a third straight Big East title. I do not see any reason that cannot be the goal and that it cannot be obtained. If everything goes right this team could run the table again. If I had to guess I would say they win 10-11 games and at least a share of the conference title.
Because of the coaching changes there are more questions this year. You never know how a team is going to react when it changes coaches. That being said the offense should be coming back stronger than ever and the defense returns more starters than they did the year before. Though wide receiver should be a position of incredible strength for the Bearcats this year the loss of Gilyard is still likely to be felt. Every time the Bearcats needed a big play last year he got it. When they needed him to take the kickoff back for a TD against Pitt he did. When they needed him to catch a 70 yard TD later that game he did it. When they needed the two point conversion, he got it. He set the all purpose yard record in that comeback. Quite simply his impact was about more than his numbers or his skill. When he was needed to he came through. He had a rare transcendent greatness which is hard to find. 

Mark's Prediction 11-1, Big East Championship

Next Up: Michigan Wolverines

2010 Previews
Big East- Pittsburgh Panthers, West Virginia
Conference USA- Houston
MAC- Temple Owls


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