By Pat Taggart, Associate College Football Editor
2009 SEASON IN REVIEW: It wasn't long ago that Cincinnati was an afterthought
in the world of college football. Brian Kelly came along as the head coach of
the program and changed its fortunes, elevating the Bearcats from doormat to
competitive to champions. In 2008, the club won the Big East title and faced
the task of repeating in 2009.
Loaded with talent, UC made a statement in the season opener with a 47-15
thrashing of Rutgers on the road. Following that victory were four consecutive
wins over non-league foes, and the Bearcats then moved to 8-0 with three more
lopsided wins over Big East opponents. Kelly's squad was finally tested on
November 7th by an upstart Connecticut team, but Cincinnati found a way to
escape an offensive shootout with a 47-45 victory. Over the final month of the
season, the Bearcats managed two more narrow wins, a three-point triumph over
West Virginia and a one-point victory over Pittsburgh to complete the perfect
season (12-0). The program was never more present in the national
consciousness, but the excessive exposure seemingly cost the Bearcats their
leader. Kelly was offered the vacant head coaching position at Notre Dame and
he accepted the prestigious job, opting not to coach Cincinnati in the Sugar
Bowl against Florida. The Bearcats vowed to show that they were bigger than
Brian Kelly by upsetting the Gators, but things didn't work out as planned as
Florida won the much-anticipated showdown by a landslide, 51-24.
Butch Jones replaced Brian Kelly at Central Michigan when Kelly accepted the
Cincinnati job in 2006, and history repeated itself when Jones was named the
new leader of the Bearcat program. He inherits a team that lost a significant
amount of talent, but there is still enough in place to compete for the Big
East title once again in 2010.
OFFENSE: For most programs, losing a quarterback like Tony Pike could
potentially prove to be crippling. That isn't the case for Cincinnati,
however, as Zach Collaros has proven to be more than capable of putting up big
numbers for the Bearcats. A fourth-year junior, Collaros threw for 1,434 yards
and 10 touchdowns while adding 344 yards on the ground in place of an injured
Pike last season. Collaros was calm under center, and his ability to make
plays with his feet as well as his arm makes him a legitimate First Team All-
Big East candidate.
While NFL draftee Mardy Gilyard is gone, the receiver position is still an
area of great strength. Collaros will rely on a quartet of pass-catchers made
up of D.J. Woods, Armon Binns, Marcus Barnett and Vidal Hazelton. Both Woods
and Binns had big seasons in 2009, while Barnett, who makes the move back to
receiver from defense, and Hazelton, a USC transfer, are big-time talents. Add
senior tight end Ben Guidugli to the mix and this group figures to be just as
good, if not better, than last season.
At the tailback position, Isaiah Pead averaged 6.7 yards per carry last season
and figures to be a bigger part of Jones' offense in 2009 than he was for
Kelly in 2010.
"One of the ways you play great defense is to protect your defense a little
bit too, so we've got to be able to run the football," says coach Jones. With
two new starters along the offensive line, it remains to be seen what level of
success Cincinnati can achieve in that area.
DEFENSE: While the Bearcats led the Big East in many key statistical offensive
categories last season, the defense left much to be desired. Cincinnati was a
middle-of-the-pack defensive team, ranking fifth in the league in scoring
defense, sixth in passing defense, seventh against the run and eighth in total
defense. With six starters gone, there isn't much reason to believe that a
major turnaround is imminent.
There are no seniors along the defensive line, and while Derek Wolfe is a
standout up front, he will certainly need help from some unproven performers.
There are more questions at the linebacker position. Sure, JK Schaffer and
Walter Stewart are solid performers, but neither has proven to be a star.
Schaffer has a chance to challenge for All-Big East honors in 2009. "He's what
you look for," says Jones of the 'backer, praising his consistency.
The secondary is young, but this is the most talent-packed tier of the
defense. Camerron Cheatham and Dominique Battle are outstanding young corners,
and they will have to be if the defensive line fails to provide a consistent
pass rush. At the safety position, Drew Frey gained valuable experience as a
freshman. The good news is that the Bearcats were a plus-9 in turnover margin
in 2009, good for 13th nationally.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Gilyard was one of the nation's best kick returners and will be
sorely missed. Still, there are enough athletes in place to provide the team
with options. Jake Rogers kicked and punted for the Bearcats in 2009, but he
may focus solely on placekicking this season.
OUTLOOK: Even with the new coaching staff in place, Cincinnati still has to be
viewed as one of the better teams in the Big East. The offense figures to
light up the scoreboard, much like last season, and the defense will likely be
mediocre once again. Expect plenty of shootouts, and while another undefeated
regular season is a near impossibility, Jones will do the Bearcats proud.