Coach:Brian Kelly (10-3 in one season; 148-54-2 in 18 seasons overall). | Staff In 2007: 10-3 overall, 4-3 in Big East (third in league).
Returning starters: Offense: 6. Defense: 6. Special teams: 2 | Depth Chart Key losses: Offense—Offense—RB Butler Benton, T Digger Bujnoch, TE Earnest Jackson, QB Ben Mauk, G Ken Rodriguez. Defense—E Angelo Craig, E Anthony Hoke, LB Leo Morgan, FS Haruki Nakamura, SS Anthony Williams.
Final 2007 Rivals.com ranking: 16th. | Complete Final 2007 Rankings
THE SCHEME: Brian Kelly brought the spread offense with him when he arrived from Central Michigan last season. The Bearcats usually line up three receivers and have one running back in the backfield.
STAR POWER: Take your pick between either of Cincinnati's two exceptional receivers, sophomore Marcus Barnett and senior Dominick Goodman. Barnett caught 62 passes for 862 yards and 13 touchdowns last season. He caught three touchdown passes against Syracuse and had two touchdown catches in four other games. Goodman had 68 receptions for 869 yards and eight touchdowns last season.
IMPACT NEWCOMER: Notre Dame transfer Demetrius Jones could play a big role at quarterback, particularly if the NCAA doesn't grant incumbent starter Ben Mauk a sixth season of eligibility. If Mauk doesn't play this fall – he's on his last appeal and should hear any day now – Jones will compete with Dustin Grutza for the starting job. Jones was Notre Dame's season-opening starter in '07, but the former four-star prospect didn't play in an Irish uniform again after a 33-3 loss to Georgia Tech.
IT'S HIS TIME: After starting at right tackle last season, senior Khalil El-Amin moves over to the left side to replace Digger Bujnoch, who performed well as a senior last season. The line's success will depend in part on how well El-Amin handles this transition.
STRONGEST AREA: Cincinnati's receiving corps is a good one. Goodman, Barnett and Marshwan Gilyard are back after combining to catch 166 passes for 2,287 yards and 24 touchdowns last season. This is a big group - the Bearcats' projected top six receivers all are at least 6 feet.
BIGGEST PROBLEM: The Bearcats can't expect to throw for 3,720 yards again, particularly if Mauk isn't around this season. So, they'll have to do a better job running the ball. Cincinnati ranked 63rd in the nation in rushing offense last season despite averaging more than 4 yards per carry. In Cincinnati's spring game, the squads combined for just 123 rushing yards on 51 carries.
OVERVIEW: Even if the Bearcats don't have Mauk operating the offense, they should be able to throw well because their receiving corps is so talented. The question is whether the running game can offer some balance. It would help if Cincinnati could find a feature back. Cincinnati didn't have anyone rush for 500 yards last season. Mauk's likely exit leaves junior running back Jacob Ramsey as the Bearcats' top returning rusher, and he gained 362 yards on 96 carries. If Mauk gets his sixth year, this could be one of the top 20 offenses in the nation. If not, the Bearcats might have to lean on their defense early in the season.
That's the number of punts Cincinnati's Kevin Huber downed inside the 20 (out of 57 attempts) last season on his way to leading the nation with an average of 46.9 yards per attempt. Four of his punts were downed at the 1.
THE SCHEME: Cincinnati runs a 4-3 defense that thrives on forcing turnovers and producing big plays. The Bearcats had 42 takeaways last season to tie conference foe USF for first in the nation. They also ranked sixth in turnover margin and eighth in sacks.
STAR POWER: The Bearcats have two legitimate All-America candidates in senior tackle Terrill Byrd and senior cornerback Mike Mickens. Byrd, a squatty guy (6-0/271) who is a bull in the middle of the line, had 17 tackles for loss and eight sacks last season. Byrd closed the season by recording 6.5 tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks in his final two games. Mickens, headed into his fourth season as a starter, picked off six passes last season and returned two of them for touchdowns.
IMPACT NEWCOMER: Cincinnati needs to find a pass rusher after losing each of its starting defensive ends from last year. That opening creates a huge opportunity for defensive end Alex Daniels, a former four-star prospect who came to Cincinnati after being kicked off Minnesota's team. According to the Cincinnati Enquirer, Daniels was accused of using his cell phone to film a former teammate having sex with a woman described as physically helpless after a night of binge drinking, but he never was charged with a crime. Cincinnati athletic director Mike Thomas announced Thursday that he would allow Daniels to play for the Bearcats this season.
IT'S HIS TIME: Senior Connor Barwin has moved to defensive end from tight end and is expected to earn a starting job as the Bearcats look to replace the departed Anthony Hoke and Angelo Craig. Cincinnati had one of the top pass rushes in the nation last season, but it's tough to imagine the Bearcats matching their '07 performance in that regard unless Barwin or another candidate emerges at end.
STRONGEST AREA: Mickens and DeAngelo Smith give Cincinnati one of the nation's top cornerback duos. When teams try throwing away from Mickens, Smith usually makes them pay. Smith tied for the NCAA lead last season with eight interceptions, including three in the Papajohns.com Bowl. The lack of a dominant pass rush could prevent Smith and Mickens from matching their interception totals of '07, but they still should cause nightmares for opposing quarterbacks.
BIGGEST PROBLEM: Mickens and Smith will have to be particularly good because opposing quarterbacks might have more time to throw. Byrd's presence in the middle of the line should prevent the pass rush from being a major weakness, but the lack of experience at end offers plenty of cause for concern.
OVERVIEW: Cincinnati returns most of its top players from a unit that ranked 13th in the nation in scoring defense. The Bearcats occasionally are susceptible to the big play – they allowed at least 28 points in four games – but they also create plenty of big plays with sacks and turnovers. They might not deliver as many sacks as usual, but Byrd, Mickens and Co. should assure the Bearcats continue to force opposing offenses into plenty of mistakes.
Senior Kevin Huber led the nation with a 46.9 punting average last season. Huber also helped the Bearcats lead the nation in net punting. Sophomore Jake Rogers went 11 of 19 on field-goal attempts. Although Rogers made a 55-yard field goal – his only attempt from at least 50 yards – he was just 1-for-6 from 40-49 yards. Smith and Gilyard are expected to handle the return duties.
The only concern is how long Cincinnati will be able to hold on to Kelly, who has emerged as one of the nation's hottest coaching prospects. Kelly followed up a 9-4 season at Central Michigan in 2006 by leading Cincinnati to its first 10-win season since 1951. Kelly owns a .730 career winning percentage and won two Division II national titles at Grand Valley State (Mich.). The only offseason departure came when running backs coach Ernest Jones accepted the coaching job at Division I-AA Alcorn State. Former linebackers coach Tim Hinton now is coaching the running backs, while William Inge took over Hinton's old spot. Inge spent the past two seasons as San Diego State's linebackers coach.
at West Virginia
After opening the season with a tune-up against I-AA Eastern Kentucky, the Bearcats will get a huge test Sept. 6 when they head to Oklahoma. If the Bearcats stay competitive in that game, they should feel confident about their chances of competing for a Big East title. Cincinnati should be at least 4-1 when it plays its Big East opener Oct. 11 against Rutgers. The schedule gets much tougher on Halloween night when the Bearcats begin a four-game stretch against USF, West Virginia, Louisville and Pittsburgh. Those four games will go a long way toward determining the Bearcats' fate.
This program is no one-year wonder. The Bearcats should stay competitive in the Big East as long as Kelly stays in town. This team bears quite a bit of resemblance to the 2007 USF squad, which was ranked as high as No. 2 in the nation last season before a late-season tailspin that included a 38-33 loss to Cincinnati. Both squads had a dominant defensive lineman (George Selvie at USF, Byrd at Cincinnati) to go along with a dynamic cornerback tandem. Both teams had a high-profile non-conference game early in the season (USF won at Auburn, Cincinnati heads to Oklahoma). The Bearcats could repeat USF's national emergence if they're able to welcome back Mauk, who's every bit as good a quarterback as USF's Matt Grothe. If the Bearcats have to make do with Grutza or Jones under center, they probably won't win the Big East. But this defense is good enough to get Cincinnati back into a bowl even if someone other than Mauk is running the offense.