Coach:Brian Kelly (22-6 in two seasons; 159-57-2 overall in 19 seasons). | Staff In 2008: 11-3 overall, 6-1 in Big East (won league title). Lost to Virginia Tech in the Orange Bowl.
Returning starters: Offense: 8 (though WR Marcus Barnett is moving to CB). Defense: 1. Special teams: 1. | Depth Chart Final 2008 Rivals.com ranking: 20th. | Complete Final 2008 Rankings Past four Rivals.com national recruiting rankings: 60th in 2009, 67th in '08, T-89th in '07, T-102nd in '06.
THE SCHEME: Cincinnati runs a spread offense, though it was limited last season by a revolving door at quarterback. The Bearcats' 370.6 yards per game was the lowest average in Brian Kelly's five seasons as a Football Bowl Subdivision coach. With a starting quarterback among seven returning starters on offense, expect Kelly to loosen the reins in 2009.
STAR POWER: Senior Mardy Gilyard became one of the top receivers in the Big East and an All-America candidate last season, overcoming a rocky start at Cincinnati that included missing the 2006 season for academic reasons. He caught 81 passes for 1,276 yards and 11 touchdowns last season; he had at least seven catches and 100 yards in each of his last four games. Gilyard likely will see more double-teams this season without Dominick Goodman, another 1,000-yard receiver, who graduated.
IMPACT NEWCOMER: Goodman's departure and the move of starting WR Marcus Barnett to cornerback means Cincinnati needs new playmakers to emerge at wide receiver. Junior college transfer Jamar Howard will get a chance. Howard, a four-star recruit, has excellent size (6 feet 4, 210 pounds) and OK speed; he enrolled early and went through spring practice.
WATCH FOR HIM TO EMERGE: Cincinnati's rushing attack has been stale for several seasons, but sophomore Isaiah Pead could shake that up this season. He carried the ball 30 times last season, averaging 6.5 yards a carry. Jacob Ramsey and John Goebel were serviceable, combining for 1,271 yards and nine touchdowns, but Pead could give the running game an added dimension.
STRONGEST AREA: Senior QB Tony Pike and Gilyard should be the top pass-catch combo in the league. Kelly expects big things from Pike now that he clearly is entrenched as the starter, but Pike's four interceptions against Virginia Tech in the Orange Bowl gives Kelly reason for pause. The line should be able to build around three returning starters: LT Jeff Linkenbach, LG Jason Kelce and C Chris Jurek.
BIGGEST PROBLEM: Cincinnati needs to find a complement to Gilyard. There is no shortage of candidates, most notably Howard, junior Armon Binns and sophomore D.J. Woods, but each lacks experience. The Bearcats need the offense to carry them while the defense rebuilds. The rushing offense has to perform consistently, something that hasn't been done at Cincinnati for a long time.
THE SCHEME: Kelly dismissed coordinator Joe Tresey and opted for a change to a 3-4 set. The Bearcats brought in Bob Diaco from Virginia as the new coordinator. Diaco, who worked for Kelly for one season at Central Michigan, has experience with the 3-4. Kelly said he feels the 3-4 is better-suited to defend spread offenses.
STAR POWER: Well, there's just one returning starter on this side of the ball, FS Aaron Webster. An aggressive and playmaking secondary has been a key part of Cincinnati's rise success in the past two seasons. In his first season as a starter in 2008, Webster had 60 tackles and an interception.
IMPACT NEWCOMER: Technically, SS Drew Frey was an impact newcomer last season after he earned a starting job in the fourth game. Then, he broke his arm. Although he is in his third season on campus, he's still classified as a redshirt freshman thanks to two medical redshirts. If he can stay healthy, he should finally make his mark.
WATCH FOR HIM TO EMERGE: As a backup in 2006 and '08 (he was academically ineligible in '07), senior Curtis Young amassed 7.5 sacks. In the new scheme, Young will be an outside linebacker/defensive end hybrid. After working his way back to a starting job, expect Young to take advantage on a unit that needs playmakers.
STRONGEST AREA: Despite losing All-Big East performers Connor Barwin at end and Terrill Byrd at tackle, the line should be fine. Sophomore Derek Wolfe should benefit from the change in scheme on defense. Wolfe (6-5/302) has great size and good quickness. Alex Daniels, Ricardo Mathews and John Hughes are other linemen who should blossom. At inside linebacker, Andre Revels has been among Cincinnati's top tacklers the past few seasons despite playing in a reserve role.
BIGGEST PROBLEM: How will everything fit together? Cincinnati is trying out a new scheme and will have 10 new starters. And these aren't just backups moving up to the first string – many are moving from the other side of the ball. Cincinnati struck gold with Barwin moving from tight end to defensive end, but the Bearcats are taking it to the extreme in 2009. Projected starters Barnett (a cornerback who formerly was a wide receiver) and Marcus Waugh (a linebacker who formerly was a tight end/fullback) moved to defense during spring ball, and backup OLB Demetrius Jones was a quarterback last season. It's not as bad a situation as it looks, but it's not ideal, either.
Two-time All-America P Kevin Huber is gone. K Jake Rogers punted during the spring, but the punting job is expected to be won by true freshman Patrick O'Donnell. He also is expected to contend with Rogers for the kicking job. Rogers has a strong leg – four field goals of more than 50 yards in the past two seasons – but he's just 27-of-42 overall and has missed five extra points. Cincinnati will miss Barwin on special teams, as he blocked three kicks last season. Gilyard is one of the best kick returners in the nation. He averaged 27.6 yards per return, with two touchdowns, last season. The coverage teams were solid last season.
Cincinnati is one of the nation's oldest programs, and Kelly has made people finally take note of the Bearcats. They have won at least 10 games in back-to-back seasons, just the second and third time in history that Cincinnati has had double-digit wins. He also has guided the Bearcats to their first Big East championship and their first BCS appearance. Kelly signed a contract extension through 2013, but that won't stop bigger programs from making a run at him. Kelly wants to build Cincinnati into a legitimate BCS program, starting with some facilities upgrades. Other than the unexpected change at defensive coordinator, Cincinnati kept its coaching staff mostly intact after two successful seasons.
The Bearcats get a quick gauge of where they stand in the Big East with the season opener at Rutgers. Cincinnati gets a chance to see the new 3-4 defense in action, while the offense tests itself against a quality defense. The trip to Piscataway will be one of four Big East road trips. Cincinnati has a challenging non-conference schedule that includes a trip to Oregon State. The other non-conference tests will come against Fresno State, Illinois and traditional rival Miami University.
Thanks to all the turnover on defense, it will be tough for Cincinnati to repeat as Big East champions. Then again, last season's team didn't win the conference title under ideal conditions, either. Kelly won't be surprised if his team has more shootouts than last season. Whether Cincinnati returns to the BCS will depend on Pike's development in his first full season as a starter and the progress of the new blood on defense.