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Kelly gone, but Cincinnati still has talent
Now that Brian Kelly is gone, has all of the magic followed him to South Bend?
Cincinnati has won back-to-back Big East titles, but you wouldn’t know it by listening to the offseason talking points. The conventional wisdom is that the Bearcats are poised to sink back into mediocrity now that Kelly, the mastermind of the program’s success, has moved on to Notre Dame. His successor, Butch Jones, has been here before and has tuned out all of the doomsayers since arriving.
Jones has already followed in Kelly’s footsteps once before, replacing him at Central Michigan in 2007. Over three seasons, he maintained a high level of success in Mount Pleasant, going 27-13, including 22-3 in league games, and won two MAC titles. He also has recent experience coaching in the Big East, serving as an assistant to Rich Rodriguez at West Virginia in 2005 and 2006.
Oh, and the talent? He inherits quite a bit, especially on offense. He’ll run a similar spread offense similar to Kelly's, and has access to many of the key parts that helped lead the league in scoring, passing, and total offense. Zach Collaros was built to play quarterback in this system, and ample support at the skill positions comes from RB Isaiah Pead and receivers Armon Binns, D.J. Woods, and Ben Guidugli, to name just a few.
Cincinnati will again be among the Big East’s most potent offensive attacks. And the defense is in far better shape than a year ago, when 10 starters needed to be replaced. Even though Kelly has taken the secret sauce across state lines to Indiana, the Bearcats have no less of an appetite for a fourth consecutive 10-win season. Now that the stakes are higher and the pressure is on, it’s up to Jones and his new staff to once again keep the momentum going in the aftermath of an impressive Kelly turnaround.
What to watch for on offense: Zach Collaros to blossom into a legitimate star at quarterback. After giving a sneak peak in five sensational games last fall, he’s poised to become a wire-to-wire playmaker. An ideal fit for the spread attack, he’s like a surgeon on the short and intermediate routes, and is like having another running back when he leaves the pocket. Plus, he hasn’t lost as a starter since before high school. If he gets the necessary support from a retooled offensive line, he’s capable of making Cincy fans forget Tony Pike in a hurry.
What to watch for on defense: The outside linebackers to make a slew of stops this season. Not only will the first line of defense allow a decent amount of plays to get beyond it, but JK Schaffer and Walter Stewart are built to cover huge chunks of ground and will be employed liberally by the staff. In their first season as starters, the two combined to make 159 tackles, 14 stops for loss, six sacks, and four picks. With a year of experience behind them, these two athletes will be even better prepared to produce as run stoppers and pass rushers.
The team will be far better if ... the defense stops being a pushover versus better teams. After starting unexpectedly well in 2009, the Bearcats came apart at the seams down the stretch, allowing an average of 40 points over the final five games. They were toothless against the run, vulnerable to the pass, and unable to mount a rush, so it was a complete collapse. With the offense likely to do its part, Cincinnati needs more stops and a few more big plays from a defense that’s straddling the fence of mediocrity.
The schedule: The Bearcats will have a few big chances early on to show that there's life after Brian Kelly with road games at Fresno State and NC State along with a nasty home game against Oklahoma. Playing Indiana State and Miami University in non-conference play will get the Bearcats at least two wins before Big East play kicks in, and all things considered, they get a big break. There are only three conference road games, and while going to West Virginia and Connecticut won't be easy, getting USF, Rutgers, and Pitt at home could make a huge difference in the Big East race. It also helps to get a week off before facing the Mountaineers, and it will also help to not have two road games in a row.
Best offensive player: Senior WR Armon Binns. Even with Mardy Gilyard around, Binns was able to carve out his own niche in the passing attack with 61 receptions for 888 yards and 11 touchdowns. At 6-3 and 200 pounds, he’s a physical and can’t-miss target, who’s at his best on deep routes and battling for jump balls. He also has a knack for making the acrobatic catches look routine, one of the many reasons he has a shot to shoot up NFL draft boards this season.
Best defensive player: Junior DT Derek Wolfe. With a few more players of Wolfe’s caliber, this defense would make the trek from a liability to an asset. A powerful force in the center of the line, he can occupy multiple blockers and is quick enough to split the seams and make stops behind the line. After nudging out of obscurity with 41 tackles, eight tackles for loss, and five sacks, the 6-5, 302-pounder is ready to become an all-star and the object of attention for numerous pro scouts.
Key players to a successful season: The defensive ends, sophomores Brandon Mills and Dan Giordano. The surest way to hide the blemishes on a defense is with a relentless pass rush. Unfortunately, Cincinnati must replace two of last year’s best edge guys, Alex Daniels and Ricardo Mathews. If Mills and Giordano can’t offset their production, opposing quarterbacks could have all day to throw, something the secondary won’t be able to withstand.
The season will be a success if... the Bearcats win nine games. Do not rule out the possibility of a third straight Big East title. However, considering the change in staff, Cincinnati would do well to cruise into a fifth consecutive bowl game. Other than the Sept. 25 visit from Oklahoma, it might be favored in every game in September and October, making a fast start to the Butch Jones era probable.
Key game: Dec. 4 vs. Pittsburgh. Last year’s meeting between these two decided the BCS bowl berth, a historically thrilling 45-44 Cincinnati win in the waning moments. Now, the Bearcats get to host the Panthers in another regular season finale that could dictate the Big East champion.