The Cincinnati Bearcats should take steps forward this season. Many believe that the second season with a new coach is a good barometer for what we can expect going forward. In Cincinnati’s case, this will be Year Two under former Ohio State defensive coordinator and head coach Luke Fickell. Fickell was tabbed to lead the Buckeyes the season after Jim Tressel was forced to resign and the season before Urban Meyer took over in Columbus. This is the first program that has really been his and he’ll head into his second season at the helm with fairly low expectations.
Fortunately, Ohio is a football-rich state when it comes to recruiting, so Fickell, along with offensive coordinator Mike Denbrock and defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman, brought in a strong class, but how quickly it makes an impact could define the season for UC. The Bearcats are coming off of a 4-8 season and are anywhere from +5000 (BetOnline) to +5500 (5Dimes) to win the American Athletic Conference. Cincinnati won just two of eight AAC matchups and was outscored by two touchdowns on average. This team has a long way to go.
Cincinnati wasn’t kind to gamblers with three ATS losses in the last three games after starting the season 5-3-1 as a bit of an under-the-radar team. With a season win total of 5 and the over at -130 per 5Dimes, the Bearcats need bowl eligibility for the first time since 2015 to cash an over ticket. BetOnline is showing 5.5 with the under at -120. Keep in mind that these win total odds do not include conference championship games or bowl games.
|Date||Opponent||BangTheBook Line||Expected Wins|
|9/8||Miami (OH) (Paul Brown Stad)||+3.5||.39|
|11/23 (F)||East Carolina||-10.5||.79|
Expected Wins: 4.76
One of the top recruits in the 2018 class for the Bearcats was quarterback Ben Bryant, a 6-foot-3 incoming freshman who was part of Wisconsin’s recruiting class, but became a “free agent” when the Badgers dropped him. Instead, he signed with Cincinnati and has a chance to start right away over Hayden Moore, who had a 20/9 TD/INT ratio with a 56.4 percent completion rate last season. The Bearcats only scored 20.9 points per game last season and managed just 5.2 yards per play, so an offensive upgrade is hardly out of the question this season. When the bar is that low, anything is possible, especially in the second year with OC Mike Denbrock.
The Bearcats did increase from 3.6 yards per carry in 2016 to 4.4 yards per carry in 2017 and the offensive line when from 26 sacks to 17 sacks, so there is some serious growth potential for this offense. That being said, Cincinnati lost three starting offensive linemen from last season, so this unit will have to be rebuilt. Cincinnati did average a 60 percent completion rate against skeleton AAC defenses and had 4.7 yards per pop in conference games. The most productive running back, Gerrid Doaks, is back after ripping off 5.9 yards per carry last season and top receiver Kahlil Lewis is also back in hopes of building off of his 71 catches and seven touchdowns in his junior season.
Luke Fickell is a defense-first guy, as a interior defensive lineman at Ohio State and a longtime defensive coordinator. It had to tear him apart that the Bearcats allowed 5.8 yards per play last season and 31.8 points per game. Perhaps he had more optimism for 2018, but star pass rusher Kevin Mouhon will likely miss the season with a knee injury and there were significant losses in the back seven, as leading tackler Jaylyin Minor exhausted his eligibility with 125 tackles and top corner Linden Stephens also moved on.
That being said, a bunch of sophomores dot the two-deep, which means that recruits specifically selected to fit this scheme are now going to get more playing time. These are Fickell’s guys and Marcus Freeman, who also played at Ohio State, should be able to get more out of this unit. The 32-year-old brings fire, intensity, and perhaps most importantly, relatability to the position since he’s not that far removed from his playing days. Cincinnati has more athletes and more speed now than during the Tommy Tuberville years. The problem for the Bearcats is that the AAC is a tough fit for a rebuilding program, as they are trying to put out fires with water pistols when some of these offenses turn the burners on.
Cincinnati’s schedule isn’t too taxing, but they draw two of the better teams from the MAC and get very winnable games like SMU and UConn on the road. We project Cincinnati to be favored in that UConn game, favored over East Carolina, and obviously favored over Alabama A&M, but that’s about it. Avoiding Memphis and Houston isn’t a bad draw, though.
Pick: Under 5.5 (-120, BetOnline)
The Bearcats are on the right track. Fickell recruits are going to get ample time in the spotlight on both sides of the ball this season. But, it seems like they are at least one season away from bowl eligibility, even in the watered-down AAC. The Bearcats were comfortably outgained in two of their four wins last year and are still searching for playmakers on defense after having just five interceptions last season.
-END OF 2018 PREVIEW-
The winds of change have blown down Interstate 71 in Ohio from Columbus to Cincinnati. Tommy Tuberville is out and Luke Fickell is in. Fickell’s one year as the head coach at Ohio State didn’t go well, but it was a very unique situation and he knew he was a placeholder for the next big name. With the Bearcats, this is Fickell’s team and he has what basically amounts to a blank canvas to work with. The Bearcats just had their first losing season since 2010. They scored 19.3 points per game. Fickell certainly has the luxury of time to put this thing together.
Only 11 starters are back for the Bearcats, including starting quarterback Hayden Moore, but you can bet that Fickell and his coordinators will be looking to get their recruits into the mix as quickly as possible. The writing seemed to be on the wall for the Bearcats last season and their effort level could be called into question a little bit, considering they scored less than 14 points in four straight games late in the year. Effort won’t be a question at any point this season under a guy like Fickell or with a defensive coordinator like Marcus Freeman.
Talent might be a bit of a question, but Ohio is a fertile recruiting ground and things should improve pretty quickly. Will they improve quick enough to get over the season total line of 5.5 wins at 5Dimes Sportsbook? Right now, the market is leaning towards the over, with the juice at -130. Keep in mind that the number does not include conference championships or bowl games. It only applies to the regular season.
|Date||Opponent||Projected Line||Expected Wins|
|8/31 (Th)||Austin Peay||N/A||1|
|9/16||@ Miami (OH)||+4.5||0.37|
|11/18||@ East Carolina||+2.5||0.46|
Total Expected Wins: 5.06
How long until Torrance Gibson takes the reins of this offense? That has to be the question on everybody’s mind. The Buckeyes didn’t have a place for Gibson and looked at other ways to get the ball in his hands. He transferred to Cincinnati with hopes of being a quarterback and he could get his wish sooner rather than later. Hayden Moore completed 57.3 percent of his tosses with an 11/7 TD/INT ratio last season. The junior has had chances to secure this job, but has a 20/18 TD/INT ratio in two years. Ross Trail completed 65.7 percent of his throws last year, but also completed six passes to the other team and only threw one touchdown pass. There is some upside here, but nobody is all that proven, even with Moore’s experience. Offensive coordinator Mike Denbrock, who was most recently an assistant at Notre Dame, will have some decisions to make during the course of the season.
Senior Mike Boone was felled by injuries last season. He wound up with just 3.7 yards per carry, but he has experience at the feature back. There’s some young, but talented depth on the chart at the RB position, so Cincinnati should run the rock better this year. Last season’s 3.6 yards per carry was the outlier, not the norm. There’s a bit of talent at the wide receiver position and the Bearcats averaged 19.3 yards per pass last season, so there’s some big play threat out wide. That’s assuming Moore has time to throw, with an inexperienced offensive line and a new set of blocking schemes to learn.
Three players with at least 90 tacklers moved on with their careers after last year’s ill-fated season. Because of need, Kevin Mouhon is expected to move back into the second level after wreaking havoc as a defensive end last season with 8.5 tackles for loss. The biggest issue for Cincinnati over the last few years is that the defense has not made life easy on the offense. The Bearcats only had 19 sacks last year after 13 the year before that. They only had nine interceptions in 2015, but did make strides last year with 17 picks. A short field here or there would really help.
This season, the Bearcats defense could be a lot better. Luke Fickell was the defensive coordinator under Urban Meyer. Marcus Freeman played at Ohio State and comes from a strong defensive background. Jon Tenuta is coaching up the safeties. The ceiling looks fairly high for this group. The returnees were pretty productive in terms of getting in the backfield and generating turnovers. Depth, however, is a worry with new schemes, new recruits, and some lackluster recruiting classes during the Tuberville era.
The Bearcats get very lucky in that they avoid Houston, Memphis, and Tulsa from the West Division. That certainly helps with the strength of schedule. Adding Michigan to the mix doesn’t help and the Miami of Ohio team that Cincinnati beat was not the Miami of Ohio team that made it to a bowl game. Navy’s triple-option is a tough draw that could carry over to a very winnable Marshall game at home.
Win Total Pick: Under 5.5
This looks like one of those transitional years. Fickell and his staff will try to balance giving playing time to upperclassmen while seeing what their recruits can do. We could see some really deep rotations on both sides of the ball and that often leads to continuity issues. Hayden Moore has never separated himself as a starting quarterback, which means that the offense could continue to scuffle. If it does, that puts a lot of pressure on the defense in an offense-first conference. Basically, that’s what happened last season and UC went 1-7 against conference foes. More of the same could be in order this year.