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The Bearcats are one of the favorites in the AAC.
We all know the Gunner Kiel story — he was a high-profile recruit that led a short, yet illustrious career at Columbus East High School (IN), verbally committed and de-commited to both Indiana and LSU, signed with Notre Dame and then transferred to Cincinnati.
Now a redshirt sophomore, Kiel has finally found stable ground with the Bearcats. Nevertheless, having never taken a college snap—not to mention just 16 starts in high school—his expectations have skyrocketed over the last nine months.
And for what reason?
Cincinnati has been picked as the favorite to win the American Athletic Conference this season, despite returning only 13 starters to a team that fell short of preseason expectations in 2013. Most of this rides on Kiel; if he competes at the level that most of everyone believes he’s capable of, then the Bearcats should take the AAC by storm. But if he is another Brendon Kay, then UC’s chances are decreased significantly and an eight-win season is imminent.
It’s a gamble, really—there’s so much uncertainty that goes along with Kiel’s hype that it’s almost absurd to think he can step in and be the best quarterback Cincinnati has ever had (which is pretty much the consensus at this point).
We can thank his recruiting profile for these lofty expectations. At 6-foot-4, 210 pounds and a rocket arm, Kiel was a five-star prospect coming out of high school and the No. 1-rated pro-style quarterback. He had a 98.6 247Sports Composite rating and offers from anywhere you could think of.
The only quarterback from his class that was considered a better recruit (for a lack of a better term) was Jameis Winston, and, well, you know how he’s turned out. Winston was given a 99.1 rating, meaning there’s supposed to be a difference of .5 between the two quarterbacks’ overall abilities.
What is .5? A touchdown? One less interception? A few more completed passes? According to these ratings—which everyone abides by nowadays, even coaches—Gunner Kiel is comparable to the reigning Heisman winner, national champion and future top-10 selection in the NFL draft (probably).
It doesn’t stop there, either.
There are some pretty big names from that 2012 recruiting class that have already made a name for themselves in the collegiates, and all were rated lower than Kiel: Trevor Knight, Maty Mauk, and Wes Lunt were among that list.
Knight threw for 348 yards and four touchdowns in a colossal upset over Alabama in last season’s Sugar Bowl, and has positioned Oklahoma for a College Football Playoff run in 2014.
Mauk took over for the injured James Franklin mid-season, throwing 10 touchdowns in four starts as Missouri went on to play for the SEC Championship.
Lunt had strong moments as a true freshman for Oklahoma State in 2012 before transferring to Illinois, where he was named the starter just a few short days ago.
And then there of course are names like Cyler Miles (Washington), Chad Kelly (Clemson), Chad Voytik (Pittsburgh), Travis Wilson (Utah), and Tommy Armstrong (Nebraska), who are all projected to have strong performances in 2014, but were all rated lower than Kiel.
On top of everything, Cincinnati owns the 95th most difficult schedule in the country, according to Phil Steele. The Bearcats play a strong non-conference schedule with road games at Ohio State (albeit, no Braxton Miller) and Miami (Fla.), but avoid UCF in AAC play and get both ECU and Houston at home.
It doesn’t help that Kiel went 17-of-22 for 300 yards in the first half of Cincinnati’s spring game in April. That’s quite exceptional by anyone’s standards, especially during a time when the defense is generally ahead of the offense when it comes to chemistry and knowing the terminology. It’s also the equivalent to an NFL preseason game, in which other words means close to nothing.
Realistically, Kiel isn’t going to replicate the kind of success Jameis Winston had in his first year as a starter with Florida State. However, if he can be as productive as Tony Pike was back in the Brian Kelly days—or even slightly better, for the sake of his billing—then Cincinnati will be good. Really good.
We’ll find out when Kiel takes his first-ever college snap as the Bearcats take on Toledo on Sept. 12 in the season opener.
Written by Tyler Waddell of AACFootballFever.com. Follow him on Twitter at @Tyler_Waddell and @AAC_FB_Fever