Cincinnati was projected to be among the American Athletic Conference's top teams last fall but slipped to 7-6 overall. While last year was a disappointment, the Bearcats could be poised for a turnaround in 2016. The offense remains explosive with quarterback Gunner Kiel at the helm, and Cincinnati had its share of bad luck with turnovers last season. If the Bearcats eliminate some of the mistakes, contending for the AAC East Division title is within reach.
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Previewing Cincinnati’s Offense
Cincinnati set 18 school records on offense last season but will have a new offensive coordinator and several new starters this year.
Former coordinator Eddie Gran left for the same job at Kentucky. Under Gran, UC had the three most productive seasons of total offense in school history, including 6,992 yards last season. UC last year ranked No. 6 nationally in total offense (537.8 ypg) and No. 38 in scoring offense (33.8 ppg).
New offensive coordinator Zac Taylor finished the 2015 season as Miami Dolphins interim offensive coordinator. UC will still play fast on offense, but expect more pro-style looks that include throwing to the backs and tight ends more than in recent years.
The big question is at quarterback. Gunner Kiel has been the starter for most of the past two years, but he missed the 2015 Hawaii Bowl for undisclosed personal reasons. Kiel rejoined the team in January, but coach Tommy Tuberville said Kiel had to earn his job back. Kiel threw for 2,777 yards and 19 touchdowns but was intercepted 11 times. Hayden Moore, who spelled Kiel at several junctures last season as a redshirt freshman, is in the running to start. Moore was inconsistent overall with nine TD passes and 11 interceptions.
UC must replace its top five receivers, including career receptions leader Shaq Washington. Top returning receiver Nate Cole caught 19 passes last year.
At running back, UC has solid producers in Mike Boone (749 yards rushing) and Tion Green (729). Veteran center Deyshawn Bond will lead what should be a strong line.
Previewing Cincinnati’s Defense
Tuberville had three different defensive coordinators in his first three UC seasons, and there will be change yet again at the top. Last year’s coordinator, Steve Clinkscale, left to become secondary coach at Kentucky. Robert Prunty is Clinkscale’s nominal replacement, but indications are that Tuberville himself will run the defense on game days, with input from his assistants.
UC jumped 20 spots to No. 78 nationally in total defense last year, with Tuberville turning to speedier youngsters instead of slower veterans.
UC returns its top two tacklers in outside linebacker Eric Wilson (106) and safety Zach Edwards (93). Middle linebacker Bryce Jenkinson also returns after tying for third on the team with 59 tackles. Defensive tackles Alex Pace and Cortez Broughton return to anchor the line.
Tuberville likes to talk about technique, but no amount of fundamentals can mask a lack of speed and experience. With several underclassmen having learned under fire, he believes the defense is ready to regain some swagger.
Previewing Cincinnati’s Specialists
Placekicker Andrew Gantz enters his third year as starter, having made 37-of-47 field goal attempts for his career. Punter Sam Geraci had a 46.3-yard average last year, the best at UC since Kevin Huber (now with the Bengals) averaged 46.9 in 2007. UC has not returned a punt or kickoff for a TD since 2011, and coverage teams have been spotty.
The Bearcats slumped to 7–6 after two consecutive 9–4 seasons. It is a critical year for Tuberville, who turns 62 in September and enters the fourth season of a five-year contract.
How did UC set 18 school offensive marks and go only 7–6? UC ranked 125th nationally in turnover margin at minus-1.46 per game. The Bearcats also were No. 123 in penalty yardage at 72.9 yards per game. UC improved slightly on defense last year but lacked playmakers and forced only 14 turnovers.
Cincinnati flopped after being a heavy favorite to win the AAC in 2015. UC is no longer the national player it became under Brian Kelly, and the fans are getting restless.