Cincinnati enjoyed one of the most impressive turnarounds in the nation last season, as Luke Fickell saw his team's win total improve by seven (from 4-8 to 11-2). The Bearcats' only losses were on the road to American Athletic Conference East Division foes Temple (overtime) and eventual champion UCF. Now the challenge for Fickell and company, maintaining that success while replacing key playmakers along the defensive line and at wide receiver.
Previewing Cincinnati's Offense for 2019
Cincinnati's running game flourished in 2018, finishing 15th nationally, and more of the same can be expected as the Bearcats return star running back Michael Warren II and add 2017 rushing leader Gerrid Doaks back to the mix after he missed last season due to injury. Warren is coming off a fantastic season that saw him rush for over 1,300 yards and score 20 total touchdowns. Add in dual-threat quarterback Desmond Ridder, and the ground game should be ready to function at a high level yet again.
Ridder started 12 of the final 13 games and was named the AAC's Newcomer of the Year. He will look to build off a very solid rookie campaign in which he threw for 2,445 yards while adding another 583 on the ground to go along with his 25 total touchdowns (20 passing, five rushing) and only five interceptions.
The Bearcats passing attack will need to find a replacement for departed senior Kahlil Lewis, who led the team in receptions, yards and receiving touchdowns. A clear-cut No. 1 target will likely emerge from the trio of Rashad Medaris, Thomas Geddis and Jayshon Jackson. A strong group of tight ends led by returning receiving leader Josiah Deguara along with Josh Whyle and Leonard Taylor — two of the highest-rated recruits of the Luke Fickell era — should also help fill the void left by Lewis.
The right side of the offensive line returns along with center Jakari Robinson, who started several games in the middle of the season due to injury. The left side is unproven but should get a boost from Michigan transfer James Hudson (if awarded a waiver to play in 2019).
Previewing Cincinnati's Defense for 2019
The Bearcats shined on defense in Fickell's second season, finishing eighth nationally in scoring defense (17.2 ppg), 11th in total defense (303.5 ppg) and 13th in rushing defense (113.0 ypg).
The biggest question lies on the defensive line, as Cincinnati must replace all-league tackles Cortez Broughton and Marquise Copeland and end Kimoni Fitz — a trio that combined for 14 sacks in 2018.
To offset the losses up front, the Bearcats will look to a strong group of linebackers and defensive backs led by linebackers Perry Young, whose 2018 season was cut short due to injury, and Bryan Wright, along with star safety James Wiggins (four INTs in '18).
The Bearcats also return three of their top four corners in Coby Bryant, Arquon Bush and Cam Jefferies, all of whom recorded at least one interception.
Previewing Cincinnati's Specialists for 2019
Special teams was a bit of a mixed bag for Cincinnati in 2018, but the Bearcats return all the key contributors. James Smith returns after a standout sophomore season in which he averaged 46.6 yards per punt. Placekicker Cole Smith struggled, hitting only 5-of-12 field goals. He will battle Ryan Jones for the job in preseason camp.
Cincinnati was one of the surprise teams in the nation last season, improving from 4–8 in Fickel's first season to 11–2. And with over 5,000 yards of total offense returning, expectations are sky high for this team in 2019.
Questions at wide receiver and along the defensive line must be answered, and the Bearcats will be faced with a much tougher schedule than last year, so a second consecutive double-digit win season could be a challenge. Even with those obstacles, Cincinnati has the pieces to make a run at its first AAC title since 2014.
National Ranking: 39
(Top photo courtesy of Cincinnati Athletics)