Luke Fickell has guided Cincinnati to back-to-back 11-win seasons. The next step for the Bearcats is pretty simple: Win the American Athletic Conference and earn a trip to a New Year’s Six bowl. The strength of Fickell’s 2020 squad is once again on the defensive side of the ball. Cincinnati returns 10 starters from a group that held offenses to just 20.6 points a game last fall. Offensively, Fickell needs more out of a group that averaged only 5.5 yards a snap in 2019. Quarterback Desmond Ridder is back, but more playmakers must emerge at receiver, and standout running back Michael Warren II must be replaced. An early trip to Nebraska provides a good barometer for Fickell’s team. However, the showdown at UCF on Nov. 21 may decide home-field advantage for the conference title game.
Previewing Cincinnati’s Offense for 2020
Cincinnati’s running game was strong again in 2019, finishing 25th nationally, but now the Bearcats must replace Michael Warren II after the junior declared for the 2020 NFL Draft. Replacing Warren will be no small task, but the Bearcats do have several options, led by senior Gerrid Doaks, who amassed 526 yards and five TDs in 2019, and Alabama transfer Jerome Ford, who has been ruled immediately eligible. Add in dual-threat quarterback Desmond Ridder, and the ground game should be ready to function at a high level once again.
Ridder started all but one game in 2019 but was hampered by injuries most of the season. He will look to bounce back in 2020 after seeing his numbers decline from his AAC Rookie of the Year 2018 season. The Bearcats will need to find a replacement for departed tight end Josiah Deguara, who led the team in receptions and receiving touchdowns. A No. 1 target at wide receiver is likely already on the roster in junior Alec Pierce, but the group has questions. Coach Luke Fickell looked for help through the transfer route in the spring and added two players (Michael Young from Notre Dame and Jordan Jones from Arkansas). Both are eligible right away and should add depth and talent to the receiving corps.
The offensive line will receive a major boost as Michigan transfer James Hudson will now be eligible after sitting out 2019. While the UC line spent most of last season in flux due to injury, the 2020 group has a chance to be special with junior Jakari Robinson back for another season at center and starting right tackle Darius Harper also returning.
Previewing Cincinnati’s Defense for 2020
The Bearcats defense wasn’t as dominant, but it was still very good, finishing 24th nationally in scoring defense (20.6 ppg), 40th in total defense (361.4 ypg), and 15th in pass efficiency defense. The biggest question mark will be at linebacker, as Cincinnati must replace a pair of all-league players in Bryan Wright and Perry Young.
Helping offset the losses at linebacker is a defensive line that returns almost the entire two-deep and a defensive backfield that sees star safety James Wiggins return after a missed season due to injury. Up front, senior Elijah Ponder and junior Myjai Sanders will look to build off their breakout 2019 seasons.
The secondary also brings back All-AAC corner Ahmad Gardner and junior safety Ja’von Hicks, who led the team with five interceptions and four fumble recoveries. Senior corner Coby Bryant, sophomore corner Arquon Bush and senior safety Darrick Forrest also return, making this one of the most formidable groups in school history.
Previewing Cincinnati’s Specialists for 2020
Grad transfer Sam Crosa was 14-of-19 on field goals and perfect with his extra-point attempts. Most likely to replace Crosa is Cole Smith. Former Ray Guy Award finalist James Smith returns after a season in which his net punting average fell a bit. The return game took big strides in 2019 with Ryan Montgomery and Tre Tucker, both of whom return.
After seeing coach Luke Fickell turn down Michigan State and other Power 5 opportunities, the Bearcats will be trying to reach even greater heights after their back-to-back 11-win seasons. Making the jump from good to great will not be easy, as UC must travel to Nebraska and UCF while hosting defending AAC champion Memphis. But given the returning experience and strong recruiting Fickell and his staff have produced, expectations in the Queen City are a return trip to the AAC Championship and possibly a New Year’s Six bowl berth.
National Ranking: 21
(Top photo courtesy of Cincinnati Athletics)