Cincinnati ended the 2020 season as the top Group of 5 team and that's exactly where coach Luke Fickell's program is projected to finish once again in '21. The Bearcats are Athlon's pick to be the top Group of 5 team, but with non-conference games versus Notre Dame and Indiana, Fickell's squad has a chance to aim for something bigger - a trip to the CFB Playoff. Quarterback Desmond Ridder is back after earning American Athletic Conference Offensive Player of the Year honors, and Cincinnati's defense will be among the best in the nation.
Previewing Cincinnati's Offense for 2021
Quarterback Desmond Ridder's decision to return for another season in the Queen City is easily the biggest storyline as the Bearcats offense looks to take another step forward in 2021. Ridder threw for 2,296 yards, 19 touchdowns and only six interceptions while increasing his completion percentage by over 11 percentage points, and he also rushed for 592 yards and another 12 scores on his way to AAC Offensive Player of the Year honors.
His wide receiver room remains loaded and will be led by two seniors in Alec Pierce and Michael Young Jr., who each found the end zone three times in 2020. Junior tight end Josh Whyle also returns after a breakout season in which he led the team with 353 receiving yards and six touchdowns.
Jerome Ford takes over as the feature back for the Bearcats and could be in for a special season, as he averaged 6.6 yards per carry and found paydirt eight times in 2020.
The biggest question will be on the offensive line, where the Bearcats must find replacements for both starting tackles. Transfer James Tunstall, sophomore John Williams and junior Dylan O'Quinn should see a lot of action in early games as Cincinnati works to find the best five across the front.
Previewing Cincinnati's Defense for 2021
Cincinnati's defense was one of the best nationally in 2020, finishing third in pass efficiency defense, eighth in scoring defense, 13th in total defense, and tied for third in interceptions with 16. Thanks to the unexpected return of some key players, it could be even better this season.
The defensive line is an embarrassment of riches, including senior defensive end Myjai Sanders, who led the Bearcats with seven sacks in 2020. Sanders will be joined by Virginia transfer and former top-75 recruit Jowon Briggs, who looks to fit right in on the wrecking ball UC defensive line.
The secondary remains wildly talented thanks to a trio of corners who could all earn first-team All-AAC honors. Junior Ahmad Gardner will be looking to solidify himself as the top cover man in the nation, while graduate Coby Bryant and his team-leading four interceptions teams up with junior Arquon Bush to make it nearly impossible for opponents to succeed through the air. Seniors Bryan Cook and Ja'von Hicks must replace two mainstays at safety, but both have seen a lot of action and should be up to the task.
Previewing Cincinnati's Specialists for 2021
Freshman punter Mason Fletcher has huge shoes to fill trying to replace James Smith, who was a Ray Guy finalist in 2018 and had an outstanding four-year career. Kicker Cole Smith, punt returner Ryan Montgomery and kickoff return man Tre Tucker are all back for a UC special teams unit that has consistently been one of the best in the nation under head coach Luke Fickell.
The 2020 Bearcats pushed themselves into the College Football Playoff conversation, and this season should be no different. With games at Indiana and at Notre Dame, Cincinnati has the opportunity to grab two marquee wins that have always eluded other non-Power 5 programs and would no doubt impress the selection committee. If UC can run the table and win a second straight AAC title, the Bearcats could become the first Group of 5 team to crack the four-team playoff.
National Ranking: 8
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(Desmond Ridder photo courtesy of Cincinnati Athletics)