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Cincinnati Football: 2022 Bearcats Season Preview and Prediction

Arquon Bush, Cincinnati Bearcats Football

Arquon Bush and the Bearcats are ranked No. 15 in Athlon Sports' Top 25 for the 2022 college football season

Cincinnati must replace several key members off a team that went 13-1 and played in the CFB Playoff, but coach Luke Fickell's team isn't going to drop too far in the rankings. Thanks to a strong track record of talent development and good recruiting, the Bearcats are still the team to beat in the AAC for 2022. Replacing Desmond Ridder won't be easy, but Ben Bryant and Evan Prater give the offense two capable quarterbacks. Also, Cincinnati returns all five starters along the offensive line. An elite defense (16.9 points a game allowed in '21) returns just four starters, but the next wave of stars is ready to emerge behind end Malik Vann, linebacker Deshawn Pace and defensive backs Arquon Bush and Ja'von Hicks. 

Related: Athlon Sports' College Football Top 25 for 2022

Previewing Cincinnati's Offense for 2022

Out is two-time AAC Offensive Player of the Year Desmond Ridder, and in is a full-on quarterback competition between Eastern Michigan transfer and one-time Bearcat Ben Bryant and highly touted recruit Evan Prater. In 2021, Bryant started 11 of 13 games for EMU, throwing for 3,121 yards and 14 TDs. Prater saw limited action for the Bearcats but displayed a playmaking ability that will be tough to contain should he win the job. The battle should go all the way to the opener at Arkansas.

The new quarterback will benefit greatly from an offensive line that returns all five starters, three of whom — center Jake Renfro, guard Lorenz Metz and tackle Dylan O'Quinn — were 2021 first-team All-AAC selections.

The backfield should remain strong even with the departure of star Jerome Ford. The Bearcats received a late transfer in LSU RB Corey Kiner, a former four-star recruit. Veterans Ryan Montgomery, Charles McClelland and Ethan Wright and sophomore Myles Montgomery round out a very deep and talented group.

Tight ends Josh Whyle and Leonard Taylor combined for 54 catches, 600 yards and 10 TDs in 2021 and will be primary targets for the UC offense. Returning receivers Tyler Scott, Tre Tucker and Jadon Thompson give the Bearcats speed and explosiveness in the passing game.

Previewing Cincinnati's Defense for 2022

With at least six key members off to the NFL, this unit will undergo a major overhaul in 2022.

The defensive line should remain a strength as veterans Malik Vann and Jabari Taylor are joined by Jowon Briggs in a three-man front. The trio combined for 8.5 sacks last season and will bring an experienced presence to a young defense. First-team All-MAC linebacker Ivan Pace transfers in from Miami (Ohio) and joins his brother Deshawn to bolster a talented room. Deshawn burst onto the scene last year with 94 tackles and four interceptions. Mainstays Wilson Huber and Ty Van Fossen will be joined by the uber-athletic Jaheim Thomas.

The secondary must replace Ahmad "Sauce" Gardner, Coby Bryant and Bryan Cook. Senior Arquon Bush is experienced and will be leaned on heavily to bring along corners Justin Harris, Todd Bumphis and Sammy Anderson Jr. Ja'von Hicks will be in his second season starting at safety and will also be looked to for leadership of a group that will be learning on the fly.

Related: American Athletic All-Conference Team for 2022

Previewing Cincinnati's Specialists for 2022

Punter Mason Fletcher had a very strong rookie campaign. The placekicking should get a boost from Delaware transfer Ryan Coe, who was 14-of-17 on field goals in 2021 and sports a big leg. Punt returner Montgomery and kickoff return man Tucker are also back for a special teams unit that is consistently one of the best in the nation.

Final Analysis

Given the production and experience the Bearcats must replace, a return to the College Football Playoff seems unlikely. That said, the talent level is still very high, and if the winner of the QB competition can be a steady hand, there is no reason this team can't compete for a third straight AAC title.

National Ranking: 15

Podcast: Top 25 Megacast! Complete Top 25 Breakdown, Rankings and Predictions Explained