Luke Fickell and the Cincinnati Bearcats are proof of how profoundly a program can turn around in a new regime's second season. Their 2019 Week 1 opponent, UCLA, hopes to follow a similar blueprint as it opens its second season under coach Chip Kelly.
Fickell inherited a Cincinnati program that underwhelmed during Tommy Tuberville's tenure as head coach. One year prior to the former Ohio State defensive coordinator's arrival, Cincinnati finished tied for last place in the American Athletic Conference East division. Heading into Year 3, after a breakout 11-win season, the Bearcats look like a real threat to UCF's prominence atop the league.
Kelly came to UCLA under somewhat different circumstances, but the former Oregon and NFL head coach began his tenure last season completely rebuilding the program's foundation. By season's end, his choices began to bear fruit. UCLA won three games in conference, and the Bruins head into 2019 with lofty potential despite a historically bad start to 2018. UCLA must navigate a brutal schedule once again in 2019, though, and that begins with a rematch of last year's opener vs. Cincinnati.
UCLA Bruins at Cincinnati Bearcats
Kickoff: Thursday, Aug. 29 at 7 p.m. ET
Spread: Cincinnati -2.5
When UCLA Has the Ball
Last season's season-opening trip to the Rose Bowl set the tone for Cincinnati's outstanding 2018 in myriad ways. Perhaps the most tangible: The Bearcats defense held UCLA to just 17 points, right in line with the season-long yield of 17.2 per game that ranked Cincinnati No. 8 in the country.
UCLA went without a point for the game's final 27:49, following a Kazmeir Allen touchdown run of 74 yards — but it wasn't the last time points went on the board with the Bruins offense on the field. Cincinnati ultimately took the lead by forcing a safety in the early fourth quarter. Seven Bearcats starters return from that salty side, including second-team All-AAC selection James Wiggins at safety (who suffered a knee injury during practice on Monday and his status for Thursday's game is unknown) and talented linebacker Bryan Wright. Wright gave UCLA fits, recording three tackles for a loss, two sacks, a quarterback hurry and a forced fumble in the September 2018 win.
A key difference for UCLA compared to the opener a season ago is the emergence of running back Joshua Kelley. Kelley got the start in Week 1 a year ago but was quickly pulled and did not resurface as the Bruins' workhorse until Pac-12 competition got rolling. The UC Davis transfer was one of the best backs in college football by season's end, racking up 1,243 yards and 12 touchdowns essentially over nine games.
Rising sophomore quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson was thrown into the mix against Cincinnati last year after Michigan transfer Wilton Speight reaggravated an injury. Thompson-Robinson started much of the first half of the season, but a shoulder injury in October brought Speight back behind center. UCLA's offensive production perked up with Speight starting in November, as the Bruins scored 28 points at Arizona State, 34 in a win over rival USC and 42 in a shootout with Stanford.
Thompson-Robinson benefits from an offseason to rehabilitate his shoulder and gain more familiarity with the system, but he'll play behind a less experienced offensive line. Boss Tagaloa adapted at center nicely after moving from the defensive line, but the Bruins lose Andre James and Justin Murphy at the tackle spots. That will be a development to watch against a Cincinnati defense that racked up 82 tackles for a loss in 2018.
When Cincinnati Has the Ball
If you're seeking this year's Group of 5 running back who's most likely to get stiff-armed from a deserving Heisman Trophy ceremony invite — paging Rashaad Penny and Darrell Henderson — consider Cincinnati's Michael Warren II. Warren rushed for 1,329 yards and 19 touchdowns in 12 games a season ago, posting a per-game average that outpaced Power 5 counterparts Travis Etienne and Karan Higdon.
Warren's star turn complemented the unexpected ascension of then-freshman quarterback Desmond Ridder, who threw for 20 touchdowns against just five interceptions. Ridder made his debut replacing Hayden Moore in the UCLA win last September and played one of his less statistically impressive games of the season against the Bruins.
Like Cincinnati's Ridder at quarterback, UCLA's defense heads into 2019 with invaluable experience and the potential for improvement. Outside linebacker/defensive end Keisean Lucier-South erupted in the latter half of 2018. Lucier-South is one of the most versatile pass rushers in the Pac-12, combining speed and length to produce 11.5 tackles for a loss a year ago. Along with linebackers Krys Barnes, Josh Woods and Tyree Thompson, as well as talented defensive lineman Osa Odighizuwa, UCLA's front seven could very quietly end up as one of the best in the conference in 2019. Couple that with a secondary that's been a decided strength for the last half-decade or so, and there's reason to love the Bruins on this side of the ball.
Darnay Holmes — assuming he plays; he's been absent from some practices leading up to Week 1 — may be the best defensive back in the Pac-12. Quentin Lake and Elijah Gates were exciting midseason developments in 2018. Cincinnati must counter that talented UCLA secondary without Kahlil Lewis, last season's leading pass catcher. Establishing Warren on the ground is key, and he will operate behind an offensive line replacing three starters.
Cincinnati and UCLA finished 2018 on polar opposite ends of the win-loss spectrum, but both went into the offseason with reasons for optimism. The return of Cincinnati's exciting playmakers on offense and seven starters on an outstanding defense make this team poised to end UCF's reign of dominance in the American. Week 1 will let us know just how capable Cincinnati is of accomplishing that feat.
Likewise, UCLA — which finished 3-2 after an 0-7 start — could be a dark-horse contender in the wide-open Pac-12 South. There are question marks on offense, but the defense is as talented as almost any in the league. Having uncertainty on offense isn't ideal when opening with a defense the caliber of Cincinnati's, however. With Michael Pitts, Ethan Tucky, Jarell White and Wright around, there should be no problem replacing the production lost with Cortez Broughton's departure. A new-look UCLA offensive line may be overwhelmed on Thursday.
Prediction: Cincinnati 23, UCLA 17
(Top photo courtesy of Cincinnati Athletics)