A most unusual September has ended in college football, and a new month brings something more closely resembling a typical campaign. At least, resuming conference play in those leagues that have kicked off will give October the air of a normal season.
The Bearcats are looking to win their first league title since the Big East days. That's no small feat given the disaster Luke Fickell inherited from predecessor Tommy Tuberville. In just his second season at the helm, Fickell transformed a defensively deficient program into one of the nation's best on that side of the ball and has coached the Bearcats to Top 25 rankings in each of the past three campaigns running.
USF is aiming for a similar rebound under Jeff Scott, a former Clemson assistant in his first year with the program. USF flourished initially under Charlie Strong; the Bulls showed some of the same potential in 2017 that the program demonstrated a decade earlier when it ascended to No. 2 in the polls. A losing streak to end the 2018 season spilled over into 2019, however, and the Bulls hit the reset button.
The rebuild process has included a COVID-19-related cancellation, one week after a 52-0 blowout loss at Notre Dame.
USF at Cincinnati
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 3 at 3:30 p.m. ET
Spread: Cincinnati -22
When USF Has the Ball
USF's two games — a win over FCS program The Citadel and the rout at Notre Dame — ended much differently on the scoreboard but made the same thing about the Bulls abundantly clear: This team is better equipped to run than pass.
USF has officially gone to the ground 72 times against 54 pass attempts. Bulls quarterbacks averaged just 4.2 yards per attempt, with primary quarterback Jordan McCloud averaging 4.4 ypc. A more prolific rushing attack produced more than 300 yards against The Citadel in spite of the offensive line being decimated due to COVID-19 restrictions.
An outstanding Notre Dame defensive line feasted, in contrast, limiting the Bulls to 3.2 ypc. Cincinnati, one week removed from handling Army's option offense in check at 4.2 ypc, presents a similar threat. Linebackers Joel Dublanko and Jarell White getting into the USF backfield could spell a long day for the Bulls' offense.
When Cincinnati Has the Ball
Cincinnati's win over a previously ranked Army bunch was an old-fashioned slugfest in which yards on the ground came in short supply. Cincinnati netted just 69 rushing yards, forcing quarterback Desmond Ridder to shoulder a disproportionate offensive load. The Bearcats could get the run game going this week in the American Athletic opener, though: Notre Dame gashed USF on the ground early and throughout the day.
A rotating platoon of Gerrid Doaks, Charles McClelland, and Jerome Ford have shared the majority of carries through two games, with none of the trio yet standing out as the clear successor to Michael Warren II. Warren rushed for more than 1,200 yards in 2019 and more than 1,300 yards in 2018.
Doaks has been exceptional as a pass-catcher thus far in 2020, leading Cincinnati with 124 yards and two touchdowns on five receptions.
USF would be enduring an arduous rebuild under normal circumstances — and, of course, 2020 is anything but normal. With the bevy of absences, and coming off an unexpected canceled game, USF faces a tall task in jump-starting things against one of the best teams in the American.
Cincinnati's defense proved its mettle in the win over Army and should only get better as the season progresses. Should the offense catch up, the Bearcats will contend for the conference championship. Expect little resistance in the league opener.
Prediction: Cincinnati 34, USF 10
Podcast: CFB Week 5 Preview + Predictions
— Written by Kyle Kensing, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Follow him on Twitter @kensing45.
(Desmond Ridder photo courtesy of Cincinnati Athletics)