Last we saw of the Cincinnati Bearcats, Nate Godwin and DeDe Lattimore were returning scoops for touchdowns and Willie Taggart got his first win at USF. Of all the Tubervillian, inexplicable losses, this one I think takes the cake. With little offense to speak of, USF kicked four FGs, returned a blocked FG and a fumble for scores, and held off a late rally to win.
Yeah, that probably won't happen this year.
While the Bearcats lost their starting QB and #1 WR, they bring back almost everyone else from last season.
The quarterback battle is nothing if not interesting. The choices are the five-star, four-school, three-year quarterback odyssey that is Gunner Kiel, and everyone's favorite sports name Munchie Legaux, who has seemingly been in The Queen City since Brian Kelly was coach. Legaux was out most of last season, but got a medical redshirt to play this year.
Kiel, a sophomore, was named the starter, and then he wasn't sort of. Legaux hasn't been the most accurate passer in his career (51.6%, 20/16 TD/INT), so it would be difficult for Kiel to be named the starter (however tentatively) and also be less accurate than Legeaux. If Kiel turns out to be the real deal, man this could be a great offense at Paul Brown Stadium.
(Did we mention that the Bearcats home field this year is Paul Brown Stadium? Nippert stadium is being renovated. Having more experience in NFL stadiums should help USF, right?)
At running back, the Bearcats return their top three rushers, who all shared the load relatively evenly last season. Hosey Williams had the most carries at a very solid 5.7 ypc.
Do-everything back Ralph David Abernathy IV, AKA RDA4, also returns, but might see more time at slot receiver. So while leading receiver Anthony McClung departed, he's the only loss of the Bearcats top six pass-catchers last season.
Unanimous 2013 all-AAC LT Eric Lefeld returns to lead the line. Of the line's 70 returning starts, Lefeld has 32 of them. With new starters at right tackle and left guard, they may be a tad inexperienced.
This offense has a lot of returning talent, and will probably have a five-star QB under center. Fireworks?
Interior defensive line may also be a weak spot. While they return their top 3 defensive ends, including Key and Peele's favorite end Silverberry Mouhon (9.5 sacks in 2013, all-AAC 2nd team), they lose their top four defensive tackles. The two replacements totaled 5.5 tackles last season.
Linebacker is very deep and experienced. While they lost leading tackler, all-AAC 2nd teamer Greg Blair, the Bearcats bring back their next four leading tacklers at LB, all of whom are seniors. And despite that, sophomore Eric Wilson was the #1 weakside LB in preseason camp.
The Bearcats return senior starters Adrian Witty and Howard Wilder at corner, so that should be a strength. Zach Edwards started last season as a freshman at safety, but they'll have two sophomores back there with him and Mike Tyson. All of their returners had significant playing time last season.
The kicking game was a huge issue for Cincinnati last season. Phil Steele rated them #124 in special teams, and Bill Connelly said they had "disturbingly bad special teams." Besides USF's FG return TD, they gave up TWO punt returns against North Carolina in the Belk Bowl. They're likely replacing both kicker and punter, but they'll have to do something about their coverage and blocking units.
RDA4 was all-AAC first-team return specialist last season.
This will be an exceedingly tough game for USF. Cinci should have at least an above average offense, potentially quite a bit above average, and with all the youth and turnover on the Bulls' defense, it could get ugly.
Cinci's defensive line is inexperienced, so if USF gets its running game going, we might be able to absorb some clock and keep the game close. And if USF does run the ball well, it might open up the passing game some. However, if, like last season, the Bulls' passing game is poor, it will be tough to keep the Cinci's defense honest. If Cinci doesn't solve their special teams woes, keeping close in the other areas might be all we need. But don't count on it.
Bizarrely, the preseason consensus top two teams in the conference, Cincinnati and UCF, don't play each other. Since the AAC this year has 11 teams, each team will miss two opponents, and there won't be a conference title game till Navy joins next season.
One would think the conference would want the top two teams to play each other, especially since they will be in the same division next season, but maybe AAC schedulers want the raise the odds that both teams do well. It's not out of the question that Cinci and UCF each finish unbeaten in conference play.
Fun Fact: USF is undefeated (2-0) against Tommy Tuberville. Before last year's meeting, USF beat Auburn 26-23 in OT at Jordan-Hare Stadium back in 2007.