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The Big USF vs. Cincinnati Preview

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The Bulls begin conference play in the Queen City, looking to bounce back against a team they demolished last season.

NCAA Football: Cincinnati at South Florida Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Tommy Tuberville's tenure at Cincinnati has been one of the strangest coaching eras known to man. Despite boasting a team that has had, year in and year out, one of the most talented rosters in the American, and more history of success in the last decade than anyone else in the conference, the results over his three-plus seasons have been decidedly... okay. That's not to say the process to get to those results has been a flatline of any sort; it's had more wacky ups-and-downs than any team west of UCF. And yet, a coach who once went undefeated at Auburn and stepped into perhaps the best job in the league has produced a 28-15 record with one share of a conference title and zero bowl wins in three seasons. That's not poor by any means, but it's certainly not what the Bearcats would have expected in entering a watered-down conference.

Frustrations with Tuberville boiled over at the end of 2015, when the tail end of Cincy's schedule saw them get absolutely wrecked by USF and San Diego State in their last three games. The Bearcats limped to a 7-6 finish after opening the season as overwhelming favorites for a conference title. It seemed like Cincinnati had settled into a bit of a groove-- a really impressive offense that's content to sling the ball around 40 times per game, and no semblance of defense whatsoever.

To Cincinnati's credit, they're a much different team this season... but it's not yet clear if that's a good thing or a bad thing. Cincinnati is 3-1, but they've yet to look particularly impressive. To date, they have...

  • Struggled with Tennessee-Martin for three quarters before pulling away.
  • Cruised past Purdue pretty comfortably, but surrendered over 500 yards in the process.
  • Hung tight with Houston into the fourth quarter thanks to some timely turnovers, but lost big when Lady Luck flipped to the Cougars' side and UC surrendered two straight pick-sixes.
  • Eked out a seven-point win over Miami of Ohio, who, to be fair, is apparently their rival or something.

So you can see why the numbers don't love the Bearcats right now. That said... I can't shake the feeling that they're underselling UC. Perhaps I'm getting lured in by Tuberville's Fool's Gold for the hundredth time, but the Bearcats have had to deal with injuries to starting QB Hayden Moore (more on this later!), have a lot of young skill position players, and are finally starting to play some semblance of defense. It's early in the season, but the winner of this game will have a huge leg up in the American East division race.

About that defense: it's not great, by any means. 57th in S&P+ isn't going to win any awards. But for the Bearcats, who, as we remember, presented all the resistance of a wet napkin against USF in last year's game, that is definitely a sight for sore eyes. Of course, the Cincinnati offense has changed too. Tuberville is at least trying to run the ball, though he hasn't been incredibly effective. And Hayden Moore and freshman Ross Trail have been steady, vaguely promising quarterback options, as opposed to uber-talented but inconsistent Gunner Kiel, who is still on this team but has been banished to the netherworlds for some reason.

Have they been better? Well, not really. In fact, they could very well turn out to be worse than in recent years. But hey, at least they're a little different.

After seeing Florida State absolutely pummel USF up front last week, it makes me absolutely giddy to report that the Bearcats do not have a very threatening rushing attack. Cincinnati relies on two main ballcarriers, halfbacks Tion Green and Mike Boone, both of whom have been various shades of ineffective thus far. Observe:

Greene:

  • vs. Tennessee-Martin: 16 carries, 97 yards (6.1)
  • vs. Purdue: 16 carries, 53 yards (3.3)
  • vs. Houston: 8 carries, 14 yards (2.4)
  • vs. Miami (OH): 18 carries, 83 yards (4.6)

Boone:

  • vs. Tennessee-Martin: 12 carries, 35 yards (2.9)
  • vs. Purdue: 18 carries, 78 yards (4.3)
  • vs. Houston: 12 carries, 29 yards (2.4
  • vs. Miami (OH): 19 carries, 74 yards (3.9)

Between the two of them, they've only eclipsed 4.0 yards per carry in two of four games. The fact that Cincinnati has been so inefficient on the ground (105th in Success Rate) and still pretty explosive (31st in IsoPPP) suggests that this may not be Green and Boone's faults, and that the Bearcats' offensive line hasn't allowed them to find any open space. At any rate, the burden of proof is on USF here-- after such a horrendous performance against FSU, they need to prove that they can stop anyone on the ground again.

I imagine the Bearcats will be licking their chops at all the yards that the Seminoles got against the Bulls outside of the tackles, and they’ll be running zone read after zone read against the Bulls' front early, especially if the mobile Trail ends up starting at quarterback again. You get the feeling that if the Bulls can't slow down Cincinnati's rushing attack, this is going to be a problem against pretty much every team they face this season.

It's bizarre to see a Cincinnati team without a gunslinging quarterback in the backfield, but here we are. What we see from the Bearcats' offense this week depends a lot on Hayden Moore's health; if he's recovered, he seems to be Tuberville's number one option. Moore's done a pretty solid job when he's been in charge, throwing for at least 250 yards per game in each of his three starts. He's been a little too turnover prone and isn't the running threat that Trail is, but if he's given enough time, he can pick defenses apart.

Trail got his first start against Miami last week, getting the nod over Gunner Kiel, who apparently killed Tommy Tuberville's dog. He showed plenty of promise, completing about 66% of his passes for 276 yards, but also threw a pair of interceptions that kept the Redhawks in the game. A lot of Cincinnati folks think that Trail has a higher ceiling than Moore. I certainly won't disagree, but as far as tomorrow goes, I'd be much more worried if Moore was behind center. Neither are worldbeaters, but both are more than capable of putting up big numbers if the offensive line holds up.

No matter who starts for Cincinnati tomorrow, I am still convinced that Gunner Kiel will come off the bench in the third quarter and lead the Bearcats to a comeback victory. Call it Zach Collaros syndrome. The senior, who started much of the last two seasons for UC, hasn't seen action yet this year but was taking reps with Trail in prac —

OK, LOOK. USF BEAT THE TAR OUT OF THIS TEAM LAST YEAR. IT’S REALLY HARD TO IMAGINE THIS CINCINNATI TEAM RISING UP AND WINNING. USF KNOWS THIS GAME IS ACTUALLY MORE IMPORTANT THAN THE FSU GAME AND THEY’RE NOT GONNA SCREW IT UP. IT’S GOING TO BE FINE, YOU GUYS.

USF 45, Cincinnati 28