After facing Florida State, the Bulls will open their conference schedue on the road at Cincinnati. The destinies of these two teams have been intertwined over the last six years, with the two teams claiming three wins apiece. USF spoiled Cincinnati's 2013 season with Willie Taggart's first win as USF coach, and USF knocked Cincinnati out of conference title contention last year.
Date: Saturday, October 1, time TBD
Head Coach: Tommy Tuberville (25-14 overall at Cincinnati)
Offensive Coordinator: Zac Taylor (the former Nebraska quarterback)
Co-Defensive Coordinators: Robert Prunty and Jeff Koonz
All Time: Playing every season since 2003, Cincinnati leads the series 8-5. They are tied with UConn as USF's most frequent football opponent.
Last year started out pretty well for Tommy Tuberville and the Bearcats, but as the season wore on, they faltered and eventually stumbled onto a red-hot USF team. They bottomed out with an embarrassing loss to San Diego State in the Hawaii Bowl on Christmas Eve. The Aztecs ran back Cincinnati’s opening kickoff for a touchdown and cruised to a 42-7 win over the Bearcats.
The Bearcats' 7-6 record in 2015 was their worst since Butch Jones’ disastrous 2010 season, and the 38-point loss to USF is Tuberville’s worst in charge of Cincinnati. Their goal this year will be to claw their way back to a respectable status instead of continuing to slide down the AAC ladder.
Conversely, USF's stock is rising. The Bulls are expected to do even better this season than last, and seem to have all the right pieces in place to make that happen. If you forget what it looks like when a decent team on a downward trajectory meets a decent team on an upward trajectory, watch this:
It was the most points USF has ever scored against an FBS team, and the most Cincinnati had allowed since their infamous 70-7 Keg of Nails loss to Louisville in 2004.
At quarterback, the Bearcats have Hayden Moore, who came from behind to beat Gunner Kiel for the starting position this fall. Moore has performed well at times, but he must have impressed Tuberville enough in the offseason to overshadow his three interceptions and no touchdowns in the Hawaii Bowl.
Of course Cincinnati still has Kiel, who is likely to make some appearances in 2016. If last year was any indication, Tuberville is not afraid to switch quarterbacks, especially when one throws two interceptions in the first quarter against USF.
Helping the quarterback tremendously will be Cincy’s veteran offensive line. The center and guards are Deyshaun Bond, Ryan Leahy and Idarius Ray, all seniors with a lot of snaps under their belts. Getting through them for a sack is going to take some creativity on the part of USF’s front seven.
The Bearcats lost a lot of wide receivers from last year's team, but there will be enough talented targets out there to give the USF safeties some trouble. Nate Cole and Khalil Lewis are primed to step up as wide outs for the Bearcats this year, and DJ Dowdy is a dependable tight end.
This is where the Bearcats really failed in 2015. They gave up 192 yards per game rushing, and were 120th in S&P+ rushing defense. 29% of drives by Cincinnati's opponents ended in touchdowns last year. They had just 13 sacks, and were terrible at creating turnovers.
The guys trying to turn this defense around will include veteran defensive tackles Alex Pace and Cortez Broughton. They need to do a better job of pressuring Quinton Flowers if they're going to stop the Bulls. Senior linebacker Eric Wilson holds the defense together: last year he led the team with 106 tackles, adding two recovered fumbles and a forced fumble. If the Flowers-Mack-Johnson run game is going to be contained, he'll have to step up.
The Cincinnati secondary features senior safety Zach Edwards, who led the Bearcats last season with three interceptions and eight pass breakups. He also recorded 98 tackles.
These players will give the Bulls a hard time, but it's hard to imagine them wreaking too much havoc on USF's rising crop of talent.
Statistics tell us that USF will win this one. Cincinnati puts all their chips on offense and racked up almost 7,000 yards in 2015, but they only won seven games. For all of their uptempo, high-flying play, the Bearcats weren't able to put the ball in the end zone when it really mattered. Cincinnati was 46th in offensive S&P+ last year, but USF was just a few notches lower at 50th. Although different in style, both offenses were about equally effective.
The difference comes on defense. USF had an above-average defense last year, ranking 46th in defensive S&P+. The Bearcats were 98th.
Heading into this game, Cincinnati should have a win over UT-Martin and a loss to Houston. There's a decent chance that they'll beat Purdue and Miami (OH) also, but I'm guessing they drop one of those games. Whatever their record, the USF game is their conference opener, at home. It's a great opportunity for the Bearcats to shape the rest of their season with a win.
More importantly, there's a good chance USF comes into this game 3-1, also looking to set the stage for a run at the conference title. There's no chance the Bulls overlook this game, and there's no reason they shouldn't win it.