Last year it was UCF that crashed the BCS party and defeated Baylor in the Fiesta Bowl, and this season it could be the Cincinnati Bearcats representing the AAC — that’s if Gunner Kiel lives up to the hype that made him one of the top quarterbacks in the 2012 recruiting class.
While only a sophomore, Kiel is well known by a few colleges after he originally committed to Indiana only to switch to LSU and eventually enrolled at Notre Dame. The depth chart did not suit his liking in South Bend, so he transferred to Cincinnati. Despite the baggage, Kiel possesses the size (6-foot-4, 210 pounds) and the intangibles (mobile with a strong and accurate arm) needed to be a successful college quarterback. Also in contention for the starting job is JUCO transfer Jarred Evans and senior Munchie Legaux, who has experience as a starter but suffered a gruesome leg injury in 2013.
Keil will have options at wideout as the leading receivers senior Shaq Washington (78 receptions 783 yards) and juniors Chris Moore (45 receptions 645 yards) and Max Morrison (29 receptions 447) all return.
All-American Athletic Conference selection senior tackle Eric Lefeld leads the offensive line and will be joined by two other starters: sophomore center Deyshawn Bond and junior guard Parker Ehinger. The new starters up front, guard Kevin Schloemer and tackle Cory Keebler, are seniors and have experience in the program.
They will be blocking for a trio of returning backs — junior Tion Green and seniors Hosey Williams and Ralph David Abernathy — who combined for 1,658 yards rushing and 16 touchdowns. The question becomes how will offensive coordinator Eddie Gran find enough carries for all three without sacrificing ball carrier rhythm.
Junior defensive end Silverberry Mouhon, senior linebacker Nick Temple and sophomore safety Zach Edwards lead the Bearcats defense that ranked No. 9 nationally in total defense (315.6 YPG) in 2013 and will be the catalyst in determining how successful this season is for the program.
Mouhon, a Georgia native, led the team in sacks with 9.5 and possesses the size (6-foot-4, 248 pounds) and speed to make opponents game plan to stop him. That should give the rest of the defensive line — senior defensive end Terrell Hartsfield, junior defensive tackle Brandon Mitchell and senior defensive tackle Camaron Beard — more one-on-one opportunities.
Joining Temple at the linebacker position will be senior Jeff Luc and Northwestern transfer sophomore Eric Wilson. Temple finished last season with 80 tackles and led the team in tackles-for-loss with 13.5. Luc has bulked up to 251 and will be moving inside to middle linebacker. This will give the team more speed from the position.
Edwards ended the year with 73 tackles and two interceptions from the free safety position, and he will be joined by two seniors starters at cornerback in Howard Wilder and Adrian Witty. With a productive front seven the interceptions total (3) from the two needs to increase in order to reap the full benefits of the talent up front.
The non-conference schedule for the Bearcats will determine how serious a national contender this team is as they host Toledo and Miami (OH) and travel to Ohio St. and Miami (FL). The home game against the MAC programs should give Tuberville a better understanding of who his quarterback is and how well the defense has adjusted to new defensive coordinator Hank Hughes. In past seasons the lack of size hurt Cincinnati against BCS conference teams, but the Bearcats finally have the bulk up front to contend. If the defense is able to contain the mobile Braxton Miller, Cincinnati could pull off a major upset. Traveling to Coral Gables will be a state homecoming for seven Florida players on the roster, and they will be looking prove that Miami made a mistake by not recruiting them.
In conference they play host to Memphis, South Florida, East Carolina and Houston. Memphis and USF are improving programs but are still no match for a defense as good as Cincinnati. The home-field advantage of Nippert Stadium will go a long way against two of the other three conference contenders.
The Bearcats have to travel to SMU, Tulane, Connecticut and Temple, and while playing in Dallas and New Orleans wont be an easy task, fans should be upset if they don’t finish the road portion of their conference schedule 4-0.
10-2 is well within reach for Cincinnati, and if they are able to pull an upset against OSU or Miami (FL) they could find themselves as one of the surprise programs in college football.