2013 SEASON IN REVIEW: Last season, Louisville and UCF got all the attention in the newly formed American Athletic Conference. While the Cardinals and Knights were deserving of the spotlight, there was little praise left for Cincinnati, which remained in the conference title chase to the bitter end and finished 9-4 overall.
The Bearcats had an uneven start to the campaign, alternating blowout results in the first two weeks when they topped Purdue (42-7) and were silenced at Illinois (45-17). The tests against mid-tier Big Ten schools clearly sharpened Tommy Tuberville's group, as Cincinnati won eight of its next nine games, with the lone loss coming by less than a touchdown at South Florida.
With a 6-1 conference record in hand, the Bearcats still had a shot at the AAC crown when they faced Louisville in the regular season finale. Unfortunately, they were unable to knock off Teddy Bridgewater and company, falling by a final of 31-24 in overtime, despite holding a lead midway through the fourth quarter.
From there they were again let down, by a more embarrassing margin, when they were defeated by North Carolina in the Belk Bowl, 39-17.
OFFENSE: Cincinnati was easily the best offense in the AAC last season, topping the league in total yards (472.1 pg) and scoring (32.1 ppg). All signs point to even better results this season.
A major reason for the optimism is the fact that just about every key skill position player, outside of Anthony McClung, is back in the fold.
The Bearcats have running back talent to burn, with starter Ralph David Abernathy back, as well as productive backs Hosey Williams and Tion Green. Abernathy started all 13 games for the Bearcats and rushed for 518 yards and 5 scores on a team-high 132 attempts. Williams is the more exciting threat, however, after posting a team-high 655 yards on 115 attempts. His 5.7 yards- per-carry average was easily the best mark on the squad. Green cannot be ignored either, especially in the red zone, as he rushed for a team-best 7 touchdowns and tallied 412 yards on 91 carries.
McClung was an important piece of Tuberville's pass-happy offense, but Shaq Washington should be more than capable of stepping in as the team's primary playmaker. Washington actually led the team in receptions (78) last year, but managed only 783 yards and a single touchdown. Chris Moore (45 receptions, 645 yards, 9 TDs) is the more lethal deep threat, while Max Morrison (29 receptions, 447 yards, 3 TDs) and Mekale McKay (16 receptions, 485 yards, 7 touchdowns) are also capable of breaking off big chunks of yardage.
A new quarterback will have the chance to utilize the deep receiving corps. Normally breaking in a new signal caller would be a negative, but in Gunner Kiel, the Bearcats have a player whose skills make up for his lack of experience. Originally a Notre Dame recruit, Kiel transferred to Cincinnati in the spring of 2013 and sat out last season due to NCAA rules. Kiel is a 6- foot-4 specimen with great arm strength. The starting job would seem to be his, although opening day starter Munchie Legaux is back after suffering a brutal knee injury against Illinois.
Kiel won't just benefit from a strong group of pass-catchers, as the offensive line should be stout as well. Tackle Eric Lefeld was a unanimous all- conference first-team selection, and Parker Ehinger is also a returning starter.
DEFENSE: For how strong the Bearcats were on offense last season, they were even better defensively, at least as far as statistics are concerned. Only Louisville was better in the league with regard to total and scoring defense. The Bearcats let up 315.6 ypg and 21 ppg, with each of those marks being among the ten-best in the country as well.
Surprisingly, the team's production was not enough for Tuberville, who replaced coordinator Art Kaufman with Hank Hughes and Robert Prunty, who will serve as co-defensive coordinators. Hughes formally coached at Connecticut, while Prunty brings impressive recruiting chops over from Texas Tech.
Hughes, who specialized in working with the defensive line at UConn, already has a star to mold in defensive end Silverberry Mouhon. The 6-foot-4, 248- pound junior devastated opposing backfields last season to the tune of 9.5 sacks, tied for the third-most in the AAC. Mouhon's defensive end mate Terrell Hartsfield is also back, hoping to improve on the 1.5 sacks he had a year ago.
It will be difficult to replace leading tackler Greg Blair (106) at linebacker. However, if there is a team equipped to adapt to losing such a statistical and spiritual leader, it is Cincinnati, which still has Nick Temple (80 tackles, 13.5 TFL, 5.5 sacks) and Jeff Luc (43 tackles). Eric Wilson, a transfer from Northwestern, fills out the starting unit after sitting out last season.
Three starters return in the secondary as well. Although the group is experienced, stopping the pass was the biggest weak point for last year's squad. That is just a testament to how good the Bearcats were defensively, as they let up just 211.2 yards per game through the air.
Cornerbacks Howard Wilder (35 tackles, 6 passes defended), Adrian Witty (46 tackles, 1 INT) and safety Zach Edwards (73 tackles, 2 INTs) are the players to watch.
SPECIAL TEAMS: The defense didn't seem to need a new coordinator, but the special teams certainly did. The new man at the helm of the group is Marc Nudelberg, who retains last year's starting kicker (Tony Miliano) and punter (John Lloyd). Miliano connected on just 7-of-17 field goal attempts, although eight of those tries came from beyond 40 yards. Lloyd averaged 42.7 yards per punt and had seven boots of 50 or more yards.
Washington and Abernathy have handled punt and kickoff returns, respectively, but neither has been particularly impressive.
OUTLOOK: Now that Louisville is out of the league, and UCF is without star quarterback Blake Bortles, the AAC has become Cincinnati's conference to lose. For a team that has consistently won games, with at least nine victories in six of the last seven years, keeping the status quo should put them on pace for the AAC crown.
However, if Kiel lives up to his potential, Washington takes another step forward and Mouhon becomes the elite pass rusher he seems destined to become, the Bearcats could be even better.
Helping the cause is a favorable conference schedule, which does not feature UCF and has home games against Houston and East Carolina. The non-conference slate is a bit tougher, with tests at Ohio State and Miami-Florida, but that is just the way Tuberville wants it.
"We have to understand that we have to make a statement not only with our schedules but how we play our schedules," Tuberville said. "How we play in the games and as a group, as a whole, not just one or two teams."
If things fall into place, the Bearcats could be making plenty of statements come January.