Just about everything went right for Cincinnati on the way to a 12-0 record in 2009. Just about everything went wrong on the way to 4-8 this year.
New coach Butch Jones had a tough act to follow and wasn't dealt many favors. The Bearcats had a brutal early schedule that included an opener at Fresno State and games at NC State and against Oklahoma in the first four weeks. Receiver Vidal Hazelton, expected to be a major contributor in his only season after transferring from USC, tore his ACL early in the second half of the Fresno State loss. It was a sign of things to come.
The offensive line was a mess early, and quarterback Zach Collaros had to run for his life in losses to Fresno State and NC State. Cincinnati appeared to straighten itself out while nearly beating Oklahoma on Sept. 25, and the team won its next two, including a road win at Louisville in the conference opener.
But a lack of depth and experience took its toll, especially on defense, where Jones was at one time starting eight sophomores. The defense allowed at least 27 points in every Big East game.
In 2009, the Bearcats could simply outscore other teams. They had that capability this year as well, with Collaros, running back Isaiah Pead and receivers Armon Binns and D.J. Woods all having stellar statistical years. They showed their collective firepower in a 69-38 win over Rutgers late in the year.
Too often, though, the offense couldn't stay out of its own way. After a 2009 in which they barely turned the ball over, the Bearcats became allergic to ball security this season. They had a grotesque minus-15 turnover margin, second worst in the country, and that included 29 giveaways. You can't win like that.
And so the season ended with a whimper, as the Bearcats lost by 21 to UConn and 18 to Pittsburgh. After climbing to the top for two straight Big East titles, it was their turn to experience the bottom.
Offensive MVP: Armon Binns
The senior led the Big East in every receiving category, with 75 catches for 1,101 yards and 10 touchdowns. He was a rock in an otherwise shaky year.
Defensive MVP: JK Schaffer
There weren't a lot of bright spots on defense, but Schaffer has developed into a star at linebacker. The junior was second in the Big East with 111 tackles.
Turning point: After beating Louisville to get to 3-3 and 1-0 in the Big East, the Bearcats came home to play a South Florida team that was 0-2 in the conference. Cincinnati rolled up 590 yards but was ridiculously sloppy with 12 penalties. They lost the game 38-30 and lost Collaros for the next game with a leg injury. The team won only one more game.
What's next: A bowl season at home for the first time since 2004. Jones needs to find some immediate help on defense and may look to the junior college ranks to fill a couple of gaps. Just about everybody is back on that side, along with Collaros, Pead and Woods on offense. Perhaps Jones' system will click into place in Year 2.