- Brian Bennett, ESPN Staff Writer
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Posted by ESPN.com's Brian Bennett
PISCATAWAY, N.J. -- Call off the search for a favorite in the Big East. The team to beat is the same team that almost nobody in the league could beat last year.
Yes, Cincinnati has a new look this season, but it's not just because of the revamped defense. The Bearcats are much more explosive on offense.
Their 47-15 beatdown at Rutgers was a clinic of offensive efficiency and balance, especially during an opener. Last year's Orange Bowl team never scored that many points in a game, and the 47 points were exactly twice as much as Cincinnati averaged during league play in 2008.
"We thought we could get it going last year," coach Brian Kelly said. "But we had all those quarterback injuries, so we had to go manage the game. Today, we could let [quarterback] Tony [Pike] manage the game. I told the kids, I didn't do a lot of heavy lifting today from the sidelines."
It's scary to think that Kelly, the reigning two-time Big East coach of the year, just now feels like he's got all of his pieces in place at Cincinnati. But this is the first time he's had a returning, veteran quarterback and the depth he wants at receiver and running back. Combine that with eight months to prepare for Rutgers, and the results were awe-inspiring.
A lot of teams lack sharpness in their openers. Kelly believed in his veterans so much that he had them come out in the no-huddle and throw all over the field from the start. Cincinnati committed only two penalties all day.
"I thought it was important early on for us to do something a lot of college football teams aren't doing in the opener, and that's be really aggressive," he said.
The Bearcats scored on six of their first seven possessions. Their first four scoring drives all lasted under two-and-a-half minutes. A team that struggled at times running the ball last year piled up 168 yards on the ground while averaging 4.9 yards per carry. Ten different players caught at least one pass. Against a blitz-loving defense, they surrendered just one sack.
"Offensively, we're light years ahead of where we were this time last year," Pike said. "We have weapons at several positions, and I'd put ours up against anybody in the country."
New threats included sophomore running back Isaiah Pead, who scored his first two career touchdowns. He took one screen pass 41 yards, juking a defender onto the ground with a stutter step on his way to the end zone.
And Kelly got to play mad genius by putting backup tight end Travis Kelce under center near the goal line. The 6-foot-5, 247-pound Kelce, a former quarterback who'd never played a snap before, ran the ball three times and scored two touchdowns.
"Florida has been running this package very well with Tim Tebow," Kelly said. "We went down to study with Florida, and we stole it from them. I don't mind saying that."
This team's supposed No. 1 question was its defense, which replaced 10 starters from last year, switched to a 3-4 base and had to adjust to a new coordinator. The Bearcats held Rutgers to 15 points and took two of those back with a safety. They were no doubt helped by the Scarlet Knights' offensive ineptitude, but they still managed five sacks and three interceptions, one of them by former Notre Dame quarterback Demetrius Jones, another successful Kelly project.
"We're hungry, and we always want to try to prove people wrong," safety Aaron Webster said. "We feel that the only people who believe in us are in this locker room."
That should change now, as Cincinnati proves it deserves to be the first Big East team to crack the Top 25, and is once again the team to beat.
"If people from the outside start believing in us, that's good," Webster said. "But if they don't we're going to play the same way."
Or maybe even better.