Season wrap: Cincinnati

December, 7, 2011
12/07/11
9:30
AM ET
Cincinnati Bearcats

Record: 9-3, 5-2 Big East

The good news is that Cincinnati is going back to a bowl game after winning a share of its third Big East championship in the last four season. The bad news is that the Bearcats were this close to making it to their third BCS game. But as you all know, starting quarterback Zach Collaros broke his ankle and fortunes changed. Still, the turnaround on this team was stark when you consider what happened a year ago.

First-year coach Butch Jones had a tough time getting his team to buy into his system, and his way of doing things after Brian Kelly left. An entirely new defense featuring entirely new starters did not help matters, and the Bearcats struggled to a 4-8 season. After 2010 ended, Jones made sure his players understood exactly what he wanted this year -- more toughness, more physicality, better conditioned players. The result: excellent play in the trenches and a huge turnaround on the defensive front, where Cincinnati ended up leading the nation with 44 sacks.

Everything about Cincinnati screamed being more physical this season, and that is a huge reason for the five-game improvement.

Offensive MVP: Isaiah Pead, RB. Pead had another terrific season, as he finished with 1,110 yards -- the first Cincinnati running back in 25 seasons to have back-to-back 1,000 yard seasons. His 14 total touchdowns scored led the Big East, and he became the anchor on offense once Collaros went down.

Defensive MVP: JK Schaffer, LB. This was a tough one because defensive tackle Derek Wolfe was solid this season as well and a big reason why the Bearcats played better defensively. But Schaffer was just a tad more consistent, finishing with 100 tackles for his third straight season. Schaffer flies around to the ball, whether it's in the run or the pass game, and is so good teams have game planned to take him out of the match.

Turning Point: Collaros' injury. Cincinnati was undefeated in league play when Collaros got hurt in the second quarter against West Virginia. Cincinnati ended up dropping two straight and losing control of its Big East and BCS destiny. Credit Munchie Legaux for rebounding from a dismal first start to lead Cincinnati to two straight wins to close the season, allowing the Bearcats to get a share of the conference. But they lost the tiebreaker for the right to go to the BCS because they were not ranked higher than West Virginia in the final BCS standings.

What's next: Cincinnati plays Vanderbilt in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl, and there is a chance Collaros will be able to play. This team loses some big-time players, from Collaros to Pead to Wolfe and Schaffer, but there is depth and talent. How this team comes together in the offseason with major senior leaders gone is going to be a huge story line to follow.

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