After two straight Big East titles and BCS game appearances, Cincinnati came crashing down to earth with a 4-8 record in 2010.
Several factors conspired against the Bearcats in this disappointing season. There was the coaching transition, of course, as Butch Jones took over for Brian Kelly. There was a difficult early schedule that included games at Fresno State and NC State and versus Oklahoma, all of which Cincinnati lost. Injuries played a part, as starting receiver Vidal Hazelton went down in the opener with a torn ACL, and the team's most experienced cornerback (Dominique Battle) missed most of the year with a knee injury.
The Bearcats led the league in points scored and total offense but finished last in points allowed thanks to an undersized, inexperienced defense that gave up nearly 34 points per conference game. Unlike last season, when they could win shootouts late in the year because of their prolific offense, they continually ended their own drives with mistakes. Their abysmal minus-15 turnover margin was second-worst in the FBS.
Intangibles were at play as well. Jones had to fight a sense of entitlement that stemmed from those two straight championships. Senior center Jason Kelce told the Cincinnati Enquirer earlier this month that the team lacked the hunger it had in previous years.
So what can Cincinnati do to get back to the postseason in 2011?
Jones has a strong nucleus returning. The team loses only six starting seniors, none of them on defense. Quarterback Zach Collaros, running back Isaiah Pead and receiver D.J. Woods are all among the best at their position in the Big East, so the offense should thrive again, especially with a year of Jones' system under their belts. The Bearcats will miss start wideout Armon Binns, but freshman Anthony McClung showed promise late in the year, and former star recruit Dyjuan Woods and junior college transfer Kenbrell Thompkins will become eligible.
The defense remains an issue, and this offseason will be crucial in the weight room for the Bearcats to add some bulk. Jones has to fill in some gaps through recruiting and may look to a junior college player or two to provide immediate help.
Next year's schedule will be slightly easier, with difficult games against Tennessee and NC State but highly winnable contests against Austin Peay, Akron and Miami of Ohio. For the first time in a few years, the Bearcats won't be picked among the favorites for the Big East. But they should improve enough to get back to a bowl in 2011.