Monday, August 23, 2010
Best Case/Worst Case: Cincinnati
By Brian Bennett
It's time to revive our annual preseason series looking at the best and worst possible outcomes for each Big East school. We'll go in alphabetical order for these. And as always, we try to mix in a little fun with our predictions.
Opening the cases: Cincinnati.
Never underestimate the heart of a champion, but that's exactly what most people are doing with the Bearcats.
All Cincinnati has done is win back-to-back Big East titles and 18 straight regular season games. Yet the program is neither ranked in the major polls nor favored to win the league.
Well, Butch Jones already proved he can inherit a Brian Kelly team and keep it playing at a high level. He's an offensive mastermind as well, and he's got arguably the best offensive cast in the league to work with. Quarterback Zach Collaros shows that last year's Heisman-worthy, four-game starting stretch was no fluke, as he and receivers Armon Binns, Vidal Hazelton and D.J. Woods torch opposing secondaries. Isaiah Pead runs wild and the Bearcats lead the country in scoring.
The defense, doubted yet again, comes through and does enough to help the team win games. After winning a scrape at Fresno State in the opener, the Bearcats take a 3-0 record into a sold-out Paul Brown Stadium showdown against Oklahoma -- and they beat the Sooners for the best regular-season win in school history.
From there, the schedule softens and allows for an 8-0 start. Cincinnati suffers its one hiccup of the year at West Virginia, but recovers to sweep the final three games and deny Pitt the Big East title yet again in the season finale. An 11-1 record sends the Bearcats to the BCS for the third straight year, and this time they get it done by beating Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl.
Meanwhile, Notre Dame goes 2-10, leading to Brian Kelly's shocking first-year dismissal. A weeping Kelly announces at his farewell press conference: "I never should have left Cincinnati."
It's hard to three-peat. It's hard to successfully manage a coaching transition. The schedule is hard. And the season is hard to stomach for spoiled Cincinnati fans.
The offense scores a lot of points, but the Bearcats can't win shootouts every week. Injuries deplete the receiving corps, and Collaros can't possibly top last year's insane stats. The defense is still undersized, and a lack of depth all over takes its toll. Players used to winning all the time get frustrated and question the new staff.
Giant-killer Fresno State takes the Bearcats down in Week One, and the travel-weary team loses again at NC State 12 days later. The sluggish 1-2 start causes disinterest in the pro sports town of Cincinnati, and Paul Brown is all Sooner red for Oklahoma's visit. A 28-point blowout leaves the Bearcats battered and bruised at 1-4.
They rebound in the stretch that includes Miami of Ohio, Louisville and Syracuse, but UConn and West Virginia use their home-field advantage to turn the tables from last year's last-minute defeats. Pitt comes into Nippert Stadium in the finale and wins to clinch the Big East title, leaving Cincinnati at 5-7. Bearcats fans wonder if they have a Steve Kragthorpe situation on their hands, and Nippert expansion plans are put on indefinite hold.
Meanwhile, Notre Dame goes 12-0 and plays Ohio State for the BCS title as Kelly wins the coach of the year award. He announces at the award banquet: "I'm so glad I left Cincinnati."