The 2014 season is shaping up to be pretty damn interesting. Starting with the fact that internal expectations (conference crown, 10+ wins, and a good bowl appearance) are aligned with the expectations from those outside the bubble, that is really new. For all the success the Bearcats have had over the last decade or so they have been consistently underrated. In the past those slights have been fuel for the fire, and all the coaches that have been here have used that to their advantage. Now the Bearcats are the hunted, not the hunters, and that is a sizeable change for the guys who have been around the program, particularly the handful that were around for the 2010 season, which was really the last time that external expectations were this high. Remember, the 2010 Bearcats fell just outside the preseason polls, and that was as high as they got as the bottom fell out down the stretch on the way to a 4-8 record.
On paper this team is different from the 2010 group, including in the most important way, depth. The general lack of depth was the undoing of the 2010 group. That was particularly true on defense where the front 7 was paper thin. Derek Wolfe and John Hughes had to play, essentially every snap of every game. Walter Stewart had to play linebacker because there was literally no one else who could play that spot. In fact they could have used a Walt clone that year, one to play outside linebacker, the other to play end. But they had just one, which brought the concept of Brandon Mills starting defensive end which was sub optimal.
That won't be an issue, or at least it shouldn't be one with this team. There are some positions where the depth is ridiculous; the Bearcats go 9 or 10 deep at receiver, they have 5 defensive ends who can play, 6 or 7 linebackers who can contribute, two and a half running backs who are proven and not nearly enough space for all of them. Those are problems, but they are good problems to have.
The only big questions come from the spots where the biggest bodies play. On offense the Bearcats have to fill the two guard spots vacated by Austen Bujnoch, Sam Longo and Andre Cureton. In reality one of those spots is going to be filled by Parker Ehringer who is moving in from right tackle (his place is going to longtime contributor Cory Keebler who has just 1 start, but 35+ games of experience). The other should be taken by Kevin Schloemer, another long serving backup getting his chance to start. The starting group should be fine, but the starters were fine last year, until the injuries took their toll at the end of the year. What happens to this group if a similar outbreak of the injury bug bites again? Darren Hiller likes to play 8 or 9 offensive linemen a game, and there are guys like Ryan Leahy, and Justin Murray who can play 20 or 30 snaps credibly, but I am not sure UC has that many reserve linemen who can play a full game in a pinch. Is Kyle Williamson up to that task? Is converted DE Chad West? There are no definitive answers right now. If everyone stays healthy the offensive line should be very good, if not I don't really know.
I don't know at all what is going to happen at defensive tackle, which is probably the biggest question mark on this team. It is now or never time for Brandon Mitchell who has long been the biggest of the lot at DT, but hasn't had the consistency and day to day focus to reach his potential. Cam Beard is back in the mix after being lost in the shuffle last year, can he finally deliver on his potential? Can UC count on anything from Alex Pace? Is Hakeem Allonce really the answer to Bearcat prayers? Will any of the freshman be forced to play before their time? The Bearcats defensive tackles weren't amazing last year, but they were rock solid. Rock solid is an achievable goal for this group given the talent (everyone in this group was ranked three stars), but the probability of getting there is an unknown at this point.
Less of an unknown is quarterback, where Gunner Kiel will be the starter against Toledo unless he has a complete meltdown in the 33 days between now and the opener. Gunner isn't a known quantity, but he has shown enough in spring and in practice for me to be reasonably confident that he can replicate the production of Brendon Kay from last year. Having the Bearcats array of receiving talent will help a lot, but he is probably the most talented Bearcat quarterback since Greg Cook. If the line can keep him upright, and it should, he will be pretty good.
The potential of Gunner is what has so many people outside Cincinnati buzzing about this team. I think that he is talented enough and smart enough that he will eventually figure it out. But when the light comes on for Gunner is an open discussion, it could very well already be on. But we as fans won't know that until UC opens the season. Between then and now a lot can happen.