The Cincinnati Bearcats entered the 2015 season as favorites in the American Athletic Conference. They were nearly unanimous picks to win the East Division (29 of 30 possible votes) and 22 votes went the Bearcats' way in picking the AAC Champion.
Since that point, the Cincinnati Bearcats have fallen to 3-3, with last-minute losses at the hands of Temple and Memphis, plus the devastating loss to BYU last Friday night. There were certainly question marks entering the season, but something about this start is all the more painful. There are three AAC teams ranked in the AP Top 25 and the Amway Coaches Poll at this moment and Cincinnati isn't one of them.
Instead, Memphis, having survived an offensive onslaught from the Bearcats, has burst onto the scene, beating a previously top-15 ranked Ole Miss team just last week. Temple used five turnovers by the Bearcats to pull out a close one in the newly renovated Nippert Stadium and have since won game after game. Houston has done what was expected of Cincinnati in the preseason, using a high-powered offense to support a defense needing time to grow. They are undefeated and will host Cincinnati later this season.
As for the Bearcats, the offense has been there. Even after a down game this past week (341 total yards) offensively, Cincinnati ranks 7th in the nation, averaging 546.2 yards per game. Cincinnati averages 36.5 points per game, which is good enough for 27th nationally. The defense is another story though, ranked 78th in the country through the first seven weeks. Turnovers were an early-season storyline for Cincinnati and, even now, they rank 126th in the country, averaging a -1.67 turnover margin per game and a -10 margin overall.
Now, Cincinnati has six games remaining on their regular season schedule and a number of questions abound. Despite the numerous things we can get into, I know I will be watching for three things in particular over the Bearcats' second half of the season.
1. Pass Rush
We normally begin on offense, but let's start this one on the defensive side of the ball. The entire defense is... well... a mess. A couple weeks ago against Miami (FL), the defense was presentable, as they flew to the ball and played with a physicality and passion that was lacking in the previous weeks. Last week against BYU, the defense began the game with that same energy, but couldn't maintain it and when momentum finally swung towards the Cougars in the second half, the flood gates broke.
While the secondary just flat-out left receivers wide-open and every level of the defense failed to bring down BYU ball-carriers, I want to see something more from the defensive line. The Bearcats have been decent on the defensive line in rush defense at times, although they are still 75th in the country giving up 4.88 yards per carry.
Again, everything needs to be improved defensively.
However, for the next six games, I really want to see some semblance of a pass rush. Cincinnati has six sacks on the season thus far. Quick math says that's an average of one sack per game. That average is good enough for T116th in the country, behind the likes of UConn, UCF, Texas State and Miami (OH), to name a few. For the hoopla defensive end Silverberry Mouhon had generated entering the season, he has only one of those six sacks. While his impact has been more than just that one sack, you would hope to see more in the way of statistical production. Sione Tongamoa leads the team with two sacks from his defensive tackle position, but the entire unit has struggled this season to put pressure on opposing quarterbacks.
Successful defense, particularly in a offense-driven AAC, is predicated on being able to control the line of scrimmage and bringing pressure on the opposing quarterback. Cincinnati's secondary is young and mostly inexperienced. If the Bearcats can generate a more consistent pass rush, or at least make things harder on quarterbacks, that will only help the pass defense as a whole. This isn't an easy thing to fix, as blitzing exposes a struggling secondary even more and it's pretty clear the defensive line is having it's own struggles rushing the passer. Either way, I want to see a pass rush over the next six games.
This quarterback situation needs to be worked out. Heading into last week, it was considered an open competition, one that I really had no preference on the winner. Hayden Moore has been solid in his first action as a starter and Gunner Kiel still offers a high-ceiling and solid play in his own right. Both have had their fair share of turnovers and struggles, but Cincinnati is a top-10 offense for a reason.
Moore got the start last week as the hot hand, and played well in the early-going against BYU. However, in the fourth quarter, the sacks piled up and the freshman looked inexperienced and overwhelmed by the Cougars' pass rush. I come from the corner that would have subbed Moore out in favor of Kiel when everything broke down, but regardless, this quarterback "controversy" needs to end.
Weekly positional competitions work in many cases, but I don't think they can work at quarterback. That is one position where the team needs to know who will be leading them at gametime, early in the week. Quarterback is a position that calls for that player to take ownership of the leadership role, but it can only be one player, in my opinion. I'm not sure if Moore is really the better option over Kiel, but if Tommy Tuberville picks Moore, he should be comfortable to stick with him and give Moore the keys to the team.
I personally would go back, and stick with (health permitting) Kiel. He is the experienced option with all the ability to keep the Cincinnati offense clicking. Moore will have his time, but I like Kiel. Regardless of what I think, the quarterback situation will be a key to the remaining part of the season. If this back and forth continues, I'm afraid the offense could struggle as the season progresses without someone definitively taking that mantle at quarterback.
I'll keep this brief. Last week, Cincinnati sat on timeouts with 3:55 left in the game, facing fourth down, losing by 14 points. Tuberville decided the game was over, didn't attempt the fourth down and saved his timeouts. He may have been protecting his young quarterback from further chaos or simply didn't see the value in trying to make the difficult comeback, but nonetheless, it would have been nice to see them play that game out.
My feeling here is just that I want to see effort and improvement, even from the coaching staff. Mix it up. Try something a little different, but don't outright throw the rest of the season away. There are too many talented upperclassmen on this roster to throw in the towel. While I'm sure Tuberville had his reasons for how he handled the end of the BYU game, Cincinnati needs to play out the rest of the season and continue to improve, even if the end of the year win-loss total is less than we all hoped.
Cincinnati is 3-3 and has a number of question marks at this part of the season, but these are the three things I hope to see over the next six games. These are my keys. When you watch this current Cincinnati team, I don't think it's a stretch to imagine that as many as three losses could be facing the Bearcats the rest of the way (@ No. 21 Houston, @ East Carolina, someone else). The talent on this roster is good enough to do better than that, but it will just depend on if Cincinnati can finally develop some consistency in their pass rush, if they can decide on a quarterback and how the coaches coach the second half of the season.