On paper, the Cincinnati Bearcats are the underdogs compared to the San Diego State Aztecs heading into their Hawaii Bowl matchup. In my previous article, we took a look at the major offensive points of emphasis and major matchups to look out for. In that article I explained that, offensively-speaking, the Bearcat offense is a league away in total efficiency, balance, and overall effectiveness at doing what an offense should do; score points. With that in mind, some may ask questions as to why they would be underdogs when they house a top five offense? The answer is simple; they're playing a top ten defense. Here are some major matchups to look forward to on the defensive side of the football.
Turning Things Around
The Bearcats were hopeful before the season for a Conference Championship and maybe even a New Year's Six Bowl appearance. After injuries to starting quarterback Gunner Kiel and the emergence of other strong conference contenders like Temple, Memphis, and Houston, it looked bleak. It was brought to reality after losing to all three of those teams, as well as BYU. Meanwhile, the Aztecs started off 1-3, but haven't lost a game since.
The Aztecs managed to do exactly what Tuberville had wanted his Bearcats to do all season. They had a defining moment, jumped on the momentum, and rode it all the way to the end of the season. Granted, they had a little help by playing in a less than par conference, but they are more than capable of playing to the level of their opponent.
A major matchup to watch isn't one on the sideline, in the booth, or on the field. It bars no statistic or reputable logistical backing and has nothing to do with strength of schedule or conference championships. A major factor is that of confidence. Both teams need confidence in play on the field, confidence in play calling off the field, and confidence that you can win before ever hitting the field. This is the case especially for Cincinnati, who thrives off of momentum.
Numbers Can Lie
It is amazing the differences a coach can bring to the table. Two different styles of coaching used on two opposite sides of the country. There is emphasis on the fact that both coaches can be seen in their ranks on opposite sides of the ball (offensively and defensively). For example, Tommy Tuberville has his offensive-based scheme putting out huge numbers averaging 373.1 passing yards a game (4th best in the country), 186.3 rushing yards a game (47th best in the country), and 36.1 points per game (26th in the country).
Meanwhile, Rocky Long likes to keep his defense in mind when scheming and has them in the top ten for overall defense (9th overall), the top 25 for passing yards allowed (22nd overall), and in the top 15 in the country in rush defense (13th overall). This is a team that gives up less than 300 yards a game with only 17.2 points a game to match. That in mind, in their current winning streak, the Aztec defense has allowed 12.6 points per game. Despite significant statistical backing behind their defensive supremacy, these Aztecs happen to play in one of the weakest conferences in college football. They only rank 41st in overall defensive efficiency, rank 61st in FPI, and have the 69th overall strength of schedule. The Aztecs are tough, but their statistics are bluffing.
Cincinnati vs. Consistency
The Bearcats have been known to give up quite a lot of rushing yards. They rank a mere 94th in rushing defense to match a slightly better 61st in pass defense. The Aztec offense happens to play into the weakness of the Bearcats yet, despite this, I can see the Bearcats finding success stopping this San Diego State offense. They will give up yardage no doubt, but with the leadership and depth they have in the secondary I see them as a team capable of putting eight guys in the box if they needed to and running man to man coverage across the board.
The question would still remain for their lack of consistency defensively, especially against the run. Another key point to keep in mind is that the Aztecs' slower offensive style will be something the Bearcats aren't really used to. The only team who had success doing that against the Bearcats this year was Temple, who finished 24th overall in the final rankings. Cincinnati has the ability to man up and stop the run when they want to and when the momentum is on their side. The question still remains if they will be up to the physicality of the challenge. The advantage defensively goes to the Aztecs, but the Bearcats aren't as far behind as statistics make them look.