Week 12 - November 20, 2015 - Time: 8:00 PM ET - Raymond James Stadium
Who Are They?
USF is coming off a 4-8 season with a 3-5 record in the American Athletic Conference. Cincinnati hosted this matchup last season, winning 34-17, despite Gunner Kiel going down to injury. While the 4-8 record looks a little more intimidating than the one or two win teams we have outlined thus far, don't get too excited... or nervous... or whatever it is you feel when you read these. USF's four wins came against the likes of Western Carolina, UCONN, Tulsa and SMU. Throw out the FCS Western Carolina Catamounts, who finished 7-5 a year ago, and USF's wins came against teams that combined for five wins in 2014. Those three wins were by a combined 12 points. Four wins is four wins, but it's important to point out that two of those three FBS wins are against teams who have already been judged in this ranking series.
That said, I believe USF does belong here at #8. Head coach Willie Taggart is feeling some pressure, rightfully so, and has responded by replacing three assistant coaches and trading in his smash-mouth running focus on offense for an up tempo approach. The quarterback situation remains unsolved with sophomore Quinton Flowers and senior Steven Bench both in consideration for the starting spot. Bench threw for 611 yards last year with three touchdowns and two interceptions. Flowers had 111 passing yards, zero touchdowns and two interceptions a year ago. Neither option is particularly worrying.
The real threat for USF opponents is sophomore running back Marlon Mack who was the American Athletic Conference Rookie of the Year in 2014. Mack ran for 1,041 rushing yards and nine touchdowns last year, playing with explosiveness and power. He is an exciting player who should benefit from the up tempo offensive push. Mack averaged 5.2 yards per carry last year, which is impressive.
The rest of the USF roster is young and relatively unproven with only eight players, roster-wide, who are returning starters. There is some talent, but a lot of players need to be replaced from a team that wasn't impressive a year ago. The receivers are limited by the quarterback play and the offensive line is rebuilding. Defensively, the scheme is getting a facelift, switching to a 4-2-5, to better matchup with spread passing attacks like Cincinnati's. In the linebacking core and secondary, there is some talent that will make some plays. Junior linebacker Nigel Harris led the nation in forced fumbles per game last season and senior linebacker Tashon Whitehurst racked up 19 tackles in the spring game.
Why Should We Worry?
USF is a better team than Miami (OH), UCONN and Alabama A&M, but it feels somewhat marginal. The only thing that should concern Bearcats fans is Mack. I think the defense could be good enough to bother Cincinnati for a quarter or two and I think the quarterback position could make them a feisty team when they play in Tampa Bay, but the real star power is Mack. USF's only hope of upending the Bearcats begins and ends with the sophomore back. Mack is explosive and elusive, possessing the skill set and athleticism to make plays out of nothing. Cincinnati doesn't have much to worry about when looking at the USF roster on paper, but Mack is a pretty good player who can impact games as a playmaker.
And Why We Shouldn't...
Mack is the only threat right now and last year he managed a meager 54 yards rushing on 12 carries against the Bearcats defense. The receivers are unproven and the quarterback situation may still be unresolved by Week 12. The Cincinnati defense will have to stop Mack, but the Bearcats should be able to stack the box and dare the USF passing attack. USF will likely be too one-dimensional to challenge Cincinnati's defense.
As I said, the defense could matchup with Cincinnati from a pure scheme standpoint, but with Cincinnati's ability to run the ball in their own right (Mike Boone ran for 212 yards last year against USF), the Bearcats will be able to move the ball effectively, even if USF runs a scheme that should, in theory, matchup with the UC receivers.
Like the other teams on the lower part of this list, Cincinnati simply has too many weapons and I don't think the USF offense can exploit the Bearcats defensively. Cincinnati will have to travel to Florida for a late season against the Bulls and will have to contain an elusive, game-changing playmaker in Mack. Unfortunately for USF, their offense lacks the firepower outside of Mack to remain balanced, which simplifies the defensive gameplan for Cincinnati. Plus, I'm not sure if anyone is going to stop the Bearcats offense this season.