Just over the horizon, in the early stages of the Bearcat season, lays the most important game they will play against the Houston Cougars. Unfortunately for the Bearcats, the Cougars come to town in the third game of the season on a Thursday night. Cincinnati will have two games to be fine-tuned before facing the former champions of the AAC, which could mean the Bearcats will be playing their biggest threat before finally getting their momentum going.
The importance of the momentum gained or lost from this game cannot be overstated because the Cougars will need to prove that they can repeat and the Bearcats need verification that they are an elite team in their conference. Will the game be similar to the 2015 matchup that was decided by three points or will Houston run away with it after having a couple of big plays?
The Houston Cougars are returning and attempting to repeat as 13-1 AAC and Peach Bowl Champions and the Bearcats are looking to climb back to the top and knock off the Cougars, so what is there to look forward to?
Greg Ward Jr. is a numbers-maker that Houston hasn't seen in quite some time. He was impressively efficient in all facets of his game and, whether Bearcat fans like it or not, he outplayed Gunner Kiel in their matchup against one another last year. Sure, Kiel managed to hang up 523 yards through the air on the way to four touchdowns, but he also threw two interceptions. Ward Jr. had 161 yards passing, 119 yards rushing, and he managed to have the most important statistic; the victory.
Kiel completed 28 of 51 passes compared to Ward Jr. completing 16 of 24. If you take the amount of attempts Kiel made and give Ward Jr. the same amount, he would have thrown for 343 yards but also had the 119 he had on the ground. I anticipate the same kind of matchup when these two square up next season, but hopefully with Mike Boone receiving the nod as the starter, the Bearcats won't have to force Kiel into making 51 pass attempts for over 500 yards in a single game. Realize one thing: This game will have a lot of offense considering they scored 63 combined points in the pouring rain.
It doesn't take a sports analyst to know that the Bearcats didn't have much of a defense last season. They were in the latter half of the country in nearly every statistical category on the defensive side of the football and, when it came to rushing the quarterback, they were in the top five worst (whereas Houston was in the top 25 in total defense last season).
I know what you're thinking; How did the Bearcats keep it so close if they are one of the best teams on defense and offense? They played their hearts out when they went to Houston last season and that showed on a defensive possession when it looked like the Bearcats were going to get a goal line stop, but penalties and attitudes got in the way of winning. The Bearcats' defense is designed and capable of playing at the Cougars' level, but it is a matter of whether or not players developed as anticipated and if they want to win this game.
It is hard to put the nail on the head for either side of this matchup considering it is so far in the future. Come next season, things could be entirely different and the Bearcats could be nowhere near developed enough to be competitive. On the other hand, the Cougars could be fighting the injury bug.
Tom Herman will have his boys ready to play when they roll into Nippert Stadium, but the question still remains if Tommy Tuberville will. Honestly, my guess is that he will not. Looking at it from six months out, Cougars win 41-27.