Without a doubt, the Cincinnati Bearcats’ matchup with the No. 15 Houston Cougars on Sept. 15 is the biggest game of the season. A home game for the Bearcats, it represents a chance to make an early statement and jump start a potential surprise American Athletic Conference title run.
However, no matter how that game turns out, it will be how well the Bearcats play in October that will determine what kind of season 2016 will be.
The month starts with an absolute bang as UC will host the USF Bulls, dark horse contenders for the AAC crown, on Oct. 1. Since the Bulls put an absolute shellacking on the Bearcats last November, this rematch has been hotly anticipated, at least for the red and black. As you may (not want to) remember, USF rolled out to a 51-3 score at halftime and coasted to a 65-27 victory last time these teams met. Hayden Moore and Gunner Kiel both played in that contest but combined to throw four interceptions. The Bearcats fared poorly on the ground as well, finishing with 97 total rushing yards while averaging 2.8 yards per carry.
If those numbers don’t hit you in the gut, then consider this: the Bearcats’ eight first half drives ended in a fumble, an interception, a punt, two more interceptions, a field goal, a punt and a fumble.
The Bulls finished the year at 8-5, ending a streak of four-straight losing seasons. Virtually no expectations last season helped them sneak up on some folks, but with Quinton Flowers and Marlon Mack back on offense and Auggie Sanchez and Deatrick Nichols on defense, they won’t be fooling anybody this year, especially the Bearcats.
After battling USF, UC will travel north to take on UConn on Oct. 8. Now before you laugh because UC has defeated UConn in five-straight games, outscoring the Huskies 188-73 in that time, remember that the Huskies are coming off a 6-7 season and their first bowl appearance since 2010. Bob Diaco seemingly has the program headed in the right direction and playing on the road against a team with something to prove is far from a walk in the park.
Up next is a home game against East Carolina. This is not the ECU we have come to know in the last few seasons. Ruffin McNeill is no longer the head coach so this team will be finding its identity in 2016 under new head coach Scottie Montgomery, the former offensive coordinator at Duke. However, with receiver Zay Jones (98 receptions, 1099 yards, 5 TDs) back in the fold, matched with Montgomery’s ability to work with quarterbacks and offenses, the Pirates could be one of those teams that throws the cover off the ball and keeps itself alive. Getting in a shootout is a scary proposition for UC, which hasn’t been particularly dominant on defense in the past few seasons. Even last year, when ECU fell to 5-7 (ending three-straight seasons of at least eight wins), it still took a last second field goal from Andrew Gantz to get UC a victory.
After slogging through those first three games, the Bearcats will celebrate Halloween (well, Oct. 29-ween actually) in Philadelphia against the Temple Owls. Another rags to riches story like USF, the Owls are a program that is on the rise under Matt Rhule’s tutelage. Temple took down the Bearcats last season in Cincinnati (34-26) and returns its starting quarterback (PJ Walker) and leading rusher (All-AAC first team running back Jahad Thomas) along with pass rushing talents Haason Reddick and Praise Martin-Oguike. That should be enough returning talent to make Temple a dangerous team once again.
Even though UC had a disappointing finish in 2015, it never lost consecutive games. In fact, the Bearcats haven’t lost multiple games in a row since September/October of 2014 when they dropped three-straight contests against Ohio State, Memphis and Miami (Florida). This October stretch could very well be the next run of UC losses, but it could also be the foundation on which the Bearcats build their season of redemption.