Sorry, kids. Summer is over. Today is the first day of September and that means its time for a return to school. But it also means it time to get back to college football. The Cincinnati Bearcats will do just that tonight at Nippert Stadium as they host the Tennessee-Martin Skyhawks at Nippert Stadium.
What’s a Skyhawk?
As you probably know, UTM is not one of the 128 FBS football programs. It plays in the Ohio Valley Conference, which is a Division I FCS conference. Although a team without a long history of winning titles, the Skyhawks have had a record at or above .500 in seven of the last 10 seasons, which spans the entire tenure of head coach Jason Simpson. In that time, the Skyhawks are 65-49, including a 29-33 record on the road.
Last season, they banged out a 7-4 record, including a 6-2 mark against the OVC. That record included losses to Ole Miss and Arkansas, continuing the program’s tradition of challenging itself against FBS opponents. UTM has played at least two FBS foes in every season since 2011, and this year, it will face off against three, taking on Hawaii and Georgia State after UC. In 21 total contests against FBS programs, the Skyhawks have just one win, but that victory came four years ago today, as they defeated Memphis on Sept. 1, 2012.
Like UC, the Skyhawks are a high-scoring team that struggles to stop opponents. They averaged 35.5 points and 456.6 yards of total offense per game in 2015, while allowing 33.6 and 394.3, respectively. They feature only nine returning starters from last year’s team and are replacing some key folks, including quarterback Jarod Neal, who threw for 3,117 yards and 30 touchdowns a year ago.
There’s blood in the water and the Bearcats will be doing their Jaws impression. UC led the American Athletic Conference and ranked sixth nationally in total offense last season, averaging 537.8 yards per game. There has been some turnover on that side of the ball for sure. The team’s top six receivers are all gone and Gunner Kiel is no longer the starter, dropping to third string.
However, with Hayden Moore at the helm, the Bearcats should still be able to put up points and yards at a rapid pace. Moore threw for 1,885 yards and nine touchdowns (along with 11 interceptions) last season filling in for Kiel. He eclipsed the 200-yard mark five times and even tallied 557 yards and four scores against Memphis. He has head coach Tommy Tuberville’s confidence and has had an entire offseason to get acclimated to offensive coordinator Zac Taylor’s tweaks to the game plan.
When it comes to skill position players, UC may be best served by trying to get running backs Mike Boone and Tion Green going. Although known for its passing more than its rushing, UC ranked fifth in the AAC in rushing offense, averaging a respectable 177.92 yards per game last season. Boone and Green combined for 1,478 yards on the ground, as well as 17 touchdowns, so they both know how to fight for yards and find a way into the end zone. Boone is the more explosive of the two, averaging 6.8 yards per carry in two seasons. The Bearcats benefited from a trio of excellent backs last season, but now that leading rusher Hosey Williams is gone, Boone and Greene will likely get more work.
On the outside, Nate Cole, Kahlil Lewis and JUCO transfer Devin Gray are listed as the starters at wideout, while DJ Dowdy gets the start at tight end. Cole is the lone veteran for a really young squad. The senior has 446 career receiving yards and is poised to be the leader for the group. Dowdy is another player who is in a position to step out of the shadows and into the limelight after years of meager production due to a logjam of pass-catchers.
If UTM has any hope of slowing down the Bearcats, it will need to get pressure on Moore. There is a chance the Skyhawks could do just that, as they have a talented pass-rusher in Damani Taylor. An All-OVC preseason selection, Taylor had 54 tackles, 9.0 tackles for loss and 5.5 sacks last season. Hey, UC could use a guy like that! Taylor will work against two new starting offensive tackles for the Bearcats, who do return talented interior lineman Deyshawn Bond, Ryan Leahy and Idarius Ray.
Although UTM was a strong offensive team last season, it may take some time for it to get going in 2016 due to the turnover at several key positions. Along with Neal, the Skyhawks no longer have last year’s leading rusher Trent Garland or leading receiver Rod Wright. If you’re looking for a player to watch on that side of the ball, Caylon Weathers is your guy. He caught 62 passes last season and turned those into 726 yards and eight touchdowns.
Working against Weathers, and new starting quarterback Gunnar Holcombe, a Marshall transfer, will be a UC defense that is eager to improve on last year’s less than stellar effort. The Bearcats ranked eighth in the AAC in total defense (408.6 YPG) and were abysmal when it came to rushing the passer, accumulating all of 13 sacks, the worst mark in the conference.
Addressing that second part will fall on the shoulders of Alex Pace and Cortez Broughton, returning starters at defensive tackle, as well as an assortment of players at defensive end (Kimoni Fitz, Landon Brazile, Mark Wilson and Kevin Mouhon), who will be trying to make up for the departure of last year’s best pass rusher, Silverberry Mouhon.
Holcombe and Weathers may find it tough to get into a rhythm against UC’s experienced secondary, which includes tackle machine Zach Edwards and up and comer Tyrell Gilbert at safety along with Linden Stephens and Grant Coleman at the corner spots.
The defensive unit is anchored at linebacker, however. Led in the middle by Eric Wilson, who is flanked by running mate Bryce Jenkinson, the Bearcats boast more returning starters across the defense than most. Now that experience has to start showing improvement. Matching up against a UTM team that will at least try to push the envelope will be a good early season appetizer.
This game will go a long way in showing how UC will play this season. Will the offensive scheme be altered under a new offensive coordinator? Is Moore ready to be “the guy”? Who will get the targets in the passing game? What will the work split be like for Boone and Green? Is the defense ready to take a step forward?
All the answers we get will not be written in stone, as UTM is far from the type of competition the Bearcats will face in the near future, Houston on Sept. 15 for example.
While there may be some new wrinkles and play calling from UC in this one, expect it to still run up the yardage and the score early. I’d also expect to see a large percentage of the roster get into the game. In essence, this will be a nice way for the Bearcats to take stock and ease into the season with a win.