It’s difficult to imagine the Cincinnati Bearcats making as great a leap they did during the 2018 season. They transformed from a 4-8 squad that seemed destined for years of rebuilding into an 11-win juggernaut that contended for an American Athletic Conference title, won its first bowl game since 2012 and was nationally ranked at season’s end. That is a masterpiece of a season but now the Bearcats need to perform an encore. After giving fans the taste of such rampant success, even a little regression could be seen as failure.
However, if you take a look at this team, there is every reason to believe it will compete at a high level once more. The offense is poised to take a giant leap forward with Desmond Ridder set to be the full-time starter for the entire year and, assuming he avoids the dreaded sophomore slump, he could be tasked with leading the passing game to new heights, especially since all-conference tight end Josiah Deguara is back to build on a breakout 2018 along with a promising group at wide receiver.
Ridder and the passing game won’t have to do it alone either, as the Bearcats have an embarrassment of riches when it comes to talent at running back. Michael Warren ripped through opposing defenses as the feature back last season, rushing for 1,329 yards and 19 touchdowns. When Warren wasn’t causing opponents to trip over themselves, freshmen Tavion Thomas (499 yards, six touchdowns) and Charles McClelland (485 yards, four touchdowns) gave us a glimpse at the promising future in the backfield. Having three proven running backs like that would be more than enough for most teams, but the Bearcats are clearly not most teams. Gerrid Doaks should be back and healthy this season and after the display he provided during the 2017 campaign, the competition at running back is going to be that much more fierce.
The offense should also benefit from at least some returning talent on the line, with Jakari Robinson, Chris Ferguson and Morgan James all having a variety of starting experience. There will certainly still be some growing pains with the departure of first-team all-conference lineman Dino Boyd and second-team all-conference lineman Garrett Campbell along with 13-game starter Kyle Trout, but with the experience they have and the reinforcements on the way, the Bearcats should once again be a team that has success in protecting the offensive backfield.
Large shifts in player personnel will also be felt on the defensive side of the ball, which was where the Bearcats were most effective last season, ranking 36th in the country in defensive S&P+ and at the top of the AAC in total yards allowed (303.5). Defensive linemen Cortez Broughton, Marquise Copeland and Kimoni Fitz helped usher in such defensive might, particularly in revamping the long dormant pass rush, but with Bryan Wright and Michael Pitts still on the attack and a secondary filled with proven playmakers like James Wiggins and Darrick Forrest and up and comers like Arquon Bush, defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman still has a lot of talent with which to work.
Taking a look at the schedule, its obvious that there are going to be plenty of challenges. The campaign opens like last year against UCLA and is followed by a game at Ohio State, which was a top 10 team in SB Nation’s S&P+ rankings in February and is pretty accustomed to such a standing. The Bearcats also play two-time defending AAC champion UCF in the beginning of October, meaning they’ll need to be at the top of their game early on and not hope to slowly ease into the campaign. In addition, road games against Houston, USF and Memphis will be far from easy.
With everything we know right now and with expectations set at a reasonable level, success can be found with this team even if they don’t win another 11 games. A 10 or even nine-win season may even do the trick. Luke Fickell clearly has a vision for this program and ensuring that it continues to compete is obviously a big part of that. With that written, let’s vote on what it will take for the 2019 season to be deemed a success.