It is officially August and that means college football will be played THIS MONTH. To be exact, Cincinnati Bearcats football will be played four weeks from today. Cincinnati opens the 2019 season at Nippert Stadium against UCLA on Thursday August 29.
With 28 days until kick off, here are 28 reasons to get excited about the 2019 Bearcats football season.
1. Continuing the momentum
Cincinnati went 11-2 in 2018 and won the Military Bowl, their first bowl since since 2012 and highest win total since 2009 (much more on that below). Coach Luke Fickell is entering his third year and has been recruiting very well. There is definitely a buzz around the program, one that did not exist the last few years, especially from outsiders. There are some folks who view the Bearcats as a sleeper choice to win the AAC and represent the Group of Five in a New Year’s Six Bowl game. After going 4-8 in both 2016 and 2017, the Bearcats are on the upswing and it’s an exciting time to be a fan.
2. New Year’s Six Bowl game aspirations
Since playing in the Sugar Bowl on January 1, 2010, Cincinnati’s bowl games have included the Liberty Bowl, Belk Bowl twice, Hawaii Bowl, and Military Bowl twice. Not terrible, but nothing too exciting, especially the repetitive games. Cincinnati enters 2019 with New Year’s Six Bowl game aspirations and this season the Group of Five bowl bid likely goes to the Cotton Bowl, which would obviously be a first for UC. The bowl tie-ins for the AAC kind of suck - Birmingham Bowl, Military again, or the Bad Boy Lawn Mowers Gasparilla Bowl played in Tampa’s god awful stadium.
3. Fountain of youth
Bearcats came into 2018 with the third youngest roster in FBS. After the experience of 11 wins and a bowl game victory, growth and development should be noticeable in 2019.
4. The chance to beat Ohio State
Cincinnati is 2-14 all-time vs Ohio State with their last win coming in 1897. In their last meeting, Cincinnati lost 50-28 in 2014. The Buckeyes are coming off a 13-1, Big Ten and Rose Bowl Championship season. Luke Fickell served as an Ohio State assistant from 2002-2016 (and was interim head coach in 2011). He also played for the Buckeyes from 1993-1996, so he knows what it takes to win in Columbus. Many of the players Fickell and his staff are pursuing on the recruiting trail are also Ohio State targets and there’s definitely a lot of familiarity between the local prospects on both teams.
Maybe the Bearcats win. Maybe they don’t. But the fact that there is a possibility that exists, that if everything goes right, they could pull it off, is reason enough to fire fans up for the season. Win or lose, this is a major opportunity for UC to prove the Bearcats belongs in the national discussion.
5. The chance to sweep UCLA in basketball and football
University of Cincinnati Los Angeles. That’s what UCLA stands for and could become permanent if the Bearcats go a perfect 4 for 4 in their double home-and-home. In 2017, Cincinnati basketball coming off losing two out of three games, won at UCLA in Pauley Pavilion. They completed the sweep in 2018, winning by 29 (93-64). UCLA later fired coach Steve Alford and poached Mick Cronin (1 Sweet 16 in 9 years) from Cincinnati.
In week 1 of the 2018 college football season, in Chip Kelly’s Bruins debut, Cincinnati went into the Rose Bowl and upset UCLA, coming off a 4 win season. The final half of their football home-and-home happens week 1 at Nippert Stadium.
6. Stable of running backs
Michael Warren is the big name in the Bearcats backfield. “The truck” was 12th in the nation in rushing yards (1,329) and 4th in touchdowns (16). Behind Warren, a pair of freshman each ran for almost 500 yards each - Tavion Thomas (499) and Charles McClelland (485).
To add to their already deep backfield, Gerrid Doaks returns after missing all of 2018 with an injury. Doaks led the team in rushing yards in 2017 (513 yards).
7. QB Desmond Ridder’s progression
The 2018 AAC Rookie of the Year Desmond Ridder started 12 out of 13 games in 2018, coming off the bench week 1 to help beat UCLA. In those 12 starts, he threw 2 or more touchdown passes in 8 games. He threw just 5 interceptions and completed 62% of his passes. He ran or 583 yards and 5 touchdowns on the ground. Entering year 2, he should be more comfortable running the offense.
8. Growth of young wide receivers
Khalil Lewis was the team’s #1 wide receiver in 2018 (his 782 yards were 300 more than the next best WR. His graduation opens up opportunities for young wide receivers like Jayshon Jackson, Alec Pierce and Trent Cloud. A pair of seniors are likely to open the season as WR1 and 2 and will need to play much larger roles than they have been accustomed to - Rashard Medaris and Thomas Geddis combined for 700 yards, 4 TD.
9. Josiah Deguara’s potential
Deguara was the highest rated TE in the AAC by Pro Football Focus in 2018. He was third on the team in receiving yards (468) and second in receiving TDs (5).He proved to be an extremely reliable target for Ridder on third downs. Bruno Labelle, Wilson Huber, and Josh Whyle may also see increased playing time in 2019 at tight end.
10. Offensive line growth
The lack of experience and continuity on the offensive line had a huge impact on their consecutive 4 win seasons from 2016-2017. Bearcats do lose three guys from 2018 (Dino Boyd, Kyle Trout, Garrett Campbell). But Jakari Robinson started 6 games at center. Morgan James and Chris Ferguson both return with Ferguson likely sliding from RT to LT and James maintaining his spot at RG. It’s possible the Bearcats start a pair of freshman on the line with Jeremy Cooper expected to start at LG and freshman Lorenz Metz is in the mix to start at RT along with Vincent McConnell and Darius Harper.
11. Young defensive line
Cortez Broughton and Marquise Copeland clogged the middle as well as any two massive humans could on defense. They both graduated following the 2018 season, after they combined for 11.5 sacks and 26 tackles for loss. This is certainly their one big weakness on defense entering 2019, but will look for Curtis Brooks, Elijah Ponder, Marcus Brown and Jabari Taylor to step up.
Cincinnati has several players who are more than capable of playing on the ends, to help mask that potential weakness (to start the season at least) on the inside of their line. Michael Pitts had 4 sacks as a sophomore in 2018 (tied for first among returning defenders). Kevin Mouhon started 12 games in 2017, but missed last season due to injury. Young guys like Myjai Sanders, Malik Vann, Ethan Tucky will be asked to play big roles.
12. Potentially dominant secondary
The only two players to record multiple interceptions are back - CB Coby Bryant (2) and S James Wiggins (4). Of Wiggins 4 interceptions, 3 of them were game winners - Ohio (Ohio was at the UC 1 yard line, with 52 seconds left), SMU (walk off pick six - offense never saw the field) and Virginia Tech in the Military Bowl (interception with 40 seconds left to clinch the game). CBs Cam Jeffries, Arquon Bush and Safety Darrick Forest Jr add to this strength. Forrest and Jeffires each had one interception in 2018.
13. Strength of the linebackers
As good as the secondary will be and the potential that the defensive line has, the Bearcats linebackers are as sure of a thing as there is on this defense. Perry Young and Jarrell White both play on the outside and they play like safeties - constantly calling out plays, reading the field and showing great quickness, covering all types of ground. White was the second leading tackles in 2018 and Young would have been closer to the top if not for an injury derailing his season. In 2017, he was second on the team with 101 tackles and 9 tackles for a loss.
In the middle, Bryan Wright had 54 tackles, 7.5 for a loss plus 4 sacks. He is a converted defensive end, meaning the Bearcats have a lot of hybrid defenders playing linebacker and the coaching staff really knows how to maximize their abilities.
14. James Smith a Ray Guy award candidate
Punters are people too! And James Smith is as good as they get. The best part about Smith is when he doesn’t punt (because the team is extending drives and scoring). But as long as his punting is kept to a minimum throughout the season, there are very few better. He averaged 46.6 yards per punt in 2018, which ranks 4th in the country. Through two seasons, he has punted 123 times and has recorded only 1 touch-back.
He was a Third Team AP All American in 2018 and is one of the favorites to win the 2019 Ray Guy Award, given to the nation’s top punter.
15. Stability and competence in coaching staff
In an age where coaching staffs are constantly turn over, Cincinnati is as stable as can be with all three coordinators (offense, defense, special teams) returning for a third straight season under Luke Fickell and several key position coaches being retained as well. Offensive Coordinate Mike Denbrock was pursued by several teams (most notably Kansas) and Defensive Coordinator Marcus Freeman reportedly had an offer from Ohio State to be a position coach. Seeing everyone return is great for continuity and also helps recruiting.
16. The fruit of Luke Fickell’s first recruiting class
Despite getting a late start, Luke Fickell signed the #63 recruiting class in 2017. Those guys are now all either juniors or redshirt sophomores. That group includes RB Michael Warren, LB Jarrell White, CB Coby Bryant, OC Jakari Robinson - all of whom will play huge roles in 2019.
17. Overall success of recruiting
When Luke Fickell was hired, he made it a priority to focus on “the state of Cincinnati” and keep kids home. He has certainly succeeded, signing 9 kids from Cincinnati in his first 3 classes and another 3 are committed for 2020, including LB Jaheim Thomas, who chose Cincinnati despite scholarship offers from Ohio State, Alabama, Michigan, Notre Dame and QB Evan Prater, who is currently ranked 5th among quarterbacks for 2020. Cincinnati’s 2020 class is currently ranked 45th in the country, ahead of many Power 5 schools and second in the AAC.
18. Third down dominance
Cincinnati was 7th in the country in third down conversions, converting 48% of their 197 attempts. Defensively, the Bearcats were ranked 5th allowing teams to convert third downs only 28% of the time (55 times out of 194 attempts). There’s a simple correlation to these numbers and Cincinnati’s 11 wins - keep the offense rolling on the field, you are likely to score. Keep your defense off the field, you can’t give up points.
19. Last chance to beat UConn
2019 will be UConn’s last as a member of the AAC in all sports. It’s possible that these two teams meet in the future, but for now, UConn and Cincinnati’s football series is over. Bearcats are 12-3 all-time vs the Huskies, with all three losses coming in Hartford. 2019’s game is in Nippert where Cincinnati has never lost to UConn. Last year, they won 49-7.
20. To be the champ, you have to beat the champ
I talked earlier about the possibility of winning the AAC and going to a major bowl game. Well, the only real way that happens is by beating UCF. Cincinnati might be as close to even to UCF as they have been over the last 3 years. This game will be played on a Friday night at Nippert, giving the Bearcats an added advantage. Last time they played at Nippert, was a lightning-shortened game that the Knights won 51-23. Last year’s game was played on primetime ABC, with College Gameday in the house. UCF won 38-13.
21. Houston, we have a problem
Last time Cincinnati played Houston, it was Cincinnati that had a problem. They lost on an ESPN Thursday night game at Nippert, 40-16. Houston led 12-10 entering the 4th and the wheels just completely fell off for Cincinnati. Back-to-back pick sixes late in the quarter helped inflate the score a bit.
Dana Holgorsen is the new coach at Houston and Cincinnati last faced him in 2011 when he was in his first year at West Virginia. Mountaineers won 24-21 in Nippert.
22. Revenge against Marshall
In 2017, during Luke Fickell’s first season, Marshall came into Nippert and won 38-21. On the road half of a home-and-home series, it’s time for the Bearcats to get revenge. That 2017 team was extremely undermanned and Marshall came out guns blazing from the opening kick. For Cincinnati to be taken seriously, they cannot lose to other Group of Five teams.
23. Ring, ring, ring
For 13 years, the Victory Bell has sat in a trophy case at the Lindner Center. Miami Ohio may not be an exciting opponent any more, but outside of this game, Cincinnati does not have any rivalry games or play for any other trophies so keeping the Bell is a big deal.
24. Snapping their longest AAC losing streak
Temple has beaten Cincinnati 4 straight times (scores from 2015-2018 - 34-26, 34-13, 35-24, 24-17). The latter score was an overtime loss last season - Cincy entered the game 6-0 and ranked #20. Temple won 24-17 in overtime, despite two late interceptions by the Bearcats defense. Kicker Cole Smith was 1-4 on field goals but made a 40 yard field goal in the first half, however the refs claimed “TV cameras were not ready” even though fans at home watched the kick go through the uprights on TV. He missed the re-kick.
25. Celebration season
Throughout the 2019 season, Cincinnati will celebrate the 10 year anniversary of the 2009 team that went 12-0. That whole team will be inducted into the Bearcats Hall of Fame.
In addition to the Hall of Fame induction, the players and former coach Brian Kelly will be honored at halftime of the Tulsa game on October 18.
26. Good time to be season ticket holders
Speaking of the celebration, all season ticket holders will be sent a special bobblehead that commemorates the famous Tony Pike to Armon Binns touchdown pass to win the Pittsburgh game, securing the Big East title and Sugar Bowl bid. The bobblehead includes the audio of the announcers on that famous play.
27. Strong home schedule
Season ticket holders should also be excited about a strong home schedule that includes UCLA coming to Nippert Stadium. Power 5 schools don’t often come to Nippert stadium and the last time a PAC-12 school did was Oregon State in 2007. UCF, who have gone unbeaten in conference play, plays at Nippert on a Friday night. The annual Victory Bell game takes place on campus for the first time since 2016.
28. Fun road trips
The schedule also lends itself to some fun trips - obviously the chance to go to Ohio State is a bucket list even. It is the closest and most exciting away game. Marshall on 9/21 is a fun trip for fans, especially ones who understand Marshall’s history. I took the trip last time Cincinnati played at Marshall and Huntington was a blast, the complete opposite of Morgantown. In conference, Memphis the day after Thanksgiving and Houston on 10/12 are tough games, but will be quite significant. Two great cities that offer plenty to do for fans outside of the football game.
28 days until Cincinnati kicks off the 2019 season against UCLA. What else are you excited about this season?