After going 4-8 in both 2016 and 2017, Cincinnati improved to 11-2 in Luke Fickell’s second year as head coach. The 11 wins represent their most since 2009 (12) and a win in the Military Bowl was the first bowl victory since the 2012 Belk Bowl (win vs Duke).
The 2019 season is finally so close to kicking off and expectations are higher for Cincinnati than they have been in a long time.
1. Who is the most important player on offense?
There is no doubt that RB Michael Warren II is the most important player on offense in 2019. The junior running back was 12th in the nation with 1,329 yards in 2018 and 4th with 19 rushing touchdowns. Nicknamed “the truck”, the offense runs through Warren and a stable of running backs that includes Charles McClelland, Tavion Thomas, and 2017 leading rusher Gerrid Doaks.
Warren had 7 games with over 100 yards and scored a TD in 10 out of 12 games and in 7 of those 10 scored multiple touchdowns. (Note, he sat the final week of the regular season to nurse several injuries).
2. Who is the most important player on defense?
Safety James Wiggins is the most important player on the Bearcats defense. He led the team with 4 interceptions in 2018 and 3 of those were game winners.
In week 4 against Ohio, he made a clutch interception with Ohio on the UC 1 yard line. That allowed Cincinnati to hold on and win.
In week 8 on the road against SMU, Wiggins returned a pick six 86 yards in overtime to seal the Bearcats victory.
In the Military Bowl, Wiggins picked off Virginia Tech QB Ryan Willis in the final minute to secure the win.
In addition to all the interceptions, Wiggins was third on the team with 54 tackles. With questions on the interior of the defensive line and secondary, Wiggins needs to continue to be the caption of the defense on and off the field as a leader.
3) What should be the biggest change between last year and this year?
The easy answer is experience.
In 2018, Cincinnati had the third youngest roster in FBS. And with that, still won 11 games. They won on the road at UCLA to open the season and played at UCF in a primetime ABC game. Cincy also won a bowl game against Virginia Tech.
Desmond Ridder took zero snaps in 2017 and threw 311 passes in 2018. Those 311 passes should make him even better in 2019.
Michael Warren had just 54 carries in 2017 and had 244 carries in 2018. His body and the coaching staff now know what it is like to handle that kind of work load and can better manage his touches. He also proved capable of handling even more moving forward.
James Wiggins and CB Coby Bryant were complete non-factors in before last season when Wiggins led the team with 4 interceptions in 2018 and Bryant had 2. Their experience as part of last year’s 11th ranked defense should set them up as leaders on this year’s team.
That experience is what should make the Bearcats even better in 2019. Having gone through the highs and lows, and done it as such a young team, proves that the sky could be the limit.
4. What is the most important game on this schedule?
Cincinnati’s 2019 schedule is very exciting. You have a PAC-12 team coming to Nippert Stadium for the first time since 2007. Bearcats take the two-hour trip to Columbus to face a top five ranked Ohio State team. And their divisional-crossover games are against Houston and Memphis, both considered the top two contenders in the AAC West. But the most important game in 2019 is without question UCF.
Knights have won 16 straight AAC games and gone unbeaten the last two regular seasons, including a claimed National Championship in 2017. UCF have won three in a row against the Bearcats by a combined score of 113-39 and an average of 37-13.
Among the wins by the Knights include a 51-24 rain-shortened beat down in Fickell’s first season, the last time UCF played at Nippert Stadium. And last year’s difficult loss on the road, where College Gameday came to UCF and the game was played on ABC primetime.
This is the Bearcats first AAC game of 2019, they play at home on a Friday night. With the momentum of last year and excitement coming into this year, there’s no doubt Cincinnati will have a huge homefield advantage in October 4th, something they really haven’t had against UCF in their past 4 meetings. An upset would set the tone of conference play, shake up the standings, and put Cincinnati at the top of the possible Group of Five teams to make a New Year’s Six bowl game.
5. How will the Bearcats do in 2019?
Prediction - 11-2, AAC Champions, Cotton Bowl appearance
I believe the Bearcats finished 11-2, including a win in the AAC Championship game. I think a loss at Ohio State is likely, though it should be a much more competitive game than some of the recent top 5-10, big name opponents Cincinnati has played on the road.
UCF playing on the road is a big deal. For the first time in the series’ history, I think these teams are close to even and I think Nippert Stadium gives the Bearcats the edge. Cincinnati played well last year, but had too many costly mistakes against a team they needed to be perfect against. I believe they will be up for the challenge and better prepared to play as close to perfect as possible and upset the Knights.
The second loss will come the next week at Houston. It has the feel of a typical college football letdown. Riding high after program-defining win one week, lose on the road to a conference contender the next week. Houston QB D’Eriq King is the real deal and will provide trouble for the Bearcats defense.
If Cincinnati is 11-2, unless a big name Group of Five school like Boise State, Marshall, Fresno State goes undefeated, I would expect the Bearcats to be the Group of Five’s representative in a New Year’s Six bowl
What do you think Cincinnati’s record will be at the end of the season?