2011 Record: (10-3, 5-2 in Big East)
Head Coach: Butch Jones (14-11 at Cincy, 41-24 All-Time)
Last Bowl Game: 2011 season Liberty Bowl: beat Vandy 31-24
Revenge: 11/17 vs Rutgers
Swing Games: 10/26 at Louisville, 11/23 vs USF
Stats to Cheer: +0.92 turnover margin (1st in Big East, 9th in Nation); forced 33 turnovers (2nd in Big East, 4th in Nation)
Stat to Fear: converted 78.85% of trips to red zone (last in Big East)
Phil Steele's Returning Starters: (Offense: 4; Defense: 7; Specialists: 2)
Key Defensive Returnees: S Drew Frey (73 tackles, 2 INT), CB Cameron Cheatham (59 tackles, 3 INT), LB Maalik Bomar (60 tackles), DE Dan Giordano (34 tackles, 5 sacks), DE Walter Stewart (44 tackles, 6 sacks)
Key Offensive Returnees: QB Munchie Legaux (5 TD, 4 INT), WR Anthony McClung (49 rec, 6 TD), WR Kenbrell Thompkins (44 rec, 2 TD), OG Austen Bujnoch
CFBZ: Isaiah Pead was a workhorse for the Bearcats last year. How will they replace him?
Bearcats Blog: It's looking like the Bearcats are going to try out a running back by committee. George Winn ran for 219 yards last year and 2 TDs, 69 of those on a TD run in the Liberty Bowl. Jameel Poteat was a highly regarded recruit from Pennsylvania who battled injuries last season. He's going to get a crack. Ralph David Abernathy IV returned kicks last season, but he should get a chance to show off some of his skills. Those are the main 3 guys I see taking the carries Pead leaves behind. Plus, Munchie Leagux was 4th on the team in rushing last season. Zach Collaros was second. The QBs will do some running as well.
CFBZ: Munchie Legaux replaces Zach Collaros. Munchie got to see some action last year, what are the biggest things he needs to improve on to be successful in 2012?
Bearcats Blog: His accuracy and footwork are the 2 most important things to me that he has to improve on from last season. He completed just 47% of his passes a year ago. He had 5 TDs to 4 INTs. He's got to get used to feeling out the pressure and making good decisions. It's clearly much easier said than done. If Munchie doesn't show a lot of improvement, Brendon Kay could take the job.
CFBZ: The improvement of the defense was a big key to Cincinnati's improvement last year. Who are the key players to watch on defense for the Bearcats?
Bearcats Blog Walter Stewart is the main guy I am looking forward to watch this season. It took him part of the season to get used to the hybrid role the Bearcats had him play, but once he did, he exploded. Stewart had 11 tackles for loss and 6 sacks. He had 4 forced fumbles, which led the team. I think he's in for a special season.
Drew Frey at safety was second on the team in tackles last season. He had a pair of INTs. He was near the top in passes broken up and passes defended. He got criticized a lot last season for his coverage, but he really picked it up and became a valuable asset.
To throw a wildcard out there, I really think Jordan Stepp is going to have a big season. He was part of the defensive line rotation last year, but he should be one of the starters this year. I think he'll make an impact for the defensive line. I also think Reuben Johnson, a corner, could have a bounce back season.
CFBZ: What is your gut feeling on the final record for 2012 and what makes the season successful in your eyes?
Bearcats Blog: 8-4. I think it would be a successful year if the Bearcats competed for the Big East title again. The league is wide open. Louisville is the favorite, but UC has played them tough the last few seasons. Catching Pitt, Rutgers and South Florida at home should help. The opening game of the season is crucial. Playing Virginia Tech when you are 2-0 is much different than playing them at 1-1. I think there is a chance the season could go closer to .500, but I believe in Butch Jones.
After a very disappointing 2010, Butch Jones and the Bearcats flipped the switch in 2011 and tied for the Big East title. The Bearcats showed improvement on both sides of the ball as they scored six more points per game and allowed eight less points per game than in 2010. Another big factor was their turnover margin. They led the league at +0.92 and went from worst to first in that metric in the conference. An improvement like that will be very hard to maintain especially with a change at QB.
Cincinnati has some big question marks on offense. They must fill the void left by Isaiah Pead (1259 yds rushing, 39 receptions) and also must replace Zach Collaros (1940 yds passing, 15 TD). Munchie Legaux will get the rock for the Bearcats and he gained some experience last year playing in eleven games. The bulk of Legaux's playing time came deep in the season during a four game stretch in which the Bearcats went 2-2 (his first big time action was against ranked West Virginia and his second on the road against Rutgers). The good news is that Munchie gets his top two receivers back from last year.
The defensive turnaround for the Bearcats last year was huge. One of the biggest things they did was learn how to get off the field on third down (allowed 32.51% success rate in 2011 vs a league worst 42.29% in 2010). They also got after the quarterback as they improved by 20 sacks over the previous season. When you pressure the QB, good things tend to happen and for the Bearcats it was a huge improvement in turnovers as they gained 19 more than the previous year. I'm not sure the defense can keep that pace but if they can find a happy medium they can still be very good this year.
The season will come down to how close the defense can maintain it's improvement from last year and how quickly the new starters at the skill positions on offense can find their groove. The schedule that the Bearcats play isn't a killer. In fact, Phil Steele ranks it the 88th toughest schedule in the Nation. The Bearcats open with Pitt, a team that is learning yet another new system this year, and then has a stretch of non-conference games where they should win all of them except Virginia Tech. I would be surprised if Cincy doesn't start off 5-1. The conference schedule is also very favorable as their road games are Louisville, Temple and UConn. Louisville will be tough but the other two games should be wins. Cincinnati definitely has a chance to win the Big East this year but the pieces have to fall in place.
2012 Prediction: 8-4
Previous 2012 Previews:
Big 12: Kansas