If you pay attention to college football at all, I don’t really need to tell you about Cincinnati’s historic 2021 season. The Bearcats became the first team from a non-Power Five conference to make the College Football playoff, where they suffered their first loss of the season to national runner-up Alabama.
When Luke Fickell’s team came to Bloomington last season, it was the eighth ranked team in the country, but had yet to really be tested in its first two games, winning by a combined 91-21 over Miami Ohio and Murray State. And for half of the game, it looked like they may have been a bit overrated.
I was at the game, back in town to celebrate my birthday and fully convinced that it would be the game that got Indiana back on track, playing up to their own preseason hype. I would prefer not to revisit the experience that was watching that dream crumble in front of my eyes in the second half. A glimpse into all that was to go wrong for Indiana in 2021.
This year, the Bearcats will start the season ranked 22nd in the newly released coaches poll, but could see a modest jump in the rankings if they can win their opener at Arkansas on September 3rd. Regardless, the Hoosiers will likely be facing a ranked opponent in their first road game of the 2022 campaign.
Here’s what we know about Cincinnati:
Indiana managed just five tackles for loss in last year’s game against Cincinnati, which is bad news for the Hoosiers as all five starting linemen are set to return for the Bearcats this season. Three of them, Dylan O’Quinn, Jake Renfro, and Lorenz Metz have been named to Athlon’s preseason all-AAC first team offense.
Like Indiana, Cincinnati has a real quarterback competition on its hands following the departure of Desmond Ridder for the NFL. Sophomore Evan Prater, once a four-star recruit, has not seen much action yet at Cincinnati, but will be competing with transfer Ben Bryant for the starting job. Bryant, who committed to Cincinnati before transferring to Eastern Michigan in 2021, completed 68.4% of his passes for 14 touchdowns and 7 interceptions last year for the Eagles.
In the backfield, the Bearcats welcome Corey Kiner, a transfer from LSU and former four-star recruit. Last year in the SEC, Kiner averaged 4.1 yards per carry on 79 attempts for two touchdowns. Alongside Kiner, the Bearcats also bring back Charles McClelland, Ryan Montgomery, and Ethan Wright, who combined for 7 rushing touchdowns and 655 yards last year as secondary rushing options behind Jerome Ford.
Tight end Josh Whyle, named to Athlon’s second team all-AAC offense, should be a big help to whoever does win the quarterback job. Whyle was second on the team last year in receiving touchdowns with six. Cincinnati also brings back Tre Tucker, who was third on the team in receiving yards for the Bearcats last season.
Cincinnati’s defense last year was the star of the show and the main reason that the Bearcats became the first Group of Five team to make the College Football Playoff. Unfortunately for them, the NFL took notice and drafted five of their key players from last year’s group.
On the other hand, Deshawn Pace looks to be one of the top returning linebackers in college football this year, being named to the watchlists for the Chuck Bednarik Award (best defensive player), Bronco Nagurski award (best defensive player), and the Dick Butkus award (best linebacker). He’s joined by his brother, Ivan, who transferred in after winning the MAC Defensive Player of the year award at Miami Ohio.
Up front, Malik Vann returns for a fifth season after recording 33 tackles, 3.5 sacks and 8.5 tackles for losses despite playing on a bad ankle most of last season. He’s been named to Athlon Sport’s first season all-AAC defensive team. Cincinnati also brings back Jowon Briggs, who appeared in all 14 games last season and started in the College Football Playoff matchup against Alabama.
While the secondary took the biggest hits with the NFL draft, with Coby Bryant, Sauce Gardner and Bryan Cook all making pro rosters this year. Senior Arquon Bush will be expected to step up and help make up for the loss in talent after recording three interceptions last year. Both Bush and Dashawn Pace had interceptions against Indiana last year in Bloomington.
If Indiana’s defense can get enough pressure and force whichever quarterback (likely Prater, in my opinion) to turn the ball over a few times, this game could get interesting. Indiana’s secondary versus the lack of experience at quarterback will be the most favorable part of this matchup for Indiana and certainly makes this game seem more winnable than the rankings may suggest.
On the other hand, Indiana’s offense is also full of question marks and will need to contend with some returning players who terrorized Michael Penix in Bloomington last year. We’ll probably know by this point what kind of running game Indiana’s offensive line can support, but Walt Bell cannot be lulled into thinking this group lost too much talent to pose a real threat to Indiana.
A win in Cincinnati would go a long, long way to establish that it was the 2021 season, not 2020, that was a fluke in the grand scheme of Tom Allen’s tenure. And right now, it looks like it could be winnable, considering the matchup between Indiana’s strong defense against a newer quarterback.
As with many (all?) games this year though, whether Indiana actually has a shot at winning depends on Walt Bell’s ability to rehabilitate one of the worst offenses in the Big Ten last year.
And right now, it’s not even clear which quarterback he will try to do this with.