Cincinnati Bearcats head coach Luke Fickell talks to players during practice at Higher Ground Convention Center in West Harrison, Ind. on Aug. 3, 2018.Fickel signed the nation’s 40th-ranked 2020 recruiting class, a group that included Ohio’s Mr. Football. (Albert Cesare/Cincinnati Enquirer)

Football

Our 12th annual preseason Top 25: No. 22 Cincinnati may be poised to take that next step

The Bearcats are building, having won 11 games two seasons in a row.

Posted July 4th, 2020

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The 2020 college football season is two months away. Right? As it approaches with question marks, our 12th annual countdown series of our preseason Top 25, as selected by the American-Statesman sports staff, breaks down who we think are the top teams in the country. Last year’s eventual College Football Playoff semifinalists ranked first, fourth, fifth and sixth in our 2019 poll.

No. 22: Cincinnati

Things are looking up in the land of Harambe, Skyline chili and traditionally mediocre college football. The Bearcats have things humming behind fourth-year coach Luke Fickell, with back-to-back 11-win seasons for only the second time in school history. Can the American Athletic Conference team make a surprise run at the College Football Playoff? If dual-threat quarterback Desmond Ridder takes the next step as a passer and Cincinnati overcomes conference nemesis Memphis, it just may happen.

Cincinnati wasn’t ranked in our preseason poll last year.

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About the Bearcats

2019: 11-3, 7-1 in the AAC; beat Boston College 38-6 in the Birmingham Bowl

Coach: Luke Fickell (32-20 overall, 26-13 in three years at Cincinnati)

Returning starters: 5 offense, 8 defense

Shoes to fill: TE Josiah Deguara (3rd round, Packers, last year’s leading receiver); RB Michael Warren II (last years’s leading rusher); OL James Morgan (all-conference); LB Bryan Wright (all-conference); LB Perry Young (all-conference); K Sam Crosa

 

Catching up

Graduation took a toll, but the transfer market certainly proved bullish for a team hoping to return to its conference title game. Running back Jerome Ford, a former four-star recruit at Alabama, could thrive while not sharing carries with other blue-chippers. Former Michigan recruit James Hudson will likely start at left tackle after sitting out a season, while one-time Notre Dame wideout Michael Young and Ohio State transfer Blue Smith will revitalize the receiving corps. Former star tight end Josiah Deguara may now be catching balls from Aaron Rodgers in Green Bay, but Michigan State transfer Noah Davis could slide into his starting spot.

 

Cincinnati quarterback Desmond Ridder will have to take on an even bigger role for the Bearcats in 2020 with the departure of former workhorse running back Michael Warren II. Ridder was the team’s second leading rusher in 2019. (Sam Greene/Cincinnati Enquirer)

 

Returning leaders

Passing: Desmond Ridder (led team), 179-325-2,164 yards, 18 TDs, 9 INTs; Ben Bryant (2nd), 29-52-388 yards, 1 TD, 2 INTs

Rushing: QB Desmond Ridder (2nd), 144-650-5; Gerrid Doaks (3rd), 100-526-5

Receiving: Alec Pierce (2nd), 37-652-2

Tackles: S Darrick Forrest, 106 (1st)

Sacks: LB Michael Pitts, 5.5 (1st); DE Myjai Sanders, 4 (2nd)

Interceptions: S Ja’Von Hicks, 5 (1st); S Darrick Forrest, 3 (T-2nd); CB Ahmad Gardner, 3 (T-2nd)

 

Returning all-conference

Offense: None

Defense: DL Elijah Ponder (1st); CB Ahmad Gardner (1st); S Darrick Forrest (1st); S Ja’Von Hicks (hon. mention)

Special teams: P James Smith (2nd)

 

FYI

Ground control, major stomp: Under Fickell and offensive coordinator Mike Denbrock, Cincinnati went from running for 1,624 yards in 2017 to more than 3,000 yards in each of the past two seasons. But with Warren — the Bearcats’ workhorse running back — gone, Ridder, in his third year as the starting quarterback, may have to carry a heavier load. The fact that understudy Ben Bryant started ahead of him in a big conference game against Memphis late last year wasn’t a ringing endorsement by the coaching staff.

Big D: The defense was plenty good last season, allowing a conference-low 21.7 points a game and holding foes to just 143.4 yards rushing per contest. Those numbers could drop even more with eight starters and 15 of the top 17 tacklers back. Ponder, a 6-3, 275-pound tackle with quick feet and fast hands, draws comparisons to Aaron Donald — at least from the most devout Cincinnati fans. A star-studded secondary features three returning all-conference players, including a freshman all-American in Ahmad Gardner with the spicy nickname of “Sauce.”

Lone star: Last season, Cincinnati was one of only seven teams in the nation without a Texas high school football product on its roster. Ironically, native Texan Brig Owens (Linden) is arguably the best player in program history. A quarterback for the Bearcats in the early 1960s, Owens became an all-pro defensive back for Washington in the NFL before serving as the assistant executive director for the National Football League Players Association.

 

2019 national stat rankings

Scoring: 60th (2018 — 23rd)

Scoring defense: 24th (9th)

Total offense: 80th (23rd)

Total defense: 40th (11th)

Passing: 107th (75th)

Pass defense: 60th (26th)

Rushing: 25th (15th)

Rush defense: 44th (13th)

Red zone offense: 69th (98th)

Red zone defense: 12th (30th)

Turnover margin: 31st (T-69th)

Time of possession: 26th (11th)

 

Our Top 25 — so far

No. 25: Boise State figures to keep its perch atop the Mountain West

No. 24: Might this pandemic lead to not one, but two Iowa State-Iowa games?Inside the Cyclones

No. 23: Will Kirk Ferentz emerge from Iowa’s summer of discontent unscathed? / Inside the Hawkeyes

No. 22: Cincinnati

 

Coming tomorrow

Our No. 21 team. Want a hint?

This school has faced Texas in a bowl game within the past 10 years, and at every home game, the band plays the theme to “The Blues Brothers” at the start of the second half.

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