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Our 13th annual preseason Top 25: No. 8 Cincinnati poised to make some Group of Five noise

Kevin Lyttle
American-Statesman Correspondent
Three keys to Cincinnati's 2021 season: From left to right, star cornerback (and possible first-round draft pick) Ahmad Garner, head coach Luke Fickell, and quarterback Desmond Ridder, whose 30-5 record makes him college football's winningest quarterback heading into the season.

For the last 12 years, the American-Statesman's sports staff has spent July breaking down our own preseason Top 25 rankings. Last year's eventual College Football Playoff semifinalists ranked first, second, third and ninth in our 2020 poll.

No. 8 Cincinnati

College football still awaits its first true underdog in the playoffs. If there's a serious challenger for a spot this year, it's expected to come from the same location as last year. Cincinnati starts 2021 in the exact poll location it finished 2020. Coach Luke Fickell, 47, has created a Group of Five monster, rattling off 11-2, 11-3 and 9-1 records the last three seasons. His Bearcats led Georgia 21-10 in the fourth quarter of the New Year's Six Peach Bowl before falling 24-21. Fickell could have the right mix to make another run, led by decorated dual-threat senior QB Desmond Ridder. He'll throw to TE Josh Whyle and proven wideouts. The Bearcats have high-level defensive talent, including the premier cornerback duo of Ahmad Gardner and Coby Bryant and edge rusher Myjai Sanders. Questions revolve around offensive tackle and safety, where NFL draft choices must be replaced. Cincinnati's primary challenger in the American Athletic is likely Central Florida, which it hosts Oct 16.

Cincinnati was No. 22 in our preseason poll last year. The Bearcats finished No. 8 in all three major final polls.

About the Bearcats

2020: 9-1, 6-0 in the AAC — they edged Tulsa 27-24 in the conference title game, then were edged 24-21 by Georgia in the Peach Bowl. Their last three games of the season all were decided by three points.

Coach: Luke Fickell, 41-21, including 35-14 in four seasons with Cincinnati; he went 6-7 as Ohio State's interim head coach in 2011.

Returning starters: 15 (8 offense, 7 defense)

Shoes to fill: OT James Hudson (Browns, 4th round); S Darrick Forrest (Washington, 5th); S James Wiggins (Cardinals, 7th); RB Gerrid Doaks (Dolphins, 7th); WR Jayshon Jackson (transfer, Ball State); QB Ben Bryant (transfer, Eastern Michigan)

Catching up

Cincinnati stonewalled teams last year with a stifling defense and a low-risk offense. That's the formula again, but all eyes are on new defensive coordinator Mike Tressel, who replaces Marcus Freeman, one of the hottest young DCs in the country who's now running Notre Dame's D. Tressel, the nephew of former Ohio State coach Jim Tressel, was an assistant at Michigan State for 14 years. ... Big things are expected of Virginia transfer DT Jowon Briggs, and another transfer, James Tunstall, will push for one of the open OT spots. ... While the Bearcats can't recruit like Ohio State, they do own their league, finishing first, first, second, first and first in the last five years, according to 247Sports' composite.

Returning leaders

Passing: Desmond Ridder 186-281-2,296, 19/6 (led team)

Rushing: QB Desmond Ridder 98-592-12 (2nd), Jerome Ford 73-483-8 (3rd)

Receiving: Michael Young Jr. 29-332-3 (led team), TE Josh Whyle 28-353-6 (2nd)

Tackles: LB Darrian Beavers 58 (2nd), LB Joel Dublanko 51 (3rd)

Sacks: DE Myjai Sanders 7 (led team)

Interceptions: CB Coby Bryant 4 (led team), CB Ahmad Gardner 3 (2nd)

Returning all-conference

Offense: QB Desmond Ridder (player of the year and 1st team), WR Michael Young Jr. (2nd), TE Josh Whyle (2nd)

Defense: DL Myjai Sanders (1st), CB Ahmad Gardner (1st), CB Coby Bryant (1st), DT Marcus Brown (2nd), LB Darrian Beavers (2nd)

Special teams: RET Tre Tucker (2nd)

Cincinnati cornerback Ahmad Gardner intercepts a pass intended for Central Florida wide receiver Tre Nixon during their 2019 game.

FYI

How the pandemic affected Cincinnati: The Bearcats avoided early problems, but a COVID-19 outbreak in the program caused postponements and, eventually, cancellations of the Temple and Tulsa games. And late in the season, the unbeaten Cats went four weeks without a game and dropped three spots in the polls. Out of sight, out of mind. No fans were allowed at home games until Cincinnati hosted the AAC championship game; a mere 5,831 fans were allowed in the gates.

Hoosier daddy: Two nonconference trips to Indiana will make or break Cincinnati's potential playoff push. A Sept. 18 jaunt to No. 13 Indiana will be followed by an Oct. 2 date at No. 9 Notre Dame. Last year the Bearcats hit a wall with the CFP committee because they lacked a marquee victory. This time the schedule shouldn't be an issue. Beat the Hoosiers and Irish, and the street cred will be there.

No trespassing: He's 6-2, gets in your grill and has uncanny ball instincts. Best to avoid Gardner, a consensus NFL first-round cornerback prospect. The former three-star recruit from Detroit has allowed just 16 first downs with 22 passes defensed on 84 targets in press coverage, the best numbers in FBS in 2019-20. Opposing QBs have a miserable 35.3 passer rating on throws into his primary coverage.

2020 national stat rankings

Where Cincinnati  ranked nationally in various statistical categories last season — and how the Bearcats ranked in 2019.

Scoring: 17th (2019 — 60th, +43 spots)

Scoring defense: 8th (24th, +16)

Total offense: 24th (80th, +56)

Total defense: 13th (40th, +27)

Passing: 55th (107th, +52)

Pass defense: 39th (60th, +21)

Rushing: 22nd (25th, +3)

Rush defense: 13th (44th, +31)

Sacks: 16th (32nd, -17)

Interceptions: 3rd (76th, +18)

Red zone offense: 78th (69th, -9)

Red zone defense: 15th (12th, -3)

Turnover margin: T-30th (31st, +1)

Time of possession: 24th (26th, +2)

Our Top 25 — so far

No. 25 Ole Miss: Rebels have plenty of firepower to work with

No. 24 Washington: Huskies back for more after 3-2 season

No. 23 Louisiana: Ragin' Cajuns out to prove that they belong

No. 22 Penn State: Nittany Lions want to keep the momentum going

No. 21 Oklahoma State: Cowboys have offensive questions, for a change

No. 20 Iowa: Hawkeyes hope this is the year to bump the Buckeyes

No. 19 Coastal Carolina: Upstart Chanticleers look here to stay, ready or not

No. 18 Texas: Longhorns are starting over at coach, quarterback, offense, defense

No. 17 Wisconsin: Badgers eager for a bounce-back season in Big Ten

No. 16 Miami: Hurricanes banking on D'Eric King's return from injury

No. 15 Oregon: Ducks out to make it three straight Pac-12 title game wins

No. 14 LSU: Last year's hard knocks may pay off for this year's Tigers

No. 13 Indiana: Hoosiers have restocked their shelves with transfer talent

No. 12 USC: Trojans are trending in the right direction in Pac-12

No. 11 Florida: Minus the big names, Gators starting over on offense

No. 10 North Carolina: Tar Heels work transfer portal to keep things going

No. 9 Notre Dame: Irish should lean on Williams and the running game

No. 8 Cincinnati

Coming tomorrow

Our No. 7 team. Want a hint?

It's the third Big 12 team of our poll.