The Orlando Sentinel has ranked all 120 Football Bowl Subdivision teams in the country. We’ll take a closer look at a new team daily, counting backward from No. 120 to our projected No. 1 team. We will not be including the four teams the NCAA lists as still reclassifying to the Football Bowl Subdivision level.
Today at No. 33: Cincinnati
Coach: Butch Jones (14-11, entering third season; 41-24 overall entering sixth season)
2011 record: 10-3 (5-2 in Big East, tied for first in Big East)
Look back: Cincinnati continued its impressive hold on the top of the Big East standings during the 2011 season, winning a share of its third Big East title in four years. The Bearcats got off to a 7-1 start, suffering their sole loss 45-23 at Tennessee.
The Bearcats hit a huge road block when senior quarterback Zach Collaros suffered a major ankle injury during the second quarter of the team’s game against West Virginia. Collaros’ injury required surgery, forcing Cincinnati to rely on sophomore reserve Munchie Legaux. Cincinnati suffered back-to-back losses against West Virginia and at Rutgers. The Bearcats bounced back from the losses, closing out the regular season with wins at Syracuse and against Connecticut to tie for a share of the Big East title.
Collaros returned to the lineup 47 days after ankle surgery, helping lead Cincinnati to a 31-24 win over Vanderbilt during the Liberty Bowl. Isaiah Pead rushed for 149 yards and one touchdowns, while Ralph David Abernathy IV returned a kickoff 90 yards for a touchdown to help the Bearcats earn the bowl victory.
Offensive starters lost/returning: 7/4
Defensive starters lost/returning: 5/6
Key losses: RB Isaiah Pead, QB Zach Collaros, OL Randy Martinez, DL Derek Wolfe, LB J.K. Schaffer, OL Alex Hoffman.
Top returnees: QB Munchie Legaux, WR Anthony McClung, P Pat O’Donnell, WR Kenbrell Thompkins, OL Austen Bujnoch, DL Dan Giordano, DL Walter Stewart, LB Maalik Bomar, S Drew Frey, KR Ralph David Abernathy.
Strengths: Cincinnati coach Butch Jones proved the Bearcats could thrive after Brian Kelly’s departure to Notre Dame. Kelly helped propel Cincinnati to national prominence before taking over the Irish. The Bearcats went 4-8 during Jones’ first season leading the program in 2010, but the team bounced back in 2011 to clinch a share of the Big East title. Jones and his coaching staff should have more momentum entering their third season.
While Cincinnati loses some senior leaders from last year’s team, the Bearcats boast some strong leaders including receivers Anthony McClung and Kenbrell Thompkins on offense and defensive end Dan Giordano and safety Drew Frey on defense.
Legaux, who took over when Collaros suffered his ankle injury, is expected to take over as Cincinnati’s new starting quarterback. Legaux struggled, at times, while leading Cincinnati’s offense last season, but his receivers dropped passes and he faced heavy blitz packages with opposing teams eager to rattle the young quarterback. Legaux bounced back during the regular season finale against Connecticut, completing 15-of-35 passes for a career-high 217 yards and three touchdowns. The experience Legaux earned under fire during the 2011 season should help him make a smoother transition to the starting quarterback job.
Weaknesses: Cincinnati lost seven offensive starters and five defensive starters. While Legaux is a promising athlete, the team was at its best last season with Collaros under center. Collaros won eight games as a starter, while Legaux won two. To offset the changes at quarterback, Cincinnati relied heavily on its rushing attack in 2011. Senior Isaiah Pead, who has since exhausted his eligibility, ranked No. 27 nationally in rushing yards per game (96.85). In addition to the loss of Pead, Cincinnati will have to adapt to the departure of offensive linemen Randy Martinez and Alex Hoffman.
Outlook: Cincinnati has thrived in the Big East and shows no signs of slowing down. The Bearcats return enough playmakers to compete for another conference title.
Sept. 6 Pittsburgh
Sept. 15 Delaware State
Sept. 29 Virginia Tech at FedEx Field in Landover, Md.
Oct. 6 Miami (Ohio)
Oct. 13 Fordham
Oct. 20 At Toledo
Oct. 26 At Louisville
Nov. 3 Syracuse
Nov. 10 At Temple
Nov. 17 Rutgers
Nov. 23 USF
Dec. 1 At Connecticut
Rest of the countdown: