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July 27, 2010
On Dec. 5, Cincinnati wrapped up a 12-0 regular season and won the Big East title for the second season in a row. The Bearcats needed less than a month to be humbled on two fronts.
First, Brian Kelly left for Notre Dame five days after the end of the regular season. Then, Kelly didn't even stick around for the Sugar Bowl, which the Bearcats lost in convincing fashion to Florida.
But if new coach Butch Jones has similar results as his predecessor - 33 wins and two BCS games in three seasons - Cincinnati administrators and fans will be more than pleased.
Certainly, there's precedent for Jones having success in Kelly's wake. After taking over for Kelly at Central Michigan in 2007, Jones won two MAC championships in three seasons. Unlike Kelly, though, Jones arrives at Cincinnati with Big East experience. He was an assistant at West Virginia in 2005-06 when the Mountaineers went a combined 22-3.
Here's a closer look at the Bearcats.
THE SCHEME: Under Jones, Cincinnati will run a similar scheme to the spread it used under Kelly. Expect more balance in the running game, with Jones utilizing RB Isaiah Pead and dual-threat QB Zach Collaros.
STAR POWER: Cincinnati has good reason not to overreact to the loss of Mardy Gilyard, who had 1,000 receiving yards and double-digit touchdown receptions in each of the past two seasons. Armon Binns matched Gilyard's 11 touchdown catches last season with 26 fewer catches. Even as Cincinnati's No. 2 receiver, he was in the top five in the Big East in receiving. At 6 feet 4 and 200 pounds, Binns is a big target and an NFL prospect.
IMPACT NEWCOMER: The nation's seventh-ranked player in the 2007 recruiting class, Vidal Hazelton will have a second chance at Cincinnati. Hazelton caught 50 passes at USC in 2007 but disappeared in '08 before his transfer. Hazelton won't be the No. 1 receiver at Cincinnati, but he should be a key member of one of the best receiving corps in the country.
STRONGEST AREAS: Kelly's system was hard on quarterbacks, but Tony Pike's injury last season gave Collaros a chance to showcase his talent. Collaros went 4-0 as a starter, passing for 1,233 yards and eight touchdowns. He can run a little bit, too (132 rushing yards, two touchdowns against USF), and he hasn't lost a game as a starter since before high school. Behind Collaros, backup Chazz Anderson also has starting experience. And beyond Binns and Hazelton at receiver, Cincinnati also has D.J. Woods (51 catches, 540 yards) and Ben Guidugli, potentially an all-conference tight end. The Bearcats also have the best guard tandem in the conference in Jason Kelce and Alex Hoffman.
BIGGEST PROBLEM: The biggest question on the offense is whether the No. 2s can step seamlessly into No. 1 roles. Collaros and Binns starred in supporting duty, but they will be asked to shoulder more responsibility this season. The biggest losses on the offense were on the line, where Cincinnati will need to replace All-Big East T Jeff Linkenbach and C Chris Jurek.
THE SCHEME: Cincinnati's transition from a 4-3 defense to a 3-4 last season didn't work out that well. With a new coaching staff, Cincinnati will switch back to the 4-3 in 2010.
STAR POWER: Derek Wolfe could become one of the top tackles in the Big East. In his first season as a starter, Wolfe proved himself to be a good run-stuffer. He also finished with eight tackles for loss and five sacks.
IMPACT NEWCOMER: The Bearcats stayed within the city limits to sign their top defensive recruit. From Cincinnati's Roger Bacon High, Solomon Tentman may be in position to contribute immediately at linebacker because Tennessee transfer Dorian Davis - a projected starter - left the team after spring practice.
STRONGEST AREA: Cincinnati was young on the line last season, and the Bearcats are hoping to benefit this season after some young linemen were pressed into duty in '09. Wolfe is developing into a standout tackle, and Es Dan Giordano (3.5 sacks) and Brandon Mills (eight tackles for loss) were productive as freshmen. Cincinnati has a hole at middle linebacker without Davis, but the Bearcats have playmakers on the outside. J.K. Schaffer is the leading returning tackler, and Walter Stewart showed he could be a dangerous edge rusher.
BIGGEST PROBLEM: Florida torched Cincinnati's defense for 482 passing yards in the bowl game. That unit will be without its best player, FS Aaron Webster, who was a senior. The secondary collapsed near the end of the season, so developing depth is critical. SS Drew Frey and CB Dominique Battle are returning starters.
Jake Rogers has handled both kicking and punting duties with mixed success over the past couple of season. He has handed the punting job to Patrick O'Donnell this season, which could help Rogers' numbers on field goals (41-of-60 for his career). Because of the depth at wide receiver, Gilyard's absence will be more pronounced in the return game. Backup running back Darrin Williams will return kicks after taking one back for a touchdown in limited duty last season. Woods will get the first look as a punt returner. The punt-coverage unit - which allowed 11 yards per return - must improve.
Repeating last year's 12-0 regular season will be a tall task given the schedule. Cincinnati playa a game west of the Mississippi River for the fourth consecutive season when it opens at Fresno State. The Bearcats have a high-profile game at the Bengals' Paul Brown Stadium against Oklahoma, which waxed the Bearcats 52-26 in their last meeting in 2008. After September, Cincinnati's schedule eases up, at least in terms of road trips. The Bearcats play only three conference road games, though two will be against contenders West Virginia and Connecticut.
The new-look Big East hasn't been kind to new coaches of former champions. Rich Rodriguez and Bobby Petrino led West Virginia and Louisville, respectively, to BCS appearances, but those schools have fallen - Louisville much more than WVU - since coaching changes. Cincinnati hopes to be the exception to that rule under Jones. While a repeat of 12-0 seems unlikely, Cincinnati has enough offense to remain in Big East contention. The defense is the Achilles' heel, but it can't be much worse than it was at the end of last season, can it?
David Fox is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.