by P. Carl Giordano, Managing Editor

After Cincinnati recorded a 34-7 SU mark and reached the BCS twice under Brian Kelly from 2007 through 2009, Butch Jones expected great things when he took over the Bearcat program in 2010. Boy, was he in for a shock! After a very successful run at Central Michigan (where he also followed in Kelly's footsteps), Jones had to suffer through a miserable 4-8 season that looks like an aberration for this program. A -15 turnover ratio (119th in the nation) was at the root of the Bearcat problems, but it wasn’t necessarily fueled by sloppy offensive performances. The team’s 12 lost fumbles was just about average for a college football team. QB Zach Collaros threw 26 TD passes, so his 14 interceptions shouldn’t have been a killer. However, the defense recovered just five fumbles and had only eight interceptions in a relatively pass-happy league, both figures were well-below expectations.

The sr. Collaros was the all-Big East selection at QB in 2010, completing 59% of his passes for 2902 yards, leading the league in total offense and ranking second in pass efficiency. Collaros doesn’t have classic NFL size for the position at 6-0, but his 62.4% completion percentage and 36 TD/16 int. career numbers indicate his stature isn’t much of a negative.

The Bearcat offense has other explosive skill weapons as well. Sr. RB Isaiah Pead was 2nd-team all-conference last season after rushing for 1029 yds. (6.6 ypc). Pead is the feature back, but don’t be surprised if incoming frosh Jameel Poteat and Akise Teague get a chance to tote the rock in relief and make an impact at the same time. Jones has recruited well and has several true frosh who will make contributions. WR D.J. Woods has 108 catches over the past two seasons and the speedster was named first team all-Big East in 2010. Although the Bearcats are deep at tight end, o.c. Mike Bajakian must find a complementary wideout to alleviate foes double-teaming Woods. With that in mind, expect explosive (but diminutive) incoming frosh Shaquille Washington (5-9, 160) to be another newcomer who gets his chance to sink-or-swim early.

The bad news is the offensive line, which allowed far too many sacks, returns only two starters and is a major concern. While LT Sean Hooey (6-9, 300) appears reliable and ready to move into a key starters role, and LG Randy Martinez & RT Alex Hoffman are solid, the rest of the OL crew is dicey at best. C Evan Davis is considered a weak link, as he’s played very sparingly over the last three seasons.

The defense returns all 11 starters from last year’s unit, but that’s to be taken with a grain of salt, as the Bearcats ranked 7th in the Big East and 68th in the nation in points allowed, and a miserable 106th in pass efficiency defense. The good news is that the “D” is much more familiar with Jones’ system this season and appeared to improve in the spring. It’s also a plus that some of the starters have been replaced by superior athletes. Jr. Walter Stewart was moved from LB to DE after redshirt frosh Solomon Tentman won a starting LB job in spring. Tentman was slated for extended playing time, but sat out last season with an ACL injury. Star junior college transfer Malcolm Murray won the free safety job from incumbent sr. Wesley Richardson in spring. CB Dominique Battle regained the starting role he lost to jr. Camerron Cheatham due to a knee injury Battle suffered against Oklahoma after playing in just 3 games last season.

The defensive line is the strength of the stop unit, as there is plenty of experience and depth up front. DE Brandon Mills was second-team all-Big East, and Mills DT Derek Wolfe and DE Dan Giordano were instrumental in holding foes to just 3.5 ypc. Jr. LB Maalik Bomar had 70 stops last year, and sr. MLB J.K. Schaffer is coming off 100 and 111-tackle seasons in 2009 & 2010. Schaffer was first team all-league last season. The return of CB Battle and the infusion of Murray should improve the poor coverage that was at the root of the Cincy defensive issues a year ago. A 65% completion rate and collecting only eight interceptions just won’t get it done against Big East foes featuring five vet QBs in seven league games and facing a recent influx of superior offensive coaches such as Todd Graham, Skip Holtz, Dan Holgorsen and Charlie Strong.

Summary... Cincinnati is the sleeper in the Big East. With Collaros and Pead providing the offense and a deep, veteran defense, it’s all up to the offensive line. If the hogs up front can keep Collaros upright and healthy, the Bearcats will be in the running with the conference elite. However, the schedule isn’t set up for a Big East title. Jones and his men play four of seven conference games on the road, and two of the three Big East home games will be played at Paul Brown Stadium rather than the cozy confines on campus at Nippert. Look for a return to the bowl scene for Butch Jones and the Bearcats, but it will be tough getting by USF, Pitt and West Virginia for a BCS berth.

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