HUNTINGTON — Last season, Luke Fickell and the Cincinnati Bearcats shocked everyone when they turned things around to improve their record by seven wins from the previous season.
Going from 4-8 to 11-2 was no fluke with Fickell making bold moves, such as inserting a freshman quarterback with a knack as a dual threat to complement an already solid rushing attack.
Add in a defensive presence that was downright nasty at times and Cincinnati went from an American Athletic Conference afterthought to a contender in one season.
So what can the Bearcats do for an encore after a season in which they finished ranked No. 24 in the Associated Press Poll?
Simple. They can continue to build Fickell’s brand and return Cincinnati into a Group of Five powerhouse.
The best news for Fickell is that his offensive sparks are back with quarterback Desmond Ridder returning as a sophomore after a standout freshman campaign and running back Michael Warren being among the nation’s best.
That’s a heck of a way to start.
Warren finished with 1,337 yards and 20 touchdowns in 2018 while Ridder was everything you want in a freshman quarterback. As a passer, Ridder was efficient and productive with 2,445 yards and 20 touchdowns with only five interceptions. For good measure, he added 583 yards and five touchdowns on the ground.
There are pieces to replace that could hinder the growth of the Bearcats, however. Wide receiver Kahlil Lewis is now gone, meaning someone must emerge as a new top target. There are several options to choose from and Ridder also benefits from a talent-rich pool of tight ends, which features returning leader Josiah Deguara.
The biggest offensive question comes up from where the left side is unproven and received further bad news last month when Michigan transfer James Hudson was denied a waiver for immediate eligibility. Hudson had practiced as the starting left tackle for Cincinnati throughout spring after leaving Michigan late last season due to mental health issues.
Center Jakari Robinson will lead the offensive front, which will be a boost as the left side gets acclimated to the starting lineup.
The defensive side led to Cincinnati’s big turnaround and the pieces are there to again be a top-tier defense nationally, should the Bearcats successfully replace some pieces who have graduated.
The second and third levels of the defense will again be stout, returning many key components responsible for a unit that finished eighth nationally in scoring defense (17.2 points per game), 11th in total defense (303.5 yards per game) and 13th in rushing defense (113.0 yards per game).
However, it isn’t just as simple as plug-and-play.
The front four, which was largely responsible for the success against the run, has to replace all-conference tackles Marquise Copeland and Cortez Broughton while also finding a replacement for defensive end Kimoni Fitz.
That puts additional stress on the linebackers — led by Perry Young and Bryan Wright — to make plays.
If those guys are able to pull up the slack, the Bearcats are well-equipped to defend the pass with several returnees in the secondary, led by James Wiggins and cornerbacks Coby Bryant and Arquon Bush.
Punter James Smith will be a valuable weapon to aid the defense and force the opposition into long-field situations, but the field goal unit must improve on a sub-par 2018 season.
The schedule does Cincinnati no favors with the first half of the season being as brutal as any in the Group of Five. The non-conference slate features road games at Ohio State and Marshall while the home slate includes a contest with UCLA and rival Miami (Ohio). To make the challenge even harder, the first two conference games are home against UCF and at Houston.
If the Bearcats can survive through the middle of October, the back end of the schedule sets up well to build momentum for the end of the year when they travel to Memphis.
The likelihood is that Cincinnati will take a slight step back in terms of win total, but another nine- or 10-win season is not out of the realm of possibility. The Bearcats should be a top-50 team nationally and could contend for an AAC title in Fickell’s third year.