Welcome to Bruins Nation’s opponent preview series for the 2018 football season! Each week we will be taking a look at an upcoming opponent this year, examine their strengths and weaknesses, and make a bold prediction regarding the outcome, which is going to be really good considering I don’t even know who the starting quarterback will be this year! There will also be a companion piece, run on Thursdays (hopefully) (we’ll see) that will be taking a more humorous look at the opponent.
With that said, let’s get started with our first opponent, the Cincinnati Bearcats!
(Also, as a quick aside, I don’t think I ever spell Cincinnati right the first time, so this is going to be a very annoying article to write!)
Last year, Cincinnati ended up with a 4-8 record under first-year head coach Luke Fickell. This wasn’t all that surprising - Fickell was brought in to clean up the mess left behind by former coach Tommy Tuberville, and what a mess it was. Cincinnati had gone through a series of top-end head coaches prior with Mark Dantonio, Brian Kelly, and Butch Jones all keeping the Bearcats as a top 40 S&P+ team during their combined tenure, but under Tuberville the wheels really came off, culminating with a ranking of 85th before he was fired (or left to avoid being fired. I’m honestly not sure).
Fickell has an interesting history of his own that made him uniquely suited to turn around the Cincinnati program. Fickell had been a long-time assistant coach at Ohio State under Jim Tressel from 2002-2010. In 2011, in the aftermath of Tressel’s abrupt resignation, Fickell was made interim head coach, and he took an Ohio State program mired in turmoil to a 6-6 record. What makes this interesting is, when Urban Meyer was hired, Fickell actually stayed on the staff, serving as Meyer’s defensive coordinator, a position he had held under Tressel from 2005-2010. Under Fickell, Ohio State’s defense became the undeniable strength of the team, and they were able to ride that to a national championship in 2014.
When Cincinnati hired Fickell in 2016, the idea was that he would be able to scoop up a ton of recruits in the talent-rich Ohio area, and for the most part he has succeeded, pulling in the 63rd ranked class in an abbreviated 2017 cycle before pulling in the 47th ranked class in 2018, the highest ranking in the AAC. Still, this is a team in transition, so the Bruins are catching them at a great time for Chip Kelly’s first game at the helm.
To say that Cincinnati’s offense is a work in progress is probably an understatement. The Bearcats had specific goal of establishing the run, which got them the 79th rushing offense (via S&P+) but with a passing offense ranked 124th, which gave them a total offensive S&P+ ranking of 100. Not great.
There is some promise in the Bearcats offense. Redshirt sophmore Gerrid Doaks was a spark for the Bearcats, though he missed a few games to injury; he should be in line to start the season at running back. Hayden Moore looks to be the starting QB in the fall, and he had a strong finish to the season, and #1 receiver Kahlil Lewis returns as well to give the Bearcats 3 returning starters at the top skill positions. For a young offense, that kind of continuity could be important.
The line, however, may be a disaster. In a statement that may be familiar to Bruin fans, Cincinnati is losing a host of starters along their line, and will be relying on a patchwork line of guys without any experience or pedigree to their name. That could be a huge boon to new defensive coordinator Jerry Azzinaro, who does have a host of defensive line talent that could really benefit from a strong early game to build confidence.
In short, this is a matchup that the UCLA defense should dominate, just based on talent alone. Any issues could portend a long season.
Considering head coach Luke Fickell’s background, it would have been safe to assume the Cincinnati defense would be a strength for the rebuilding Bearcats. So it was shocking to see that it wasn’t the case. Cincinnati’s defense was bad last year, which was especially worrisome because the unit wasn’t lacking in experience.
The big problem Chip Kelly will be facing is an experienced and somewhat-effective defensive line that was at its best when it came to stuffing the run, earning the rushing defense S&P+ ranking of 69 (nice). Considering what UCLA will be working with on the offensive line this year, this should be an important first test in seeing if UCLA can run the ball in the slightest, which hasn’t been the case in recent years but is a major feature of a Chip Kelly offense.
The good news is that whoever ends up as UCLA’s starting quarterback should have an easier time against the Cincinnati secondary. Last year the Bearcats limped out to the 95th ranked passing defense (S&P+), and then lost all of the starting corners from that unit to graduation. UCLA’s quarterback and receivers should be able to feast on an inexperienced secondary, which may be the key to opening up the run game.
UCLA should win this one. It’s at home, there’s a clear talent advantage, and Kelly will want to make a good first impression in his return to college football.
Something about everything I’ve written fills me with dread. Maybe it’s BBS, maybe it’s uncertainty at QB/offensive line/defense in general, maybe it’s a new coach and players learning that system, but I think this game is closer than it should be.
UCLA wins 27-21.