Welcome to Bruins Nation’s opponent preview series for the UCLA Bruins 2019 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.
This week, we take a look at UCLA’s Week 1 opponent: the Cincinnati Bearcats.
This will be a fun section to look at when talking about a team I previewed last year, as I get to look back at how right or wrong I was in spots. Take, for example, how I answered the Bold Predictions section in last year’s Cincinnati preview:
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.
As it turns out, I was almost completely on the money here. I picked UCLA to win, assuming the home field advantage in an opening game would allow UCLA’s talent advantage to overcome the Bearcats having more continuity, especially for a program that had just gone 4-8 the previous two seasons.
Of course, that wasn’t what happened. For one, UCLA’s issues regarding a new coach/new system and the uncertainty at QB and on defense proved to be much bigger issues than I anticipated. But the bigger issue was that Cincinnati was ready to take a leap in Luke Fickell’s second year. The Bearcats vastly improved on their 2017 campaign, going 11-2 last year. The defense took a huge leap forward last year (from 68th to 36th in defensive S&P+), and the offense was able to put together an impressive year and do just enough to win some close games. It also helped that the Bearcats went 4-1 in games decided by less than 10 points, with the one loss coming on the road in overtime against a solid Temple team.
With that kind of turnaround, it wouldn’t have been surprising to see Luke Fickell leave for greener pastures, but, in a turn of fortune, Fickell chose to stay around. Now, the question will be how much further can he take the Bearcats program.
Last year, it looked like Hayden Moore was going to be the starting quarterback, but redshirt freshman Desmond Ridder instead won the battle in the fall. It’s hard to say Ridder really wowed as QB, but he was excellent when he had to be, especially on third and longs, which the Bearcats found themselves in constantly. It’s hard to say that’s going to be sustainable, but if Ridder can offset that backslide by putting up better numbers on first down while continuing his willingness to run, the Bearcats could be in business.
A year should help the rest of the offense grow as well. The Bearcats return leading rusher Michael Warren II, who ran for 1329 yards last year, and the receiving core was young and productive last year. Though they’ve now lost leading receiver Kahlil Lewis, there are more than enough bodies here including Rashad Medaris to fill in the production.
The biggest question for the Bearcats will, again, be on the offensive line. Last year, I wrote:
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.
I felt the Bearcats weren’t great on the offensive line last year. The four sacks they allowed to the Bruins had to be close to UCLA’s season-high on the year, but they ended up with a few all-conference selections. The good news for the Bruins is that the Bearcats will again be losing a ton of experience on the line with three starters gone, including the two all-conference selections in Dino Boyd and Garrett Campbell. The two returning starters are both seniors and Fickell has filled the Cincinnati two-deep with three and four-star talent, but UCLA’s defensive line was serviceable in this matchup last year and could be serviceable again if the run defense improves.
Again, last year I figured Cincinnati would be great at stopping the run and bad against the pass. That was at least half right; the Bearcats run defense was pretty stout, ranking 6th in rushing defense S&P+. But the pass defense took a huge leap forward as well, ending the year ranked 27th in passing defense S&P+. And those numbers don’t look like they’ll drop too far in 2019.
What is going to help the Bearcats is returning a whole host of starters from last year, including the entire secondary. The linebacker core, despite losing leading tackler Malik Clements, should be excellent as well, led by Jarell White.
If there’s a spot on the defense that should take a step back, it’s the defensive line, who lost their top three performers after last year. They return Kevin Mouhon, who missed last year with injury, but this could be the early vulnerability that UCLA will need to exploit; good thing the rushing offense turned into such a strength last year.
Last year, I was optimistic with the previews, believing the Chip Kelly effect could overcome any shortcomings elsewhere. This year I know better, especially with a road opener on a Thursday against a program on the rise.
That said, I do also think UCLA will be noticeably better this year. Probably not enough to win this game, but enough to make this game close enough to give Bruin fans hope.
Cincinnati wins 27-20.