The Bearcats roared out of the gate in 2012 beginning with a decisive 34-10 rout of Pittsburgh, followed by four more wins in succession. The Bearcats then took tough losses in their first two road games against Toledo (29-23) and in an overtime battle with eventual league champion Louisville (34-31). From there Cincinnati rebounded well, collecting wins in four of its final five regular season games.
With a 9-3 regular season mark the Bearcats earned a spot in the Belk Bowl but entered the contest without Butch Jones who accepted the head coaching job at Tennessee after the regular season. That didn't stop the Bearcats though, as they knocked off Duke, 48-34, for their second straight bowl victory.
OFFENSE: Most teams would feel confident having their starter at quarterback return. That isn't the case with Cincinnati. Though Munchie Legaux is back on the roster, he has slipped on the depth chart after a year of erratic passing.
Legaux did go 6-2 as a starter but also completed just 52.2 percent of his passes. Under new head coach Tommy Tuberville, it is Brandon Kay who will be taking the snaps. Kay got some playing time last season and led the Bearcats to a 4-1 record in the final five games of the season. Kay was much better at making decisions, completing 63 percent of his pass attempts, with 10 touchdowns against just two interceptions.
The quarterback competition got even more interesting in the spring when former Notre Dame signal caller Gunner Kiel transferred in. Kiel was heavily recruited out of high school in 2011 but spent the 2012 season fourth on the depth chart with the Fighting Irish.
"We are very excited Gunner has decided to enroll at UC," Tuberville said. "He's a great talent and an even better person. He comes from a great family with some strong quarterback lineage. We are looking forward to getting him here and seeing what the future holds."
The quarterback race is likely between Kay and Kiel as each fits the mold that Tuberville prefers at the position.
The most important skill position holdover for the Bearcats is on the outside, where wide receiver Anthony McClung reigns. McClung didn't turn many heads with his numbers on paper (34 receptions, 539 yards) but with the rest of the receiving corps, including the tight end spot, made up of mainly untested players, McClung will be leaned on heavily.
Perhaps even more crucial to Cincinnati's offensive attack will be making up for the loss of George Winn and the 1,334 yards and 13 touchdowns he rushed for last season. Getting the first shot at the job will be junior Ralph D. Abernathy. The 5-foot-7 back rushed for 366 yards on 69 carries as Winn's backup and was also a factor in the passing game (28 receptions, 341 yards, 4 TDs). Tion Green and junior college transfers Rodriguez Moore and Hosey Williams will also compete for touches.
Though the play of Winn was a big reason for it, the Bearcats led the Big East in rushing last season thanks to one of the best offensive lines in the conference. All five starters from that unit are back, including a pair of all-conference first-team selections in Eric Lefeld and Austen Bujnoch.
DEFENSE: Under Tuberville the Bearcats will be utilizing a 4-3 front on the defensive side of the ball. That is the same formation they favored a year ago under Jones. It makes sense that Cincinnati wouldn't change much as the team was solid on defense, ranking second in the Big East and 14th nationally in points allowed (18.5 ppg), the team's best mark since 1995.
Greg Blair is the glue for the defense as the senior linebacker will be anchoring the unit from the middle. Blair was a first-team All-Big East selection last season, while piling up an impressive 138 tackles, 9.0 TFL and a pair of interceptions. Blair will be joined at linebacker by returning starter Nick Temple and Florida State transfer Jeff Luc, who has the potential to elevate the group to new heights.
Up front the Bearcats will be inserting a number of players that have experience in years, but not so much in terms of playing time. Jordan Stepp and Camaron Beard were each starters a year ago and combined for nine sacks at the defensive tackle position. Seniors Elijah Shuler, Mitch Meador and Adam Dempsey will also be in the rotation, while sophomore Silverberry Mouhon projects as the most likely break-out candidate.
The secondary will be in good hands with Deven Drane lining up at cornerback and Arryn Chenault overseeing things from the safety position. Drane collected 40 tackles and tied for a team-high with nine passes defended, while Chenault had a team-best three interceptions
SPECIAL TEAMS: Abernathy and McClung will fit right back into their spots as the primary kick and punt returners, respectively. Meanwhile, Tony Miliano will be back to perform place kicking duties after he knocked in 17-of-22 field goal attempts last season. However, the Bearcats have big shoes to fill with punter Pat O'Donnell gone after he transferred to Miami-Florida. His replacement will be junior John Lloyd.
OUTLOOK: Tuberville didn't exactly impress in his last stop at Texas Tech where he went 20-17. However, he brings a wealth of experience and notoriety to the position, which has served as a stepping stone for its last two coaches (Jones and Brian Kelly).
"We're excited about the first year of coaching in this league with some new players," Tuberville said of his new squad and league. "Cincinnati has been one of the bright spots in college football for the last six or seven years. So being at Cincinnati for me, I'm excited to try to keep it going and improve it."
There is talent on this roster but it is spread thinner than in past seasons. Kay will have to show that he can replicate his success in a larger sample size and Abernathy or one of the other backs in the stable will need to step up. Both of those goals should be attainable behind a strong offensive line.
The schedule lines up nicely for the Bearcats, who don't play an overly challenging non-conference slate (vs. Purdue, at Illinois, vs. Northwestern State and at Miami-Ohio). Plus the Bearcats get Louisville at home to end the regular season. That contest will come after the toughest stretch of the campaign for Cincinnati when it travels to Rutgers and Houston in back-to- back weeks.
Getting to double-digit wins for a third straight seasons isn't outside the realm of possibility for Cincinnati. However, with the team lacking the returning talent of years past, and its track record under first-year head coaches (4-8 in Butch Jones' first season), the Bearcats might not be able to reach that high this year. However, eight wins and a bowl game is well within their grasp.