The Cincinnati Bearcats have gone 18-8 in two years under head coach Tommy Tuberville, during which the team has seen its fair share of ups and downs. After a solid start to his tenure in 2013, where the Bearcats went 9-4, Tuberville and his team endured a bit of a rough patch this past season.
Despite entering 2014 as the favorite to win the AAC title, Cincinnati came stumbling out of the gates, losing three of its first five games. The team was plagued by off-field trouble and a couple of terrible tragedies, plus the UC defense was among the worst in the entire country. The program seemed to be in a state of utter turmoil, with some fans were even beginning to call for Tuberville’s firing.
But just when the Bearcats’ season appearing to be headed for failure and disappointment, they were able to turn things around in a big way, winning seven straight games to close out the regular season and clinching a share of the conference title.
Cincinnati was able to orchestrate this sudden turnaround thanks to its potent aerial attack, led by quarterback Gunner Kiel, and a defense that, while it was never really great, was able to improve as the season progressed.
Despite being bothered with injured ribs for a majority of the year, Kiel was able to tie a Cincinnati single-season record with 31 passing touchdowns and also threw for 3,254 yards, the third-highest single-season total in school history.
Though the Bearcats dropped their bowl game against Virginia Tech to finish with a 9-4 record, there is plenty of reason for optimism from UC fans heading into 2015 and beyond.
The future of the program looks bright, with Tuberville assembling a 2015 recruiting class that ranks first in the AAC according to both 247Sports and Rivals.com. Though this bodes well for the long-term success of the Bearcats, they have a very realistic shot of being the AAC’s best team in 2015.
An obvious reason for optimism is the return of Kiel, who flourished in his first year under center for Cincinnati in spite of his nagging injuries. If he is able to remain healthy, there’s every reason to believe that he’ll be the best quarterback in the conference in 2015, especially given the talent and depth of his receiving corps.
The UC passing offense ranked 13th in the FBS in 2014, thanks in no small part to the team’s surplus of solid wide receivers. The Bearcats had eight receivers who finished the year with at least 145 yards and a touchdown, and every single one of them will be back next season. Seven of them were juniors, including Shaq Washington, who led the team with 761 yards, and Mekale McKay, who recorded 725 yards and eight touchdowns.
With so much talent returning on what was an already excellent offense, expect Eddie Gran’s unit to be among the country’s best in 2015.
Once again, success on defense will once again pose as Cincinnati’s biggest challenge, though they have a chance to improve from this past season. The Bearcats will lose several starters from their front seven, including linebackers Nick Temple and Jeff Luc and defensive end Terrell Hartsfield. Defensive end Silverberry Mouhon is among those returning for the UC front seven, while safety Zach Edwards and cornerbacks Leviticus Payne and Adrian Witty (who missed almost the entire season with a leg injury) will headline a veteran secondary.
Tuberville also had to replace defensive coordinator Hank Hughes, who was a lightning rod for criticism early in the year, after Hughes decided to join Mike Riley’s staff at Nebraska. Tuberville opted to fill the vacancy with an in-house hire, promoting defensive backs coach Steve Clinkscale to co-defensive coordinator and play caller.
The stage is set for a successful campaign in 2015 for the Bearcats, who will also be returning to play their home games at newly-renovated Nippert Stadium, and it’s pivotal for Tuberville that his team doesn’t fall short of these expectations.
Tuberville’s job, barring a catastrophic season, isn’t and shouldn’t be in any kind of jeopardy, but there’s still a fair amount of UC fans who aren’t totally sold on him as the right man to lead the program, which hasn’t finished the year in the Top 25 since 2011. If the Bearcats aren’t at the very least contending for an AAC title in late November, the number of fans who feel that Tuberville has lost a step, rightfully so or not, will only increase.