The Cincinnati Bearcats made college football history in 2021, becoming the first team from a Group of Five conference to qualify for the four-team College Football Playoff. Their signature win came at Notre Dame, but the consistency all season long was what got the Bearcats into the semifinals. They fell to Alabama in the Cotton Bowl, 27-6, but this time around they have 11 expected starters back (seven on offense, two on special teams and two on defense). The biggest shoes to fill belong to quarterback Desmond Ridder, although tailback Jerome Ford and cornerbacks Coby Bryant and Ahmad Gardner will also be missed. Can the Bearcats return as national contenders? Check out our thoughts as you consider your College Football betting choices for the coming season.
NCAA News: Are the Cincinnati Bearcats a National Contender?
Two quarterbacks are vying to replace Ridder as the starting signal-caller: Ben Bryant, transferring from Eastern Michigan, and recruit Evan Prater. Bryant started 11 games for Eastern Michigan last year, throwing 14 touchdown passes and rolling up 3,121 yards. Prater was Ridder’s backup last year but did not get much action, but he showed playmaking ability when necessary. We might not know who the starter is until Week 1.
The offensive line returns all five of its starters, including three first-team All-AAC picks: center Jake Renfro, tackle Dylan O’Quinn and guard Lorenz Metz. Even without Ford, the Bearcats got Corey Kiner to transfer in from LSU at tailback. Charles McClelland, Ethan Wright, Ryan Montgomery and Myles Montgomery give the position depth. Tight ends Leonard Taylor and Josh Whyle combined for 600 receiving yards on 54 catches, scoring 10 touchdowns in 2021, and they will be top targets again. Jadon Thompson, Tre Tucker and Tyler Scott are all reliable receivers.
This side of the ball lost at least six main contributors to the NFL. Malik Vann and Jabari Taylor remain on the D-line, with Jowon Briggs joining them in a three-man front. They totaled 8 ½ sacks together last year and comprise the experience in what will otherwise be a new defense. Ivan Pace, a first-team All-MAC linebacker last season, transfers in from Miami (OH) to add talent alongside his brother Deshawn, who had 94 tackles and four picks a year ago. Jaheim Thomas transfers in to join Ty Van Fossen and Wilson Huber. In the secondary, Coby Bryant, Bryan Cook and Ahmad Gardner have all moved on. Senior Arquon Bush is the most experienced defensive back remaining, and Ja’von Hicks returns for a second year starting at safety.
Special Team Preview
Punter Mason Fletcher excelled in his first season in 2021. Ryan Coe transfers in from Delaware, where he went 14 of 17 on field goals a year ago and can nail kicks from beyond 50 yards. The return men (Tucker and Montgomery) are both back, and the Bearcats were an elite special teams unit in 2021.
Contender or Pretender?
Most pre-season national rankings have the Bearcats listed somewhere between 13 and 20. Despite moving on to a new quarterback, the Bearcats are favored to win their third consecutive AAC championship. Their strength of schedule is still good enough to earn the Bearcats playoff consideration, if they can run the table once again. They start the season at Arkansas, and non-conference foes also include Indiana. In AAC play, the Bearcats miss Houston but face UCF and SMU on the road in consecutive weeks coming out of their mid-October bye. If they are still unbeaten after coming home from Orlando on October 29, they should be able to skate the rest of the way, and given the respect their system earned last year, they could easily be a national semifinalist once again.
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