No one at Cincinnati was happier last fall about the school's impending move to the Big East Conference than football coach Rick Minter. At last, he would be able to go into a recruit's home and sell the idea of playing in a BCS conference. But Minter, who was fired after a 5-7 season, will not reap those Big East benefits after all.
Athletic director Bob Goin decided a fresh face was needed to lead the program into a promising new era.
"The stakes are higher," Goin said. "There's no question about that."
To find that fresh face, Goin looked 100 miles up the road to Ohio State and hired Buckeyes defensive coordinator Mark Dantonio to prepare the Cincinnati program for its 2005 debut in the Big East.
But first there's one final season to play in Conference USA. Dantonio and his staff inherit a team that returns 17 starters, including quarterback Gino Guidugli, already the most prolific passer in the school's history, and running back Richard Hall, an Ohio State transfer.
OffenseGuidugli will enter his senior year with a renewed lease on life. Frustrated last year by an inexperienced receiving corps, Guidugli had to bite his tongue as he saw so many of his passes dropped and watched helplessly as his passing arm was used increasingly to hand the ball off to running backs in former coach Rick Minter's run-oriented offense.
But Guidugli is champing at the bit to get started this year under Dantonio's new regime.
Hall is back for his senior year to lead a talented and deep corps of running backs. The offensive line is filled with veterans, and the receivers will have a year of experience under their belts. If Hannibal Thomas, a junior college transfer who came on strong at the end of last year, is as good as he appeared to be, and senior George Murray II has a big senior year, the Bearcats could score a load of points.
DefenseThe strength of this unit lies in the linebacking corps, with all three starters returning from last year. Middle linebacker Jamar Enzor is the leader of the group.
The defensive line is solid at the two end positions, where Andre Frazier led the team in sacks last year with seven and Trent Cole was a first-team All-Conference USA selection.
The rest of the defense is a question mark. The Bearcats have no proven starter in the interior line and need help in the secondary. Cornerback Daven Holly, one of the fastest players on the team (4.39 in the 40), led the Bearcats last year with six interceptions.
SpecialistsChet Ervin returns for his third year as the Cincinnati punter with a career average of 38.5 yards. Ervin was supposed to be freed from punting duties last year to allow him to concentrate on placekicking, but he was pressed into duty on both fronts when incoming freshman Jordan Lear failed to meet expectations. Walk-on Chris Manfredini handled the extra points and short field goals last year to spell Ervin.
The Bearcats have no established return man for either punts or kickoffs. Tedric Harwell averaged 16.8 yards per kickoff return last year, and Mike Daniels averaged 25.3 on just three attempts.
Final AnalysisThis is a team with a lot more potential than people realize. After last year's disappointing 5-7 record, expectations for the Bearcats will be low. But Guidugli is as good as any quarterback in Conference USA and could be poised to put up some monster numbers in the right system.
Too many times under Minter, the Bearcats were predictable on offense, relying too heavily on their running game. Normally, it wasn't until the Bearcats fell behind that the constraints were removed from Guidugli's talented right arm.
Cincinnati lost five games last year by seven or fewer points and seemed to have a knack for finding ways to lose games it should have won. Dantonio comes from an Ohio State program that had the opposite tendency; the Buckeyes nearly always find a way to win in the closing minutes. If he can bottle some of that poise with the game on the line and bring it to Cincinnati, the Bearcats could have a successful final season in Conference USA.