Coach: Mark Dantonio (2nd season, 7–5) 2004 record: 7-5 (Beat Marshall in Fort Worth Bowl) C-USA finish: 5-3 (t-2nd) 2004 I-A offensive rankings: Rushing: 28th (183.4 ypg) Passing: 50th (222.2 ypg) 2004 I-A defensive rankings: Rushing: 58th (147.2 ypg) Passing: 26th (194.2 ypg)
at Penn State
at Miami (OH)
at South Florida
Depth Chart: Offense
3 returning starters in red
Depth Chart: Defense
3 returning starters in red
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Cincinnati picked a bad time to join the Big East Conference. Make no mistake, the Bearcats are thrilled to have found a Bowl Championship Series home for their football program, but after nine years in Conference USA, they would have preferred to enter the new league with a more experienced team.
Instead, Cincinnati will play its first season of Big East competition with only 11 seniors. Of those 11, only defensive end Adam Roberts, offensive tackle Steve Eastlake and punter Chet Ervin were starters last season.
"We're a young football team," said second-year head coach Mark Dantonio, who led the Bearcats to a 7-5 record and a victory over Marshall in the Fort Worth Bowl last year. "But that's exciting, too. We'll be able to develop those players as we go. The lack of experience is going to hurt us. That's always a natural. That's just the way football teams are developed. We're going to be very green. But next year, I'll be saying that we have tremendous experience."
Still, this figures to be a memorable year for the Cincinnati program.
"We've got the opportunity to play for the national championship," said junior tight end Brent Celek. "Playing these teams every week, it's going to bring our level of play up."
Without an experienced quarterback -- and with only one starter returning on the offensive line -- Cincinnati might have a difficult time scoring points. Fortunately, the Bearcats have three talented young running backs. Sophomores Butler Benton and Bradley Glatthaar, along with junior Mike Daniels, combined for 887 yards and averaged 4.4 yards per carry last season.
Cincinnati also has a capable tight end in Celek, who set a school record for tight ends last year with eight touchdown receptions. Sophomore wide receiver Earnest Jackson has shown flashes of being a top-flight player.
After featuring a balanced and explosive offense last year under quarterback Gino Guidugli, this offense is a blank slate waiting to be filled in by players who have been waiting for their chance to shine. If the Bearcats find a quarterback, and if the line jells quickly, the running backs may be able to carry the team. But those are two huge "ifs."
Senior defensive end Adam Roberts will anchor a defense that, like the offense, lost most of its playmakers from last year. Sophomore Anthony Hoke could be a budding star at defensive end, but the Bearcats are looking for immediate help from incoming freshmen Patrick Mimms, Terrill Byrd, Thomas Claggett and Curtis Smith.
The entire linebacker corps -- including starters and their backups -- is gone, forcing the coaching staff to experiment by moving Jon Carpenter from fullback to linebacker.
The secondary is the one unit that has some experience with juniors JaJuan Hall, Dominic Ross and Antoine Horton.
Overall, the defense will be a green unit loaded with question marks. Roberts and Hoke will need a huge year up front, and junior college transfer Leo Morgan will have to make an impact at linebacker for this group to succeed.
Placekicker Kevin Lovell returns after an excellent rookie season. He converted 11-of-15 field goal attempts, with two of those misses coming from beyond 50 yards. Punter Chet Ervin is back for his senior year after averaging 41.2 yards in '04, but he'll be pushed by junior Brian Steel. Junior Mike Daniels averaged 18.3 yards per kickoff return and 11.8 yards per punt return.
Though he is in his second year on the job, Dantonio's work is just beginning.
There are many uncertainties on this team, but Cincinnati's success or failure will likely hinge on the quarterback position, where seven untested players will compete for playing time. The starter likely won't be announced until late in summer camp, but it appears that redshirt freshman Dustin Grutza and junior college transfer Nick Davila are the two leading candidates.
With such a young team, the Bearcats are likely to struggle as they head into their first Big East season. The non-conference schedule is just as tough, with a game at Penn State on Sept. 10 and at local rival Miami of Ohio on Sept. 28. The Bearcats finish on the road at South Florida and at Rutgers.
Given Cincinnati's inexperience, it's hard to see this team winning more than three or four games in its first season in the Big East.