Last fall the Bearcats' faithful got a glimpse of how good quarterback Zach Collaros can be. He filled in for injured Tony Pike in late October and in four starts shredded defenses for 1,233 passing yards, eight touchdowns (with one interception) and a 78.3% completion rate. Most important, he led Cincinnati to four victories. While Pike was a 6' 6", pocket-bound gunslinger in the Bearcats' spread offense, the 6-foot, 209-pound Collaros made big plays with his arm and legs. His third play from scrimmage after replacing Pike against South Florida was a 75-yard touchdown run on a quarterback draw.
Cincinnati's offense was one of the nation's most prolific in 2009 (38.6 points per game, fourth best in the nation), but new coach Butch Jones believes it can be even more dynamic with Collaros, a junior, directing a unit that has six starters returning. "This will be an up-tempo football team like it was last year," says Jones, "but Zach is more of a dual threat than Pike was. He adds another element with the run game, and we plan to use that other dimension to keep defenses off balance."
Jones, who replaced Brian Kelly last December, comes to Cincinnati from Central Michigan, where his most recent quarterback, Dan LeFevour, shattered MAC records, including total touchdowns (150). The Bearcats' staff believes Collaros can put up similar Xbox numbers in Jones's version of the spread. "Zach reminds me a lot of Dan in that he's hungry and competitive," says Jones.
Collaros and his teammates may need to score often for Cincinnati to win its third straight Big East title. The defense, which will switch from a 3--4 to a 4--3 to take advantage of its strength at defensive line, is thin and unproven. Five starters are back from a unit that allowed 39.4 points over its last five games, including 51 to Florida in the Sugar Bowl.
That 27-point drubbing was a sour end to an otherwise sweet year: Cincinnati won a school-record 12 games and finished with its highest final ranking (No. 8). "We were a few seconds from playing for a national championship," says Collaros, whose Bearcats likely would have faced Alabama in the BCS title game had Texas lost in the Big 12 championship. "There's no reason why we can't be right up there again."