Mon Sep 21 07:55pm EDT
Saturday's Oregon State-Cincinnati tilt ranked somewhere between "most intriguing game no one paid any attention to" and "most intriguing game whose winner you can't recall." Both teams are struggling through very meh national reps despite quietly combining for 39 wins the last two years, during which both have been largely relegated to that awkward space near the bottom of the polls for teams we vaguely respect but don't expect to go far and don't know exactly what to do with.
But even if no one was paying much attention, Cincy's 10-point win in one of the tougher venues in the Pac-10 lifted it into a new territory in the polls and opened the door wide to another eye-opening BCS run against essentially the same schedule it conquered on the way to the Orange Bowl last year.
The obvious place to start with the Bearcats is the offense, coach Brian Kelly's M.O., which confirmed its fast start with another light-out effort from Tony Pike (332 yards, two touchdowns, plus a rushing TD), who remains one of the most efficient passers in the country. Early season stats are misleading (especially when a 70-3 obliteration of Southeast Missouri State figures so prominently), but based on a) Cincy's previous success under Kelly, b) the veteran talent (nine starters are back from last year's conference championship team), c) Pike's obvious comfort in and grasp of the offense and d) its production so far -- UC is currently in the top 10 nationally in passing yards, total yards, pass efficiency and scoring, and best in the Big East by all those standards -- this offense is going to look very much like it did Saturday (and occasionally like it did at Rutgers on Labor Day) for the rest of the year.
But that much could be somewhat expected; the offense was supposed to be the strength of the team, especially the passing game, and if you conceded that Rutgers could be very, very bad, its success so far isn't enough to radically alter any preseason perceptions
The defense, though, is another story, considering what the Bearcats lost on that side of the ball -- namely, top tacklers and multi-year starters Ryan Manalac and Corey Smith; All-Big East tackle Terrill Byrd; NFL-bound DBs Mike Mickens, DeAngelo Smith and Brandon Underwood; top pass rusher and second round pick Connor Barwin; and three other starters -- in short, everyone -- from a D that finished in the top 25 nationally against the run and in scoring defense for the second year in a row while leading the Big East in sacks (also for the second year in a row) and tackles for loss.
This year's revamped unit, with 10 starters? It currently ranks in the top 25 nationally against the run and in scoring defense while leading the Big East in tackles for loss; it's eighth nationally in sacks with five QB takedowns at Rutgers and five more Saturday in Corvallis. It also held the Beavers' star runner, Jacquizz Rodgers, to new career lows in yards and yards per carry in a full start. This was the burning, radioactive question at the beginning of the season -- how can this team that annually finishes near the bottom of Big East recruiting rankings possibly replace 10 improbably productive, veteran, talented starters in one fell swoop? -- and the new 3-4/hybrid scheme has answered it resoundingly in the Bearcats' favor.
That equation -- no drop-off on defense + significant improvement on offense from the defending conference champion -- must bode pretty well for the repeat campaign in a wide-open league desperately in search of a viable frontrunner. That's still looking way ahead, especially when West Virginia and Pittsburgh are vying for the same title in slightly less impressive fashion, so when I look down the line at Cincy's schedule for the next two months, I admit it's an idle exercise at this point. But if the defense really has its feet underneath it, I don't see any reason the Bearcats wouldn't be favored to match last year's 8-1 record over the last nine games, or maybe to win them all.