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Life on the Margins: Cincinnati lets the glory days slip away

Brian Kelly spent three seasons as Cincinnati's head coach, and they were the three best seasons in school history. Not the best three-season run — the three best individual seasons, one right after the other: In successive years, the Bearcats set new program highs with ten wins in 2007, then eleven wins, then twelve, while also turning in Cincy's first ever finish in the final polls, first major conference championship, first major bowl game and first undefeated regular season. After a run like that, no one on earth honestly expected Butch Jones to pick up right where Kelly left off in 2010.

But no one also expected the bottom to fall out of the record quite as abruptly as it did. In one year, the Bearcats plummeted from 12-0 to 4-8 overall, and to just 2-5 in the Big East — barely enough to avoid the shame of going from first to worst. And the freefall makes even less sense when you consider that, in a lot of big-picture ways, Jones' rocky debut didn't really look all that different from Kelly's triumphant farewell.

Just like the '09 team, Cincy gained more yards and scored more points last year than any other offense in the Big East. It also finished seventh in the conference in total defense — a slight improvement, after coming in dead last en route to 12-0. Quarterback Zach Collaros passed for a conference-best 2,900 yards and 26 touchdowns, easily better than predecessor Tony Pike managed in the Bearcats' 11-3, conference championship season in 2008, and turned in a slightly better efficiency rating. The offense improved its third-down conversion rate, from 42 percent to forty-six. On paper, Armon Binns and D.J. Woods were the No. 1 and No. 2 receivers in the Big East, combining for 1,999 yards and 18 touchdowns on 132 receptions. Altogether, there were seven Bearcats on the postseason All-Big East team, down from eight all-conference picks in 2009.

And yet, the 2010 edition not only came nowhere near a third consecutive conference championship; it didn't even come close to a winning record. The Bearcats dropped five of their last six games, four of them by double digits, with the highest-scoring offense in the league failing to top 17 points in any of the losses. The defense, often an opportunistic, bend-don't-break outfit in '09, allowed slightly fewer yards per game but was torched for at least 27 points in every conference match. In a single season, essentially the same group of players rode essentially the same statistical profile from an extreme high to an extreme low.

Life on the Margins: Cincinnati lets the glory days slip awayThe chasm was a result of big-play opportunities on the margins. The return game declined from the best in the conference on punt and kickoff returns in 2009 to the worst in both categories in 2010. The high-pressure defense that led the Big East in sacks and tackles for loss in 2008 and finished in the top 10 nationally on both fronts in '09 fell back to the middle of the pack. The line that allowed the fewest sacks in the conference in 2009 — despite blocking in the most pass-happy offense — gave up the second-most sacks in 2010. And most devastatingly, one of the least turnover-prone teams in the country devolved into an outfit the couldn't hold on to the ball to save its life.

For the season, the Cincy offense coughed up 29 giveaways last year, more than any other attack in the conference, and only managed 14 takeaways, fewer than any other defense. Not surprisingly, the Bearcats finished in the red in turnover margin in eight of 12 games, six of them losses, and turned in a negative-15 margin for the season — a staggering 24-turnover swing from 2009, and ultimately worse than all but one other team in the nation (Middle Tennessee).

The athletes didn't change. Neither did the high-flying, up-tempo philosophy on offense. But almost all else being equal, the 2010 Bearcats were far sloppier with the ball and totally lacked its predecessor's big-play knack on defense and special teams, which made it just another unremarkable entry in decades of mediocrity.

Of course, all else wasn't really equal; Bearcat fans would give just about anything short of their season basketball tickets to have Tony Pike and Mardy Gilyard back. But it was close enough for some genuine optimism: Seniors Zach Collaros, Isaiah Pead and D.J. Woods make for the best returning quarterback / running back / receiver trio in the Big East, and the defense gets back twice as many starters (10) as it's had either of the last two years. Altogether, Cincy still outgunned conference opponents by almost 40 yards per game.

Most importantly, the crippling giveaway-takeaway ratio has to come back to earth. If the Bearcats play exactly as well as they did last year but cut the negative turnover margin in half, they'll be back in a bowl game. If they get the number back into the black and reap the potential of the Big East's most experienced defense, no one is far enough ahead in this conference to keep them from putting a return to the BCS squarely in their sights.

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This post is largely adapted from this post last December.
Matt Hinton is on Facebook and Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.

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