December 20, 2010
A season in review. Today: Cincinnati's freefall from the top of the Big East.
Brian Kelly's three-year run at Cincinnati produced the three best individual seasons in school history: In successive years, the Bearcats set new program highs with 10 wins, then 11, then 12, while turning in Cincy's first ever finish in the final polls, first major conference championship, first major bowl game and first undefeated regular season. With a run like that, it's no surprise that the Bearcats fell back to the pack in their first season under Butch Jones.
It is, however, a surprise that they fell so far back, from 12-0 to 4-8 overall, and just 2-5 in the Big East, barely enough to keep them out of last place – and especially that, in a lot of big-picture ways, Jones' hapless debut didn't look all that different from Kelly's triumphant farewell.
Just like the '09 team, Cincy gained more yards and scored more points 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. 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 conference championship; it didn't even threaten to turn 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 them. The defense, often an opportunistic, bend-don't-break outfit in '09, was torched for at least 27 in every conference game. In a single season, essentially the same group of players rode essentially the same generic profile – good offense, bad defense – from an extreme high to an extreme low.
That chasm is bridged by big-play opportunities on the margins. The return game declined from the best in the conference on punt and kickoff returns to the worst in both categories. 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 last year – despite blocking in the most pass-happy offense – gave up the second-most sacks this time around. And 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, more than any other attack in the conference, and only wrangled 14 takeaways, fewer than any other defense. Not surprisingly, the Bearcats finished in the red in eight of 12 games, six of them losses, and turned in a –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 this team was far sloppier with the ball and totally lacked its predecessor's big-play knack on defense and special teams, which makes it just another unremarkable entry in decades of mediocrity.
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Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.