August 05, 2009
Part of the Doc's Big East Week.
Brian Kelly is a mainstay the last couple years on those "Most Underrated Coaches" lists, to the extent that he's probably rated more or less appropriately -- after all, underrated coaches usually aren't constantly fingered for more prestigious jobs. And if there are still Kelly skeptics, they shouldn't be too difficult to convert:
Prior to last year's Orange Bowl run, Cincy's last outright conference championship was the 1964 Missouri Valley Conference crown; the last time the Bearcats won 10 games in a season was 1951, in the midst of a run of three Mid-American Athletic Conference titles in four years under Sid Gillman, future father of the modern passing game. UC had never finished in the final AP poll before landing in the top-20 the last two years, which makes Kelly's first two teams arguably the best two teams in school history.
That's the case despite no noticeable uptick in talent -- according to Rivals, Cincy had the lowest-ranked recruiting class in the Big East three years in a row from 2005-07 and was next-to-last in 2008 -- expectations or resources. The BCS, not to mention the recent uptick in season ticket sales and subsequent plans to expand Nippert Stadium, truly came out of nowhere, and has remained relatively under the radar in large part because the leap in wins the last two seasons hasn't been accompanied by any such dramatic changes on paper:
Aside from the disastrous transition from C-USA to the Big East by an unusually young team in 2005, that's a fairly consistent performance from year to year in terms of yardage. The leap forward has been more marginal: For example, what was the difference between last year's champs and the nondescript outfit that went 7-6 in 2002? Performance in close games: The '02 team outgained opponents by far more yards but was only 1-5 in games decided by a touchdown or less, where the '08 team 5-0, not including an eight-point win at Louisville in which UC only led by one point midway through the fourth quarter. This on the heels of a team that fought opponents to a draw on a per-play basis in 2007 but had the benefit of finishing +16 in turnover margin for the year, and +21 in wins; that included going +5 and +6, respectively, in wins over Oregon State and South Florida. But you can't hang last year's success on turnovers -- the Bearcats finished –8, but were much more successful on a per-play basis. They didn't "steal" any wins.
So if the question is, "How much better is Cincinnati on a down-by-down basis?" the answer seems to be "Somewhat better" in addition to an opportunistic streak. Mark Dantonio, despite weathering the depths of the '05 rebuilding year, seemed to establish a solid foundation before moving on to Michigan State, one that Kelly has richly exploited with veterans who took their lumps in the Dantonio years. If anything, Kelly's one obvious virtue is a knack for getting the best out of quarterbacks: Guiding a solid talent like Ben Mauk to a record-setting year is impressive, but turning an obscurity like Tony Pike into the best quarterback in the conference is a real reputation-maker. The passing game alone this year should keep UC in the conference race well into November.
But the Bearcats were really a defensive team last year, and the real test is how well Kelly's staff is able to replace 10 starters on defense, all of whom were recruited by Dantonio and most of whom saw their first significant action under the previous administration as well. That was an extremely battle-tested group, and more talented -- four draft picks, not including all-conference tackle Terrill Byrd -- than Cincy's recruiting suggests it had any right to be. If UC remains on top of the conference in the wake of that kind of turnover, the only remaining questions about Kelly should be "Which high-profile vacancy should he accept?"