Part of the Doc's Big East Week.
Every so often, a supernova of a team splits apart so swiftly and spectacularly that its successors are doomed to wander the wilderness for some uncertain number of years, and everyone knows it. Pro sports has brought us the champions-to-chumps collapses of the 1997-98 Florida Marlins and 1998-99 Chicago Bulls, whose championship rosters instantly disintegrated following the victory parades. In college football, Michigan collapsed completely in 2008 following the departure of coach Lloyd Carr and virtually the entire starting offense from the previous three seasons; that same year, Hawaii bid aloha to coach June Jones, prolific quarterback Colt Brennan and the three leading receivers in school history off a perfect regular season, and hasn't been heard from again except as target practice for Jimmy Clausen. Sometimes the golden years are just over, and it's obvious.
Cincinnati doesn't seen nearly as desperate as all that. The Bearcats did lose the head coach, Brian Kelly, and most of the coaching staff responsible for guiding, in succession, the first 10, 11 and 12-win seasons in school history. The same run also corresponded with the Bearcats' first-ever appearances in the final polls. Then they lose first-rate quarterback Tony Pike and All-American receiver/return man Mardy Gilyard, on top of a pair of All-Big East offensive linemen and a majority of the starters on defense.
But the new QB, Zach Collaros, played a lot last year, and usually very well. He'll have the deepest group of receivers in the conference (Armon Binns, D.J. Woods, USC transfer Vidal Hazelton, tight end Ben Guidugli) at his disposal. The new coach, Butch Jones, has already sustained the momentum of another Brian Kelly rebuilding job, taking Central Michigan to two MAC championships in three years since Kelly went out with a title in 2006. And there are no issues on defense even approaching the uncertainty of fielding 10 new starters going into last year.
Kelly's return, though, almost certainly would have guaranteed that group a spot back at the top of the preseason polls in the Big East, or at least some significant share of first-place votes. When the media's ballots were counted Tuesday, exactly zero picked the Bearcats for the three-peat. The fact that the writers even considered Cincy in line for a second-place tie with West Virginia is a step up from the preseason magazines, which almost unanimously tab the 'Cats third or fourth in the league, often behind UConn. The consensus seems to be that the Bearcats had their run, got a couple championships and big-money bids out of it, and should now fall back in line for the Car Care Bowl.
Given the circumstances of the game, the Sugar Bowl nuking at the hands of Florida probably didn't loom very large in that vote. There were plenty of reasons not to draw any larger conclusions from that massacre: Cincy was denied for a shot at the BCS title; lost its miracle-working head coach amid internal anger at his departure; appointed an interim coach whose attention was quickly divided by his next job; named a new coach who couldn't immediately join the team; and watched Florida morph from a potentially deflated, vulnerable giant that had lost its purpose into a revived bunch of avengers out to honor their own (then) outgoing coach in the span of a few hours before the game. But past all that, it still stands as the most uninspiring possible start to the post-Kelly era, proof that some essential elements to the team's unprecedented success really did leave with the coach.
More directly, Cincinnati was now a team that had just given up 35-plus points for the fourth time in the last five games. The defense never really did come along for the ride. If the exits of Kelly, Pike and Gilyard mean a significant drop from last year's smashing totals (448 yards, 39 points per game), it may be a long time before the Bearcats are able to harness that kind of fire power – or the consistent double-digit win totals it produced – again.
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Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.