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AAC preview: Cincinnati

The SportsXchange

CINCINNATI -- Cincinnati Bearcats football fans better love the smell of new this season. They have a new head coach, new conference, and the same lofty expectations.

After earning a share of its fourth Big East Conference crown in the past five years, UC finds itself in the revamped American Athletic Conference. And, in one of the most surprising moves of this past offseason, Tommy Tuberville left Texas Tech to become the Bearcats' coach, replacing Butch Jones, who bolted to Tennessee.

Now that the dust has settled on an eventful offseason, the Bearcats, picked to finish second in the AAC behind Louisville, are focused on replacing some top talent from last season and adapting to Tuberville's style, which helped him lead Auburn to a 13-0 season in 2004.

Despite some key losses, Tuberville isn't starting from scratch at UC. The Belk Bowl champs return five starters on the offensive line and two sixth-year senior stalwarts in linebacker Greg Blair and quarterback Brendon Kay. There's plenty of depth at running back but no experienced replacement for 1,000-yard rusher George Winn, outside of diminutive speedster Ralph David Abernathy IV.

Kay, is competing with Munchie Legaux, last year's opening-week starter, will need to adjust to Tuberville's pro-style set, which will keep the QB under center up to 30 percent of the time. This offense is a significant change for the Bearcats, who relied on a spread offense under former coaches Brian Kelly and Butch Jones. UC will utilize a true fullback for the first time in years.

Kay is also dealing with a shoulder injury and is questionable heading into the season opener.

The defense will be anchored by Blair and a highly-touted newcomer in Florida State transfer Jeff Luc. Senior nose tackle Jordan Stepp will assume more of a leadership role on the line. Senior CB Deven Drane is the most experienced player in a secondary that lost three starters.

The dismantling of the Big East left Cincinnati with a weaker-than-normal schedule. Once they get past season-opening games against Big 10 opponents Purdue and Illinois, the Bearcats could cruise toward a Dec. 5 showdown with preseason favorite Louisville in the regular-season finale at Nippert Stadium.

Despite his pedigree and formidable resume, Tuberville won't be bereft of pressure in his new job. Coming off back-to-back 10-3 seasons and consecutive bowl wins, it's important for UC not to lose momentum, especially with a planned $80 million renovation and expansion of Nippert Stadium designed to help draw interest from the Big 12 or ACC if and when they expand again.

Junior kicker Tony Miliano was among 30 kickers named to the Lou Groza Award watch list, which annually recognizes the nation's top collegiate kicker. Miliano led the Big East in scoring last season, finishing 17 of 22 on field goals and 51 of 53 on point-after attempts.

Senior linebacker Greg Blair was named to both the Bronko Nagurski Trophy and the Bednarik Award watch lists. Blair ranked 12th nationally last season with 138 tackles, averaging 10.6 per game. He set a school bowl record with 15 tackles in a victory over Duke in the Belk Bowl.

SPOTLIGHT ON SEPTEMBER: The Tommy Tuberville era will not begin quietly for the Bearcats. Cincinnati begins its season with consecutive games against Big 10 Conference opponents, starting with the Aug. 31 home opener against Purdue at Nippert Stadium. The September schedule begins with a road game at Illinois on Sept. 7 followed by a home game against Northwestern St. and a visit to area rival Miami of Ohio. If the Bearcats can sweep the Big 10 twin bill, a 4-0 start is likely heading into an open date on Sept. 28.

KEYS TO SUCCESS: A primary area of focus during training camp was the offensive line, and not because it's considered a weakness. In fact, with five returning starters, including junior LT Eric Lefeld and senior LG Austen Bujnoch, the line could be UC's best asset. Head coach Tommy Tuberville wants to establish some depth on the line and make sure they are working cohesively with senior QB Brendon Kay and a largely inexperienced group of skill players. The defense has talent, led by senior LB Greg Blair. But how effective they are greatly depends on production from a group of newcomers, most notably Florida State transfer Jeff Luc at linebacker.

AREAS OF CONCERN: Cincinnati has produced a 1,000-yard rusher each of the past three seasons, but both Isaiah Pead and George Winn are now pursuing their NFL dreams. That leaves Ralph David Abernathy IV as the top returning rusher with just 366 yards and three TDs. Abernathy is a versatile speedster, but he has yet to find a permanent role. Sophomore Tion Green and junior-college transfers Rod Moore and Hosey Williams will compete for carries. Moore was considered among the top-rated JC running backs last year. Tuberville will mostly scrap the spread offense, the Bearcats' signature style under the past two head coaches Brian Kelly and Butch Jones, keeping the QB under center up to 30 percent of the time, which will be an adjustment. Tuberville said he'll keep the focus on the running game but maintain a 50-50 balance on offense.

--Team correspondents for The Sports Xchange contributed material for this story.
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