Zach Collaros was on the sidelines earlier this month when Cincinnati finished as co-Big East champions. However, after recovering quicker than expected from a broken ankle, he's hoping to be ready as the Bearcats try for their first bowl victory in four years.
Cincinnati will take on Vanderbilt at the Liberty Bowl in Memphis on Saturday.
After going 4-8 in 2010, the Bearcats turned things around, going 9-3 in coach Butch Jones' second season.
Claiming a share of the Big East title may have seemed out of reach when Collaros broke his right ankle in a 24-21 loss to West Virginia on Nov. 12. The Bearcats lost their next game as well, but rebounded with two wins to close the regular season with sophomore Munchie Legaux under center.
In the four games he played after Collaros got hurt, Legaux mostly struggled as he completed 45.9 percent of his passes for 688 yards. However, he set career highs with 217 yards and three touchdowns in a 35-27 win over Connecticut on Dec. 3 to help Cincinnati earn a share of the conference championship.
The Bearcats no doubt would prefer to have Collaros starting, and they may get their wish. He recently returned to full practices and is optimistic he'll be ready by the bowl game.
"I didn't feel I was going to be able to heal this fast," Collaros said. "There's still a long way to go ... so there's time for it to heal (more). I'm definitely ahead of schedule and excited about it."
Collaros, the Big East leader in passing yards and touchdowns last season, finished as the conference's second-rated passer for a second straight year. He completed 63.4 percent of his throws for 1,860 yards, 14 TDs and eight interceptions. Collaros also ran for eight scores.
"We're glad to see him out there," said Isaiah Pead, who ran for 1,110 yards and 11 TDs. "Anytime you've got a fifth-year senior at any position on offense, it's a comfortable feeling. We're very happy to have him back."
While Collaros has keyed Cincinnati's strong season, the defense may be a bigger reason for the turnaround. The Bearcats allowed an average of 20.0 points in 2011 - down from 28.0 last season - and led the nation with 3.6 sacks and 8.9 tackles for loss per game.
Senior defensive tackle Derek Wolfe ranks sixth nationally with 19 1/2 tackles for loss and has 9 1/2 sacks.
Wolfe now looks to help Cincinnati avoid a third straight bowl loss. The Bearcats' last postseason victory was a 31-21 win over Southern Mississippi in the PapaJohns.com Bowl in 2007.
The Commodores (6-6) are playing in the fifth bowl game in school history and second in four years following back-to-back 2-10 seasons.
Things seemed to get off to a rough start for first-year coach James Franklin when running back Warren Norman, the SEC freshman of the year in 2009, failed to recover from a knee injury that kept him from the final four games of last season.
However, junior Zac Stacy proved more than capable of carrying the offense. After running for a combined 809 yards in 2009 and '10, he broke Vanderbilt's single-season rushing record with 1,136 yards after averaging 125.8 over the final six games.
"He's just steady Eddie," Franklin said of Stacy, who ran for 13 TDs. "He comes to work every single day. ... We were able to do these things this year without what some people would consider our best player. So a great credit to Zac."
Stacy could have trouble putting up big numbers against a Cincinnati run defense which ranked seventh in the country, giving up 92.6 yards per game.
Vanderbilt opened the season with three straight wins, including a victory in its SEC opener, but lost its next five conference games - three against teams in the top 15 at the time. The Commodores came back to win two of their final three games to become bowl eligible, surrendering 15 points in those victories.
Defense has been critical all season for Vanderbilt. It's tied for 19th in the FBS, giving up 324.6 yards per game, and is 27th in points allowed at 20.8 per game.
The Commodores are looking to win their second straight postseason game after defeating Boston College 16-14 in the 2008 Music City Bowl. Prior to that, their last bowl game was in 1982.
Vanderbilt leads the all-time series against Cincinnati 4-3, with the last meeting coming in 1994. The teams have two common opponents, with both defeating UConn at home while losing to Tennessee on the road.