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American Athletic Conference Football Preview: Cincinnati

The Bearcats have been dominating the Huskies lately on the gridiron. Will that change this year?

Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

We continue our run through the conference schedule with the Cincinnati Bearcats, who UConn has not been able to beat since 2010.

Cincinnati Bearcats

Head Coach: Tommy Tuberville (25-14 at UC; 155-91 career)

2015 Result: Cincinnati 37, UConn 13 - The Huskies were left in the dust in a track meet as their zone defense had trouble containing the Bearcat spread.

2016 Game: October 8 at Rentschler Field

Cincinnati's Strengths: On offense, Cincinnati is extremely potent, with two good quarterbacks in Gunner Kiel and Hayden Moore capable of putting major points up behind center. Kiel, especially, has some elite arm strength that was on display against the Huskies in 2015. The Bearcats also have some decent backfield mates in the powerful Tion Green and the explosive Mike Boone, both of whom performed well in 2015. The Bearcats also return nine defensive starters next year, offering some experience for that unit.

Cincinnati's Weaknesses: While Kiel and Moore are both back, they lose all of their top five wide receiver options from 2015, including now Baltimore Raven Chris Moore and 4.3 40-yard dash speedster Johnny Holton. Kiel and Moore will be looking at also-rans like Nate Cole, DJ Dowdy, and Tshumbi Johnson to fill their roles, perhaps mitigating some of the explosiveness that hurt UConn so much last year.

While the defense has a lot of returning pieces, they were awful against the run last year, ranking second to last in the country by Football Outsiders' S&P+ statistics (essentially a combination of four rush defense factors, none of which served as successes for the Bearcats).

How They Match Up: Last year, Cincinnati jumped on UConn early and the Huskies were unable to surmount a large early deficit, partially due to an inability to execute on the offensive side of the ball. This rush defense is very weak, and if the Husky offensive line has improved from last year, they can get some interior push and run the ball on the Bearcats.

On defense, the Huskies may want to consider switching up their scheme a bit as off-man is not conducive to stopping spread offenses. Either way, this should be a much more competitive matchup than last year, and the Huskies could even be poised to pull off an upset win if things break right.

Q&A

We also caught up with Phil Neuffer from Down the Drive to discuss how things are shaping up for this upcoming season.

1) 2015 seemed like a bit of a down year given the Bearcats' recent success. Was it a rebuilding season or was something else afoot?

It was certainly not supposed to be a rebuilding year. Expectations were very high going into last season, but that was before we knew that Memphis, Temple and USF were headed for huge years. Still, even with that, the Bearcats should have been better. It had a lot of returning talent, especially on offense with Gunner Kiel in year two plus Shaq Washington, Mekale McKay and Max Morrison giving him plenty of options in the passing game.

Even though Cincy was the best offensive team in the conference, the so-so defense caught up with them too much. It also didn't help that the Bearcats dug themselves into holes in games against Temple and Houston, while failing to put Memphis away. Those were all winnable games, but going down 34-12 to Temple and 30-14 to Houston killed them. I don't think there was one specific thing "afoot" but a lot of little things, plus the weight of expectations, that added up to a disappointing season.

2) Where do you stand at the quarterback position? Is there a controversy or battle between Gunner Kiel and Hayden Moore?

If you ask Tommy Tuberville there is. He told the Cincinnati Enquirer back in January that Kiel was going to have to work his way back to the starting gig. Then, in the spring game, Kiel didn't play because of an injury, which doesn't help his cause.

Cincinnati relies so heavily on the pass that having to switch quarterbacks frequently can really muck up rhythm. Unfortunately, Hayden Moore didn't wow in the spring game, completing 7-of-18 pass attempts for 81 yards and two interceptions. Redshirt freshmen Ross Trail did much better, throwing for 157 yards on 12-of-21 passing while recording a touchdown to match an interception.

I think this will be an evolving competition through the summer and it might be more than just a two-man race, although I'd doubt that. My gut says Kiel will be the guy but Moore is the QB of the future, if you will, so there might be pressure to get him even more reps after last season.

3) Who are the biggest losses from last year's team?

The receiving corps that was so deep last season is not so much this time around. Washington, Moore, Morrison and McKay, along with Alex Chisum and Johnny Holton, are all gone. Those first four will be missed the most, but those six players were the top six on the team in receiving last year. There are a solid group of young guys that will get their chance in 2016 because Cincinnati is not going to stop throwing. However, there's no doubt that losing not one, not two, not three...well you get the idea.

It should also be noted that Silverberry Mouhon will no longer be patrolling the trenches on defense. Although he never became the All-American-level talent folks in Cincinnati (including myself) thought he would, he was still the best pass-rusher on the squad.

4) Who are you counting on to step up into a much bigger role than last year?

One of the young receivers I'm expecting to have a breakout season is Tshumbi Johnson. He looked great in the spring, finishing it off with five receptions for 88 yards in the spring game. I also think Kahlil Lewis will be a pass-catching option the Bearcats will lean on, but more in that possession role that Morrison filled. I'm also keeping an eye on Kevin Mouhon, Silverberry's brother, who was a four-star recruit and really showed a lot of pass-rushing ability in the spring.

5) Who are you most afraid of in the AAC-East? Who do you think wins the West?

I realize that most people would say Temple, but I think losing Tyler Matakevich, its defensive heart, will hurt the Owls more than people realize. I actually find USF to be a little more frightening. That's a program that appears on the way up, although that could have something to do with that 65-27 obliteration the Bulls put on the Bearcats last fall.

I think the West is all Houston. Memphis and Navy both lost extremely talented quarterbacks, so I'm expecting regression from them, and the rest of that group doesn't really inspire much in terms of fear.

6) How are Bearcat fans feeling about the non-conference opponents, UT-Martin, Purdue, Miami (OH), and BYU? It seems to be lacking in punch.

How dare you disparage the budding rivalry between the UT-Martin *stops to do internet search for UT-Martin's mascot* Skyhawks and the Cincinnati Bearcats!

Yeah, its not the sexisest group of non-league foes. BYU is obviously the one highest on the marquee. That could be a particularly huge game if the Cougars continue the success they had a year ago, which is certainly in doubt since they are moving on from Bronco Mendenhall.

It isn't really surprising that the non-league slate is so weak though. Cincinnati doesn't usually fill up on nationally ranked squads. In the last five seasons, it has only played two ranked teams in non-conference play. (No. 22 Ohio State in 2014 and No. 8 Oklahoma in 2010).

7) Where are expectations for 2016?

After the sobering punch to the face that was the 2015 season, expectations are much lower this year. Don't get me wrong, Cincinnati will make a bowl game, beat the bottom tier teams and make the ones at the top sweat. But, with a new group of receivers, questions at quarterback and a defense searching for a new leader, not to mention the ascension of a number of programs in the conference, there's no way I'm pencilling them in as AAC champs.

8) Can you please take it easy on UConn this year?

After what you guys did to Cincinnati in the AAC basketball tournament? Not a chance.