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UConn football opponent preview: AAC East heavyweights

UConn faces tough tests against East division leaders UCF, USF, and Cincinnati.

Ian Bethune/The UConn Blog

UConn football’s 2019 schedule has three conference divisional games that are going to be... steep uphill climbs. That’s not being a downer, it’s just reality. For tilts against UCF, USF, and Cincinnati, the Huskies will be heavy underdogs.

But because we’re hard-scrabble scribes who leave no stone unturned and also have no life, we’re still going to take look at these three heavyweights on the 2019 calendar.

First up is Central Florida.

UCF Knights

Ian Bethune/The UConn Blog

The Huskies travel down to Orlando to face the Knights on Saturday, Sept. 28. UCF checks in at No. 17 in the most recent AP Top 25 poll, and was ranked as high as No. 11 earlier in the preseason. But this is the Civil ConFLiCT baby, where anything can happen!

2018 Review

Last year, UCF transitioned from Scott Frost to Josh Heupel at head coach seamlessly, going 12-0 in the regular season before losing to LSU in the Fiesta Bowl. Against the Huskies, UCF rolled to a 56-17 victory in the season opener, scoring two touchdowns in each quarter. The only real speed bump came at Memphis on Oct. 13 in a thinly-veiled trap game, but even then the Knights pulled it out, 31-30.

2019 Outlook

Quarterback McKenzie Milton is sidelined for the year after a gruesome knee injury in last year’s regular-season finale. The task of a third-straight AAC title and undefeated regular season now rests squarely on the shoulders of Brandon Wimbush, the Notre Dame grad transfer. Darriel Mack Jr., who took over at quarterback for Milton late last year, is still recovering from a broken ankle suffered in the offseason.

Wimbush will command an explosive array of weapons and formidable offensive line largely intact from last year. Keep an eye on running back Greg McCrae — a former walk-on who logged 1,182 yards last year — and All-AAC selection Gabriel Davis at wideout.

If there’s a weakness to the Knights, it’s on the other side of the ball, which yielded at least 40 points in three of its final six games last year. The secondary should be solid though, boasting returning starters Richie Grant, Nevelle Clarke and Brandon Moore. At linebacker, there’s All-AAC first-team performer Nate Evans, who broke out in a big way last year. Pressuring the quarterback will be interesting though, with only one starter on the defensive line returning.

Even with Milton sidelined, it’s the same old UCF: high-powered offense, opportunistic yet inconsistent defense. That formula has dominated the AAC in the past, and until someone shows up who can stop it, look for the Knights to be the class of the American this year.

Prediction: UCF 49, UConn 17

USF Bulls

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 20 UConn at USF Photo by Mark LoMoglio/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The wild card of the heavyweights is USF, who the Huskies will host on Saturday, Oct. 5 for UConn’s “Ultimate Day of Tailgating.”

2018 Review

It was a tale of two seasons for USF in 2018. The Bulls roared to a 7-0 start, putting the college football world on notice and giving head coach Charlie Strong a rebirth of sorts. The last win of the season? That would be a 38-30 barn-burner against UConn. Then Mr. Hyde showed up, and USF closed out the season 0-6 thanks to a perfect storm of scheduling, injuries, and dumb luck.

2019 Outlook

USF brought in Kerwin Bell as offensive coordinator, who was head coach at Jacksonville University and Division II power Valdosta State, winning the D-II national title in 2018. Bell inherits a treasure chest of weapons for former Alabama prospect Blake Barnett to deploy.

Bell’s offenses last year put up over 50 points per game, so look for Florida transfer Jordan Cronkrite and Johnny Ford to get fed early and often. Then there’s Mitchell Wilcox at tight end, widely regarded as one of the nation’s best at that position.

Burnett dealt with injuries late last year, and a lot of that stemmed from constant pressure allowed by his o-line. While the line returns four starters, the Bulls will have to cut down on the sacks per game (three) in order to replicate last year’s early-season magic.

On defense, linebacker Nico Sawtelle’s injuries also played a factor in last year’s slide. If he’s healthy, it will go a long way in shoring up a defense that gave out points like it was candy last year. For reference, both David Pindell and Kevin Mensah logged 100-yard rushing games against USF in 2018.

It’s widely considered a make-or-break year for head coach Charlie Strong in Tampa. After a dismal stint at Texas, the fit at USF seemed perfect given his Florida recruiting chops. But with another back-loaded schedule that features Cincinnati and UCF (on the road), time will tell which USF shows up in 2019.

Prediction: USF 28, UConn 10

Cincinnati Bearcats

Ian Bethune - The UConn Blog

It pains me to say this as a Cincinnati resident, but the Bearcats are loaded in 2019 and are the prime challenger to UCF in the American. The Huskies and Bearcats will play in Cincinnati on Saturday, Nov. 8.

2018 Review

Head coach Luke Fickell is revered in the Queen City for the turnaround job he’s done up in Clifton. Cincinnati went from 4-8 in 2017 to 11-2 last year, paced by a power running game and stout defense that earned Fickell the AAC Coach of the Year award. The Bearcats’ only losses were on the road to Temple (in overtime) and eventual champion UCF. Against the Huskies, Cincinnati rolled to a 49-7 victory that saw the Bearcats rattle off 49-straight points after going down 0-7.

2019 Outlook

Last year’s power run game gets a nice boost from 2017 rushing leader Gerrid Doaks, who missed all of 2018 with an injury. He’ll join Michael Warren II fresh off a 1,300 yard and 20-touchdown campaign. At quarterback, dual-threat Desmond Ridder, the 2018 AAC Newcomer of the Year, will look to add another dimension to a balanced offense. The only real hole to fill will be at wideout where the Bearcats lost Kahlil Lewis, who led the team in receptions, yards and receiving touchdowns.

In the trenches, keep an eye on Michigan transfer James Hudson, who is currently undergoing a waiver eligibility saga that has Fickell and Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh trading jabs.

The Cincinnati defense was outstanding last year, finishing eighth nationally in scoring defense (17.2 ppg), 11th in total defense (303.5 ppg) and 13th in rushing defense (113.0 ypg). But they’ll have to replace production from all-AAC tackles Cortez Broughton, Marquise Copeland and end Kimoni Fitz — a trio that piled up 14 sacks last year. In the secondary, the Bearcats welcome back three of their top four corners, as well as star safety James Wiggins (four INTs in ‘18).

Cincinnati won’t be able to sneak up on teams this year, but that shouldn’t matter because the Bearcats are loaded. They received votes for the AP Top 25 for good reason. The offense should take a step forward, and if the defense can replicate some of its losses on the line, then the AAC could be crowning a new champion next winter.

Prediction: Cincinnati (a lot), UConn (a little)