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2021 Preview: Can No. 6 Cincinnati Push Its Way Into the Playoff Discussion?

Seven months after the confetti fell on national champion Alabama, a new college football season is nearly here. As part of Sports Illustrated's 2021 preview content, we're rolling out scouting reports for all of SI's preseason top 25 teams, featuring all the names, storylines and big games you need to know. Starting with No. 25 Nevada and running through No. 1 Alabama, we'll be featuring five teams per day from Monday through Friday.

The Big Story: Cincinnati

The Bearcats entered the last few weeks of the 2020 season as the Group of 5’s Cinderella bid for a College Football Playoff spot. A couple of late COVID-19 cancellations and a scare in the AAC championship game against Tulsa kept them out of the conversation entirely. Then, a heartbreaking loss to Georgia in the Peach Bowl—their first of the season—ended an otherwise unblemished season on a sour note. That said, Cincinnati’s turnaround in the post–Tommy Tuberville era has been remarkable, culminating in an AAC championship last season. Luke Fickell has had his squad winning at least nine games in each of the last three years, and, with a host of returning starters, the Bearcats should be set up for another run in the top 10.

Can't Miss: Desmond Ridder

Ridder is the way-too-obvious choice for Cincinnati. He will be a fourth-year starting QB who’s thrown for at least 2,200 yards in each of his first three seasons. He drastically improved his efficiency and accuracy in his junior season, completing 66.2% of his passes at a 152.9 rating, both top-25 marks in the country. Moreover, the 6' 4", 215-pound Ridder unleashed a ground game (12 touchdowns and six yards per carry) that powered the Bearcats to 29 total touchdowns on the ground. His experience under center combined with a solid number of returning receiving options means Ridder’s improvement should only continue in his fourth year in southeastern Ohio.

Cincinnati QB Desmond Ridder

Key Question: Can the defense recover from the loss of Marcus Freeman?

While Ridder was the legs behind the Cincinnati offense, the key to the conference championship run was the Bearcat defense. Soon after the Peach Bowl loss, defensive coordinator Freeman decided to make the move 250 miles north to South Bend and take the same spot with Notre Dame. Fickell filled that hole with former Michigan State assistant Mike Tressel, whose only previous stint as DC ended when he was demoted after two years in that position with the Spartans. Cincinnati will have talent on that side of the ball, and Fickell’s defensive acumen is clear. But whether the Bearcats can maintain the level of dominance they had under Freeman remains to be seen.

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X-Factor: The offensive line

Tackles James Hudson and Darius Harper anchored an O-line that protected Ridder relatively well a year ago (1.90 sacks allowed per game). The loss of that duo will cause some commotion in an offense that returns a good chunk of its other starters, but the interior of the line will likely remain intact. It will be crucial for the Bearcats’ ground game to find some semblance of consistency up front, especially with Alabama transfer running back Jerome Ford taking the reins in the backfield.

Date to Circle: Oct. 2 at Notre Dame

While the only previous meeting between these two teams was a 58–0 romp by the Irish (in 1900), Notre Dame’s home date with the Group of 5’s strongest squad will be no pushover. Last season’s CFP semifinalist may be in the midst of something of a rebuild. Yes, Notre Dame Stadium will be rocking, and the Bearcats will be coming off an away game against what is expected to be a tough Indiana team. But if there’s any year to catch Brian Kelly’s squad and immediately launch your name into the playoff conversation, it’s this one.

The Bottom Line

Last year’s season wasn’t as much aberration as it was a culmination. Luke Fickell’s squad got the conference championship and the New Year’s Six bowl appearance. Will the Bearcats start to push the boundaries of what a Group of 5 team can accomplish?

More Top 25 Team Previews:

No. 24 UCF
No. 9 USC
No. 7 Iowa State