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UCF Football Schedule: Cincinnati Preview

Will Cincinnati reload after a great 2021 team lost a plethora of NFL talent?

Since the American Athletic Conference (AAC) was formed, two teams in the conference have stood out as a dominant force compared to the rest of the field, UCF and Cincinnati.

They have combined for seven conference titles in the AAC’s first seven years of existence (both teams earned a share of the championship in part of a four-way tie for first place in 2014). Those forces will collide once again on Oct. 29 inside the newly named FBC Mortgage Stadium, with Cincinnati currently having won three straight meetings against UCF, including a 56-21 drubbing last season.

As for the overall series, the Bearcats lead with a 4-3 advantage. UCF will have a chance to tie the series with a win durin the last season each of the two schools will be in the AAC prior to leaving for the Big XII on July 1, 2023. Beating this Cincinnati team will still not be easy despite what some may think after they lost several key players.

When it comes to teams led by Cincinnati Head Coach Luke Fickell, do not count his team out. He’s a quality head coach that has a cohesive staff and a system for each side of the football that the next wave of Bearcats have been learning as reserves. Still, there’s much to replace.

There were a whopping nine Cincinnati players selected in the 2022 NFL Draft, including five players drafted in the top 100. Despite those facts, Fickell already looks to have a reloaded roster that is ready to go for 2022, with the top rated recruiting class in the AAC coming through as well. Projecting which exact Cincinnati players step up this fall is difficult, however.

Many of the players projected to be starters for next season, although highly rated and very talented, have had minimal playing experience at the Division 1 level to this point. That stated, Fickell has an excellent track record when it comes to player development and readiness.

It starts at the quarterback position, where many believe Evan Prater will fill hole that now Atlanta Falcons quarterback Desmond Ridder has left behind. Prater will enter his third year of eligibility in 2022, and has had two years of mentorship from Ridder, Fickell, and other coaches and players on the Cincinnati sideline.

Replacing Desmond Ridder's timely playmaking skills and overall command of the offense will not be easy for Luke Fickell.

Replacing Desmond Ridder's timely playmaking skills and overall command of the offense will not be easy for Luke Fickell.

Prater showed flashes of playmaking ability in his limited action off the bench last season by displaying his quickness and being an elusive signal caller that can take off at any given moment. Now he needs to prove he can pass the football from the pocket and be a consistent overall field general.

In 2021, Prater only went five for 11 and 38 yards passing, with two touchdowns and one interception. Prater does possess a strong arm, so now it’s a matter of timing and rhythm with his receivers, tight ends and running backs to help determine if he should be the man behind center. Time will tell if he is ready to be the primary quarterback for Cincinnati but if not, there is another option.

That is senior Ben Bryant. Bryant initially committed to the Bearcats, and was on the roster from 2018-2020 before transferring to Eastern Michigan for one season, where he started, and performed well, throwing for over 3,000 yards and 14 touchdowns. Now after transferring back to the Bearcats, he will enter a battle to be the starting quarterback that will likely last right up until the season opener vs the SEC’s Arkansas Razorbacks. No matter the starter, there will certainly be no shortage of quarterback talent in Cincinnati for 2022.

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Cincinnati will bring back its entire starting offensive line from last season. The Bearcats’ offensive line was one of the best in the AAC last season, as three of them were selected to the all-AAC first team. It will likely be even better in 2021 with there being continuity across the board. This will help whichever quarterback that earns the starting nod ease into the offense. Against Cincinnati last season, UCF managed just one sack.

Not only will Cincinnati have a major hole to fill at quarterback, but their 2021 leading rusher, Jerome Ford, as well as their 2021 receiving leader Alec Pierce, were both selected in the 2022 NFL Draft. The next man up at running back will likely be LSU transfer Corey Kiner, a former four-star recruit who saw limited action in his freshman season.

Kiner is similar to UCF’s Isaiah Bowser in that he is a bruising running back that runs hard and is adept at breaking tackles. Ryan Montgomery will also likely get some touches, and he also has a similar play style.

At receiver, the Bearcats will return Tyler Scott, Jadon Thompson, and Tre Tucker, three guys who will stretch the field and create big plays for the offense. Nick Mardner will also join the roster, a transfer from Hawaii that led his team in receiving yards and receiving touchdowns. 

Josh Whyle and Leonard Taylor will return, two tight ends that will help with the passing game on underneath routes and in the red zone. As it stands, the Cincinnati offense has the potential to once again be good, but not likely to match the 36.9 points per game it averaged in 2021, ranking No. 11 in the country. 

As explosive as the offense was last season, the staple of the Bearcats’ impressive season was probably its defense. The team was top ten in yards allowed per game at 318.4, and fifth in the country in scoring defense by allowing just 16.9 points per game.

The biggest blow on the entire roster going into next year may be the departure of the dominant cornerback tandem, Coby Bryant and Ahmad “Sauce” Gardner. Both were selected in the draft, with Gardner going fourth overall to the New York Jets.

Gardner was regarded by many as the best cornerback in college football over the last two seasons. He famously never allowed a touchdown reception in his entire career, in over 1,000 snaps of action. The secondary will take a step back in 2022, as the production Bryant and Gardner brought will be nearly impossible to replicate.

UCF will be facing a talented Cincinnati team this fall, but one that honestly does not resemble the one from 2021. Cincinnati will likely regress at least a sliver with the mass roster turnover, opening up an opportunity for the Knights to knock off the Bearcats. Both UCF Head Coach Gus Malzahn and Fickell will have talented teams this season, and it should be a really good game to watch.

Final Notes

  • Cincinnati leads the all-time series versus UCF 4-3.
  • Cincinnati has not lost a regular season game since 2019 (20-0).
  • The Bearcats gave the Knights their last home loss in 2020 by the score of 36-33.