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Notre Dame’s Opponents: Cincinnati’s Playoff hopes hinge on two trips to Indiana

Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl - Cincinnati v Georgia

ATLANTA, GA - JANUARY 01: Desmond Ridder #9 of the Cincinnati Bearcats with the ball during a game against the Georgia Bulldogs at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on January 1, 2021 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Benjamin Solomon/Getty Images)

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Categorizing any Group of Five program’s season as “Playoff or bust” would be a level of ambition unusual even for college football, but that may be the case for Cincinnati in 2021. The Bearcats have the luxuries of an impressive previous season, a player that will demand national attention and a few high-profile games to reestablish national credibility.

If a Group of Five team is ever going to break into the four-team Playoff, it will be Cincinnati in 2021, beginning the year already at No. 8 in the AP poll, a ranking without consequence but one that establishes some September narrative all the same.

Of course, to reach the Playoff, the Bearcats will need to top No. 9 Notre Dame two weeks after visiting No. 17 Indiana. As mentioned, a few high-profile games.

But the first key to a Group of Five team contending for the Playoff is establishing itself the year before. That may be unfair, but it is the reality of the landscape. Fortunately for Cincinnati, it very much did that despite the pandemic costing it any chances at high-profile wins in 2020.

The Bearcats tore through the American Athletic Conference, no one keeping within even two possessions until the final two games of the regular season, a pair of three-point wins against Central Florida and Tulsa. That stretch also saw Cincinnati fall from a Group of Five all-time high of No. 7 in the Playoff rankings to behind two-loss teams Iowa State, Florida and Georgia.

Hence the necessary multi-year résumé.

The Bearcats ended up facing the Dawgs in the Peach Bowl, falling on a 53-yard field goal in the final seconds, the type of loss that simultaneously dampened Cincinnati’s long-term hopes (it was, obviously, a loss) and boosted the Bearcats hopes moving forward (it was competitive, among other things, to be discussed next).

The sour taste of that Peach defeat will benefit the Bearcats in 2021. While it is impossible to pinpoint exactly what players came back for an additional season, whether one was always possible or was granted via the universal pandemic eligibility waiver, it is undeniable the influx of key contributors returning was notable.

Thus, Cincinnati did not lose as much as would have been expected. Yet it will still need to find a pair of new offensive tackles and a lead running back, as well as replace lead tackler Jarell White and a first-team All-American safety. Even the fortunate few have to figure out turnover.

Of course, the Bearcats are also now without former defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman. He found a new home a few hours west.

The early October focus should be on Cincinnati’s biggest dreams — a focus that will be directly impacted on Sept. 18 in Bloomington, Ind. — but at least a few sidebars will delve into the layers of coaching staff relations.

Freeman is only the most recent crossover between the two staffs, a crossover that partly occurred because Irish cornerbacks coach Mike Mickens made the same move a year earlier. A close friend of Freeman’s, Mickens helped convince the prized defensive coordinator that Notre Dame would be a fit for him. (Freeman reportedly lived in the Mickens family basement for his first few months in South Bend, while securing his own house and waiting for his family to finish up the school year in Cincinnati.)

Mickens was known to the Irish staff because … he played for Brian Kelly at Cincinnati from 2005 to 2008.

If the Irish lose once in September, and they will likely be underdogs to Wisconsin to close the month, then Kelly could actually break Knute Rockne’s record for wins at Notre Dame against the school Kelly once brought within a second of the BCS national championship.

And he would be doing so against his former assistant coach, Mike Denbrock, the Bearcats’ offensive coordinator throughout Luke Fickell’s tenure, since 2017. Immediately before that, Denbrock had coached under Kelly for seven years with the Irish, moving from tight ends coach to receivers to offensive coordinator.

Cincinnati’s offense begins with quarterback Desmond Ridder, coming off a season in which he completed 66.2 percent of his passes, threw for 229.2 yards per game and 8.2 yards per attempt with 19 touchdowns against only six interceptions, not to mention another 12 rushing touchdowns and nearly 60 rushing yards per game.

Ridder could have been a mid-round pick in last year’s NFL draft. Instead, he took the opportunity to chase another Playoff chance, an opportunity that will rely on a few veteran receivers in 6-foot-3 Alec Pierce and former Notre Dame transfer Michael Young. A shoulder injury limited Pierce to six games last year, in which he averaged 52.5 yards per game and scored three touchdowns, while Young led the Bearcats with 29 receptions.

The real piece for Ridder to lean on will be tight end John Whyle, coming off a year with 353 receiving yards and six scores.

Replacing two starting offensive tackles is never ideal, but Cincinnati still returns 48 total starts. Then again, not all pieces of returning production are necessarily good pieces. The Bearcats already struggled to protect Ridder in 2020, a fact that may have led to some of his 592 rushing yards. They gave up more defensive havoc — a fancy word for pressure — than any other offense in the country.

Former Alabama transfer Jerome Ford may help keep defenses honest, averaging 6.6 yards per rush last year as a complementary piece, but that onus will likely hinge on Ridder. Much of Cincinnati’s lofty aspirations will depend on the 6-foot-4, four-year starter dual-threat, but if his offensive line cannot provide better protection, someone will exploit that by the end of the season.

Though the Bearcats scored 37.5 points per game last year, they remain recognized as a defensive force. Even in this year’s preseason analytics, Cincinnati’s defense is why the team as a whole is considered on par with Notre Dame.

Losing Freeman will create some doubt, and new defensive coordinator Mike Tressel may incorporate more 3-4 fronts into Freeman’s 3-3-5 template, but doubting the Bearcats defense would be a foolish choice. Cincinnati had the No. 3 passing efficiency defense last year, the No. 8 scoring defense and the No. 13 total defense. That did not all stem from Freeman’s scheme; the players deserve some of the credit.

Cornerbacks Ahmad Gardner, a second-team All-American, and Colby Bryant will continue to buttress that passing efficiency defense, linebackers Joel Dublanko and Darrian Beavers are only able to be back in college because of the pandemic eligibility waiver, and defensive end Myjai Sanders had seven sacks in last year’s truncated season.

A possible 2022 first-round draft pick, Sanders alone will inspire fear into opposing offensive coordinators.

The defense remains deep, with or without Freeman. It is the Bearcats’ strength, with or without Ridder. If Cincinnati pulls off a notable road win in Indiana in September or October, the defense will be the differentiating factor.

Notching one of those two wins will be the differentiating factor of the Bearcats’ season in wagering terms, but winning both will be the only way to keep that Playoff dream alive.

PointsBet sets Cincinnati’s season win total over/under at 10 games. In other words, if it can win once at Indiana or Notre Dame, then it should be clear to crash the over, particularly with the toughest conference games all coming at home (SMU, Tulsa, Central Florida).

The Bearcats defense raises the floor on its ceiling to such a height that the 10-win threshold makes sense, and Ridder creates a larger margin of error than most Group of Five teams, even the powerhouses, ever enjoy.

Fickell has led Cincinnati to a 31-6 record the last three seasons. Expecting that pace to slow in the slightest would be a mistake.

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