You'll have to forgive Rick Minter if he's a little bit ticked off. After years spent making Cincinnati a decent program, he was replaced by Mark Dantonio last year with the hopes of making the Bearcats a more elite Conference USA power. Marry Christmas Mark, you're walking into a loaded team left for you by Minter and the old regime.
With 51 returning lettermen to the senior dominated squad, all the pieces are in place for a Conference USA title run if some of 2003's sort spots can be rubbed out. The receiving corps struggled last season, and now hopes to turn experience into production, meaning QB Gino Guidugli can bounce back from a disappointing junior year, meaning the entire offense should shine. The defense should be ranked among the top 20 if the tackles and corners come through.
All the returning experience should pay off big time in close games losing five games by a touchdown or less. A few breaks here or there and last year would've been a bowl season, and Minter and his staff might still be in place. That's all water under the bridge now, and Cincinnati should make a huge splash in Dantonio's first year. At the very least, the expectations have to be high.
The Schedule: The Bearcats start off with three road dates in four games with the one home game being against Miami University. Going on the road to face Southern Miss and Louisville might kill any title hopes, but getting Memphis and TCU at home is a huge help. The back stretch is as nasty as it gets in Conference USA play.
Best Offensive Player: Senior QB Gino Guidugli. Let's try this one last time. Guidugli was merely average in what should've been a huge junior season losing some of his accurate touch, while continuing to throw too many interceptions. With some slight tweaking to his decision making, he could progress into a top pro prospect and one of college football's hottest players.
Best Defensive Player: Senior DE Trent Cole. Possibly the best overall defensive end in the Conference, Cole is a strong all-around player able to rush the passer and stop the run with equal skill. He's a consistent playmaker and should be a sleeper to make some All-America teams.
Key player to a successful season: The defensive front seven is good, but needs to get some strong play from the tackles. The problem has been health as Mike Wright, the team's most talented tackle, hasn't been able to stay healthy. The line could also use some beef, so 300-pound Lonnie Simmons has to become a factor.
The season will be a success if ... Cincinnati wins the Conference USA title. There are too many seniors, too much talent and too many good players to shoot for anything lower than the title, but the schedule isn't going to make this easy.
Key game: Oct. 23 vs. Memphis. With a brutal back half of the schedule playing TCU, at Southern Miss, South Florida and at Louisville, so the Bearcats have to come up with a win at home over the loaded Tigers to start the tough run off with a bang.2003 Fun Stats:
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