There's a weird dichotomy in evaluations of Cincinnati QB Tony Pike. Everyone acknowledges that he has some, unspecified level of talent. He will almost certainly put up the best statistical line of any quarterback in the Big East this season. However, it's hard to attribute too much of that success to Pike himself, and not Cincinnati coach Brian Kelly. Kelly is developing a Bobby Petrino-level reputation as an offensive genius at this point, having excelled at DII Grand Valley State, and at Central Michigan in the MAC. It was there that he first broke out onto the national scene in 2006, behind the arm of freshman QB Dan LeFevour, a former backup pressed into the lineup via injury. It was LeFevour's emergence that first cemented Kelly's guru reputation on the national stage.
At his new digs, Kelly's first task was to craft transfer QB Ben Mauk into a reliable starter, which he passed with flying colors. After the NCAA denied Mauk's final appeal last season, holdover Dustin Grutza had the first crack at the job, before succumbing to injury against Oklahoma. Backup Pike predictably struggled in relief, but looked much better the next two weeks against MAC foes Miami and Akron, before missing the Marshall and Rutgers contests with an injury. Pike's return against UConn didn't go so well, but he strung together a fine second half before melting down in the Orange Bowl against Virginia Tech.
The question remains: can ANY of Kelly's pupils turn in a good performance in his variant of the spread offense? Pike and LeFevour were originally third-stringers. Dustin Grutza looked lost under Dantonio's ball control offense, but turned in a Mauk/Pike level of competency when given time last season. It's entirely possible that Grutza may have earned back his starting job last season if Kelly was not inclined to go with the junior with eligibility remaining (or, to ride the hot hand). Certainly, while Brian Kelly is excellent at what he does, he's not a miracle worker.
In 2008, Rutgers unfortunately met Cincinnati while the Scarlet Knight offense was still sleepwalking through September and October. However, RU was fortunate to face the inexperienced freshman Chazz Anderson. His 21/29 line is deceiving; Anderson looked as green as expected that day, with the bulk of his completions coming on checkdowns and the like. His continued struggles kept Rutgers in the game until its abortive late comeback ran into an expiring game clock. Facing Greg Schiano's blitz-happy scheme is no picnic, especially when making the second start of your career. If the "system QB" hypothesis ends up proving correct, Anderson should be a successful starter for the Bearcats in time, as Pike's replacement in 2010 and beyond.
Cincinnati's success as of late is really quite something, remarkable in a way that I had never expected. Their athletic department has been fortunate to make two strong hires in a row. Coaching is paramount: that's why the Keg of Nails is no longer resting across the Ohio River in Louisville. Back in 2005, their first season in the new Big East conference lineup, I considered the Bearcats as likely a candidate as any to fall into the BE's cellar as a new perennial doormat. They were awful that season, and didn't have much in the way of fan support. A funny thing happened on the way though: recent hire Mark Dantonio used that season as a rebuilding effort, playing his C-USA level underclassmen, garnering valuable experience for the next two campaigns. As much as Kelly is an offensive guru, Dantonio (along with coordinator Pat Narduzzi) knew their stuff on the other side of the ball.
What they've seen over the past two seasons was a convergence between Kelly's expertise on offense, and lingering influence from Dantonio and Narduzzi on defense. Any skepticism this season doesn't merely owe to the perils of replacing ten starters, or of switching to the 3-4, although both rightly remain large concerns. I attribute much of Cincinnati's recent success to the efforts of Dantonio and Narduzzi in developing their diamonds in the rough. Kelly's good, but does his influence carry over that far? I'm not so sure, and expect additional regression as the contributions from the old coaching staff wane. Sure, he turned TE Connor Barwin into a top pass rusher, but athletes on Barwin's level don't exactly grow on trees. The Marcus Barnett-to-defense experiment was eventually scrapped; solidifying the Bearcat offense to an additional extent, but leaving one additional question mark in their secondary.
At the same time, I expect the Bearcats to kick it into another gear entirely this season on offense. They could very well be reminiscent of recent Texas Tech teams - no defense? No problem. Tech finished ranked four of the last seasons in both polls. If Cincinnati doesn't end up in a similar position after what should be a fairly similar season, it's undeniable evidence in favor of pollster bias against the Big East conference. I picked the Bearcats as my preseason pick to win the conference for that very reason.
This offensive juggernaut could be a nice standard-bearer for a Big East conference still hungry and lacking for respect at the moment. However, I don't necessarily want them to figure it out right away. A plodding, interception-filled effort next Monday would be just what the doctor ordered in RU's quest for its first ever conference crown. That effort could even serve as motivation for the rest of the season; a chip on their shoulders to strive even harder through the rest of their schedule. I wish Cincinnati luck the rest of the way, but someone has to lose this game, and I sure hope that it's not the team wearing Scarlet.
edit: ohhh, I banked this post earlier in the day, and realized that I completely forgot to mention the loss of punter Kevin Huber. Barwin and Mickens played terrific in last year's contest, but Huber was arguably their team MVP that day.