Cincinnati always seems to be a ten or nine win team every year going back to the Brian Kelly-era, and this season is no different under Tommy Tuberville. The Bearcats stand at 7-2 (4-1 American) and look to be on pace for another double digit win season. Not only is the offense playing well under an improved Brendon Kay, but the defense is putting up some impressive statistics - 17th against the pass, 6th against the rush, and the 8th total defense. Pretty daunting right? Not exactly. After a quick look at the schedule, Cincinnati hasn't played anyone of serious consequence, resulting in a Sagarin rating of 156. What does that mean for Rutgers?
The Cincinnati game used to be the annual thorn in the side of Rutgers up until two years ago, when the Scarlet Knights finally exorcised that demon in Greg Schiano's final season. Since then, the Bearcats have been held to six total points the last two seasons. The wins were quintessential "R tough" wins, as Kyle Flood might describe them - shutting down the opposing team while basically scoring the least amount of points necessary to simply win the game. In 2011 and 2012, Cincinnati was very uncharacteristic in each loss. In 2011, the Bearcats boasted a top ten defense late in the season. Against Rutgers that year, they gave up 200 yards to an inconsistent Jawan Jamison. In 2012, Cincinnati's losses were to a ranked Louisville team and a formidable Toledo team (which finished 9-3 in one the MAC's best season's ever) heading into the Rutgers game. Rutgers proceeded to completely shutdown the potent Cincinnati offense, including a fourth down goal line stand that had a profound impact on the game.
This year, Cincinnati once again seems to be heading for another shared conference title. However, looks can be deceiving. The Bearcats have feasted on weak competition to get that 7-2 record, with the most prominent win being a tie between 1-8 Purdue and 3-5 SMU. Not included in the win column is a head-scratching loss to an absolutely terrible USF team that threatened to go winless, but miraculously has two conference wins. This makes Saturday's matchup one of the most intriguing games for both teams, because the Scarlet Knights and the Bearcats have similar resumes - beating up on teams that they should beat, and losing to teams that are, on paper, better (outside of the odd USF loss). It's quite odd to have a statement game to see what kind of team you have going into mid-November, but it should make for some good drama on the field.
One factor that the Bearcats have going for them is the receiver group. According to the Q&A with Down The Drive, Cincinnati has surprised with exceptional play from their receivers. You might have heard that Rutgers is somewhat horrendous in the secondary due to a myriad of reasons, and Tuberville would be stupid not to take advantage of that matchup, especially considering Kyle Flood is so adamant on stopping the run. Flood's philosophy is even more disconcerting since the folks over at Down The Drive also believe that the Bearcats can't run on anybody. Now, Cincinnati does boast the top rushing offense in the league, but we've seen before what happens when opponents abandon the run against the Knights. It's not pretty. If nothing else, you hope that Dave Cohen at least brings some blitz packages with him to the game. It was a good gameplan against Munchie in 2011, Kay in 2012, and it worked well in the last game against Temple.
For Rutgers, fans can reminisce about a more positive time in the 2013 season when Paul James was carrying the Scarlet Knight offense. Flood has stated he believes James is 100% healthy, and that he will ride him as long as he can if has the hot hand. Justin Goodwin was upgraded to probable, while everyone will surely keep an eye on Savon Huggins. In what was his lone complete performance in his entire career, Huggins will undoubtedly get more than a few looks to see if he can resurrect his rushing ability in this game a year ago.
What to expect from Gary Nova? He passed only a handful of times against them last year, the highlight being a long touchdown to WR Mark Harrison. With James back, I expect the coaching staff to limit his throws to cut down on turnovers. Cincinnati isn't great at getting turnovers anyway, as the Bearcats are sixth in the conference in turnover margin.
So will it be a walk in the park for Rutgers? I don't think so. Cincinnati may have a weak schedule thus far, but they've done all that they can do with what they were given: win the games that they're supposed to. Rutgers has done the same, except the Scarlet Knights had tougher games earlier in the season. The defensive numbers may be inflated, but I do they're closer to the truth than, say, 100th in the nation or worse. Rutgers is coming off of a dramatic win against Temple, but it was a struggle for them just to beat a team that's 1-8. This could be a coinflip game, but because of more stability at QB for the Bearcats and a chance to exploit RU's main weakness, I think Cincinnati has the edge. The Bearcats edge Rutgers 24-20, holding off a late rally by the Scarlet Knights.
This is one of those rare instances where each team's blogger expects not only the other team to win, but also predicts mirror scores for the outcome. What do you think? Leave your comments and score predictions below.