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NFL Draft

Cincinnati Bearcats’ Defense Putting AAC On Notice

  • The Draft Network
  • November 4, 2020
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The Georgia defense has about nine future NFLers eligible this year. Four on the defensive line in Jordan Davis, Malik Herring, Devonte Wyatt, and Azeez Ojulari; an off-ball linebacker in Monty Rice; and the whole doggone secondary in Tyson Campbell, Eric Stokes, Richard LeCounte, and DJ Daniel. Remember, that doesn’t even include ineligible stars like linebacker Nakobe Dean and safety Tyrique Stevenson. They are the best defensive unit in football.

After that, the conversation includes familiar names: Alabama, Notre Dame, Ohio State. And right in the thick of it as an unfamiliar one: Cincinnati.

Don’t believe me? Cincinnati is currently the fifth-ranked defense via SP+, below Georgia, Wisconsin, Northwestern, and Ohio State—you’ll notice that three of those four are Big Ten teams who have faced, in total, Illinois, Maryland, Iowa, Nebraska, and Penn State. Cincinnati, on the other hand, just got off a two-game stretch featuring SMU and Memphis.

That SMU game was the statement game. The Mustangs welcomed Cincinnati with a depleted roster, having lost star wide receiver Reggie Roberson and leading running back TJ McDaniel—but they had just put 37 on Tulane without both players. Against Cincinnati, they scored 13 points, their last four drives ending with turnovers on downs.

Memphis was the heat check. SMU’s offense was ranked 14th in SP+ coming into their game against the Bearcats’ thresher, and 19th afterward; Memphis’ was ranked 12th, and ended up 20th. Cincinnati’s defense had been embarrassed by Mike Norvell’s Tigers in 2019, giving up 34 and 29 points in consecutive losses to lose their grip on the AAC championship—this time, they held the Ryan Silverfield-led Tigers to 10 points. That was the worst offensive outing for the Tigers in five years—when Justin Fuente’s team faced Auburn. 

Now, Cincinnati faces a new and more holistic test: Houston, who doesn’t have the defense that either Memphis or SMU does, but has a solid defense that can test Cincinnati’s offense. Quarterback Desmond Ridder and the Bearcats offense haven’t had to do much more than generate a lead and sit on it, with a three-headed backfield and dominant offensive line whittling away at the clock successfully against the smaller, speedier defenses of the AAC.

But the proof is in the pudding now for Cincinnati’s defense. Led by star defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman, the Bearcats defense has stifled some of the most explosive offenses in the country, and figure to do the same to Houston, ECU, UCF, Tulsa, and whoever gets the unfortunate chance to run through the wood-chipper for a second time in the AAC championship game. The question of a playoff bid outside of the Power 5 conferences likely boils down to the Cincinnati offense failing them down the home stretch, or BYU’s defense doing the same for them out west.

Just as Georgia has all of those future NFLers worthy of attention on game day, placed squarely under the league’s microscope, Cincinnati has the same. EDGE rusher Myjai Sanders and defensive tackle Elijah Ponder compose one of the best pass-rushing duos in the conference; incumbent linebacker Jarell White projects as a late-round pick, but may get overtaken in the league’s eyes by UConn transfer Darrian Beavers, long and lean and speedy; and the secondary is the crowning jewel: safeties James Wiggins and Darrick Forrest are the Group of 5’s version of TCU’s ArDarius Washington and Trevon Moehrig, with a future early-round draft pick in true sophomore Ahmad “Sauce” Gardner policing the outside. This isn’t just a well-coached defense, it is a talented one that can hang with any collegiate offense. This is the answer to the AAC’s boat-race game scripts of the last few years, the inevitable defensive answer to these offensive explosions.

The sixth-ranked Bearcats are no paper tiger, no haphazard coincidence of the odd college football season—this is not the fifth-ranked UNC team that got waxed by Florida State a few weeks ago. They don’t make mistakes, they don’t give up explosive plays, they control game script, and they have NFL talent on all levels of both sides of the football. For any college fan or draftnik, the Bearcats have become appointment television on Saturdays.

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