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NCAA Football: Tulane at Cincinnati Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

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How close is Cincinnati to greatness

Luke Fickell has made the Bearcats formidable. However, they’ve been short of greatness.

Cincinnati is good. Some would even say that Cincinnati is really good. Very few people, outside of southern Ohio, would say Cincinnati is great.

The reality of Cincinnati’s situation, is they caught everyone by surprise last season. They were talented enough, and slept on enough, to win 11 games. They finished the season ranked in the AP Poll and Coaches Poll. It was an awesome season, after a couple frustrating years.

In 2019, the Bearcats won’t catch anyone by surprise. Everyone knows they’ll run Michael Warren down your throat. That’ll open up downfield passing for Desmond Ridder. Ridder’s favorite target will be the tight ends, which is a unit led by Josiah Deguara. Deguara is averaging over 14 yards a catch through two games.

This is a Luke Fickell coached team though and if you know anything about Fickell, you know that he’s an Ohio guy who prioritizes defense.

This has made Cincinnati a defensive team since Fickell has taken over.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 07 Cincinnati at Ohio State Photo by Adam Lacy/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Bearcats allowed 17 points per game in 2018. They returned an excellent secondary, led by safety James Wiggins. Wiggins was second team All-AAC in 2018. Cincinnati’s corners, Coby Bryant and Cam Jefferies, are formidable as well. They’re both returning starters.

Wiggins is now out for the season with an ACL injury. That goes to show how the unexpected can make the necessary level of play to reach a New Year’s Six game difficult to reach.

Coming into the season, the only real question mark was on the interior of their defensive line, which turnover from graduation.

Everyone looking at Cincinnati on paper knows they’re a good team. What is keeping them from greatness?

There’s two issues. The first is that Cincinnati hasn’t handled hostile environments well. The second is their offensive line play.

Since 2018, Cincinnati has played two road games against top-25 teams. They lost those games by a total score of 80-13.

At UCF, they began the game with a delay of game and a false start, before their first snap of the game. Then, once, the Knights offense settled down, they pulled away without any hesitation.

Cincinnati v Central Florida Photo by Julio Aguilar/Getty Images

Cincinnati wasn’t used to that type of environment last year.

With reps in hostile environments now under their belt, Cincinnati traveled to Columbus to play Ohio State. No one expected Cincinnati to win. Keeping the game respectable seemed reasonable, though. That didn’t happen.

The Bearcats were overwhelmed at the Horseshoe. Like last year’s game against UCF, once Ohio State got rolling, Cincinnati had no answers in a road environment.

The best way for that to change that is to get older. Desmond Ridder is still a true sophomore. As a whole, this Cincinnati team had not been an exciting match-up, until the UCF game. They’re not used to loud, volatile crowds. Only playing in them, and taking their lumps, will get Cincinnati ready for the future.

It’s a maturity, and experience issue. One that is fixable over time.

Offensive line play doesn’t provide the same linear resolution. When Cincinnati has played these strong teams, their lack of speed and strength on the offensive line has been exposed.

Ohio State managed 5 sacks and 7 tackles for a loss last week. UCF managed 4 sacks, and 7 tackles for loss last season. That’s including a strip sack to end the first half, which halted Cincy’s momentum, and put an emphasis on the Cincinnati offense to score.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 17 Cincinnati at UCF Photo by Andrew Bershaw/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

These backwards plays are devastating, no matter who you are. They ruin drives, and have forced a young quarterback to make long conversions, with pressure in his face.

Its slowed Cincinnati’s second team All-AAC, and 1,300 yard rushing threat Michael Warren. Warren only ran for 96 yards in both games, combined. Without better offensive line play, Cincinnati doesn’t have the balanced approach they rely on against great opponents.

It’s a slow, long-term fix.

Cincinnati needs to recruit better linemen. They need more athletic, stronger linemen. Then, they need to develop that raw talent into prolific FBS players. Those players will need experience against teams who show different ways of pressuring opponents.

They’ll need to learn how to handle stunts, and zone blitzes. They’ll need to be able to read where pressure is coming from. They’ll need to learn to pull, down block, and zone block. Playing offensive line is complicated. It isn’t just lining up and smashing heads. It’s a thoughtful position.

Cincinnati v Michigan

These players will also need to learn how to play in hostile environments. Otherwise, the pre-snap issues will plague Cincinnati.

Since Fickell took over the program, for the 2017 season, Cincinnati has recruited 13 linemen. 11 of them have been 3-star recruits, two have been 2-star recruits, one one was a no star recruit. Four of those 3 star recruits are in the high school class of 2020, and are verbally committed to Cincinnati.

In the two classes that preceded Fickell coming to Cincinnati, the Bearcats brought in a total of five offensive linemen. Four of those were 3 star recruits, and one was a 2 star recruit. So Fickell is addressing the need of improving this unit.

If Cincinnati can adapt to hostile environments, and play better along the offensive line, then they’ll have as good a shot at a New Year’s Six Bowl as anyone in the AAC.

Cincinnati may need to speed the process along, though. Luke Fickell received coaching interest from P5 programs after last season. If he moves on, Cincinnati may need to reset their program, something that happens to a lot of good G5 teams.

Of course, Fickell does love Ohio. So, hopefully he sticks around long enough to be the coach that fixes these issues for the Bearcats, and wins them a New Year’s Six game.

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