Welcome to the Big 12
Cincinnati has established one of the strongest winning cultures of any program in college football over the past five seasons. The Bearcats earned the only AAC berth in College Football Playoff history, won a pair of conference titles, and found themselves etched into the final AP Top 25 in four consecutive years from 2018-21. In September 2021, all of that success was suddenly leveraged into a Big 12 invite when the second wave of conference realignment struck the college football world.
Fast-forward to July 2023 and the long-awaited Big 12 membership status became more of a reality to Cincinnati. The Bearcats participated in their first media day with their new conference affiliation at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, TX — the same venue where they made history with a College Football Playoff appearance.
“I think it’s a home run,” head coach Scott Satterfield said on Cincinnati’s affiliation with the Big 12. “Part of that for us and our school to be able to come to this new conference, such a competitive conference, this is just kind of the start of it to kick things off for us, and man, very impressed so far about what’s going on with this conference.”
Expectations for year one in a new home
The Bearcats have been a staple in the rankings in recent years. But this offseason was a transitory time for the program, as beloved head coach Luke Fickell departed for Wisconsin after becoming the winningest coach in program history. Fickell’s successor is former Appalachian State and Louisville head coach Scott Satterfield, who was named to the position last December. Not only does Satterfield enter with a significant reloading project from a personnel standpoint, but he must also help the program adapt to its new conference.
“For me, probably more than any other August camp I’ve ever been apart of, we’ve got a lot of work to do,” Satterfield said. “We’ve got to bring a team together with some newcomers, some transfers and get them all on the same page. It’ll be huge.”
Among the four Big 12 newcomers, Cincinnati was voted to finish lowest in the preseason media poll. The Bearcats were ranked 13th of the 14 teams, despite the program wielding the fifth-highest win total in the FBS since 2018. But the conference transition coincides with plenty of uncertainties as a new head coaching staff takes over as a mass exodus of substantial offensive talent occurs.
“Obviously nobody wants to be picked toward the bottom, even though preseason polls don’t matter,” Satterfield said. “You want to be picked toward the top. That’s where we want to be. It’s more important to be at the top toward the end of the season though, not the beginning. I understand we got one returning starter on offense, we’re new to the league, but we want to be at the top.”
Cincinnati launches its season with three consecutive non-conference games, but Big 12 life officially commences on Sept. 23 when Oklahoma pays a visit to Nippert Stadium. Oklahoma is often viewed as the standard of the conference, having claimed six of the last eight Big 12 titles while being responsible for 80 percent of the league’s College Football Playoff appearances. That being said, the Bearcats open Big 12 membership status with quite a bang in their only conference matchup against the Sooners before they depart for the SEC.
“To be your first game in the Big 12, to be able to play a team like that with so much history, Heisman Trophy winners in the past... Having really done some exciting things in the game of football for a long time, to bring them to our stadium, we know it’s going to be a hot ticket,” Satterfield said. “What a way to start Big 12 play against a team like Oklahoma. We’ve just got to be competitive. We’ve got to go out there and put a team out there that’s going to be very competitive and fight their butts off to go out there and try and get that win.”
An unrecognizable, wholly revamped offense
Watching Cincinnati’s 24-7 loss to Louisville in the Fenway Bowl was eye-opening for a multitude of reasons — as it showed how different the team would look in 2023. Fickell already departed for Wisconsin, which led to a slew of early exits via the transfer portal. Cincinnati returns just one starter in center Gavin Gerhardt. The rest is a complex hodgepodge of incumbent backups and 21 transfers converging from all across the nation.
“This is my third school, I’ve transferred twice, so I’ve learned a lot about how to become a leader and how to get guys to rally around you and get on the same page,” quarterback Emory Jones said on unifying this diverse group of transfers. “I’m basically just coming in, earning my spot as a leader, and showing guys how consistent I work every single day and how you’re gonna get the same guy every day and getting the guys on the same page as me.”
Not many transfers represented their programs at Big 12 Media Days, but Jones was Cincinnati’s lone offensive representative in Arlington. The 6’3” senior arrived to campus this January after previous stops at Florida and Arizona State, and Satterfield believes Jones’ vast experience can pay immediate dividends in the Big 12.
“Emory is very humble. He was not coming in to take anyone’s job or try to be the man,” Satterfield said. “He came in and just started working with all the guys. He earned their respect pretty quickly. Emory’s a team player, and when you have a quarterback like that, the guys around him want to play for him and help him out... The fact that he’s been at Florida and Arizona State and played in front of huge crowds, nothing fazes him. He’s very poised.”
Bereft of departed transfers and NFL hopefuls, Cincinnati’s depth chart looks unrecognizable in some position groups — most notably, wide receiver. The Bearcats lost over 95 percent of receiving production from 2022 and all eight players who accumulated at least five receptions and 70 yards were drafted, graduated, or transferred.
“We have one scholarship player on our team now that was on the team last fall,” Satterfield said of the receiver room. “We have now added many guys to the room, guys that are going to come in and really help us. I think this summer has been huge for our wide receiver room when you think about some of the guys we brought in. We brought in two players that was with me at University of Louisville that started for us over there. We brought in Xzavier Henderson that started at Florida, and we moved Evan Prater who was a quarterback out to wide receiver this summer.”
Prater’s position change to wide receiver was first revealed at Big 12 Media Days. He started Cincinnati’s final two contests at quarterback and transitioned this offseason after Jones’ arrival — a conclusion that arrived after throwing shoulder pain nearly put Prater’s 2023 season in jeopardy. Still, Satterfield believed in the former quarterback’s ability as a natural athlete found a seamless fit for him in the refurbished offense.
“We met with his family, we met with him several times, and I’m excited about the fact that he wants to play and get on the field,” Satterfield said. “He is a very, very good athlete. He has great size. What you don’t know — can he run around and catch? Well, we’ve seen that now. He can. He’ll help us the first game. Hopefully we’ll be able to utilize him in a multitude of ways — not just playing him as a split-end receiver. We’ll be able to motion him, do some things in the backfield because there’s a lot of options there when you have a guy of his ability.”
The Godfather meets the Big 12
The Preseason All-Big 12 team was scarcely populated with players from incoming schools, but Cincinnati managed one player on it. Defensive tackle Dontay Corleone — nicknamed “The Godfather” — garnered significant national attention last year as a Third Team AP All-American in his redshirt freshman campaign.
“For me, when I get those awards, it’s not as far as being satisfied,” Corleone said. “I just want more. I know I can get those awards. I just want to get better. It’s more motivation than anything. Those guys know I’m still young, but they still ask me for anything.”
After exhibiting such dominance in his first season at the collegiate level with 45 tackles and 3.5 sacks, Corleone has put the nation on notice as the anchor to the Bearcats’ defensive line. Now the redshirt sophomore takes on the challenge of facing an entire schedule’s worth of Big 12 offensive lines — lining up alongside the likes of Jowon Briggs and Malik Vann to lead Cincinnati’s strongest position group.
“He is as strong of a player as I’ve ever been around,” Satterfield said of Corleone. “He’s extremely wide, a big body, exactly what you want to be on the inside over the top of a center. He’s right around 325 pounds right now, and that’s lean. He’s trimmed down to get to that point. He’s moving extremely well. He can run with some of our linebackers at that size, which is remarkable. He’s hungry. I think that’s what I love most about him and our players and our team, is that they’re hungry and they want to prove something every single day, and he really brings that.”
Corleone wasn’t the only member of Cincinnati’s defense to receive national accolades last year. Inside linebacker Ivan Pace Jr. became the first consensus All-American in program history, totaling 9.0 sacks, 20.5 tackles for loss, and 136 tackles — the latter two which ranked top 10 among all FBS players. To replace such a significant loss in its 3-4 scheme, Cincinnati utilized the transfer portal to land edge rusher Daniel Grzesiak from Utah State.
“DG is a guy, man, he’s got a great attitude,” Satterfield said. “Every single day he brings it with a smile on his face, working extremely hard. He’s a big time leader for us even though he just got here in January. He’ll be an outside backer for us coming off the edge; very productive player at Utah State. Adding those guys along with what we have at the defensive line, obviously our strength is the defensive line on our football team. A couple guys that are here with us today plug that middle up, allow our linebackers to run and make plays.”