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KU Football Preview: Cincinnati

Kansas looks to go 8-4, but they need a Big 12 road win first

Syndication: The Enquirer Kareem Elgazzar/The Enquirer / USA TODAY NETWORK

When the Big 12 announced BYU, Cincinnati, Houston, and UCF as new members for this year, there was a valid argument to be made that Cincinnati was the best, most consistent program of the four. Brian Kelly had established the program in the 2000s, and after some up and down seasons, the Bearcats hired Luke Fickell, who in 2020 and 2021 led the team Peach Bowl and Cotton Bowl appearances against Georgia and Alabama. Fickell would go 9-4 in Cincinnati’s last season in the AAC, and moved on to Wisconsin for 2023. Scott Satterfield was hired away from Louisville to replace Fickell, and there was no outward indication that the program was about to have a rough time adjusting to the Big 12.

However, the Bearcats enter Saturday’s game just 1-7 in Big 12 play with a 3-8 record overall. Those marks are both dead last in Cincinnati’s new league. Cincy’s single conference win also came against Houston, who only one game out of the conference cellar at 2-6, and Cincinnati has a -100 scoring margin in their seven league losses, meaning outside of the Houston game, their average Big 12 matchup has resulted in a two touchdown loss.

Cincinnati comes into Saturday’s game rated the worst team in the Big 12 by ESPN’s sp+ ratings, at just 81st nationally. Their offense ranks an abysmal 96th, with their defense slightly tougher at 71st. When Cincinnati has the ball, they’ve been extremely run heavy (59% of plays), and they’ve been ok in the ground game averaging 5ypc. Almost all of Cincy’s rushing yards can be attributed to a one-two RB combo in Corey Kiner (941 yards) and Myles Montgomery (413), with dual threat QB Emory Jones taking off for 499 yards. Jones was a very highly-regarded recruit who played at Florida before transferring to Arizona State, where he was unable to keep the starting job locked down, leading him to spend his final season with the Bearcats. As I mentioned, he is always looking to burn the defense with his legs, and while he’s capable of doing some damage with his arm, consistency and turnovers have been issues for him. He’s completed 62% of his passes for a very respectable 7.2 yards/attempt, but he’s also thrown ten picks. He’s also had four games where he completed less than 55% of his attempts, including a brutal performance against Oklahoma State in which he was 6-16 for 117 yards with 0 TDs an interception. Jones can look great in any given game, but he’s simply been unable to sustain the flashes of high-level play he’s shown.

Defensively, look out for senior linebacker Deshawn Price. He leads the team with 11 TFLs in 10 games played, with 1.5 sacks and an interception. He’s not an elite defender, but with a team high 76 tackles, he gets the job done and you’ll likely hear his name quite a bit Saturday. Their team leaders in sacks are senior Daniel Grzesiak with 3.5 and sophomore Dontay Corleone with 3. As a team though, Cincy has just 18 sacks, tied for 107th in FBS. While they aren’t great at getting to the QB, they have been proficient in getting into the backfield, ranking 58th with 64 TFLs. They’ve also picked off eight passes this year, which is below the FBS average, and they’ve forced five TOs by fumble. Those 13 forced TOs give them a -3 turnover margin on the year, which can help explain at least some of the struggles.

Prediction

It would be really neat to go into a game knowing who’s playing QB, but the absurd games continue with the coaching staff. Jason Bean was allegedly healthy enough to play last week, but the coaching staff opted to start and ride with Cole Ballard. It’s hard to know what to make of that, because Leipold and the coaches have shown a willingness to just make stuff up, and if Bean was good to go on his senior night, it’s really tough to figure out why he would have been forced to watch from the sideline (unless of course he wasn’t really good to go at all). Regardless, KU nearly took down K-State last week under Ballard’s leadership, so even if the true freshman gets the start once again, I believe this Jayhawk squad is good enough to beat the struggling Bearcats. Cincinnati has no bowl game to play for, but I don’t expect them to roll over in their final game of the year, and their final chance to take down a good team. Regardless, Cincinnati has had a lot of trouble on both sides of the ball this year, and with KU’s defense suddenly looking far more competitive in recent weeks, it would be a bit of surprise to see an offense that may or may not even be one of the 100 best units in the country suddenly rack up too many points for KU to overcome. I’d feel better if I knew a fully healthy Jason Bean would have the reins, but OC Andy Kotelnicki has repeatedly schemed his way into successful offensive performances against better defenses than what Kansas faces Saturday.

Still, it’s a road game, it’s Cincinnati’s senior night, and Kansas has not been at their best of late. Expecting a blowout victory is probably taking things a bit too far, especially being a rather modest 7 point favorite. Cincinnati has allowed about 1800 rushing yards this year at 5ypc. The Kansas running game should be able to move the ball with relative ease, even if Ballard is once again the starter and the Jayhawks are forced to go run-heavy. My guess is Cincinnati tries to turn this into a low-scoring battle, something that worked in both the last two weeks where Kansas didn’t put up their usual big numbers on the scoreboard and the Jayhawks dropped both games. For that reason I’ll say the Bearcats keep things fairly close, but just lack the firepower to outscore Kansas.

Kansas 27, Cincinnati 20