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3 Things That Worry Me About Cincinnati

A January UGA football game in Mercedes Benz, a noon kick-off, without our best LB, DB, and OL players. Against a team with no opt-outs, tons of seniors, and hungry for a statement win. What, me worry?

East Carolina v Cincinnati Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

Here’s what I’m NOT worried about in Friday’s tilt against the Cincy Binturongs:

1) Pass Rush. Jermaine Johnson is out in the portal-john, but Adam Anderson has been a wrecking ball in off-the-bench action so I’m excited to see what he can do with more time between the lines. Paired with leading sacker Azeez Ojulari, the pass rush should be in good shape. And don’t sleep on Nolan Smith – just a sophomore, but he’s basically a top 10 UGA defender in terms of tackles and tackles for loss.

With Eric Stokes sitting out and Richard LeCounte seeing his first action in over a month, the secondary pass coverage does have question marks so getting to the Cincinnati quarterback will be a key. DawgOutWest already gave you the heads-up on seeing Ameer Speed and Mark Webb on the field more, as well as the freshman class just brought in. Kirby Smart and Dan Lanning should have the playmakers to create the desired havoc.

2) Opt-outs in general. Have we seen a rash of these the last 3 years? Yes. Have we been in the playoffs the last 3 years? No. So with less meaningful hardware to play for, I don’t blame these Bulldogs for sitting out a bowl game when their most lucrative career potential is so imminent. Not to mention a lot of these guys are banged up: Trey Hill hasn’t been cleared to play after those surgeries on both knees; Monty Rice has had nagging injuries and is dealing with a bad toe; Tre’ McKitty has a tricky knee; and Ben Cleveland has been dealing with a bad shoulder for weeks. Why risk aggravating something? It’s simply a risk management strategy, one that is weighed against the risk they’ve already endured suiting up for the Red & Black against large angry men. I’m totally cool with it. I’d much rather they play, I just don’t blame them at all after they’ve given so much. Good luck fellas, we wish you well.

3) The narrative. Chip on the shoulder, disrespected, prejudged, didn’t play anybody, little brother, David vs. Goliath, you name the metaphor and it can apply. Most of them are probably written on the Cincinnati traveling white boards in some form or fashion. These Bearcats knew it would be tough to get into the College Football Playoffs, and once denied, they’re taking it personally. Now Cincinnati Head Coach Luke Fickell is quoting from the Vince Dooley playbook and telling everyone how good Georgia is. Add in that it’s well-known Georgia has players opting out, that the Bulldogs will be disinterested, yada yada yada. I’m sick of it.

Kirby Smart has had some on the job head coaching experience. Outside the lines he’s been in the CFP, traveled across the country to the Rose Bowl, been interviewed before and after every conceivable big win and big loss, and has generally seen how to deal with a myriad of off-field situations leading up to a game. He learned a lot from the loss in the National Championship, and I think learned even more from the much less important 2018 Sugar Bowl: how to deal with player motivation when your roster is outside of your control. Kirby proved that last year with players missing from the backfield, the offensive line, the defense, you name it. By 1) recruiting deep in every position, 2) going into your bench during the year with regularity, 3) providing tons of real internal competition during practice and the season and 4) communicating to younger players to make the most of their chances, he has essentially given Georgia a sideline full of players ready to step in; both quantity and quality. The Bulldogs won’t come out flat and they will be ready to play.

Now forgive me, as I was weaned at the nipple of Larry Munson’s scratch on AM radio, so here’s what I AM worried about:

1) This ain’t your usual G5 defense. Cincinnati is a power football team, built from the inside out. The Bearcats are a top 20 defense nationally, and equally good against the run and the pass. They went four straight games holding their opponents to under 100 yards on the ground. Only 1 of those teams eclipsed 300 total yards, none of them scored 2 touchdowns, and all of them were wins by 21 or more points. If you remember the first 3 games, and last 2 games, of the Georgia Bulldogs 2020 season… it went something kinda like that.

Plus, they get home a lot. Home, as is at the opposing quarterback in the backfield. They tallied 27 sacks on the season, with 12 players recording at least 1. But the guy to look out for is #21, Junior defensive end Myjai Sanders. Only a 3 star HS recruit out of Jacksonville, Sanders has added 40 lbs to his 6’5” frame and now is a long, but still rangy, explosive edge rusher, around the same size as Myles Garrett. For all the great stuff we’ve seen from J.T. Daniels’ arm, I ain’t so sure about his scrambling, ability to escape, or the injured knee. Heck, I’ve been mentally critical of his pocket presence on several occasions (I’ll grant you I haven’t examined every one to see if he has managed it overall).

Not to mention Head Bearcat Luke Fickell is a defensive line guy, and the team goes as the head coach goes. Hell, he started 50 straight games at nose tackle for Ohio State in the 90’s, and served as the defensive coordinator there for about 11 seasons. (By the way, do you remember when OSU fired Jim Tressell? And hired Fickell as interim head coach only to replace him with Urban Meyer? Me neither.)

2) This ain’t no G5 trickeration. The Bearcats are built for power on the offensive side too, balancing the run and the pass. In the same number of games as Georgia, Cincinnati rushed for 300+ more yards in only 1 more carry. They achieved 48% of their yards via rushing, but it accounts for 58% of their offensive plays – they are committed to the run and to balance. Jordan Davis coming back couldn’t be at a better time to fill gaps and stuff the run. Yet missing Monty Rice and his nose for the football is not good.

But the Bearcats found the touchdown via the run 28 times, 12 via their quarterback Desmond Ridder. Ridder is also the 2nd leading rusher overall, tucking it about 9 times a game (including escaping the pocket). He is a true dual-threat. Senior Garrid Doaks is the main ball toter in the backfield, rushing for 4.7 yards a carry. Still, the Bearcat offense runs through Ridder, and if clicking, can move the ball and score points in bunches. With the experience and leadership of Monty Rice not available, will Dan Lanning put Nakobe Dean or Quay Walker into more of a “spy” role to contain Ridder?

3) How did they get here? Continuity and execution. I don’t know the Cincinnati football team in and out, but a glance at the roster gives you an idea. The leading rusher? Senior. The quarterback? 3 year starter. Best defensive lineman? A junior. 5 of the 7 Bearcats to intercept a pass this season are seniors. 7 of the 9 top pass catchers are upperclassmen. This tells me the recruiting and player development has resulted in a team laden with experience and leadership, players who have seen a lot and learned even more, and who have played together thus have become efficient and play smart. This continuity on a college football team is becoming a rare species, but the Bearcats have caught that lightning in a bottle.

Remember when the Mercer basketball team beat Duke in the 2014 NCAA opening round? That Bears team was full of senior starters who had been playing together for years. They weren’t the biggest, the fastest, or the best shooters, but they were competent. And as they knew each other (and their coach) so well, they could play with anybody on their best day because of execution. Cincinnati reminds me of that: lots of game experience, lots of bonding, and lots of playing together that leads to good results. I just don’t want Cincinnati to catch that lightning anywhere on January 1st, 2021.

Call me crazy, just don’t call me late for black eyed peas and collard greens. Sound off in the comments below what worries you about Friday’s game between the Bulldogs of Georgia and the Bearcats of Cincinnati.

And as always…