Tomorrow the Bearcats will open up Fall Camp with goal of winning the Big East Championship and get to Cincinnati's first ever BCS bowl game. However, before they will be able to do that they will have to find answers to a few question marks that the Bearcats have going into summer camp. Here are the top 5 story lines heading into camp.
1. Will he or won't he? By now the issue of whether quarterback Ben Mauk will be granted an extra year of eligibility is bordering on the ridiculous. It seemingly has dragged on since the end of the 2007 season and unfortunately, with training camp nearing its start, the issue still isn't settled. For one reason or another, there has been no resolution and everyone has been forced to wait (again) for the NCAA to render a decision. At this point, no one is sure when, if ever, Mauk will be afforded the chance to make one final (we think) appeal for that oh-so-desired sixth year of eligibility.
No matter who the quarterback is for the Bearcats, they're going to be a dangerous team because the defense is loaded and the offense has plenty of weapons. But, everyone saw what Ben Mauk brings to the field in the intangibles: leadership, toughness, and poise. You can't quantify just how much those characteristics bring to a team. It can be argued the Bearcats are a much better team with Ben Mauk under center on August 28.
2. Who will tote the rock? It's pretty clear heading into camp the junior Jacob Ramsey and sophomore John Goebel are the two at the top of the ladder for the starting running back position. While Ramsey might have a leg up due to experience and the fact that he won the starting job late last season, he's going to have to prove he is durable and productive at the same time.
There's no question Jacob has the talent and speed to nail down the job. He is the top returning rusher with 362 yards and three touchdowns, but again, the nagging ankle injury slowed him and not only kept him out of the Syracuse game, it also limited him to just nine yards on six carries in the PapaJohns.com Bowl game.
Since returning to running back, Goebel has shown he has the ability to do the job. He has the speed required to be effective, but he has shown the ability to find holes, catch passes, and block when needed. Ramsey would probably be listed as the favorite to win the starting job, but don't think for a second the coaching staff would hesitate to put Goebel in for long stretches, especially if Ramsey isn't getting the job done.
3. Better defense: 2007 or 2008? Sure, the 2007 defense was pretty stout and had some key members exhaust their eligibility, but the looks of the 2008 defense, at least on paper, is pretty impressive. All-Americans Terrill Byrd and Mike Mickens return along with seven other seniors for what might prove to be one of the best units in UC football history. The 2008 defense has talented All-Americans; it has experience with nine senior and two junior starters; and it also has veteran depth with 12 seniors and five juniors in the "two deep" depth chart.
Following a 31-reception season at tight end, the coaching staff decided Connor Barwin was best suited to play defensive end. It's a move that so far has proven to be brilliant as Barwin has exhibited the speed and natural ability to play the position despite not playing there since high school. Also, former quarterback Craig Carey was moved to the defensive side. That move is proving to be a smart one as well. Carey, who lobbied to play special teams last season, is making the best of the move and will certainly improve the depth while providing brief respites for the starters.
Another "newcomer" to the defense is senior Brandon Underwood, who gives the Bearcats yet another outstanding cover cornerback. Underwood had to sit out last year as a result of his transfer from Ohio State and will be able to step in immediately and make plays just like his cohorts Mike Mickens and DeAngelo Smith.
4. Which freshmen will make the biggest impact? This is always a guess, but with the depth on the defensive and offensive lines, don't look for it to be a lineman. Also, with the depth at quarterback, that's probably not a possibility. The depth at running back is a little thin behind Ramsey and Goebel. Throw in three talented running back candidates in George Winn, Darrin Williams, and perhaps the steal of the recruiting season, Isaiah Pead, and you have yourself a pretty good competition for some playing time.
Another position where a player might be able to sneak in is at wide receiver. It helps that the Bearcats like to employ as many as five receivers at one time, but the freshman quartet of Lynell Payne, Danny Milligan, Nick Truesdell, and another late signee, D.J. Woods, could possibly work their way into the rotation along the way.
Another possible way for one of the speedy newcomers to contribute would be returning kicks or punts. It's doubtful the staff would allow a freshman to return punts, but kickoffs could be another story. There's no shortage of speed among the freshmen.
5. Is the BCS in UC's future? Quite astoundingly, if you read some of the national publications, they say "no". But, if you consider the number of starters the Bearcats return, plus the possibility of Ben Mauk at quarterback, UC has a very legitimate shot at a BCS Bowl Game. The Big East is a competitive conference, but let's be honest, it's not as difficult to win as some others, especially since there isn't a conference title game.
The Bearcats were a couple of breaks away from a BCS game last year. This year, they have more talent, more experience, and a loaded offense no matter who is quarterback. Is anyone clearly the "team to beat" in the Big East this year? Is there a team that strikes fear in any opponent? Aside from possibly West Virginia on the road, every conference game is winnable. And, even the West Virginia game is one that can be taken with a few breaks.
While the letters B-C-S were a pipe dream just a few short years ago, it's no longer a laughing matter around Bearcat football. The talent is there. The coaching staff is there. The Big East is up for grabs. The only thing left for the Bearcats is to go grab it and enjoy a big party with their fans at a BCS Bowl Game.