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Birmingham Bowl Preview: Cincinnati Q&A

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NCAA Football: Boston College at Pittsburgh Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

We had a chance to speak with Mike Schneid from Cincinnati’s own, Down the Drive, about the upcoming Birmingham Bowl against the Cincinnati Bearcats. Check out the Q&A he had with me on their site, where I guaranteed victory if Steve Addazio was still the coach because the rule of 7-6. Be sure to go through all of Mike’s work at Down the Drive and definitely feel free to troll him on Twitter during Thursday’s game.*

*Don’t actually do that, please.

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1. Was there any concern that Head Coach Luke Fickell would leave the program after another successful regular season?

Cincinnati has a history of losing coaches after 3 years (Mark Dantonio, Brian Kelly, Butch Jones) so there was always going to be a little bit of concern with Fickell entering this off-season. But I think most people have the expectation that he will leave for a high-profile job and that didn’t exist. Dantonio went to Michigan State, Kelly to Notre Dame, and Butch to Tennessee. The jobs that might have been the biggest threats would have been USC, Michigan State, or Penn State (had James Franklin gone elsewhere). Something that often goes unmentioned – Fickell has 6 kids. Yes, getting paid $5-6 million by a bigger school would be nice. But does he really want to uproot his whole family to another part of the country, when he has spent literally his whole life in Ohio? That’s why there wasn’t a huge concern.

2. How about to BC at the time? BC Twitter was all over the place on this one, but most realistic fans didn’t find it likely at all.

Yeah, we all saw the rumors about BC and Fickell. I believe it was Albert Breer from NFL Network who tried to make a connection that Fickell’s best friend’s son is on the BC team and that could help lure him. No disrespect to BC, I just, personally, never saw Fickell going to BC. Between his connections to Ohio and his family, the way he is recruiting at UC right now (top group of five class, #53 national ranked class), the success UC has had the last two years and his career trajectory (a high-profile job will be offered sooner than later), I always felt staying at Cincinnati and buying more time made the most sense.

3. It’s tough that a team that was on the verge of a New Year’s Six bowl game somehow ended up playing a BC team that was not good this year, while a team like *cough* Virginia *cough*, is going to the Orange Bowl. Conferences, conferences. Whatever. Sounds like they did you dirty. How do the fans feel about the matchup and the general disrespect given to the conference?

Real quick on the Virginia front – I think it’s awful. I hate it. Yes, they had a good year and I respect their accomplishments. But because someone, 50 years ago, made a deal between the ACC and Orange Bowl, they get to play Florida. This isn’t about Cincy though. This is about Notre Dame (who beat UVA 35-20), Utah and Minnesota. Those are the teams getting disrespected by Virginia’s presence in the Orange Bowl.

Anyways, I digress. Yes, it honestly sucks that Cincinnati is playing in a bowl game in Birmingham, Alabama against a 6-6 ACC team, in the middle of the afternoon on a WORK DAY! Brutal. It is what it is though, we controlled our destiny to the Cotton Bowl and lost. So, it’s hard to really get too worked up. We all wish our conference’s bowl tie-ins were better. Unfortunately, this is the world we live in the AAC and group of five. There’s definitely disappointment among the fan base and even some players, but everyone needs to get over because this is reality and the team just needs to prove themselves.

4. Quarterback Desmond Ridder seemed to have a little more of a sophomore slump. He finished strong in the AAC Championship game, especially coming off injury, but there were some calls for change during the season. How would you assess his play this season, and do you expect him to develop further?

I’m not sure what to think about his development. I have been very defensive and supportive of him all year. He did take a step back and was disappointing for much of the season. Personally, I think he got hurt week 2 against Ohio State and never got healthy, but that’s never been confirmed. I also think that a lack of playmakers at WR and a weak offensive line have rattled him a bit mentally, where he thinks he needs to compensate and do too much. He’s capable of being great, he shows flashes every game where he will make the perfect pass or make an outstanding run. But then he’ll throw wildly inaccurate passes or run the wrong way. He’s just very inconsistent and it feels more mental than physical or regression. Hopefully the month off has done his mind and body wonders and this game is a way for him to break out of his slump.

5. Who are the best prospects from the team? I know there’s running back Michael Warren, and tight end Josiah Deguara, who’s going to the senior bowl, but who should we keep an eye on?

RB Michael Warren II is a junior, who hopefully returns in 2020. I believe he could be a day 3 draft pick, when it’s time. TE Josiah Deguara is certainly in line to be drafted, possibly as high as day 2. He’s an excellent blocker and route runner and usually is very reliable, especially on third downs. LB Perry Young is a bit undersized, but he could have a chance to make it as a late round pick or UDFA. There aren’t a lot of seniors on this team (outside Deguara and Young), and I wouldn’t expect any of the underclassmen to declare early. Some guys that could have NFL futures though are DL Elijah Ponder, Curtis Brooks, Myjai Sanders, S James Wiggins (who is out injured), CB Coby Bryant and Ahmad Gardner.

6. Which positional groups are the greatest strengths and which are getting coal for Christmas?

I would love to say the whole front 7, but I will simplify and say the D-line. Cincinnati rotates guys in an out to keep them fresh. Coming into the season, after losing both defensive tackles to the NFL, there were serious concerns about the depth and strength of this group. But they turned out to be the driving force of this defense. The guys to watch – I mentioned some above – are Brooks, Ponder and Sanders, plus Michael Pitts, Malik Vann, Marcus Brown. It’s also worth noting that special teams had a great year, with 5 blocked kicks.

Give coal to the offensive line. Way too many undisciplined penalties. Cincy leads the country in penalties and so many of these are holding, false starts and things that can be easily avoided. The OL often does not give Ridder enough time to work his magic.

7. Cincy is 7.5 point favorite now. How does this one play out?

I bet Cincy -7.5 Does that answer the question? The last time Cincinnati won by more than 7 was 10/19 against Tulsa. They went 3-2 in the other 5 games, winning those 3 by a total of 8 points against USF, ECU, Temple (by the way, totally omitting UConn game from these stats because they aren’t a real team). Despite the numbers suggesting otherwise, I think this team will come out hungry after losing two straight to Memphis and the month off gives everyone a chance to get healthy.

8. Is Skyline Chili actually good?

It is! I am not a native Cincinnatian. I am a New Yorker, but I have learned to love it. It’s worth the hype. Try it if you ever go out to Cincy.

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Big thanks to Mike for his insights and observations [and taking a shot at UConn on the way out]. Again, be sure to check out all of Down the Drive’s football coverage (and more) as we prepare for game one ASD (After Steve Addazio).