Tim Tebow and the defending national champion Florida Gators might not be the biggest challenge facing interim head coach Jeff Quinn as he prepares the fifth-ranked Bearcats for the Sugar Bowl.
Quinn must first repair the damaged psyche of players who are dealing with the abrupt departure of head coach Brian Kelly for Notre Dame just days after completing the first 12-0 regular season in school history and a second consecutive Big East Conference championship.
"There's disappointment," Quinn said. "This time will pass. Our kids will be ready to go. It's hard for all of us. But, in this business you've got to overcome and adapt. Nobody wanted to see Brian Kelly leave."
The news of Kelly's departure broke moments before Cincinnati's annual team banquet. By the time he met with his team, word was out that Kelly had agreed to become the Irish head coach. Although speculation about Kelly's interest in Notre Dame had surfaced long before, it didn't soften the team's stance when the official word was delivered.
"We don't really care what he has to say anymore," said tight end Ben Guidugli. "He can go talk to his Notre Dame team. He's not on the boat anymore."
Many players made it clear they'd shed no tears in losing Kelly to Notre Dame.
"I feel like there was some lying in this thing," said standout wide receiver Mardy Gilyard. "Hopefully he'll pack his bags and get to South Bend in a hurry."
Kelly, a three-time Big East coach of the year, elevated Cincinnati's program from relative obscurity to national prominence. The Bearcats went 34-6 in Kelly's three seasons including back-to-back Big East titles and BCS bowl appearances.
Under Quinn, UC's offensive coordinator and offensive line coach, the Bearcats lead the nation in passing efficiency and rank sixth nationally in passing offense, scoring offense and total offense.
This is Quinn's second stint as an interim head coach. He led Central Michigan to a victory in the 2006 Motor City Bowl after Kelly left for Cincinnati and then joined him at UC.
Quinn must heal some emotional wounds for the Bearcats who are decided underdogs to Florida.
"The most important thing right now is our players," Quinn said. "This has been a tremendous season, but we still have another game to finish off. We will handle our preparations for the Sugar Bowl with class and distinction."
SCOUTING THE OFFENSE: Cincinnati's spread offense has been close to unstoppable. The Bearcats rank sixth in the nation in total offense, passing offense, and scoring offense with just under 40 points per game. Senior quarterback Tony Pike, who was mentioned among Heisman candidates prior to missing three games due to an injured forearm, has passed for 2,350 yards and 26 TDs. Mardy Gilyard is Pike's top target with more than 1,100 yards and 11 TDs. When defenses choose to double Gilyard, Armon Binns and tight end Ben Guidugli are capable of big games. When the Bearcats choose to run, sophomore Isaiah Pead, who has rushed for 795 yards and nine TDs, gets the bulk of the carries.
SCOUTING THE DEFENSE: Despite returning just one starter, the Bearcats' defense played better than anticipated through the first eight weeks under first-year coordinator Bob Diaco. But, UC stumbled down the stretch allowing an average of 36 points per game in the final four regular season contests. The Bearcats allowed opponents to rush for 200-plus yards in consecutive games. In the regular season finale, a showdown for the Big East title at Pittsburgh, the Bearcats allowed 193 yards rushing and 369 total yards but rallied for a 45-44 victory. UC ranks third nationally in tackles for loss and is tied for eighth in sacks.
MATCHUP TO WATCH: Mardy Gilyard is a big-play receiver. Joe Haden is a shut-down corner. Can Gilyard shake free from Haden, a projected first-round NFL draft choice? If Haden succeeds in shutting down Gilyard, Tony Pike will need to seek out other alternatives in the passing game, namely Armon Binns or tight end Ben Guidugli. And, Gilyard can look to do his damage as a kick-returner.
OTHER KEY MATCHUPS:
--Cincinnati's vaunted spread offense vs. Florida's stingy defense.
The Gators gave up 14 points or less in nine games this season. The Bearcats average almost 40 points per game. Florida ranks third nationally in scoring defense (11.5), fourth in total defense (253.1), and fifth in passing efficiency (160.90). UC leads the nation in passing efficiency (166.19), and is sixth in scoring offense (39.8), passing offense (320.3), and total offense (464.3).
--Florida's rushing attack vs. Cincinnati's defense.
The Gators don't have a big, bruising featured back. But they have a cadre of swift-footed scat backs, including Jeffrey Demps -- he's arguably the fastest player in college football -- who compare in some way to West Virginia's Noel Devine.
In recent weeks the Bearcats' defense has been susceptible against the run, and it hasn't faced anything comparable to the Gators who rank 10th nationally in rushing offense. UC allowed consecutive opponents to rush for 200-plus yards, then allowed 193 yards rushing at Pittsburgh but rallied for a 45-44 victory in the regular-season finale. The Bearcats' defense has allowed 141 yards rushing per game.
--Cincinnati's running game vs. Florida's defense.
The Bearcats chose to forgo the running game on a few occasions this season and still put up gaudy offensive numbers. But, can the Bearcats score on the Gators without running the ball? Explosive sophomore Isaiah Pead, who had 175 yards in a win over West Virginia, likely will get the bulk of the carries. Pead has 795 yards and nine TDs this season. Florida's defense ranks 13th against the run, but it allowed Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram to rush for 113 yards and three TDs in the SEC title game.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "Just as we did in 2006, it is my plan to work with the president, board of trustees, and others on campus to move swiftly and surely to select our new head football coach who will move to continue our success and continue to play in front of sellout crowds and compete for a national championship year in and year out." -- Athletic director Mike Thomas on Cincinnati's search for a new head football coach.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
BOWL BREAKDOWN: Cincinnati vs. Florida, Jan. 1, New Orleans, La. -- Cincinnati is making its first appearance in the Sugar Bowl, Florida its eighth. It's the second meeting between the two schools. The Bearcats lost 48-17 to Florida on Oct. 20, 1984 in Gainesville. UC is the first Big East Conference team to play in the Sugar Bowl since West Virginia defeated Georgia in 2006. Big East teams are 3-3 all time in the Sugar Bowl. It's the Bearcats second consecutive New Years Day appearance in a Bowl Championship Series game. UC lost to Virginia Tech in last year's Orange Bowl.
The Sugar Bowl isn't where Florida wanted to end its season. But while a loss to Alabama in the SEC championship game cost them a chance at a national title, the Gators should be fired up for Tim Tebow's last hurrah. Cincinnati, on the other hand, is dealing with the disappointment of losing head coach Brian Kelly to Notre Dame. Interim head coach Jeff Quinn will lead the Bearcats who are decided underdogs.
PLAYERS TO WATCH:
QB Tony Pike -- The senior was mentioned among Heisman Trophy candidates before he missed three games with an injured forearm. Pike has passed for 2,350 yards and 26 touchdowns. He has thrown six interceptions in nine games but three of those came in a victory at Pittsburgh in the season finale.
WR Mardy Gilyard -- The senior is among the nation's most explosive playmakers. Gilyard has 80 catches for 1,150 yards and 11 TDs. He has two kickoff returns for touchdowns including a 99-yarder against Pitt that ignited the Bearcats' rally from a 21-point deficit. Gilyard also has a punt return score.
RB Isaiah Pead -- The sophomore is Cincinnati's leading rusher with 795 yards and nine touchdowns. He had a career-high 175 yards rushing on Nov. 13 against West Virginia.
LB JK Schaffer -- The sophomore has emerged as a leader for the Bearcats' young defense. Shaffer ranks second on the team with 90 tackles and three interceptions.
--WR Armon Binns, playing with a separated shoulder against Pitt, had five catches for 104 yards and the winning TD with 33 seconds left.
--Senior RB Jacob Ramsey, who missed two straight games with a sprained foot, returned against Pitt and scored the Bearcats' first touchdown in the victory.
--Sophomore QB Zach Collaros has passed for 1,434 yards and 10 touchdowns, and rushed for 344 yards and four TDs in 12 games, including four starts in place of the injured Tony Pike.