Cincinnati Bearcats season preview

Cincinnati Bearcats

Coach: Tommy Tuberville (130-77 overall, first season at Cincinnati)

2012 record: 10-3

Key losses: RB George Winn, TE Travis Kelce

Key returnees: LB Greg Blair, QB Brendon Kay, OT Eric Lefeld

Newcomer to watch: K Tony Milano

Biggest games in 2013: at Rutgers (Nov. 16), vs. Louisville (Dec. 5)

Biggest question mark heading into 2013: The Bearcats have the luxury of two successful senior quarterbacks, but figuring out how to use them could be tricky for Tuberville in his first season at Cincinnati. Tuberville said Kay is the starter after he went 4-1 in the last five games and led Cincy to a win over Duke in the Belk Bowl. But Kay and Munchie Legaux will split time, at least initially. Is Tuberville embracing South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier’s signature two-quarterback system, or will he stick with the quarterback who separates himself early in the season?

Forecast: Cincinnati has won four conference championships in the last five years, and the inaugural American Athletic season will be a two-horse race between the Bearcats and Louisville. The Cardinals are the AAC favorites, but Cincinnati stole two first-place votes from them and were picked to finish second. The two likely will play for the conference championship on Dec. 5, the last game of the regular season for both teams. Last year’s Keg of Nails went to overtime when Cincinnati rallied with a minute left in regulation, but the Cardinals escaped with the win. To be in contention at the end of the season, the Bearcats will need to take care of a critical conference matchup at Rutgers on Nov. 16.

Cincinnati will miss Kelce, a third-round NFL draft pick this past April, on offense, but Kay and Legaux are experienced passers with an offensive line that boasts two All-Big East first-team selections in Lefeld and Austen Bujnoch. Ralph David Abernathy got 366 rushing yards on 69 carries behind Winn last season, but he shined on kickoff returns. He’ll be the No. 1 option at running back this season.

Blair will be an All-America contender this season, leading the team in tackles last season. The Bearcats will miss Dan Giordano as a pass-rusher, but defensive tackle Mitch Meador and nose tackle Jordan Stepp return to the interior defensive line.

Having coached in the SEC and Big-12, Tuberville is used to high expectations placed on his team, and with veteran players at key positions, Cincinnati looks poised to deliver on those.

“Cincinnati has been one of the bright spots in college football for the past six or seven years, four times winning 10 games,” Tuberville said. “That doesn't happen very often. … And so being at Cincinnati for me, I'm excited to try to keep it going and improve it.”