Midseason report: Cincinnati


Record: 4-1 (0-0, Big East)

The obvious storyline heading into the season was this: The Bearcats had plenty of options on offense, but would the defense be any better? One of the worst units in the league returned all its starters, so improvement was expected. But just how much? We have an answer in the early going. Cincinnati is vastly better on defense, and that has translated to a fast start. The Bearcats already have matched their win total from a year ago, and shrugged off a disappointing loss at Tennessee with dominating wins over NC State and Miami (Ohio). Cincinnati held those two opponents to negative rushing yards, and the overall group is playing much more physical than a year ago. That has translated into a better push up front, as Cincinnati ranks No. 3 in the league with 17 sacks. One of the biggest turnarounds has been in turnover margin. A team that was minus-15 in that category last season (ranking No. 119 in the nation) is now No. 2 in the nation at plus-12. The Bearcats have taken the ball away 18 times -- already better than the 14 takeaways they had all of last season. This is a group that is more mature and experienced than a year ago, and that has helped. So has being in the same system for a second straight year. Players are much more comfortable with their roles. Offensively, Isaiah Pead and Zach Collaros have led the way as expected, but the offensive line has been a big story, too. After allowing 33 sacks last season, the Bearcats have given up just five -- tops in the Big East. The depth is not quite where Cincinnati wants it to be, and the defense has given up big plays in the pass game. But no question, Cincinnati will take this 4-1 start as it heads into league play.

Offensive MVP: RB Isaiah Pead. You can make a case for Collaros, who has 10 touchdowns and just three interceptions this year, but Pead has made some eye-popping big plays. He has seven touchdown runs and is averaging 6.6 yards a carry -- second in the league. Pead has only 72 carries for 473 yards, but a large reason for this is that the Bearcats have played in several blowouts.

Defensive MVP: LB J.K. Schaffer. Not only does Schaffer lead his team in tackles (35), he also has three interceptions and six passes defended, a clear indication of a more active role in the pass defense. Defensive tackle Derek Wolfe also has done a nice job, with four sacks and seven tackles for loss.