Indiana begins one of the most important seasons in the history of its football program on Sept. 4. The Hoosiers are coming off a 6-2 campaign and an Outback Bowl berth in 2020 and are expected to be a preseason Top 25 team. We are profiling each of the 12 teams Indiana will face this season as they try to build on that momentum
Date/Time/TV: Sept. 18, noon, ABC or ESPN
Location: ABC or ESPN
2020 record/bowl result: 9-1 overall, 6-0 American Athletic Conference, lost 27-24 to Georgia in Peach Bowl
Returning Lettermen: 52 (22 offense, 28 defense, 2 special teams)
Lettermen Lost: 28 (14 offense,11 defense, 3 special teams)
Returning Starters, Offense (7): QB Desmond Ridder, WR Michael Young Jr., WR Alec Pierce, TE Josh Whyle, TE Leonard Taylor, LG Jeremy Cooper C Jake Renfro, RG Vincent McConnell
Staters Lost, Offense (4): RB Gerrid Doaks, WR Jayshon Jackson, LT James Hudson, RT Darius Harper
Offensive Outlook: Quarterback Desmond Ridder was the American Athletic Conference Player of the Year last season, passing for 2,296 yards and 19 touchdowns and rushing for 592 yards and 12 scores, so with him back the Bearcats start with one of the most dynamic dual-threat quarterbacks in Group of 5 football. They took some significant losses on the offensive line with both of their tackles going to the NFL. Hudson, a first-team All-AAC selection was taken by the Browns in the fourth round. Running back Gerrid Doaks, who was fifth in the AAC in rushing, was also a first-team All-AAC pick and went to the Dolphins in the seventh round. However, Jerome Ford, who rushed for 483 yards and eight touchdowns on just 73 carries last season, provies an easy fill in for Doaks. There is experience in the middle of the line and on the perimeter, where the Bearcats return second-team All-AAC picks at wide receiver in Michael Young Jr. and tight end Josh Whyle.
Returning Starters, Defense (7): DE MyJai Sanders, DT Marcus Brown, WLB Darrian Beavers, MLB Joel Dubianko, CB Ahmad Gardner, CB Coby Bryant, Nickel Arquon Bush
Starters Lost, Defense (4): DT Elijah Ponder, SLB Jarell White, S James Wiggins, S Derrick Forrest
Defensive Outlook: The Bearcats went unbeaten until the Peach Bowl last season largely because of their defense. They ranked eighth nationally in scoring defense, surrendering just 16.8 points per game, and 13th nationally in total defense. They also ranked 13th nationally against the run, and they led the AAC in all three of those categories. Their losses on that side of the ball were significant. Safety James Wiggins was an All-American and a first-team All-AAC selection. Linebacker Jarell White was first-team All-AAC and defensive lineman Elijah Ponder made the second team. But even with them gone, they still have five players who were named All-AAC. That includes defensive end Myjai Sanders, a first-team selection who recorded seven sacks in 10 games and is considered one of the nation’s best pass rushers. Cornerbacks Ahmad Gardner and Coby Bryant were both first-team All-AAC and Gardner was named a first-team All-American by several publications. Linebacker Darrian Beavers and defensive tackle Marcus Brown were both second teamers. And the Bearcats have plenty of depth to make up for the starters they lost. It shouldn’t be much easier at all to move the ball against this defense.
Special Teams Returners (2): K Cole Smith, LS Cayson Pfeifer.
Special Teams Loss (1): P James Smith
Special Teams Outlook: Smith was a Ray Guy Award finalist last season, averaging 43.8 yards per punt, so his loss is significant. Smith was a steady place kicker, making seven of his 10 attempts, however. And the Bearcats return game is strong. Tre Tucker returns to return kickoffs after he took back 13 last season for 389 yards last season, leading the AAC with 29.9 yards per return. Included among them was a 97-yard return for a touchdown.
Overall outlook: Indiana and Cincinnati scheduled this series in 2014 when they had every reason not to believe this would be one of the most intriguing interconference matchups in college football when it would actually be played. However, after the Bearcats and Hoosiers each had two of their greatest seasons in school history in 2020, this has to rank as one of the top 20 non-conference games of the season. probably top 10 if you remove the made-for-TV neutral site games on Week 1 (Alabama-Miami in Atlanta, Clemson-Georgia in Charlotte) and games that involve still-independent Notre Dame. The Hoosiers will have already been tested in Week 1 by a road game at Iowa, so that could help their cause with Cincinnati opening with Miami (Ohio) then following that up with Murray State, but the Bearcats have so much talent on both sides of the ball that it might not matter. If the Hoosiers take this one and start 3-0, they will be extremely well prepared for when Big Ten play begins in earnest in October. But they could very easily be 1-2 after this one, even if they are as good as advertised.
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