The Cincinnati Bearcats took a step back during the 2010-2011 NCAAF season, posting a 4-8 record SU and ATS following back-to-back BCS bowls. Coach Butch Jones has guaranteed his fan base that the Bearcats will return to a bowl game in 2011-2012.

While that is a definite possibilty, the college football betting books do not have a lot of faith in Cincinnati to return to its former glory during the upcoming season. College Football odds makers at The Greek have the Bearcats listed as a +8000 play to win the BCS National Championship and a +500 play to win the Big East. Does either play offer value for NCAAF bettors

Offense 

Zach Collaros Cincinnati BearcatsSenior Zach Collaros (2,902 yards, 26 td) returns as the leader of the Cincinnati offense. The dual-threat quarterback suffered a knee injury against USF last season and was never the same. Despite missing a conference game due to the injury, he was the Big East leader in passing offense. If Collaros cuts down on his turnovers (14 int.), he will compete with Geno Smith to be one of the top quarterbacks in the Big East. 

Isaiah Pead (1,063 yards, 6 td) will lead the rushing attack as a senior. His 1,000 yard season is even more impressive when one considers that he missed two games with an injury. If he remains healthy, Pead should have a very nice season. He will be backed up by true freshman Jameel Poteat, a four-star recruit and the likely future of the Bearcats’ rushing attack. 

Cincinnati will miss leading receiver Armon Binns (1,101 yards, 10 td), but there is plenty of talent at the position. Senior D. J. Woods (898 yards, 8 td) will be Collaros’ primary target. He needs to demonstrate better hands during the upcoming season, as he fumbled four times in 2010. The Bearcats are excited about the addition of JUCO Kenbrell Thompkins and redshirt freshman Dyjuan Lewis.

Lewis did not qualify academically for his freshman season, but he is expected to be ready to play in the fall. Anthony McLung, Orion Woodard, and true freshman Shaq Washington are likely to contribute as well. Tight end will be a battle between Adrien Robinson, Travis Kelce, and Blake Annen. 

Two quality starters return to the offensive line in left guard Randy Martinez and right tackle Alex Hoffman. The seniors will compete for All-Big East honors. Evan Davis will replace Jason Kelce at center. Austin Bujnoch and Sean Hooey are the favorites to round out the line. This group struggled under Jones early in the year, but showed signs of improvement over the last half of the season. 

Defense 

The Bearcats were terrible on defense last season, allowing 28.0 ppg. In fairness, the squad actually improved slightly in yards allowed per game and offensive turnovers inflated the number. 2011 sees Cincinnati returns most of it’s defense, so there is optimism. 

The top eight defensive linemen from last season will be back for another season, including Brandon Mills who led the club with six sacks. There is excellent depth on the unit, and I would expect Cincinnati to get more pressure on opposing quarterbacks in 2011. Backs will struggle against 300-pounders John Hughes and Derek Wolfe in the middle. 

Depth is a question at linebacker, but Cincinnati does return two rising starts in J. K Schaffer (111 tackles) and Maalik Bomar (70 tackles). True freshman Dwight Jackson may have the advantage for the starting gig at strongside linebacker.

The secondary should be improved in 2011, particularly if Dominique Battle fully recovers from an ACL tear. Malcolm Murray, a JUCO with 10 interceptions last season at Mt. San Antonio College, could provide the Bearcats with a much-needed playmaker. No member of the secondary had more than two interceptions in 2010, and the unit was scorched for 234 passing yards per game.

Special Teams 

True freshman Tony Milano is the early favorite to take over at kicker for Jacob Rogers. It will be interesting to see how the freshman reacts to the pressure. 

The Bearcats were satisfied with their kick coverage teams last season, but are looking for improvement on kick returns. They were at or near the bottom in most return categories in the Big East. 

Outlook

The Big East Conference is one of the the most difficult conferences to predict, simply because all of the teams have significant weaknesses. The Bearcats could make it back to the BCS, or they could finish as a sub-.500 team again. 

I actually like this squad to rebound somewhat in 2011. With an experienced (and healthy) Collaros, a dangerous rushing attack, and a defense that has played together for a season, I lean toward a bowl and a decent season. 

Early non-conference tests will tell bettors how good Cincinnati is going to be. The team has a road game at Tennessee early and NC State visits Nippert Stadium two weeks later. Both games are actually winnable, but I can’t pull the trigger to call for an upset in Neyland. 

Between October 22 and November 19, the Bearcats play four critical Big East games, with three of them on the road. The gauntlet starts with a trip to USF. After a bye week, Cincinnati visits Pitt, plays West Virginia at Paul Brown Stadium, and then travels to Rutgers. The Bearcats will be fortunate to go 2-2 against those opponents. 

My prediction: Cincinnati doubles its win total to eight. The Bearcats are not, however, a value futures bet for the Big East title. I believe that West Virginia, Pitt, and USF are all slightly better than Cincinnati. There just is not enough value to take a flyer at +500. Please do not consider a National Title wager for this club.

An 8-4 record with a 4-3 Big East mark is my call for the Cincinnati Bearcats.