Time and Date: Saturday, September 4 at 3:30 p.m. ET
Location: Nippert Stadium — Cincinnati, OH
Spread: Cincinnati (-23)
ESPN FPI: Cincinnati has 90.3% chance to win
All-time series: Miami (OH) leads, 59-58-7
Current streak: Cincinnati has won 14 straight (2006-19)
Setting the scene
The battle for the Victory Bell is college football’s longest standing non-conference rivalry, dating back to 1888. Save for the 2020 pandemic season when the Mid-American Conference contracted all of its non-conference games, these Southwest Ohio schools have battled it out on the gridiron ever year since 1945. For modern viewers, it may come as a surprise that Miami (OH) leads the all-time series, but Cincinnati can knot it up with a victory Saturday. The Bearcats have rattled off 14 consecutive wins over the RedHawks, but this time, they’re under greater scrutiny than ever.
After a 3rd down conversion in the Peach Bowl away from a perfect 2020, Cincinnati has been recognized with a preseason No. 8 ranking from the AP Poll. This will be the second time ever that the Bearcats will be walking into this rivalry with a number beside their name (No. 10 in 2009). But Miami is no pushover opponent. The RedHawks won the MAC title in their last full season and showed some signs of brilliance in a brief 3-game 2020 campaign.
In terms of the talent level of both teams, this is as strong of a Victory Bell matchup... ever? After further review, this has potential to take the crown from the 2019 matchup.
Miami RedHawks outlook
Miami finished the 2020 season with a 2-1 record, and yes, it is possible to draw takeaways from such a limited sample size. In fact, the RedHawks earned a ranked win by upending Ball State, 38-31, in the opener — a Ball State team which won its next seven games to finish No. 23. There is plenty to like about Chuck Martin’s squad, which in terms of offensive and defensive firepower, is as balanced as any team in the MAC East.
Gabbert’s got it going
The 2020 iteration of the team displayed solid offensive competency. Quarterback Brett Gabbert displayed glimpses of potential as a true freshman starter in 2019, but as a sophomore last fall, he looked more comfortable with the speed of the game and his accuracy improved. His completion percentage skyrocketed from 55.4 to 65.7 (albeit, only 35 attempts) and Gabbert fired four touchdown passes without an interception. Miami finished 2-0 in games when he started under center, and he looks poised to make another leap into an All-MAC quarterback for 2021.
It’s not even a question who the title of Gabbert’s favorite target belongs to. Jack Sorenson accounted for an absurd 49.5 percent of all Miami receiving production in 2020. He averaged 118 yards per game, and he totaled four touchdowns in the season finale alone. Sorenson has been on a tear since collecting 2019 MAC Championship Game MVP honors as his last five performances feature four 7+ catch and four 100+ yard outings.
The receiving corps is Miami’s strongest position group on offense. The RedHawks reload with Jalen Walker (418 yards in 2019), Penn State transfer Mac Hippenhammer, and deep threat James Burns (formerly known as James Maye) who averaged over 25 yards per reception on 20 catches in 2019.
Miami’s offense also brings back several key cogs that were missing from the 2020 campaign. Tight end Andrew Homer is back from injury after serving as a serviceable receiving threat in the prior two years. Additionally, the running back duo of Jaylon Bester and Tyre Shelton returns to the lineup after opting out of the 2020 season. Miami’s rushing attack suffered greatly without the tandem last year as no rusher attained a 100-yard season. Bester produced 741 yards and 14 touchdowns during the RedHawks’ MAC championship season and Shelton added 587 on a team-best 5.4 yards per carry, so the rushing game should present more of a challenge to defenses this fall.
The main concern regarding Miami’s offense resides within the line. The RedHawks lost two-time First Team All-MAC left tackle Tommy Doyle to the NFL Draft and three-time All-MAC center Danny Godlevske to the transfer portal. The entire depth chart combines for 31 starts and no player has logged more than Caleb Shaffer’s 10 career starts. Shaffer is expected to fill Godlevske’s vacancy by transitioning from right guard to center. Doyle’s replacement at left tackle is set to be Sam Vaughan, a 6’7”, 306 pound true freshman. What the RedHawks lack in experience, they make up for in size: all five projected starters measure at or above 6’5” and 300 pounds.
The best pass rush in college football, statistically
Guess who led the country in sacks per game in 2020... Yes, Miami racked up 4.3 per game, and just about everyone on the RedHawks’ defense feasted on opposing quarterbacks. Once again, the sample size was limited but the potency of the unit is not debatable. Miami finished in the top quartile in sacks per game in 2019 by recording just under three per contest.
The defensive line is deep and composed of a myriad of astute pass rushers. Defensive end Kameron Butler led the group last year with 2.5 sacks to follow up his 5.5 sacks from 2019. Lonnie Phelps and converted wide receiver Dominique Robinson were other key contributors from the d-line, and both managed a pair of sacks in 2020.
Speaking of sacks, there is an NCAA record holder for the category on Miami’s roster. In 2019, outside linebacker Ivan Pace Jr. registered 6.0 sacks in a single game against Akron, matching Elvis Dumervil and Ameer Ismail for the most in history. Pace continues to improve with each passing game and ranked second on the team in tackling last year. Playing alongside Pace is the team’s premier tackler, Ryan McWood. He crammed a season’s worth of highlights into three games, finishing with 14 tackles on two occasions while also recording a game-winning interception in the opener against Ball State.
McWood led Miami to finish 21st in the FBS in rushing defense, allowing an average of roughly 125 yards. As much of a threat as the defensive line and linebackers pose, the RedHawks must shore up the secondary. The unit routinely struggled in man coverage, specifically on the sidelines and on deep fly routes. Fixing the 110th ranked passing defense is essential to returning to the MAC Championship. Miami’s only loss in 2020 transpired because Buffalo abandoned its usual ground-based offense and instead fired for 353 yards and four touchdowns, on only 17 completions.
Cincinnati Bearcats outlook
Cincinnati finished the 2020 season with a 9-1 record and the program’s first New Year’s Six appearance since joining the AAC. And if misfortune didn’t strike throughout the final minutes of the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl, we’d be talking about a perfect season. Now, being a Bearcat comes with lofty expectations. Cincinnati is currently situated at No. 8 in the AP Poll — the highest preseason ranking for an AAC team since the conference’s inception. Anything short of a conference championship and New Year’s Six bowl feels like a disappointment for a program that hopes to stir up chaos and crash the College Football Playoff.
Cincinnati has prided itself as a defensively sound unit since Luke Fickell arrived as head coach. Except, the Bearcats had to endure the loss of rising star defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman to Notre Dame this offseason. Mike Tressel steps into that role after a 14-year stint as a defensive assistant at Michigan State.
Tressel has plenty of talent to work with on defense, especially in the secondary. Cincinnati’s trio of cornerbacks — Ahmad Gardner, Coby Bryant, and Arquon Bush — is as dominant as any triumvirate the nation has to offer. Gardner received All-American honors by a variety of outlets, securing three interceptions on a team which allowed the second-fewest passing touchdowns per game in 2020. While the Bearcats lost safeties Darrick Forrest and James Wiggins to the NFL Draft, they reload with a potential breakout player in Bryan Cook, who delivered seven solo takedowns in the Peach Bowl.
Cincinnati’s rushing defense also ranked top 10 in yards allowed per game, and the front seven presents NFL talent across the board as well. Miami should be taking notes in film study on Myjai Sanders after he wrecked offensive lines and backfields with 7.0 sacks and 10.5 tackles for loss in 2020. Sanders is equipped with great hands and frequently bats down passes at the line of scrimmage — another aspect of his game the RedHawks should be wary of. When looking beyond the defensive line, outside linebacker Darrian Beavers is the greatest threat at the second level. Cincinnati lost leading tackler Jarell White this offseason, so Beavers is the best linebacker returning to the lineup. With 7.5 tackles for loss and a pair of interceptions, Beavers’ utilization all over the field makes him one of the Bearcats’ greatest assets.
Cincinnati ranked eighth in fewest points allowed per game in the FBS in 2020. If that’s not concerning for opposing offenses, note that the Bearcats also forced turnovers at the 11th highest rate in the country. They currently own college football’s longest streak by forcing a turnover in 20 consecutive games. There are no glaring weaknesses in this unit, and they don’t commit penalties at a high rate either. This level of play wasn’t just reserved for 2020 — defensive dominance has been a trend in Cincinnati for three years running.
Starting faster offensively
Cincinnati’s first two FBS opponents last season were Army and South Florida. Spectacular defense carried the Bearcats in both matchups, besting Army 24-10 and South Florida 28-7. The offense was burdened by turnovers, a lack of connection in the passing game, and inconsistent production on the ground. Then, everything suddenly clicked in the second half of a 42-13 rout of SMU. Cincinnati’s offense posted 49, 38, 55, and 36 points to finish the regular season and quarterback Desmond Ridder suddenly appeared to be breaking into college football’s upper tier of quarterbacks.
Now, Cincinnati has to figure out how to generate that offense immediately, instead of settling into another season. It’s all dependent on Ridder. If he is able to create plays with his legs, opposing defenses are often in for a long day. During that 5-game offensive explosion at midseason, he compiled 11 rushing touchdowns and surpassed the 100-yard mark twice. In the four other games when Cincinnati scored under 36 points, Ridder scored just one rushing touchdown and finished with negative rushing yards in two of those contests.
He shows flashes of stardom as a passer too, firing for over 300 yards in late-season victories over UCF and East Carolina. Ridder avoided throwing a single pick in his last four performances, so he’ll need to ride that momentum in order for Cincinnati to remain in the Top 10. There’s no preferred target in this offense, as the top four receivers all finished between 315 and 335 receiving yards in 2020. Alec Pierce will serve as the primary deep threat while tight end Josh Whyle operates as a reliable target on short routes near the sidelines and in the end zone, where he amassed a team-high six touchdowns in 2020.
To round out the rest of the offense, Alabama transfer halfback Jerome Ford is back to spearhead the running game. Ford shared the backfield with Gerrid Doaks last year but should be given more leeway after Doaks’ departure. He registered 6.6 yards per carry and led all running backs with eight touchdowns, peaking with an iconic 79-yard rushing score vs. Georgia in the Peach Bowl.
Finally, the offensive line must adjust to life without James Hudson, a fourth round NFL Draft pick back in April. Hudson was ejected in the first half of the Peach Bowl and Cincinnati suffered greatly as a result. The Bearcats yielded eight sacks in that defeat and finding the replacement to Hudson is of utmost importance, especially when opening against a pass rush as lethal as Miami’s. John Williams is the projected starter at left tackle, and the youngster will have massive shoes to fill to sustain Cincinnati’s success.
The primary matchup to watch in this one is receiving prodigy Jack Sorenson vs. All-American shutdown cornerback Ahmad “Sauce” Gardner. On the contrary, when the Bearcats are in possession, Miami’s feisty pass rush vs. Cincinnati’s new-look offensive line could draw some intrigue.
Cincinnati’s offense typically starts slow. In first quarters, the Bearcats only topped seven points in two of its nine outings against FBS opponents in 2020 (14 vs. SMU, 10 vs. Tulsa). Miami doesn’t offer much better, as it only scored seven points across three first quarters last season, so this one should be a tightly-contested, defensive-minded battle in the early going.
But this is the No. 8 team in the country and for good reason. Cincinnati may have first-game jitters with that nice preseason ranking, but the Bearcats will eventually take over by forcing stops, collecting turnovers, and winning the field position battle. Miami’s offense is strong enough to pile on some points due to the merit of Gabbert and his receiving corps, but Cincinnati’s defense shouldn’t allow any more than three touchdowns. The reigning AAC champions win by double-digits and the Victory Bell remains housed in Nippert Stadium.
The streak extends to 15.
Prediction: Cincinnati 37, Miami (OH) 21