AAC 2022: After exodus of stars, No. 23 Cincinnati tries to reload, and they are the class of the conference

CINCINNATI (AP) — The cupboard wasn’t left completely bare, but Luke Fickell had some major restocking to do.

The sixth-year Cincinnati coach is tasked with following up a historic 2021 season that saw the Bearcats become the first team outside a Power Five conference to crack the College Football Playoff.

The dream season ended with a 27-6 loss to Alabama in a semifinal, and then Cincinnati (13-1) watched a school-record nine players get selected in the NFL draft, led by cornerback Ahmad “Sauce” Gardner, taken fourth overall by the New York Jets.

After losing the core of his best players, the pressure is on Fickell to show that the No. 23 Bearcats are built to last, especially as they prepare to make the leap from the middling American Athletic Conference to the Big 12 in 2023.

“Going into camp, it is definitely different,” Fickell said. “Not that you’re not battling every year and there are competitions in all different things. But this is a year where there’s definitely more of an edge. Definitely some unique battles, and it’s not just at the quarterback position.”

There is definitely a sense of urgency for Cincinnati leading up to the season opener Sept. 3 at No. 19 Arkansas.

“Camp is different knowing that those guys maybe haven’t played as many snaps, and you’re going to be walking into Fayetteville, Arkansas, and need to be playing your best,” Fickell said. “There’s definitely a different feel and will be a different feel, I think, for our entire camp.”

LOOKING FOR QB1?

The highest-profile battle will be at quarterback as Fickell tries to replace flashy four-year starter Desmond Ridder. It has created an unusual situation made possible by the transfer portal.

Sophomore Evan Prater, who threw just 11 passes in mop-up duty last year, is competing against Ben Bryant, who spent three years at Cincinnati before escaping Ridder’s long shadow and transferring to Eastern Michigan last season.

With Ridder gone, Bryant jumped back to the Bearcats as a fifth-year player, and he’s probably got the edge just by virtue of experience. He passed for more than 3,000 yards and 13 touchdowns for a Mid-American Conference squad that finished 7-6 last season.

“We haven’t had a true quarterback battle in quite a while,” Fickell said.

JOBS FOR THE TAKING

Another competition playing out in camp is to replace 1,300-yard running back Jerome Ford. The returning candidates are senior Ryan Montgomery, who’s been a top-notch punt returner for the Bearcats for three years, and senior Charles McClelland, who has had some bad luck with injuries.

A wildcard in in the mix is Corey Kiner, the 2020 Ohio Mr. Football winner who has transferred home to Cincinnati after one season at LSU, where his 324 yards made him the team’s second-leading rusher.

RELIABLE O-LINE

Cincinnati has an enviable situation on the offensive line, with all five of last year’s starters returning. The stout front helped the Bearcats average 37 points per game last season. Center Jake Renfro, guard Lorenz Metz and tackle Dylan O’Quinn all were 2021 first-team All-AAC selections.

THE BACK END

Cincinnati lost the best cornerback tandem in the country when Gardner and Coby Bryant went to the NFL. With senior Arquon Bush stepping into one of the cornerback spots and a returning starter in senior safety Ja’Von Hicks, the Bearcats secondary should still be tough.

“We’ve got plenty of guys who are hungry. Simple as that,” said sixth-year player Jabari Taylor, a leader on the Bearcats’ defensive line. “You got all these guys, we’re reloading, they’re just as ready as anyone who was here before and is up next.”

THE SCHEDULE

After opening on the road against Arkansas, Cincinnati will play FCS squad Kennesaw State in the home opener and host Indiana in non-conference play. Then comes a slog through an AAC schedule one last time. The regular-season slate doesn’t include No. 24 Houston, which was picked in a preseason media poll to finish ahead of the Bearcats in the conference.

___

More AP college football: https://apnews.com/hub/college-football and https://twitter.com/AP_Top25. Sign up for the AP’s college football newsletter: https://apnews.com/cfbtop25