Cincinnati quietly has been one of the most consistent programs in the nation the past few years. The Bearcats have won at least 10 games in five of the past six seasons. Mark Dantonio started the program's resurgence in 2004, and has been followed by Brian Kelly and Butch Jones. All three did a nice job of bringing in underrated talent that blossomed in college, players such as Derek Wolfe, Connor Barwin and Haruki Nakamura.
Tommy Tuberville, hired away from Texas Tech in one of the more surprising offseason moves, is the new coach, and he inherits a team with a handful of guys with star power. Cincinnati has had 22 players taken in the past nine drafts, with 15 of those selected in the past five years. If Tuberville can find a quarterback, a new featured back and rebuild the defensive line, the Bearcats again will flirt with the 10-win mark. An easy non-conference schedule should help matters. The Bearcats aren't good enough to win the American Athletic Conference, but a top-three finish seems assured.
Top senior prospects
ILB Greg Blair: Blair (6-foot-2, 252 pounds) was a late signee out of junior college in 2011, then redshirted that fall with a knee injury. He returned with a vengeance last season, finishing with a Big East-high 138 tackles. He added nine tackles for loss, two interceptions and six pass breakups. Blair plays with a mean streak and is especially strong against the run. Though he had his moments in pass coverage last season, he sometimes struggles in space. While listed at 252, he has told media outlets he now weighs closer to 240 and said he was too heavy last season. He is one of the top 10 senior linebackers in the nation. His brother, DeJuan, was a star forward at Pitt and now plays in the NBA.
G Austen Bujnoch: Bujnoch (6-5, 285) will be a three-year starter for the Bearcats and was a first-team All-Big East selection last season. Bujnoch runs extremely well and is one of the more athletic interior linemen around. His lack of bulk is a concern, as he can struggle against bigger defensive tackles. His dad, Glenn, played in the NFL for nine seasons as a guard.
WR Anthony McClung: He looked like a budding star as a sophomore in 2011, when he had 49 receptions and six touchdowns. But McClung (6-0, 172) struggled last season, finishing with 34 receptions and two touchdowns. One reason for those struggles was Cincy's uneven quarterback play. If he bounces back as a senior, he will receive some NFL attention. He appears almost frail at times and needs to add some bulk. McClung had a modicum of success as a punt returner last season and should handle those duties again.
CB Deven Drane: He is entering his third season as a starting corner, and his versatility -- he has played corner, nickelback and safety -- is a virtue. Drane (5-11, 186) isn't a blazer, but still runs well and has five picks and 16 pass breakups in the past two seasons. He also is a physical tackler who has been solid in run support. His dad, Dwight, played six seasons for the Buffalo Bills.
OT Eric Lefeld: He was a first-team All-Big East pick last season as a sophomore and has the potential to be the best lineman in the league this season. The new staff will place a bigger emphasis on a power running game, and that should be fine with Lefeld (6-6, 287). Lefeld needs to add weight, but has good feet and has been solid in pass protection at left tackle.
OLB Jeff Luc: He was a mega-recruit out of high school in Port St. Lucie, Fla., in 2010, signing with Florida State over a long list of suitors. One problem: He had just 23 tackles in 19 career games for FSU and transferred to Cincinnati after the 2011 season. Luc (6-1, 248) had a good spring and is expected to start this fall. His best position is middle linebacker, but he will not displace Blair, so he will line up outside. Going off what he showed at FSU, where he seemed mighty stiff, he is not a legit NFL prospect. But the Bearcats' new staff likes his intensity and athleticism, and Luc has said he fits better in this defensive scheme.
Three must-see games of 2013
Aug. 31 vs. Purdue: The Boilermakers have a couple of NFL prospects on defense, most notably defensive tackle Bruce Gaston, defensive end Ryan Russell and cornerback Ricardo Allen. That means Bujnoch, Lefeld and McClung could have interesting individual matchups.
Nov. 16 at Rutgers: The Scarlet Knights have veteran lines on both sides of the ball, so this will be a test for Bujnoch and Lefeld as well as Cincinnati's linebackers. And Drane will get to see Rutgers WR Brandon Coleman, who is the best pro prospect among the AAC's receivers.
Dec. 5 vs. Louisville: Blair had a monster game against the Cardinals last season, making a season-high 19 tackles and adding 1.5 sacks in the annual "Keg of Nails" showdown. Can he steal the defensive spotlight again? Louisville will have the best passing attack in the league, giving Drane an opportunity to make plays against top-notch Cards QB Teddy Bridgewater.