The SEC has seemingly been Cincinnati football’s kryptonite the last two seasons.
To be fair, that could be said about a lot of programs considering it is the best conference in college football. It’s been especially true for the Bearcats, though, as they had perfect seasons spoiled by Georgia and Alabama in 2020 and 2021, respectively.
Cincinnati will get another crack at the conference Saturday, this time to start a season, when it faces Arkansas in a top-25 showdown at Reynolds Razorback Stadium at 2:30 p.m. CT and on ESPN.
However, according to The Cincinnati Enquirer beat writer Keith Jenkins — who covers the Bearcats on a daily basis — in our chat earlier this week, Luke Fickell’s squad isn’t looking at it that way.
“They don’t feed into Power Five, Group of Five, SEC, ACC, Big Ten — none of that matters to them,” Jenkins said. “They like to approach it as, ‘Hey, they’re playing football just like us. They put their pads on just like us.’ So they’re not feeding into that story-line of, ‘Man, it’s another freaking SEC team. Can we beat them?’”
That said, Fickell acknowledged there’s definitely a difference between the American Athletic Conference — where Cincinnati plays before making the jump to the Big 12 next year — and the conference that’s led the country in NFL Draft picks for 16 consecutive years and won 12 of the last 16 national championships.
The SEC Size Advantage
In an interview on the Dan Patrick Show this week, the Bearcats’ sixth-year head coach pointed to the trenches as where they differ the most.
“I think it comes down to just natural size,” Fickell said. “I think the guys up front is where you first see it and I’m not saying we don’t have big guys, but sometimes our guys are in their fourth and fifth year, that have grown into be a 310 pounder.”
“Where I think sometimes in the SEC and some of the leagues, you get guys walking in the door that are naturally 310 pounds. There’s sometimes a little bit of a size difference and I think it’s more up front.”
On the offensive side of the ball, that difference isn’t quite as noticeable because the Bearcats return all five of their starting offensive linemen from last year. Their top seven linemen — which includes both players competing for the left guard spot and one of the returners who’s listed as a backup as he comes back from offseason surgery — have an average weight of 315.1 pounds.
That’s just shy of the 317.5-pound average of Arkansas’ top six — the five starters, plus sixth-man Ty’Kieast Crawford. It’s a similar story on defense, as the Bearcats’ top eight defensive linemen are just, on average, half a pound lighter than the Razorbacks’ top eight (284 vs. 283.5).
There is, however, a stark contrast compared to the two SEC teams that have beaten Cincinnati lately. The top eight defensive linemen on Alabama’s 2021 squad, for instance, chimed in with an average of 300.5 pounds. Plus, last year’s national title-winning unit for Georgia, which returned many of the same linemen who had knocked of Cincinnati the season before, had an average weight of 305 pounds. That group managed to shut out a very good Arkansas offense last year, but isn’t exactly a blueprint most teams can follow.
“I’ve watched (Georgia) on film again this year just getting prepared for this game, and it’s a hard one to watch because you’re like, ‘Ah, I don’t know if we can do some of those things,’” Fickell said. “But I think with the top five, 10 teams, that’s where the difference usually comes, it’s those guys up front.”
That battle in the trenches between two similarly sized — on paper, at least — offensive and defensive lines could be a major key in how Saturday’s top-25 Arkansas vs Cincinnati showdown turns out.
Check out Luke Fickell’s full interview on the Dan Patrick Show here:
How to Watch Arkansas vs Cincinnati
Date: Saturday, Sept. 3
Location: Reynolds Razorback Stadium (Fayetteville, Ark.)
Kickoff Time and TV Schedule: 2:30 p.m. CT (ESPN)
TV Announcers: Dave Flemming (play-by-play), Rod Gilmore (analyst), Tiffany Blackmon (sideline reporter)
Cincinnati’s Preseason Rankings: No. 23 (AP) | No. 22 (Coaches) | No. 16 (SP+) | No. 26 (FPI)
Arkansas’ Preseason Rankings: No. 19 (AP) | No. 23 (Coaches) | No. 14 (SP+) | No. 25 (FPI)
Odds/Betting Line: Arkansas, -6.5 | O/U 53.5 (FanDuel)
Arkansas vs Cincinnati Predictions, Projections
Here are several picks — including from our own managing editor, Andrew Hutchinson — and computer projections for the Arkansas vs Cincinnati matchup…
Andrew Hutchinson (BoAS): Arkansas, 34-21 (click here to read Hutch’s full preseason predictions)
For the first time since 1980, a top-25 showdown kicks off the Arkansas football schedule. Cincinnati hasn’t lost a non-bowl game since 2019 and has won 29 of its last 30 regular-season games, but it is not the same team that reached the College Football Playoff last year. Although Luke Fickell is still a really good coach and they’ll be pretty good this year, I think Arkansas is better. Don’t be surprised if the Bearcats hang around, but I see the Razorbacks controlling the game for most of four quarters and winning by two scores.
Keith Jenkins (The Cincinnati Enquirer): Arkansas, 28-24 (click here to read Jenkins’ explanation behind the pick)
Trey Biddy (HawgSports): Arkansas, 34-24 (click here to read Biddy’s explanation behind the pick and the rest of his staff’s picks)
Barrett Sallee (CBS Sports): Arkansas to cover the 6.5-point spread
I love Cincinnati, I love Luke Fickell, but I just don’t see it right now. Maybe later in the season this is a good spot for Cincinnati. It’s just not right now. You lose two of the best, maybe THE two best defensive backs in the country in Sauce Gardner and Coby Bryant last year. You lose a guy in Desmond Ridder, who hopefully — as a Falcons fan — is starting by midseason for the Atlanta Falcons. Jerome Ford… You lose everybody off a team that was pretty darn solid, obviously, went to the College Football Playoff. But Arkansas right now, you look at the continuity. Continuity in college football, especially early in the season, is very important. Kendal Briles is still there, Barry Odom is still there. The offense and defense is going to be just fine. And if you don’t know the name KJ Jefferson, get to know him. He’s very Cam Newton-ish. Now, obviously, he’s not going to win the Heisman Trophy like Cam Newton did at Auburn, but same body style, same skillset, and that fits perfect with what Sam Pittman wants to do with that offense. So I think Arkansas wins by a touchdown, maybe 10 points. (watch here)
Nathan Beighle (USA TODAY Sportsbook Wire): Arkansas 30, Cincinnati 20 (click here to read Beighle’s explanation)
Mike Farrell (MikeFarrellSports.com): Arkansas to cover the 7-point spread (more)
The Athletic: 4 of 5 experts picked Cincinnati to cover +6 (click here)
Vegas (using spread and O/U): Arkansas, 30-24
ESPN FPI: Arkansas has a 59.6% chance to win
Bill Connelly’s SP+: Arkansas has 56% chance to win, favored by 2.8 (projected score: 29-26)
Sagarin: Arkansas has 57% chance to win, favored by 2.63 (projected score: 28-25)
Razorback Football Starters Compared to Cincinnati Football
The following side-by-side comparison uses the depth charts provided by both schools, even if it diverges from what is believed to be the starting group. The Bearcats’ depth chart featured seven positions with an “or” and one of them actually had four players listed as potential starters. For the purpose of this exercise, all of them have been listed.
However, it’s worth noting that this looks solely at the starting units. It is impossible to go through an entire game with only 22 players, of course, so depth is also important. The 247Sports Team Talent Composite rankings do a nice job of illustrating how the teams compare from that perspective, as it factors in the entire roster.
Arkansas checks in at No. 26 with a roster that features two five-star recruits (transfers Jadon Haselwood and Drew Sanders), 22 four-star recruits and 53 three-star recruits. Cincinnati is further down the list at No. 49 with no five-stars, half as many four-stars (11) and 63 three-stars. That makes the Bearcats the highest-ranked Group of Five team in the country, four spots ahead of UCF.
The Arkansas football players have an average rating of 87.73, which is essentially a high three-star grade, while the Bearcats’ players have an average rating of 85.76. The talent gap isn’t something that Luke Fickell mentioned as a difference between Cincinnati and its SEC competitors, since Fickell’s coaching staff does a great job of developing the talent they have, but it could play a role in Saturday’s game (even if the disparity isn’t as stark as it would be vs Georgia or Alabama).
In the chart below that looks only at the starters, Arkansas has a higher-rated player starting in at least 17 of 22 spots. That number could change depending on what Cincinnati does at quarterback and running back. If Ben Bryant gets the nod, as expected, KJ Jefferson was rated higher and would give the Razorbacks 18 higher-rated players. At running back, Rocket Sanders was rated higher than all but one of the Bearcats’ four possible starters.
|Arkansas||247Sports Composite||Cincinnati||247Sports Composite|
|QB KJ Jefferson||.8960 4*||QB Ben Bryant -OR-|
QB Evan Prater
|RB Rocket Sanders||.9031 4*||RB Ryan Montgomery -OR-|
RB Charles McClelland -OR-
RB Myles Montgomery -OR-
RB Corey Kiner
|TE Trey Knox||.9129 4*||TE Josh Whyle -OR-|
TE Leondard Taylor
|WR Warren Thompson||.9361 4*||WR Jadon Thompson||.8925 4*|
|WR Jadon Haselwood||.9967 5*||WR Tre Tucker||.8410 3*|
|WR Matt Landers||.8570 3*||WR Tyler Scott||n/a 0*|
|LT Luke Jones||.8776 3*||LT James Tunstall||.7823 2*|
|LG Brady Latham||.8519 3*||LG Gavin Gerhardt -OR-|
LG Jeremy Cooper
|C Ricky Stromberg||.8810 3*||C Jake Renfro||.8192 3*|
|RG Beaux Limmer||.8701 3*||RG Dylan O’Quinn||n/a 0*|
|RT Dalton Wagner||.8613 3*||RT Joe Huber||n/a 0*|
|DE Jashaud Stewart||.8802 3*||DE Jabari Taylor||.7991 3*|
|DT Eric Gregory||.8824 3*||DOLLAR Deshawn Pace -OR-|
DOLLAR Ty Van Fossen
|DT Isaiah Nichols||.8601 3*||NT Jowon Briggs||.9667 4*|
|DE Zach Williams||.8888 3*||DE Malik Vann||.8824 3*|
|WLB Bumper Pool||.8947 4*||WLB Ivan Pace -OR-|
WLB Jaheim Thomas
|MLB Drew Sanders||.9896 4*||MLB Wilson Huber||n/a 0*|
|NB Myles Slusher||.9281 4*||NB Taj Ward -OR-|
NB Sammy Anderson Jr.
|CB LaDarrius Bishop||.8741 3*||CB Ja’quan Sheppard||.8322 3*|
|S Jalen Catalon||.9001 4*||S Bryon Threats||.8767 3*|
|S Simeon Blair||n/a 0*||S Ja’von Hicks||.8335 3*|
|CB Hudson Clark||n/a 0*||CB Arquon Bush||.8646 3*|
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