The No. 2-ranked Cincinnati Bearcats have become the poster child of what has been a wacky college football season to this point. Headlined by Heisman hopeful, and the No. 26 ranked player on our TDN100, Desmond Ridder, the dual-threat talent has the Bearcats undefeated with a College Football Playoff ticket in mind.
Not highlighting Ridder as the engine to the Bearcats high-octane offensive vehicle would be disrespectful. One of the nation’s premier signal-callers, his continued progression under head coach Luke Fickell has seen him take leaps and bounds as a quarterback talent primed to solidify his day-one draft stock. But, the Bearcats are more than just a one-trick pony. While many other high-prestige programs around the nation live or die by the throwing shoulder of the individual under center, the well-balanced roster that Fickell has at his disposal has become the sub-headline to a program on the brink of competing for a CFP title in the coming months.
Meet Alec Pierce and Jerome Ford. Two veterans within Fickell’s unit, the senior (Pierce) and junior (Ford) have become the cornerstones of offensive success through seven weeks.
While his numbers don’t jump off the page, Pierce is as consistent as they come. Averaging nearly six catches a game, Pierce has become the target hog for Ridder within the Bearcats offense. And while you won’t see him headlining a highlight reel, consistency is king, and Pierce is as sure-handed a talent as they come in the country.
A 6-foot-3 talent, Pierce boasts a long and athletic frame that will make waves during the upcoming offseason draft circuit. A supremely gifted athlete who is expected to open eyes in the 40-yard dash and other short-area explosion drills, Pierce earns his money primarily within the vertical third of the field, using his straight-line speed and length to pop the seal off the top of defenses. While he needs work within the intermediate areas of the field that he will ultimately face if he earns the opportunity to play on Sundays, he does tout the ability to elevate and extend to work through contact, which masks his limitations as a pass-catcher over the middle of the field. His skill set, coupled with Ridder’s ability to both dissect within the pocket and off-script, has anointed Pierce as Cincinnati’s leader in all major receiving categories and a receiver to red-dot moving into the offseason circuit.
Ford is a perfect example of a backfield mesh synonymous with success at both the college and NFL level. As pass-heavy as offenses have become, the presence of a run game with the ability to take over remains paramount. Whether teams attempt to pass strictly out of shotgun, under center, or dominate via play-action, the run game has to show pop for anything in the pass game to work; there’s just no way around it. It’s easy to work in zone and man on the backend if you know you can get home and limit the run with four rushers. But when teams begin to pound the rock for five or six yards a carry for an extended amount of time, teams bring an extra body into the box, opening up the aerial game where the offensive coordinator can control the opposing defense similar to a marionette.
For the Bearcats, Ford by no means has to take on a gargantuan workload each and every week, but when his number is called, he’s continued to put up numbers comparable to the best the nation has to offer at the running back spot. A downhill style of ball-carrier, Ford, a transfer from Alabama, has been everything and more alongside Ridder for Fickell’s group, amassing 799 yards on 117 carries (6.8 YPC) with 13 touchdowns, tops in the nation among running backs.
In an offense with attention centered around Ridder, and rightly so, Pierce and Ford are the spark plugs to an offensive arsenal as explosive as any within the college football landscape. A remaining schedule that has the Bearcats primed to enter the postseason undefeated, the continued success of Cincinnati’s offensive anchors will remain essential to earning the first CFP berth in history from a Group of Five program.