Virginia Tech (6-6) will close out the 2018 season by playing Cincinnati (10-2) in the Military Bowl on December 31 in Annapolis. This will mark the fourth time that the Hokies and Bearcats have played each other in a bowl game. Here were the previous three…
January 1, 1947: 16-6 Cincinnati win in the Sun Bowl (raise your hand if you remember this game!)
January 1, 2009: 20-7 Virginia Tech win in the Orange Bowl
December 27, 2014: 33-17 Virginia Tech win in the Military Bowl
Cincinnati comes into this game under head coach Luke Fickell with a very good record. Their only blemishes came 38-13 at the hands of unbeaten UCF, and 24-17 in overtime against an 8-4 Temple squad. Fickell was a long-time assistant at Ohio State from 2002 through 2016, and was their co-defensive coordinator when the Hokies beat the Buckeyes in Columbus in 2014.
Virginia Tech’s 6-6 record isn’t as impressive, though they did it against a better schedule, and they also peaked at the end of the year with wins over 7-5 UVA and 9-4 Marshall. The Thundering Herd recently picked up their ninth win of the season with a 38-20 victory over the AAC’s USF in the Gasparilla Bowl. The first thing you’ll learn in today’s preview is what “Gasparilla” means. It’s the nickname of Spanish pirate Jose Gaspar, who probably didn’t exist.
With that out of the way, let’s talk football and see what the Bearcats bring to the table.
Major Rushing Threats
Cincinnati averaged 238.1 rushing yards per game this season, which ranked No. 16 in all of college football. Four players were major contributors to the running game…
RB Michael Warren (5-11, 218, So.): 224 carries, 1,163 yards, 5.2 ypc, 17 TDs
QB Desmond Ridder (6-4, 212, r-Fr.): 148 carries, 574 yards, 3.9 ypc, 5 TDs
RB Tavion Thomas (6-2, 235, Fr.): 86 carries, 490 yards, 5.7 ypc, 6 TDs
RB Charles McClelland (5-11, 188, Fr.): 62 carries, 483 yards, 7.8 ypc, 4 TDs
That’s a very good backfield, especially when you consider that it includes two true freshmen, a redshirt freshman, and a sophomore. They are all different types of players, with Tavion Thomas being the biggest back. Perhaps his most impressive statistic is that he only lost one yard the entire season. 85 of his 86 carries went for positive yardage, or at worst no gain.
Virginia Tech faced some good running backs this year, and they also faced some dual threat quarterbacks. However, I don’t know that they’ve faced a team that has been as much of a running threat from both the quarterback and running back positions as they’ll see on December 31 (Georgia Tech doesn’t count). This is a dangerous quartet of players, and they’ll run plenty of spread option, so Tech’s defenders have to be mentally focused.
Warren’s health is something to watch. He was held out of Cincinnati’s season finale against East Carolina with a shoulder injury.
QB Desmond Ridder: A Good Freshman Season
Ridder took over the starting job in the first game of the season, and it’s looking like he’ll be a 4-year starter for the Bearcats. He put up pretty good numbers for such a young player.
Ridder got better as the season progressed, and he hasn’t thrown an interception since October 27. His passing efficiency rating of 145.0 ranks No. 38 in the country and is the third-highest rating for freshman QBs.
That being said, he only reached the 200-yard mark four times this year, and that was against four bad pass defenses.
274 yards against Ohio, No. 98 in pass defense
270 yards against UConn, No. 127 in pass defense
352 yards against SMU, No. 71 in pass defense
335 yards against ECU, No. No. 120 in pass defense
Virginia Tech’s defense wasn’t nearly as good against the pass this year as they usually are, finishing No. 65 in the country. Still, the Hokies were better in the back end towards the end of the season, though they did not face a dominant passing quarterback. Ridder is also not a dominant passing quarterback, as the Bearcats finished just No. 88 nationally in the S&P+ passing offense this season.
I think Ridder and the Tech passing defense will cancel each other out, and this game will be decided by the Hokies’ ability to stop the run, and Tech’s own offense against the Cincinnati defense. Let’s take a closer look at the Bearcats on the defensive side of the ball.
The Cincinnati Defense: By The Numbers
If you look at the numbers, this is a very good Cincinnati defense that the Hokies will be facing on December 31. Here are their S&P+ numbers…
Overall: No. 19
Success Rate: No. 3
IsoPPP+: No. 85
Rushing: No. 3
Passing: No. 26
Standard Downs: No. 7
Passing Downs: No. 35
The only thing you can find fault with is their tendency to give up big plays at times, as they rank No. 85 nationally in IsoPPP+. However, the regular stats don’t match up. The Bearcats are No. 16 nationally in allowing plays of 20+ yards, No. 39 in plays of 30+ yards, and No. 31 in plays of 40+ yards. On paper, this is going to be a tough defense for the Tech offense to score against.
The Cincinnati Defense: Key Players
The Bearcats had a number of players make the All-AAC Defensive team. Let’s take a look at each of them individually.
DT Cortez Broughton (6-2, 290, Sr.): Broughton worries me more than any Cincinnati defender. He had 17.5 tackles for loss and 6.5 sacks from his defensive tackle position this year.
LB Perry Young (5-11, 215, Jr.): Mark this with an asterisk. Young missed the final four games of the season with a knee injury, and he won’t be available for the Military Bowl.
DT Marquise Copeland (6-3, 290, Sr.): Copeland had seven tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks, and combined with fellow senior Broughton to form a very stout combination on the inside.
DE Kimoni Fitz (6-3, 257, Sr.): Fitz had nine tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks. He played with the Edmunds brothers at Dan River High School outside Danville, VA.
S James Wiggins (6-0, 202, So.): Wiggins led the team with three interceptions and broke up five other passes.
That defensive front in particular is concerning. However, it’s worth noting that Virginia Tech faced a very similar defense against Marshall in the last game of the season. The Thundering Herd were a little taller at defensive tackle, but the S&P+ numbers are very similar…
Overall: No. 13
Success Rate: No. 16
IsoPPP+: No. 75
Rushing: No. 21
Passing: No. 32
Standard Downs: No. 21
Passing Downs: No. 74
The Hokies put up 41 points and 454 yards against the Marshall defense, and Ryan Willis and the Tech passing game hit them with big play after big play. If that version of Ryan Willis shows up against Cincinnati, then I think Tech will have the chance to put up big numbers again through the air. However, Willis has been inconsistent this year, and if he struggles against the Bearcats, the Tech offense as a whole will struggle to score.
The numbers indicate that Virginia Tech will have an advantage on special teams in this game. Here are Cincinnati’s numbers…
Overall Efficiency (adjust for SOS): No. 88
Field Goal Efficiency: No. 129
Kickoff Return Efficiency: No. 95
Kickoff Efficiency: No. 99
Punt Return Efficiency: No. 59
Punt Efficiency: No. 3
The Bearcats have a very good punter in James Smith, who was First Team All-AAC this year. However, nobody else stood out on special teams, and Cincinnati was downright bad in some aspects.
Here’s how Virginia Tech’s numbers compare…
Overall Efficiency (adjust for SOS): No. 41
Field Goal Efficiency: No. 101
Kickoff Return Efficiency: No. 83
Kickoff Efficiency: No. 63
Punt Return Efficiency: No. 28
Punt Efficiency: No. 73
The Hokies weren’t dominant on special teams this year, but outside of a few missed field goals from 40+ yards and Miami returning a punt for a touchdown, they were pretty solid. On the whole, their numbers are better than Cincinnati’s against a higher level of competition, so they’ll be looking to take advantage on Monday.
Virginia Tech-Cincinnati: Final Thoughts and Predictions
At the end of the 2008 season, a 9-4 Virginia Tech team faced an 11-2 Cincinnati team in the Orange Bowl. I didn’t know much about Cincinnati, but I knew that Tech won the ACC that year mostly because the league was down, so I picked the Bearcats to win 20-17. Instead, the Hokies won 20-7.
At the end of the 2014 season, a 6-6 Virginia Tech team played a 9-3 Cincinnati in the Military Bowl. I thought I remembered picking Cincinnati to win that one as well, but when I went back and looked at my preview, I actually picked the Hokies to win 24-20. They ended up winning 33-17, a much larger margin of victory than I foresaw.
The theme of Tech-Cincinnati bowl games is that the Bearcats come in with a better record, and Virginia Tech performs better than I originally anticipated. It’s the same way with Will. He picked Cincinnati to win the Orange Bowl 23-14, and then picked the Hokies to barely get by the Bearcats 27-24 in the Military Bowl.
Cincinnati is a 5.5-point favorite in this year’s Military Bowl, so if the trend of Virginia Tech playing better than expected continues, then the Hokies will either win, or lose a game that’s really, really close. I don’t like the fact that the Bearcats have both an 1,100-yard rusher at tailback and a dual threat quarterback. It’s tough to ask a young Tech defense to stop both of those guys. At the same time, the Hokies have done what we asked them to all year over the last two games: score 30+ points.
There’s also the fact that Cincinnati didn’t play the toughest of schedules this year. Here it is…
at 3-9 UCLA: 26-17 W
vs. 6-6 Miami (OH): 21-0 W
vs. FCS Alabama A&M: 63-7 W
vs. 8-4 Ohio: 34-30 W
at 1-11 UConn: 49-7 W
vs. 7-6 Tulane: 37-21 W
at 8-4 Temple: 24-17 L (OT)
at 5-7 SMU: 26-20 W (OT)
vs. 3-10 Navy: 42-0 W
vs. 7-6 USF: 35-23 W
at 12-0 UCF: 38-13 L
vs. 3-9 ECU: 56-6 W
The total combined record of FBS opponents was 63-72. Virginia Tech’s opponents went 74-58. Each team played an unbeaten team, so if you throw out UCF and Notre Dame, Cincinnati’s opponents went 51-72, and Virginia Tech’s went 62-58. The Hokies ended the season by playing six consecutive bowl teams.
The Hokies are more battle-tested. That doesn’t necessarily mean anything, but it’s enough for me to pick Tech in a very close game.
Chris’s Prediction: Virginia Tech 31, Cincinnati 27
Will Stewart’s Take: Cincinnati’s rushing numbers are impressive, so I decided to drill down into their opposition, and I found that out of 11 FBS opponents for Cincinnati, seven of them ranked No. 90 or worse in the nation in rushing defense. Cincinnati only faced three FBS defenses that ranked in the top 60, and here’s how they fared:
- Miami-OH (No. 58): 51 carries, 188 yards, 3.7 ypc
- Ohio (No. 37): 34 rushes, 150 yards, 4.4 ypc
- Tulane (No. 46): 48 ruses, 272 yards, 5.7 ypc
That’s not a particularly helpful exercise, because the Bearcats did well against No. 46 Tulane, and they were solid against the other two. Not to mention that Virginia Tech’s rushing defense is nothing special, ranking No. 105 in the nation at 206.5 yards per game.
So the Bearcats might run on the Hokie defense, though it’s worth noting that Ricky Walker appeared to finally be healthy at the end of the season, and Dax Hollifield got better and better as the year went on.
Shifting to the Cincinnati-as-Marshall viewpoint, I said in the Marshall preview that I didn’t think the Thundering Herd would be particularly motivated to play in Lane Stadium. Whether that was the primary reason for the Hokies beating Marshall handily (41-20) is unknown. I do think the Bearcats will be more motivated to play than Marshall was. I think they’ll see this game as an opportunity to notch a big win against a “name” team, despite VT’s recent struggles. I also think they’ll see it as a chance to reach 11 wins, though that’s not unplowed ground for them. The Bearcats went 12-1 in 2009 and reached No. 4 in the nation.
One big factor in Virginia Tech’s victory over Marshall was Ryan Willis playing what I thought was his best game of the season. Willis was fluid, comfortable, and in rhythm. As Chris said, if that Ryan Willis shows up, I think Tech will win.
A last point that stands out to me: Cincinnati’s offensive and defensive lines feature seven senior starters and one junior out of eight guys. (I’m slotting sophomore Michael Pitts, who plays the Jack position, as more of a linebacker than a lineman.) That’s an experienced set of lines, and that’s got to concern you, if you’re a Hokie fan.
I say all the time that bowl games are a crap shoot. There’s no telling which team is more motivated, which team is more in synch after a month layoff, or which team is just having fun and mailing it in. If the Hokies hold their ground on the lines and the good Ryan Willis shows up, Tech wins. If Cincinnati is fired up to play the Hokies, they dominate the lines and control the running game, and Willis has an average day, Tech will lose.
I considered the 2008 Orange Bowl to be a similar matchup, where on paper, Cincinnati was the better team. I picked the Bearcats to win that one 23-14, and Tech rolled 20-7. This time around, I’m picking the Hokies.
Will’s Prediction: Virginia Tech 31, Cincinnati 21