With Friday’s news that Ohio State graduate transfer QB Joe Burrow has spurned the Bearcats in favor of the LSU Tigers, it’s time to turn our sights towards next season. Barring something very unexpected, the Bearcats’ 2018 starting quarterback is already on the roster. I’m trying to make sense of the QB situation and I can’t. Things are tricky.
We’re in year two of the rebuild and Fickell is slowly breathing life back into the program with loaded recruiting classes. Despite back-to-back 4-8 seasons, UC nailed down the conference's best recruiting class this year. A new wave of talent is on the way.
However, as many realize, football is a much slower process than basketball. If everything goes according to plan, 2019 is when I think we’ll start seeing dividends from this staff’s hard work on the recruiting trail since December 2016. At the end of the day, a team full of freshmen and sophomores isn’t going to win the conference, but by 2019 those kids will start to become veterans and we’ll (hopefully) see the ship set sail.
Until then, what happens? Who gets the ball?
The most obvious answer is Hayden Moore. After battling injuries and teammate Gunner Kiel as a freshman and sophomore, Moore played in all 12 games for the Bearcats in 2017. I think that stability was hugely important for a young team in such flux. The Bearcats may have won just four games, but it easily could’ve been worse. Moore attempted all but nine QB passes last season. That’s a reliability the Bearcats simply haven’t had. The closest the ‘Cats have come to that level of QB consistency in the last decade was when Zach Collaros’ backups in 2010 combined to throw 51 passes. I’m not sure this team reaches four wins using a revolving door of Moore, Trail, and Sopko.
While Moore was able to hold off Ross Trail in 2017, this season brings two newcomers. Desmond Ridder is coming off a redshirt year in which he earned rave reviews out of camp. Seriously, those I've talked to love this kid. Despite what many insist on reporting, he's actually a Tuberville kid, recruited to UC by Blake Rolan and Zac Taylor some seven months before the staff was blown up by Mike Bohn. He can make plays with his feet and has good size at a reported 6'4".
On the other hand is Ben Bryant. The true freshman made national headlines a year ago after Wisconsin--a program he was committed to at the time--yanked his scholarship offer because he tweeted he'd received an offer from Georgia. It was an absurd situation, but it meant the 'Cats were able to swoop in and land themselves a P5-caliber quarterback. Like Ridder, reviews on Bryant are high. Those who have worked with him think UC has their next great QB.
The freshmen, while tantalizing, haven't proven anything yet. Moore has three years of solid playing time under his belt and can step in and do his thing, good or bad, without rocking the boat. He's stable.
However, is simple stability enough? If 2019 is the season where we expect the turnaround to start, and if Hayden Moore will have graduated by then, do the Bearcats jump at the opportunity to start promising freshmen over the incumbent senior? How much do they want to get a jump on the future of Bearcat football—a future that doesn’t include Hayden Moore?
Do they stick with Hayden Moore? Here are the arguments:
The argument for:
The kid has showed promise. His debut was remarkable. In his first FBS game against Miami (OH) he entered in relief of an injured Gunner Kiel and struggled with two INTs before finding a way to score the game-winner on the ground. The following week he broke a handful of records and threw for a cartoonish 557 yards in Memphis. The next week he returned home and knocked off an eight-win Hurricane team for the biggest victory of the Tuberville era. In 2016 he went on the road to Purdue and nabbed the best win of the season with a stellar five-touchdown performance in West Lafayette. Several times in 2017 we saw him manage to get the job done when the ‘Cats needed it. Say what you want, but he’s proven that he has it in him.
He’s about to get his first taste of consistency. Through his first three seasons, Moore played for two head coaches and three offensive coordinators. He was tossed from Eddie Gran to Zac Taylor to Mike Denbrock. Denbrock’s return next season coincides nicely with Gino Guidugli’s move to QB coach and Hayden Moore’s senior season. On paper, Moore seems to be poised to finally get some traction and build on his solid end to the 2017 season. Speaking of...
Moore seems to be trending the right way. In the first six FBS games of last season, Moore threw seven touchdowns and six interceptions, completed 52.3% of his passes, and the ‘Cats went 1-5. The lone win in that period required a miracle in Oxford. However, in the final five FBS games of 2017, Moore threw 10 touchdowns and three interceptions, completed 61% of his passes, and UC went 2-3. It’s important to note that the schedule softened up at the end of the year, but that kind of stretch for a team with just six FBS wins in two seasons is more important than it looks. Those final five games included five of his six best 2017 performances in terms of PER (Pass Efficiency Rating). Moore is coming off his most consistent stretch as a starter.
He’s coming into his own as a rusher, and he’s staying healthy doing it. As a freshman and sophomore, Moore rushed a total of 109 times for just 67 yards. In 2017 he rushed 92 times for 312 yards. Over the course of a full season, 312 yards may not seem like a lot, but it forces the opposing defense to account for one more thing. There were times last season when Moore could change a drive on the ground, and that wasn’t necessarily in his arsenal during the Tuberville era.
The best short-term answer for UC might be someone with Hayden's skill set. While Hayden established himself in 2015 by playing the gunslinger role, he had his most consistent stretch during the final five games of last season playing more of the dreaded "game manager" role. He averaged just 208 passing yards per game, but his efficiency went up, his turnovers went down, and UC started to look better. This year they'll bring back Gerrid Doaks and Mike Warren to support him behind a shaky offensive line and a sparse receiving group. Like it or not, a game manager may be the perfect fit for 2018 Bearcats football.
He’s got the most experience by far, and the Bearcats are likely to be fighting for a bowl game. I know I just got finished saying we shouldn’t expect strides on the field until 2019, but a potential bowl appearance would be great for optics. Sitting at home for a third straight winter would be tough. Last year I watched a replay of a game from 2009 because I was so desperate for a big win in December. At the end of the day, it’s hard to argue that a freshman without a single collegiate snap would give you a better chance to win immediately than a senior with more than 900 career pass attempts. If taking any type of step forward immediately is a factor, I think logic says Hayden is the safest bet.
The argument against:
The long-term track record isn't great. I know wins are a team stat and Moore has only been the full-time starter for a year, but consider the fact that he’s started and led the Bearcats to victory over an FBS team just five times in his career. Once against the Hurricanes in 2015, once against the Boilermakers in 2016, and three times last season. Just two of those games were at home: His first home game vs Miami in 2015 and his most recent one vs UConn in November. Moore has been spotty throughout his career at UC. Even during the high periods, he hasn’t quite been able to elevate his team on a consistent basis. Last season he ranked 100th nationally in Total QB Rating and 92nd in PER. I really do believe he's in shape to improve this season, but the big picture hasn't been great.
He won’t be here for the future. I hate to say it, but the 2018 Bearcats will likely not be great. I expect them to be better than 2016 and 2017, but this isn’t a conference contender we’re dealing with. If the leap is coming in 2019 and it’ll have to be led by Ben Bryant or Desmond Ridder, might it make sense to bite the bullet now and get them ready? Starting a freshman over a senior is a weird decision, but Fickell could invest in the program’s future and bide himself another year of sub-.500 football without sending the fan base into a tailspin. The worst thing for the program would be starting Moore in an attempt to climb to six or seven wins but having it backfire, things break the wrong way, and winning four again. Suddenly you’re going another year without a bowl game and you’re looking ahead to 2019 when the pressure will be on and you’ve got two QBs with little to no experience.
We're still a few months from Higher Ground, so I expect things to get a tiny bit clearer before the UCLA game. I think there are more reasons to start Hayden Moore, but you could argue there are bigger reasons to buck expectations and get a head start the future now.
Riding with the incumbent senior sounds like the safest bet. Believe it or not, starting Moore might actually be the risky move. If he’s the guy, it’s bowl game or bust for me. If I'm boiling things down, I either want a bowl game or a full season of work for a freshman QB. If the Bearcats are gonna win four or five games, I want it to be in a way that builds the future. Five wins with Desmond Ridder would feel vastly different than five wins with Hayden Moore, and that’s just the truth.
Time will tell if Fickell is gunning for a winning season or scheming for a 2019 resurgance.