STORRS, Conn. – Cincinnati comes into Connecticut on Saturday night playing for a shot at the American Athletic Conference championship and facing a team in the midst of what its coach this week called a major overhaul.
The Bearcats (6-3, 4-1 American) are coming off a 54-46 win over East Carolina, a win that tied them with the Pirates and UCF atop the conference standings. Cincinnati has won four straight after starting the season 2-3.
"It was good for us to get to that sixth game, where that's over with; it's done," said Cincinnati coach Tommy Tuberville. "Now we can concentrate on playing and having a chance to possibly getting our foot in the door on this championship."
They are a 9 ½ point favorite to beat a UConn team (2-7, 1-4) that is coming off a bye week and lost any hope at a bowl bid in a 35-21 loss to Army two weeks ago. First-year coach Bob Diaco told reporters on Tuesday that he inherited a "giant mess" of a program in which the players were "weak and fat" and accepted losing.
"It's a monumental undertaking in terms of a rebuild," Diaco said. "When I first came, there was conversation about building on. No, this is not building on. This is tear down, rebuild. That's what we've been doing, and it needs it, and it's still in the beginning phases."
He said the Huskies have the talent to compete for championships and have come a long way this season. But he compared their efforts to a "baby trying to lift a coffee table."
Here are some things to watch for as Cincinnati faces UConn:
CONNECTED: UConn's Diaco coached Cincinnati's defense during its undefeated 2009 regular season. The Bearcats' current defensive coordinator, Hank Hughes, joined the program this year after 13 seasons at UConn. Tuberville said it is only a slight advantage to have someone on the staff familiar with the players on the opposing team.
"It's a very extensive scouting report, is all it is," he said. "Then you've got to go play."
SENIOR SLUMP: Diaco was asked whether the team's seniors remain motivated, despite knowing they will not be playing in a bowl game. The coach responded by saying he will throw anyone who is not motivated off the team. Senior quarterback Chandler Whitmer said he still feels he has a lot to play for and hopes to be able to say "We were the class that helped turn this thing around."
RECEIVER RETURNS: UConn will be getting back a key offensive weapon. Wide receiver Geremy Davis leads the team with 34 catches for 436 yards this season, despite missing the past two games with a leg injury. Diaco said his senior captain has been cleared to play and expects him to be a "lively member" of the offense.
ANOTHER TITLE? Cincinnati has won a league title in four of its last six seasons, and has won 80 games over the past eight years. That's the most of any team in the American Athletic Conference.
UNDER PRESSURE: Cincinnati is averaging almost three quarterback sacks per game and defensive end Terrell Hartsfield leads the conference with eight. Connecticut is giving up three quarterback sacks per game. The Huskies have lost 155 yards to sacks this season.