USA TODAY Sports' Paul Myerberg counts down to the start of the college football season team by team from No. 128 to No. 1.

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The quarterback job is Gunner Kiel's to lose, and given Munchie Legaux's injury situation, likely his for keeps.

Let's touch quickly on the latter: Legaux suffered a gruesome knee injury in last year's game against Illinois, if you can recall, and told USA TODAY Sports from American media day that he still feels as if he's regained about 85-90% of his previous strength.

Even if Legaux bounces back all the way — and it'd be just fantastic if he did — one can only wonder whether he'll be able to regain the athleticism that made him an intriguing dual-threat option; if the running game has been removed from the equation, Legaux doesn't strike me as an overly consistent option.

Hence Kiel's front-runner status, though it's likely safe to say the former Notre Dame transfer would've been a heavy favorite to claim the starting role regardless of any injury-related concerns with his primary competition.

Now, let's touch on the newcomer: Kiel is widely viewed as a once-in-five-years sort of quarterbacking talent, particularly when it comes to Cincinnati, and has every skill needed to vault the Bearcats' passing game into the next generation.

Yet he is inexperienced, though that may be the lone concern; as such, let's temper the excitement a decibel or two — there's still a heavy amount of excitement, however, and it's mostly justified.

LAST YEAR'S PREDICTION:

Because of some personnel issues, I'm a little hesitant to plug UC as anything more than one of the top two or three teams in the American, albeit one that could end the year inside the top 25 due to the easy schedule. The good news? I have little doubt that UC will be better in November than September, so it'd be foolish to ignore the possibility that the Bearcats end up shocking heavily favored Louisville to win the American and reach the BCS.

2013 RECAP:

In a nutshell: My worst fears came to pass: Cincinnati did make hay on an easy schedule, taking nine games during the regular season, but failed to win any games of consequence — minus a victory against Houston, the Bearcats fumbled and stumbled against meaningful competition. The most painful setback came in the finale, when UC tried and failed to sneak past Louisville, losing to the Cardinals in overtime. That was followed by a lopsided Belk Bowl loss to North Carolina, making this a team that traveled near and far between the highs and lows: Cincinnati was bombed by Illinois and shocked by South Florida, rolled off six wins in a row in American play and then fell off the map, floating away into nine-win oblivion — space reserved for above-average teams that take care of easy business yet do little more.

High point: Beating Houston in November. Finally, a win worth sending a postcard.

Low point: Losing to Louisville and UNC to end the year. UC could've earned a national ranking with wins in one of the two games.

Tidbit: Just under half of Cincinnati's career bowl appearances have come during the last eight seasons. The Bearcats have been to seven bowl games during this span and 15 altogether, with last year's loss dropping the program's postseason record to 8-7.

Tidbit (rivalry edition): Cincinnati's rivalry with Miami (Ohio) is tied for the third-most-played series in college football history: UC and the RedHawks have met 118 times, tied with the defunct series between Texas and Texas A&M. Only Wisconsin and Minnesota (122 meetings) and Missouri and Kansas (120 meetings) have met more often. Since the Border War is also gone, the battle for the Victory Bell stands as the second-longest active rivalry in the FBS.

ARBITRARY TOP FIVE LIST:

Reds' Opening Day starters since 1982

1. Jose Rijo
2. Mario Soto
3. Tom Browning
4. Johnny Cueto
5. Aaron Harang

PLAYERS TO WATCH:

Offense: There's not much up for debate in the backfield, where UC returns the same top three options that led the charge a season ago. If any debate can be found — or created, rather — it stems over how the Bearcats plan on using one cog in particular: Ralph David Abernathy IV (518 yards) might not be the load-carrying back offensive coordinator Eddie Gran covets, but he can be extremely productive if used a touch more creatively within the framework of the offense. As such, don't be surprised if Abernathy sees a more enhanced role as a do-everything skill player, doing his work on the ground but also dabbling to a higher degree in the passing game. This might hinge on his backfield compatriots, however: Hosey Williams (655 yards) is set to explode, I'd say, but Tion Green (412 yards) must produce with more consistency to truly free Abernathy for a do-things-in-space role for the Bearcats. Having said that, this is not a bad problem: UC has options, clearly, so it's simply a matter of putting each back in the best position to succeed.

Perhaps more so than any program in the American, the Bearcats take a defensive-line approach to the offensive line — meaning the staff really likes to create a viable second tier, meaning in turn that as many as seven or eight linemen could log meaningful snaps on any given Saturday. That shouldn't change in 2014 even as the Bearcats look to replace a pair of senior starters at left and right guard. When it comes to the latter, UC will be able to move junior Parker Ehinger inside from right tackle should senior Cory Keebler adapt capably to the job on the strong side. At left guard, senior Kevin Schloemer — last year's understudy — is a logical replacement for Austen Bujnoch. It's the status quo elsewhere: Eric Lefeld is back at left tackle and Deyshawn Bond at center. Again, UC has solid depth. In a conference largely devoid of impressive fronts, the Bearcats' group stands out.

Abernathy would be a nice piece out wide, seeing that UC could use his elusiveness in the slot. But snaps may be hard to come by: Cincinnati is brimming with proven production at receiver despite the loss of last year's leading receiver, Anthony McClung, giving the team's new starting quarterback — we're going with Kiel, I think — a wide range of pass-game options. McClung's gone, yeah, but four of the top five return: Shaq Washington (77 receptions for 785 yards), Chris Moore (45 for 645), Mekale McKay (16 for 345) and Max Morrison (29 for 447), all juniors, as well as reserves Alex Chisum, Jeremy Graves, Tshumbi Johnson and Nate Cole. The Bearcats do lose a weapon at tight end, on the other hand, meaning redshirt freshman Tyler Cogswell may need to pick up slack in the intermediate game while D.J. Dowdy does some of the run-game dirty work.

Defense: The defense is going to fall apart at the seams should coordinator Hank Hughes and line coach Robert Prunty not solve the issues along the interior of the front four. It's a pretty simple story: Cincinnati is going to build from the inside out, so an undependable inside is going to trickle to end, where the Bearcats could be superb; this will affect the line's ability to hold blocks, hampering the second level, and stall the Bearcats' pass rush, which will have a profound impact on the secondary. To put it simply, this isn't a good scenario — and no, I don't believe I'm painting an overly negative picture.

JUCO transfer Hakeem Allonce must deliver in a starting role from the start. He'll get the shot to do so, at least, given the changing cast of personnel, and likely join Camaron Beard as the Bearcats' top two at tackle. Behind this pair comes junior Brandon Mitchell, who has done little of consequence, and sophomore Alex Pace. In this case, it's highly likely that true freshman Ja'Merez Bowen takes on an intense workload as a rookie — and we'll see how that goes, though it's rarely a preferable situation. Hey, it's not all bad: UC is loaded at end. Silverberry Mouhon (41 tackles, 9.5 sacks) is an absolute monster, Terrell Hartsfield can do damage in certain packages and Brad Harrah (25 tackles, 10.0 for loss) is an anchor against the run.

If the interior of the line delivers, Cincinnati has the weapons on the second level to clean up from sideline to sideline. All that's left to be decided is the rotation: UC should end up starting senior Nick Temple (80 tackles, 13.5 for loss) on the strong side, senior Jeff Luc (43 tackles) in the middle — I think he's going to be terrific — and sophomore Eric Wilson on the weak side, but the Bearcats have a number of options in reserve. One is incoming freshman Kevin Mouhon, a high-impact recruit (and brother of Silverberry) who could end up in the middle but spend his rookie campaign at either of the two outside spots. The Bearcats also return Kevin Brown, a rangy former defensive back who could fill a role on third down, and add into the mix JUCO transfer Kevin Tappan.

Whether UC feels comfortable in cornerbacks Howard Wilder (35 tackles) and Leviticus Payne will determine whether the staff can shift Adrian Witty to safety, where he'd add experience and steadiness to the patrolling section of the secondary. It's all on the two cornerbacks: Wilder should be better than he was a year ago, Payne has the potential to develop into a multiple-year starter and there's some help on the way from February's recruiting class … but this isn't a secure situation. Yet Witty is clearly needed at safety, a move that add depth to the position while giving sophomores Zach Edwards and Mike Tyson develop further before taking on the sort of take-charge roles needed along the back end. At the very least, the staff knows Witty can always shift back to cornerback in a pinch — even if that would mean Edwards and Tyson would give UC two sophomore starters at safety. Behind defensive tackle, the secondary is UC's biggest defensive concern.

Special teams: Cincinnati's dreadful special teams need an overhaul. Don't expect any miracles: UC returns largely the same cast, so the team is banking on one-year leaps from punter John Lloyd and kickers Tony Miliano and Andrew Gantz. It's only logical to assume Abernathy handles the heavy lifting as the Bearcats' primary returner, but there's enough depth at the skill positions for UC to split the task between several contenders.

POSITION(S) TO WATCH:

Quarterback: Let's give the job to Kiel, which seems fair, but wonder if he and Legaux can form some sort of two-headed quarterback combination — or if Cincinnati would like to do so, which is another question altogether. One question at a time, please. As for the first: I don't think it's necessarily doable unless Legaux has regained some of his athleticism, since it doesn't make much sense to insert the senior into the lineup as a change-of-pace option behind Kiel if he can't, you know, provide UC with a change of pace. At the same time, perhaps it's not truly a desirable situation altogether: Coach Tommy Tuberville rightly views Kiel as the future of the program — no pressure, of course — and could look at a shared-snaps scenario as one of that robs the transfer of much-needed on-field experience. The only way UC would consider this relationship, in fact, is if Legaux can line up in certain packages, spread the boundaries of the field with his legs and force defenses to read and react rather than key on the quarterback, dialing up pressure to harass and rattle the inexperienced new starter. Maybe Legaux can be that guy — but let's just wait to see how far he's come by the latter stages of fall camp.

GAME(S) TO WATCH:

Houston: The Bearcats do miss UCF, leaving a potential tied-at-the-top scenario in the American — a bit of a disaster for the league, I'd say, since the American really needs a 10-win, clear-cut top dog. When it comes to league play, however, UC is blessed with home games against East Carolina and Houston, the latter in the regular-season finale. Given the smooth nature of the schedule, however, Cincinnati could take home the American and still drift outside the national conversation if it does not notch at least two wins from the group of Toledo, Miami (Fla.) and Ohio State.

SEASON BREAKDOWN & PREDICTION:

In a nutshell: This feels to me quite like last season, when Cincinnati took advantage of a smooth schedule to notch nine wins during the regular season yet failed to make noise when it mattered — against the teams that could make or break the Bearcats' national reputation. This year's squad seems to fall into the same boat: UC is certainly talented, certainly has the coaching and certainly has the schedule, but taking care of the must-have games — Ohio State, Miami (Fla.), East Carolina and Houston — remains a concern until the staff addresses the four issues still plaguing this team as it prepares for the start of fall camp.

The first is getting Kiel up to speed — and it's the simplest problem of all, and the most likely to be achieved with flying colors. He's simply too talented to miss the mark: Kiel needs to be handled carefully, of course, but he could be in line for a monster season thanks to UC's depth in the backfield, solid offensive line and weapons in the passing game. Second, the Bearcats need to pull out all the stops to find answers at defensive tackle; what's in place now doesn't seem workable, in my mind, and it's on Hughes and Prunty to develop a solid rotation in August or scheme around the group's inherent deficiencies. Three — and this is tied into the line — the Bearcats need to settle the situation in the secondary, where a lack of proven options at three of the four spots could spell trouble against high-test offenses. Last, and this doesn't seem solvable, Cincinnati must get more consistency from its kicking game.

So I'm not entirely sold on this team as the American favorite, though I do think this is an improved team — one ranked about 10 spots higher than in last year's final re-ranking, for instance, if that matters at all. Wins are coming, and they're coming bunches: Cincinnati should win another nine games and perhaps reach the double-digit mark, should things click into place. I simply worry that the Bearcats won't get it done against the upper-level competition on the docket; if not, this will be a team that wins nine games but none of consequence.

Dream season: Cincinnati takes home the conference title with an undefeated run through American play. It gets better: UC also knocks off Toledo and Miami in September.

Nightmare season: The Bearcats finish sixth in the American, trailing — in alphabetical order — East Carolina, Houston, Memphis, Tulsa and UCF.

UP NEXT:

Who's No. 43? The one quarterback committed to this team's current recruiting class attends a high school located roughly 120 miles from the school's main campus.

GALLERY: RANKING EVERY FBS TEAM

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