Back by overwhelming demand, FootballScoop will once again examine the assistant coaching hires that will have the biggest impact on the college football season and the coaching job market in the 2021 season and beyond.
Who: Mike Tressel
Title: Defensive coordinator/linebackers coach
Previous stop: Michigan State defensive coordinator/linebackers coach/safeties coach (2007-20)
Why he's important: Rarely, if ever, has an assistant coach taken a job with such a clear directive in front of him -- win every single game.
Such are stakes for Cincinnati, and it would be foolish to pretend otherwise. The Bearcats were a handful of plays away from a perfect season in 2020, and they enter 2021 with more promise -- and more expectation -- than any team in the College Football Playoff era.
Cincinnati checked in at No. 10 in the preseason Coaches' Poll, the highest a Group of 5 team has started since the Playoff began in 2014. UCF began 2018, the year after its "national championship" of 2017, way down at No. 23 before eventually rising to No. 7 -- to date, the highest a G5 team has ranked in the selection committee's rankings.
Three teams come to mind when considering 2021 Cincinnati's place in history:
-- 2016 Houston: Fresh off a Peach Bowl win over Florida State, began at No. 13 (coaches poll), knocked off No. 3 Oklahoma in the opener and later beat Lamar Jackson on his way to the Heisman, but dropped three regular season games along the way. That team spent five straight weeks ranked at No. 6.
-- 2010 TCU: Following an undefeated regular season, Gary Patterson's Frogs spent their entire season in the top-10. An opening week win over No. 24 Oregon State and a pummeling of No. 6 Utah were enough to buy the Frogs a Rose Bowl bid, where they beat No. 4 Wisconsin. They'd finish at No. 2 and, in the Playoff era, likely would've been in the field.
-- 2010 Boise State. After closing an undefeated 2009 season by defeating unbeaten TCU in the Fiesta Bowl, the Broncos spent all season in the top-10, including two weeks at No. 2, before losing to Nevada in their regular season finale.
These Bearcats face a much more centralized power at the top, where it'll be a major upset if Alabama, Clemson and Ohio State don't all make the Playoff, but never before has a Group of 5 team enjoyed this much credibility and this much opportunity.
In back-to-back games, Cincinnati visits No. 7 Notre Dame and No. 17 Indiana. They host UCF the second- and third-place teams in the American's preseason poll, UCF and SMU. Should things fall into place, they'd likely get one of them at Nippert Stadium again for the AAC title.
There's no guarantee Cincinnati can move from No. 10 to No. 4 even with 13 emphatic victories, but there's a real chance, and that's more than any team of their ilk has ever had.
All of this, of course, occurs as college football enters into its next round of major upheaval. Make the Playoff and who can say for sure what happens from there? Success is the product of timing and opportunity, and this would be a mighty fine time to become the first Group of 5 to reach the CFP. The Big 12, the ACC, they're all looking for opportunities to improve, and hardly anyone is better positioned than Cincinnati.
And there is where Mike Tressel comes in.
It's too much to say the University of Cincinnati's fundraising prospects for the next generation might hinge on how Tressel defends a fourth quarter 3rd-and-5 in Notre Dame Stadium on Oct. 2... but we're being blind if we don't acknowledge the stakes here.
Tressel is being asked to accomplish a near-impossible task, but the task does come with best-in-class tools. The Bearcats finished fourth nationally in yards per play last season (4.57) and second among teams that played at least 10 games. Opponents mustered 3.13 yards per carry (eighth), and their pass defense was the third most efficient in the game, allowing 53.2 percent completions for 6.0 yards per attempt with seven touchdown passes against a whopping 16 interceptions.
Cincinnati ranked eighth in scoring defense, sixth in red zone touchdown percentage and tied for 10th in takeaways. The Bearcats' top six tacklers were all seniors in 2020, but three returned for super-senior seasons. The ambitiously named defensive back Coby Bryant returns after leading the club in interceptions, and leading pass rusher Myjai Sanders (seven sacks in 2020) returns as well.
Previous installments: No. 15: Sonny Cumbie, Texas Tech | No. 14: Travis Williams, UCF | No. 13: Liam Coen, Kentucky | No. 12: Jess Simpson, Miami | No. 11: Tim Banks, Tennessee | No. 10: Mike Bobo, Auburn | No. 9: Jeff Grimes, Baylor
With Marcus Freeman off to Notre Dame, Luke Fickell turned to an old colleague and frequent colleague. The son of former small-college coach Dick Tressel, Mike played Division III ball in Iowa and coached at that level before landing joining Dad on Uncle Jim Tressel's Ohio State staff just in time to help the Buckeyes to the 2002 national title. After two seasons in Columbus, Mark Dantonio brought Tressel with him to Cincinnati, where he remained until Dantonio's 2019 retirement. He was retained to Mel Tucker's staff, with a caveat -- Scottie Hazelton would be the coordinator, and Tressel would be demoted to safeties coach.
Cincinnati represented a ripe opportunity at the perfect time for the 47-year-old Tressel: the chance to run a strong defense on his longtime friend's staff.
For his part, Tressel raved about the corporate intelligence he inherited.
"You can turn on the film and recognizing the guys play hard, but there's some football intelligence and there's some veterans holding younger guys accountable."
Cincinnati will mix in some 4-down fronts with the 3-3-5 alignment they based out of under Marcus Freeman, but Tressel stressed he's doing most of the adjusting to his players, not the other way around. "When you have a veteran defense, you need to do what they do best. Why would we want to start from scratch? We're going to bring in some changes, but we're still going to play to guys' strengths and their knowledge base."
So we've got a situation where a new coordinator inherits an elite unit with sky-high expectations. By coaching law, every touchdown allowed will be his fault and any outcome besides perfection is falling short of the mission.
No pressure, Coach.