Luke Fickell's Cincinnati Bearcats are so, so close to being the best Group of Five program in college football. Consider what the Bearcats have accomplished in the last two years: a 22-5 record with an AAC East title in 2019. Only twice in that span have they really been outclassed -- once by Ohio State last year (throw that one out) and vs. UCF in 2018. Otherwise, Cincinnati has been one of the more consistent winners outside the power conferences. 

After finishing at No. 21 in our CBS Sports 130 to end last year, the Bearcats pick up where they left off by being our preseason No. 21 team. With an experienced and talented group coming back, can Fickell's team finally get over the hump and claim an AAC title? For that matter, could they make one of college football's New Year's Six games? Let's preview Cincinnati and what should be a compelling team to watch in 2020. 

2019 rewind

Final ranking: No. 21 | Achievements: AAC East Champion, won 38-6 vs. Boston College in the Birmingham Bowl

Key departures

RB Michael Warren II: He was Cincinnati's bell cow back with nearly 2,600 yards rushing and 33 touchdowns in the past two seasons. Quarterback Desmond Ridder takes some of the carries, but the offense needs Gerrid Doaks or transfer Jerome Ford to pick up the slack on carries. 

LB Bryan Wright: He was the heartbeat of Cincinnati's stingy defense in 2019 as a team captain and first-team All-AAC selection. The Bearcats return a lot of production on the defensive side of the ball, but Wright's absence will be felt as a veteran in this program. 

TE Josiah Deguara: He might actually be the biggest loss for the program. He was the Bearcats' most productive receiver (39 catches with seven touchdowns) and could be moved all over the field. Cincinnati's passing attack takes a blow with his departure. 

Who's back?

Coach Luke Fickell: Yes, this is a big deal. He was the presumed successor at Michigan State when Mark Dantonio announced his sudden retirement, but opted instead to stay in Cincinnati. He was also a finalist for the job at West Virginia two years ago before it eventually went to Neal Brown. Fickell will still be on the short list of coaches du jour provided the Bearcats keep winning, though. 

QB Desmond Ridder: The third-year starter is one of college football's more underrated quarterbacks. An ultra-efficient freshman season was followed by a similarly productive, albeit slightly less efficient, sophomore campaign in 2019. He's one of the AAC's most experienced signal-callers who will be asked to do a lot to keep the chains moving. 

WR Alec Pierce: With Deguara gone, Pierce is the top returning wideout in Cincinnati's passing attack. He only had two touchdowns in 2019, but he has some big-play ability. There are a lot of questions in the receiving corps so Pierce is going to need an even bigger year. 

DB Darrick Forrest: The safety led the team with 106 tackles in 2019 and he's part of an impressive defensive backfield that also includes Ja'Von Hicks and Ahmad Gardner. Forrest is one of the leaders for the Bearcats and should have an all-conference type of season again. 

DT Elijah Ponder: Like the defensive backfield, Cincy's defensive front is stout. Ponder, Michael Pitts, Curtis Brooks and others are going to wreak havoc in backfields again. They all deserve a nod, but Ponder was a first-team All-AAC honoree who is a big-time run stuffer in the middle of the line. 

Fresh faces

RB Jerome Ford: A former four-star member of Alabama's 2018 recruiting class, Ford is eligible to play this fall. He'll be in competition to pick up the carries left by Warren's departure. Whether he emerges as a primary back or a complementary piece remains to be seen. 

WR Tre Tucker: Though technically a sophomore who appeared in all 14 games last year, Tucker could be up for a breakout season. The speedy slot/special teams player has the potential to add some big-play ability to an offense that could use some.

WR Michael Young Jr.: The Notre Dame transfer never made a huge impact on the field in South Bend with 177 career yards receiving and two touchdowns, but he adds depth to a position that needs playmakers. Maybe he'll finally get his breakout moment with the Bearcats. 

Critical games

Week 4 at Nebraska -- Sept. 26: The last time the Bearcats beat a Big Ten opponent was in 2016 (Purdue, 38-20). Knocking off a program like Nebraska in Lincoln, even if the Cornhuskers are still trying to find themselves under coach Scott Frost, would be a notable W. 

Week 9 vs. Memphis -- Oct. 31: Cincinnati had the unenviable task of playing Memphis, in Memphis, in consecutive weeks last season. The Bearcats lost both games by a combined 15 points. There's a sweet revenge factor here on Halloween night. 

Week 12 at UCF -- Nov. 21: This game should shape, or outright decide, the race for the AAC East crown. Cincinnati got a big home upset against the Knights a year ago, but UCF's speed has been a problem in the past few seasons. 

Week 13 at Temple -- Nov. 28: The Bearcats have a truly difficult road schedule and it concludes at the end of the regular season at Temple. If the Bearcats need one more win to lock up the division, playing in Philly won't be a cake walk. Huge ramifications here.  

2020 outlook

The experience is certainly there for Cincinnati to win another 10 or 11 games (or more) while making both a run at the AAC Championship and a New Year's Six bowl berth. Fickell is recruiting at a high level. He's had the AAC's highest ranked class in two of the last three years and is No. 1 again (for now) in 2021. This team has a ton of returning studs on both sides of the ball. With Memphis breaking in a new coach and UCF still working on getting quarterback McKenzie Milton back on the field, the Bearcats have a window to raise their ceiling. 

The concerns are on the offensive side of the ball. Can the Bearcats pass protect well enough to push the ball down the field? Are there enough playmakers who can get vertical? Cincinnati has been winning with defense and a solid run game, but can they open it up a little more? That, coupled with a difficult road schedule, is a bit worrisome for all the lofty, aforementioned goals. A worst-case scenario is that the offense never takes that next step forward and the road games are too much to navigate unscathed -- something like 7-5. But this should be a 10-or-11-win team again.