Cincinnati's 2016 Success Relies On Gunner Kiel's Healthy Return
(Photo Credit: Aaron Doster/USA Today)

The Cincinnati Bearcats have fallen on hard times since their move to the American Athletic Conference. The Bearcats went on a tear in the middle to late 2000s. Current Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly led the Bearcats to two major BCS bowls and three 10-plus win seasons during his tenure. His successor and current Tennessee coach Butch Jones even led Cincinnati to two ten win seasons. But, since Tommy Tuberville took over the 'Cats have gone just 25-14.

The AAC is by far the toughest non-power five conference in the nation, but it isn't the Big East either. Another rough season and Tuberville could be on the hot seat. Luckily for him, senior quarterback Gunner Kiel is coming back for the 2016 season. Kiel has had an interesting route to Cincinnati.

Kiel's Journey

The former-five star quarterback transferred after losing the Notre Dame job to fellow freshman Everett Golson. He would earn the job in 2014 and pack the stat book for the Bearcats. Kiel threw for 3,254 yards, a record-tying 31 touchdowns and just 13 interceptions. He proved to be a decent scrambler as well adding 142 yards and a touchdown on the ground. He would lead the 'Cats to a 9-4 record despite missing most of the bowl game with an injury.

(Photo Credit: Aaron Doster/USA Today)
(Photo Credit: Aaron Doster/USA Today)

Kiel's 2015 season looked to be even better, but was derailed by more injuries. He would go just 6-4 in ten starts, but his numbers regressed heavily. He threw just 19 touchdowns to 11 interceptions and witnessed freshman quarterback Hayden Moore pull at his starting job. Moore put on a passing clinic throwing for 1,885 yards and nine touchdowns in his eight games of action (three starts). He also broke UC's single-game passing yardage record with 557 yards.

Spring ball will be a battle between polished senior and the bright, raw future. However, does UC really want to work on its future right now? They know what Gunner Kiel can do in a full season. He can be the best passing quarterback in the AAC. Tuberville has an opportunity to at least finish in the top or three or better in the AAC this season. Navy lost Heisman candidate Keenan Reynolds. Memphis lost NFL-bound quarterback Paxton Lynch. Temple lost four-year starting linebacker Tyler Matakevich.

Everyone is down except for Houston, South Florida and Cincinnati. Don't get me wrong, quarterback isn't the cure all for a team. But having a two-year starter return gives the team more confidence in all three phases of the game. If Gunner Kiel can earn the starting job back and return to his 2014 potential, the rest of AAC is in for a rough year.

(Video Credit: Nick Colosimo)