These are not your 2011 Bearcats

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The 2012 version of the Cincinnati Bearcats were not like the 2011 version. What we learned Thursday is that's in no way a dooming statement.

CINCINNATI - Over the slow drip of the college football offseason in Clifton, the narrative bouncing off the walls of campus dorms and projecting from iPads inside Varsity Village played on repeat.

Isaiah Pead's burst now resides in St. Louis. Derek Wolfe's tenacity terrorizes at Mile High. JK Schaffer's consistency now benefits Greg Schiano.

So many pieces at the foundation of what delivered three championships in four seasons departed, there was no way for the 2011 Bearcats to give an encore performance.

That theme played out Thursday inside a blacked-out Nippert Stadium. Indeed, these weren't the 2011 Bearcats. What we learned during the 34-10 demoralization of Pittsburgh was not being like the 2011 Bearcats shouldn't serve as a distress signal.

In great college football programs, this rotation plays out. Personalities and playmakers leave. Teams change. They adapt.

Too often different becomes intertwined with bad.

The 2012 Bearcats looked different than the 2011 version. They are supposed to. In this case, different didn''t mean worse. Not in the least.

No, the defensive line didn't bully the pocket into submission per standard from Wolfe and John Hughes. Instead, the edges folded like crepe paper against the corner rushes of Walter Stewart and Dan Giordano.

No, there were no ankle-breaking cuts made a staple by Pead. There was an electric burst from Ralph David Abernathy IV and bruising consistency of George Winn.

No, a shifty, scrappy fourth-and-1 run like those patented by Zach Collaros during countless wins didn't occur. Rather, the home-run speed of Munchie Legaux displayed a new dynamic unseen from the quarterback position during UC's football renaissance.

Yes, these weren't the 2011 Bearcats. And yes, that's nothing to fear.

"It's a different feeling out there," said Stewart, who set a career high with 3.5 tackles for loss, dropping Tino Sunseri for two sacks. "This being my last year, finally being the senior that is out front and having to get everybody going and being a part of a final season this did feel special."

Stewart reeled off the names of teammates he never played next to like reciting his alphabet. Trenier Orr, John Williams, Adam Dempsey. His list went on.

This defense used new pieces unknown to even the 33,862 who shook Nippert. More than known stars whose numbers were worn by those watching them, this edition thrived on depth.

"We may not have the most dynamic one or two individuals," Jones said. "But I think as a group we always talk about the power of the unit in a football program by position and our kids up front did a great job."

Cincinnati was branded as a collection of unknown quantities without superstar pizazz. A team with only one player ranked in the ESPN Big East Top 25 players (Stewart at 15). Subsequently banned to the standard mid-pack position always designated for UC in the preseason polls.

Only, as proven every year from Eugene, Ore., to Miami, Fla., stars are born in college football annually. Such is the beauty of the game. Such has become the beauty of this program.

The torch passes from Dominick Goodman to Mardy Gilyard to Isaiah Pead to Ralph David Abernathy IV. A program that demands greatness receives it no matter whose wearing the laundry. There were questions if the tradition would continue with this group.

In front of nation, many were answered.

"We knew what we had," said Abernathy IV, the brightest new star after nine touches, 91 yards and two touchdowns. "We showed we have the ability to be a pretty explosive offense."

And more explosive from a variety of angles. Consider the leading rusher was the quarterback, leading receiver a running back and leading passer used to be a wide receiver (H/t Bearcats Blog for the nugget).

Three backs logged 20-yard runs and Legaux threw for 200 yards and ran for 100.

"He showed the world what kind of quarterback he can be," Abernathy IV said. "I look forward to seeing what he plans on doing."

For as many ways as the Bearcats were different on this night, one common thread to the 2011 version connected. It was on ESPN's national Thursday night stage last season when eyes opened wide in a statement blowout to realize this team may own what it takes to win another Big East title.

A 34-10 final echoes the same sentiment.

There are many ways to build a championship. UC laid the foundation for a new one Thursday night while delivering a clear message: Change is good; don't be scared of different.

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