In the wake of the Belk Bowl for the ages, the Bearcats season comes to a successful close with a fifth 10-win season in the last six years, another piece of the Big East championship and transition from Butch Jones to Tommy Tuberville.
Looking at the talent being replaced when the season opened, to think this team reached double-digit wins and came within an overtime of ending up in a BCS Bowl falls nothing shy of remarkable. The reputation for reloading instead of rebuilding has started to become the norm around Cincinnati.
A successful season means a number of worthy recipients for my personal Bearcats Beat Blog Awards. Without further ado, here are my winners for this season.
TEAM MVP: WALTER STEWART
This might seem unorthodox to select a player that only took part in half the team's games, but Stewart transcended the field for this group. Not only was he a key component to the perfect 5-0 start, but when he was diagnosed with a season-ending neck injury he never faded to the background. Always the heart and soul of the team from the first bench press in January on, he stayed the heart and soul even when not donning the uniform and facing the fact he may never put any football uniform on again. He taught everyone on the team lessons in true heroism, positive outlook and living every play like its your last because it truly might be. Runner-up: George Winn.
PLAY OF THE YEAR: MUNCHIE LEGAUX TO DAMON JULIAN
Maybe other plays were more aesthetically pleasing, or even more important in the grand scheme, but for living at the intersection of drama and national stage, none were bigger than Legaux to Julian at FedEx Field. The miraculous 39-yard bomb in the final seconds secured a wild comeback victory against Virginia Tech and earns the "jump off the couch" moment of the year. Nothing on the field this year quite compared. Runner-up: George Winn jump pass.
TOP NEWCOMER: JOHN WILLIAMS
While not a newcomer to college football, he was to the Bearcats and made a significant impact plugging a middle replacing NFL linemen Derek Wolfe and John Hughes. Williams filled into a rotation with Camaron Beard and Jordan Stepp as a playmaker in the middle. He finished with 2.5 sacks, 5.0 TFL and the biggest fumble recovery of the season against Duke. Runner-up: Chris Moore.
BEST INDIVIDUAL PERFORMANCE: GEORGE WINN VS. SYRACUSE
Midway through the win against Syracuse, Winn resembled more half-man, half-robot than all running back. Needing the running game to carry the day as Legaux struggled with accuracy, Winn continuously delivered. He accepted and produced pounding hit after pounding hit. When Butch Jones made the call to replace Legaux with Brendon Kay, he needed the running game to take the lead even further and he did just that. He eventually wore down the Orange defense into a 35-24 UC victory finishing with 30 rushes for 165 yards, 3 TDs and tossed a score on a perfectly executed jump pass to Travis Kelce. The signature game in the second-best rushing season in UC history. Runner-up: Greg Blair 19 tackles vs. Louisville.
OFFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE YEAR: GEORGE WINN
Despite any inconsistency in the passing game throughout the season, Winn served as the constant every game. This team was built on its running game and that meant Winn pounding the rock. He fell just short of the greatest rushing season in school history finishing with 243 carries for 1,334 yards and 13 rushing touchdowns. Plus, of course, 1 of 1 passing for 37 yards and a touchdown. Runner-up: Travis Kelce.
DEFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE YEAR: GREG BLAIR
Somewhere midway through the season Blair transformed from the new guy in the middle to emotional leader of the defense. He led the team in tackles by almost 50 and led in tackles for loss. He even added two interceptions including a critical pick in the end zone of the opener against Pitt.
PLEASANT SURPRISE OF THE YEAR: OFFENSIVE LINE
LT Eric Lefeld, LG Austen Bujnoch, C Dan Sprague, RG Sam Longo and RT Parker Ehringer are the biggest reason to be excited about the future of the Cincinnati Bearcats. These five were supposed to be a major question mark on the line entering the season and ended up one of the team's primary strengths. And all five will be back next season. They plowed the way for George Winn's spectacular season surpassing Isaiah Pead's 2011 mark and allowed only 13 sacks -- good for 18th in the country.
BEST INTERVIEW: ELIJAH SHULER
The junior shared the story of dealing with the death of his father in the moments following the Virginia Tech game and proved why he's such a strong, uplifting young man. Always known for the smile on his face and good-natured attitude, he showed that through the most difficult of times and it was my pleasure to hear him tell his story. You can read that here.
ASSISTANT COACH OF THE YEAR: DL STEVE STRIPLING
Not only does Stripling deserve credit for staying behind to coach the Belk Bowl when so many of his colleagues jumped ship early for Tennessee, but the job he did with a beat up defensive line should be admired. Without Wolfe and Hughes in the middle he added two new starters and a Central Michigan transfer to the middle then worked around the loss of the team's best player in Walter Stewart. All the while, the UC defense turned out to be one of the best scoring defenses in the past 30 years of UC football.
BEST ATMOSPHERE: UC 34, PITT 10
There's nothing quite like the opening game of a football season, but there was truly nothing like opening it on national TV against one of the team's fiercest rivals. Fill the stadium with 34k on a perfect night for football and blacked out student section and you have Nippert Stadium at its finest.
BEST GAME: UC 48, DUKE 34
As far as entertainment goes, there's no topping the Belk Bowl victory. Six touchdowns of 25 yards or more, overcoming a disastrous 16-0 deficit and all the emotional swings you can handle during the improbable final minutes before Travis Kelce's 83-yard touchdown reception from Kay. All this from a team with a skeleton crew of coaches and playing for each other. Special night.
I want to hear from you! Let me know if you agree or disagree with my choices and who you would have ranked where. You can send me an email to firstname.lastname@example.org or hit me up on Twitter at @pauldehnerjr.