Cincinnati vs. Duke
Dec. 27, 6:30, ESPN
Here's The Deal … It's been three years; time for a coaching change at Cincinnati.
Mark Dantonio used the Queen City as a stepping stone to the Big Ten and Michigan State. Brian Kelly did the same to land a job at Notre Dame. And now Butch Jones has parlayed his success with the Bearcats into a major promotion to Tennessee. Jones got Cincy to the Belk Bowl. Defensive line coach Steve Stripling will lead the team in the Belk Bowl. Tommy Tuberville, who left Texas Tech to join the Big East, will take the controls as soon as the Belk Bowl has ended. The coaching carousel is spinning off its axis in Cincinnati.
Jones did a solid job for the Bearcats, winning 19 games over the last two seasons, and a share of the Big East title in 2012. However, close losses to Louisville and Rutgers denied the program inclusion in a BCS bowl game. While Cincinnati quickly addressed its uncertainty on the sidelines, its conference woes remain. The program would love to find refuge in one of the five major conferences, but no offer has arrived.
It has taken 18 long years, but Duke has finally qualified for a postseason game. It's a momentous event, even for a University that spends most of its fan capital on the hardwood at Cameron Indoor Stadium. After coming close under head coach David Cutcliffe, the Blue Devils became bowl-eligible with a rousing upset of rival North Carolina on Oct. 20. However, they've also dropped four straight games and five of their last six, a reminder of just how far the school is from being a competitor in the ACC.
Cutcliffe will use this first-ever meeting with Cincinnati to generate a higher level of interest from the area's best recruits, and more notoriety on a national level. He and his kids are also eager to bring Duke its first bowl victory since all the way back in 1960.
Players to Watch: Cincinnati will lean heavily on the ground game. And for good reason.
Senior RB George Winn has been a pleasant surprise as the successor to Isaiah Pead, rushing for 1,204 yards and a dozen touchdowns. He'll be running behind an unheralded line that's especially strong on the left side, with T Eric Lefeld and G Austen Bujnoch. While Brendon Kay brought stability to quarterback midway through the year, the Bearcats won't frighten a veteran Duke secondary through the air. Oh, and then there's the business of a Blue Devils D yielding 4.8 yards per carry and almost 200 yards a game on the ground.
The Blue Devils have the edge behind center. They'll need to leverage that advantage to win on Thursday in Charlotte.
QB Sean Renfree is about to cap his third year as the starter in Durham with a long-awaited bowl trip. He's a savvy distributor, with a great feel for Cutcliffe's system. He also has access to one of the ACC's better receiving tandems, Conner Vernon and Jamison Crowder, who've combined to catch 145 passes. They'll be facing an interesting challenge this week, going up against a Cincinnati defensive backfield that's given up only 11 touchdown passes in a dozen games.
The big story in Cincinnati this fall has been the play of the defense, which far exceeded expectations.
Although there aren't a lot of big names on the Bearcats D, it hasn't prevented the unit from allowing only 17 points a game. Even a potentially career-ending neck injury to DE Walter Stewart, the group's best player, couldn't keep it from ranking fourth nationally in red zone defense. A veteran has elevated his game at each level; DE Dan Giordano, LB Greg Blair and CB Camerron Cheatham. Blair has been particularly revelatory in his second season out of junior college, leading the team emotionally and physically with a Bearcats-best 123 stops.
Cincinnati will win if … it rushes for at least 175 yards.
Sustained drives from the Bearcats will be Duke's undoing in its return to the postseason. The Blue Devils must get their defense off the field as quickly as possible, and their offense in a huddle formation. But that won't happen if Winn and Ralph David Abernathy are routinely snapping off six-yard gains. Cincinnati is capable of wearing down an average Duke D, and exceeding 30 points, but only if the ground game is the catalyst. Kay has been serviceable, especially when targeting all-league TE Travis Kelce, but he's not the kind of quarterback who'll light up an opposing defense with his arm.
Duke will win if … Renfree plays his best game of the season.
The Blue Devils won't run the ball with any consistency. And they can't rely on a defense that allowed an average of 45 points a game in the second half of the regular season. Fair or not, the upset rests on the right shoulder of No. 19. Renfree has to win the battle with the Cincinnati secondary … handily. That means throwing three touchdown passes, and maximizing the talents of all of his receivers, including Crowder, Vernon, Desmond Scott and the tight ends. For Duke to earn its first bowl win in 52 years, Renfree has to walk out of Bank of America Stadium as the MVP.
What Will Happen: Duke owns the intangibles. But will that be enough to take down a more talented Cincinnati team?
The Blue Devils are geeked about being a part of the postseason for the first time in 18 years. The Bearcats, on the other hand, are in a state of flux on the sidelines. The sidebars could make the Belk Bowl more competitive, but it won't change the fact that Cincinnati is the superior program. Duke will wind up being a little too one-dimensional for an opponent that can win a game a number of ways. Winn will rush for 100 yards, the defense will come up big and Tuberville will be handed some momentum to carry with him into spring camp.
CFN Prediction: Cincinnati 34 … Duke 21
ATS Consultants Line (Click for more lines and picks) Cincinnati -7 O/U: 59.5
Belk Bowl History
2011 NC State 31, Louisville 24
2010 South Florida 31, Clemson 26
2009 Pitt 19, North Carolina 17
2008 West Virginia 31, North Carolina 30
2007 Wake Forest 24, Connecticut 10
2006 Boston Coll 25, Navy 24
2005 NC St 14, South Florida 0
2004 Boston Col 37, North Carolina 24