North Carolina(6-6) vs Cincinnati(9-3), 3:20 PM, ESPN
For the first time since 2011, UNC is back in a bowl game having turned a 1-5 start to the season into a chance to finish the season above .500. That would mean knocking off the third place team from the American Athletic Conference and last season's winner of the Belk Bowl, Cincinnati.
In addition to facing the Bearcats, UNC will deal with a little upheaval on the coaching staff. Offensive coordinator has left to become the head coach at Arkansas State. For this game Walt Bell will call the plays but likely to do with some oversight from head coach Larry Fedora. How the change in coaches impacts UNC is anyone's guess but it is certainly a factor to be mindful of in this game. The good news is there has been plenty of time to digest this change to the point it shouldn't be an issue.
The Bearcats shape up to be a tough team headed by former Auburn and Texas Tech coach Tommy Tuberville. Statistically speaking Cincinnati boasts the eighth best defense in the country and is fifth against the run. The Bearcats are also 16th nationally in sacks averaging 2.92 per game. The front four for the Bearcats could prove to be a handful for UNC's sometimes suspect offensive line. That is where having Marquise Williams taking the snaps could work to UNC's advantage. Cincinnati's passing defense is 31st nationally but outside of Lousiville's Teddy Bridgewater and Illinois' Nathan Scheelhaase the list of quarterbacks Cincy has faced isn't all that impressive. Such as life in the AAC as it is currently compose. The very fact Cincy played in the AAC probably creates a caveat of sorts for some of these numbers though the Bearcat defense will still prove a challenge. Likewise Eric Ebron will present a challenge of his own to Cincinnati much the same way he has to everyone UNC has faced this season. Since Ebron is NFL bound after this game, how he plays is well worth watching.
On the other side of the ball, the Bearcats are primarily a passing team to the tune of being 15th nationally in yards per game in the air and 28 touchdowns. Despite the more prolific passing numbers the Bearcats are fairly balanced with 27 touchdowns coming on the ground to go along with over 2000 yards rushing this season. The Bearcats are not necessarily an explosive, big play offense but do enough to grind out yards and point as needed. Obviously any talk of a team willing to pass the football is a point of concern given UNC's struggles at times in the secondary. Along those lines the Bearcats are 11th in sacks allowed and have given up a total of 12 all season. UNC's defense was most successful when Tar Heel defenders routinely got pressure in the pocket which in turn put less pressure on the secondary. Tre Boston has been a part of that with some blitzes but the biggest contributor in UNC's defensive play during the 5-1 stretch is Kareem Martin. Martin played his way onto the All-ACC's first team and was highly effective down the stretch. Like Ebron he's NFL bound so this is one last chance to make an impact wearing Tar Heel blue.
Since bowl games can be haphazard, the odd stat or aspect of the game could prove crucial. Turnovers is one that could be an issue since both teams are coming in after not having played for three or four weeks. The Bearcats have been a tad turnover prone this season with 26 in 12 games including 16 interceptions. UNC has been better in this regard which just 17 turnovers, 11 via interception. The only concern here is Williams' accuracy throwing the football.
Another area to watch is how Cincinnati handles what is perhaps UNC's best weapon: Ryan Switzer. The true freshman was named to multiple All-American teams as a returner and was first team All-ACC as a specialist. His four punt returns for a touchdown led the nation making him a clear threat any time he gets a chance to field a punt. The catch here is Cincinnati really doesn't punt much with only 14 all season. If they do punt, the numbers are not very good with teams averaging 12.8 yards per return. The latter number probably explains the former or the offense has simply been good enough to avoid punting. For the record Cincy is 8-17 on fourth down this season and the 17 attempts is a fairly pedestrian number.
At the end of the day, this kind of bowl game is really a crap shoot. Both teams are fairly even and jumping into a one off game that is basically a glorified exhibition makes predicting such a contest difficult. There is no way of knowing which UNC team will show up, how motivated either team will be and how UNC's coaching shuffle will impact the Tar Heel offense. As note above, it's a crapshoot in a bowl game UNC is winless in three previous appearances.
They are due.
UNC 31 Cincy 23