Duke‘s back in the postseason for the first time since 1994. Cincinnati, after tying for yet another Big East title, feels a bit burned after the ACC‘s realignment decision to take Louisville over the Bearcats. Will they take out their anger on the reeling Blue Devils?
Bowl Game: Belk Bowl
Location: Charlotte, N.C.
First Year: 2002 (Continental Tire Bowl)
2012 Participants: Duke Blue Devils (6-6) vs. Cincinnati Bearcats (9-3)
Last Meeting: Never
Duke (previous bowl game: 34-20 loss to Wisconsin in 1995 Hall of Fame Bowl)
Through eight games, the Blue Devils were the darlings of college football. At 6-2, they clinched their first bowl trip in 18 years all the way back in October. And yet, we’re looking at Duke much in the same way we normally do now, after four straight rough contests knock them down to 6-6. Simply put, Duke has one thing going for them: a prolific passing offense. Racking up over 277 yards per game, it’s hard to find a more impressive unit than this one, led by veterans Sean Renfree and Conner Vernon. Unfortunately, the defense has done little to stop other teams from putting up similar numbers in their own passing games. Ranked 97th in the country in passing yards per game, the Blue Devils have struggled mightily stopping big gains through the air (hammered home by the 25 passing touchdowns put up against them). When you make former Stanford starter Josh Nunes look like a Heisman contender, those numbers shouldn’t surprise you.
Cincinnati (previous bowl game: 31-24 win vs. Vanderbilt in 2011 Autozone Liberty Bowl)
It’s been a tale of two seasons for Cincinnati, with two different starting quarterbacks guiding very different game plans. Former starter Munchie Legaux originally led a lightning quick two-pronged rushing attack with halfback George Winn. But once Legaux inexplicably imploded, Brendon Kay came in to provide stability in a standard drop-back-and-pass system. So while Kay alleviated costly turnovers, you also see a big gap in scoring under his leadership as well (34.1 points per game before Kay, vs. 26.6 with him). Which is why the story will be on the defensive side of the ball. Loaded with leaders like D-lineman Dan Giordano, the Bearcats only let up 17.2 points per game (12th in the FBS). If they can generate pressure — and they should be able to after registering 30 sacks this year — Renfree will have a hard time moving the ball for Duke.
Cincinnati’s defense presents an intriguing challenge for Duke’s offense, and vice versa. While Cincinnati can get after the passer, Duke has also managed to provide a good deal of protection across the offensive line (only allowed 19 sacks all year). The Bearcats’ biggest defensive strength, however, is running the ball, and as it ends up, Duke will likely avoid doing so. With a return to the postseason and a very friendly crowd for the Blue Devils, you have to imagine they’d be more “up” for this game, but as alluded to above, Cincinnati has a chip of their own. Players certainly know what’s going on with conference realignment, and are acutely aware of being passed up again — by Duke’s conference, no less. As the Big East crumbles around them, and their coaching staff experiences continual upheaval, I still wouldn’t be shocked to see Cincy continue Duke’s plummet, grabbing a big win to seal yet another 10-win season. Prediction: Cincinnati 27, Duke 21