Good thing the Belk Bowl in Charlotte is only a drive of two hours or so from Durham.
After all, Duke fans are a little out of practice in making their way to bowl games. The Blue Devils will play in a rare postseason game not involving Mike Krzyzewski when they face Cincinnati in the Belk Bowl. The 6-6 season clinched Duke’s first postseason berth since 1994 the Hall of Fame Bowl. Since then, the Blue Devils have had four winless seasons.
It’s been a long road to respectability for the Blue Devils, who have remade their image in five seasons under David Cutcliffe. But if Duke is going to earn its first winning season in 18 years, the Blue Devils need to reverse their momentum. Since earning its sixth win with a 33-30 victory over North Carolina on Oct. 20, Duke has lost four in a row before the bowl game.
While Duke is in rare territory, Cincinnati is in a spot all too familiar -- playing in a bowl game without its coach. The Bearcats lost their third consecutive coach to a bigger job when Butch Jones followed Brian Kelly and Mark Dantonio out of town. In 2009, interim coach Jeff Quinn oversaw a 51-24 rout to Florida in the Sugar Bowl, but three years before that, Kelly took over in the 2006 International Bowl for a 27-24 win over Western Michigan.
Defensive assistant Steve Stripling will coach Cincinnati against Duke before former Texas Tech Tommy Tuberville takes over after the season.
Belk Bowl - Cincinnati (9-3) vs. Duke (6-6)
Date and time: Dec. 27, 6:30 p.m. Eastern
Location: Charlotte, N.C.
When Cincinnati has the ball:
Cincinnati changed quarterbacks during the final third of the season, but the bread and butter of the Bearcats’ offense remains the run game. The 5-foot-11, 202-pound senior George Winn was an effective centerpiece for the Bearcats’ offense, rushing for 1,204 yards and 12 touchdowns. Redshirt senior Brendon Kay started the final four games of the year. Kay doesn’t bring the same “wow” factor as Munchie Legaux, but he was the steadier hand late in the season. Cincinnati’s offensive line does not include a senior starter, but the Bearcats had two first-team All-Big East performers in tackle Eric Lefeld and guard Austen Bujnoch.
This isn’t the same offense Brian Kelly directed at Cincinnati, but the Bearcats shouldn’t have trouble moving the ball on Duke’s defense. The Blue Devils finished 10th or worse in the ACC in the four major defensive categories and gave up at least 40 points in each of their six losses this season. Winn could have a big day ahead of him against a Duke defense that allowed opponents to rush for 5.6 yards per carry and 258.6 yards per game over the final seven games.
When Duke has the ball:
Where Cutcliffe goes, successful quarterbacks follow. Senior starting quarterback Sean Renfree has been a reliable signal-caller for the Blue Devils, topping 2,500 passing yards for the third consecutive season. Duke will test Cincinnati downfield with the receiver tandem of Jamison Crowder and Conner Vernon, who both topped 70 catches and 900 yards this season. Although Cincinnati led the Big East in pass efficiency defense, the league’s two best passers, Louisville’s Teddy Bridgewater and Syracuse’s Ryan Nassib, both had success against the Bearcats.
As on offense, the Bearcats’ defense had to adjust to changing personnel during the second half of the season when Walter Stewart’s career. Stewart was one of the league’s best defensive players and the Bearcats’ key pass rusher. Linebackers Greg Blair and Nick Temple and defensive end Dan Giordano took charge late in the season to anchor the Bearcats’ D.
Duke has had a special season, but the Blue Devils were a flawed team on defense and in the run game. While Cincinnati’s last bowl game under an interim coach -- the lopsided loss to Florida in the Sugar Bowl -- is tough to forget, Cincinnati is the pick here. The Bearcats should be able to make enough stops on defense, and George Winn could be in for a big day against a struggling Duke front seven.
Prediction: Cincinnati 28, Duke 14
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