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Belk Bowl Preview and Prediction: Cincinnati vs. North Carolina

Marquise Williams

Marquise Williams

For the second year in a row, Cincinnati will try and defeat an ACC team with a distinct home-field advantage in the Belk Bowl in Charlotte, N.C. This year the Bearcats’ opponent is North Carolina, as the Tar Heels return to the postseason following a one-year ban handed down by the NCAA.

Cincinnati finished 9-3 in its first season under head coach Tommy Tuberville, finishing third (6-2) in the American Athletic Conference’s (AAC) inaugural season. The Bearcats are aiming for their third straight 10-win season and sixth overall since 2007.

The Bearcats are making their second straight Belk Bowl appearance, defeating Duke 48-34 last season. Cincinnati is playing in its third straight bowl and 11th since 2000 and is looking to run its postseason winning streak to three games in a row.

North Carolina (6-6, 4-4 in the ACC) is back in a bowl game after a one-year hiatus, but only because Larry Fedora’s team rattled off five straight wins. The Tar Heels started off the season 1-5 before making a switch at quarterback and righting the ship to finish at .500. The Heels won five of their last six games with the only loss being a two-point defeat to ACC Coastal champion Duke to close out the regular season.

The Tar Heels are playing in their fifth bowl in the past six seasons, with the only miss a result of last season’s NCAA-mandated postseason ban. North Carolina has gone 1-3 during this span with its only win coming against Tennessee in the 2010 Music City Bowl.

North Carolina is 2-0 all-time against Cincinnati. The last time these teams played was on Sept. 14, 1991 in Chapel Hill, N.C., a game the Tar Heels won easily 51-16.

Cincinnati vs. North Carolina

Kickoff: Saturday, Dec. 28 at 3:20 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: North Carolina -3

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Three Things to Watch

“Replacement” Quarterbacks
Cincinnati and North Carolina both had to make quarterback changes during the season because of injury and both offenses took off after the switch was made. The Bearcats lost starting quarterback Munchie Legaux in the second game, opening the door for senior Brendon Kay to step in. Kay went 8-2 as the starter, throwing for 3,121 yards and 22 touchdowns, helping the Bearcats reel off six straight wins at one point. Kay has dealt with some injuries of his own, but still managed to become just the fourth quarterback in program history to throw for more than 3,000 yards in a season. He also has played on this stage before, throwing for 332 yards and four touchdowns in Cincinnati’s victory over Duke in last season’s Belk Bowl. North Carolina entered the season with senior Bryn Renner under center. A three-year starter, Renner was poised to completely rewrite the Tar Heel record books coming off of a 2012 campaign in which he threw for 3,356 yards and 28 touchdowns. Renner and the offense struggled out of the gates, leading to more snaps for sophomore Marquise Williams. A true dual-threat, Williams took over as the starter after Renner suffered a season-ending shoulder injury against NC State on Nov. 2. With Williams at the helm, Fedora’s up-tempo offense took on new life, as the more athletic and mobile quarterback made plays with both his arm (1,527-14-6) and legs (team-high 490 yards rushing, 6 TDs) and was a big reason the Tar Heels won five games in a row. In the six games in which Williams saw the majority of the time at quarterback, North Carolina averaged 451.5 yards and 38 points per game. With both firmly entrenched as the leader of their respective offenses, it will be interesting to see which quarterback makes the most noise on the field in Bank of America Stadium.

The Battle in the Trenches
Both offenses average more than 430 yards per game, but lean more on the pass than the run. Cincinnati averages around 170 yards rushing per game, while North Carolina gains a little more than 146 on the ground per contest. Neither team has a workhorse in its backfield. The Bearcats have three running backs with at least 90 carries and 400 yards rushing, but 14 different players have had at least one rushing attempt and seven have scored a touchdown on the ground. The Tar Heels’ leading rusher is quarterback Marquise Williams, but four running backs have posted at least 53 carries and one rushing touchdown. Both teams use the committee approach in their respective backfields, meaning it will fall to the defenses to stop more than one ball carrier. From a defensive standpoint, Cincinnati enters this game ninth in the nation in total defense (313.2 ypg) and fifth against the run. The Bearcats have allowed less than 100 yards rushing per game, while the Tar Heels have been considerably more generous at 183.6. However, North Carolina’s defense has improved as the season has progressed, and the Tar Heels’ up-tempo, spread-oriented offense typically presents a different kind of challenge for opposing defenses. So while both offenses are perfectly capable of slinging the ball all over the field, whichever team gains the most (or gives up the least depending on how you look at it) on the ground will more than likely finish the season on a winning note.

Putting the “Special” in Special Teams
If North Carolina has a clear edge in any aspect of this matchup against Cincinnati, it’s on special teams. The Tar Heels are No. 1 in FBS in punt returns thanks to the explosiveness and play-making ability of freshman Ryan Switzer. A first-team All-ACC punt returner, Switzer also was named Athlon Sports' first-team All-American punt returner and All-Freshman return specialist after leading the country with four punt returns for touchdowns. Switzer is averaging 20 yards per punt return and also has made an impact as a wide receiver, ranking third on the team in receptions (29), receiving yards (319) and touchdown catches (3). Besides their work on punt returns, the Tar Heels are averaging more than 23 yards per kickoff return and running back T.J. Logan has a 99-yard return for a score. Cincinnati needs to be very wary of Switzer when it has to punt since it has struggled in this department. The Bearcats are 113th among 125 FBS teams in punt return defense (12.9 ypr), although they have yet to give up a touchdown on a return. Earlier this season Switzer became just the second NCAA player in history to return a punt for a score in three straight games. That streak may have come to an end, but Switzer would no doubt like to add to his touchdown total in this game. The question is will Cincinnati even give the dynamic freshman a chance to return a punt. And if not, how effective will the Bearcats’ punter be in kicking away from him? Field position always matters, but especially in a game like this with two productive offenses going head-to-head.

Key Player: Eric Ebron, TE, North Carolina
A 6-4, 245-pound junior, Ebron is a tight end who plays more like a wide receiver. He leads the team in receptions (55) and receiving yards (895) and he is averaging 16.3 yards per catch. He’s caught three touchdowns and has already been named first-team All-ACC, first-team All-America by and second team by both the Associated Press and Athlon Sports. A finalist for the Mackey Award, which goes to the nation’s top tight end, Ebron has already announced he will forego his senior season and enter the 2104 NFL Draft. He is believed by many to be the top tight end prospect available and could end up being selected in the first round. Ebron gives North Carolina’s passing attack something that most teams don’t have – an athletic, large target that can make big plays regardless of where he lines up – and he will pose a challenge for Cincinnati’s linebackers and secondary. Ebron’s mere presence on the field also helps open up things on the outside for wide receiver Quinshad Davis (47-724-10) and others. The Bearcats rank among the nation’s best when it comes to stopping the run, so it will be critical for quarterback Marquise Williams and the Tar Heels to make some plays through the air. So don’t be surprised if Ebron gets a lot of targets in his final game in a North Carolina uniform.

Final Analysis

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Cincinnati needs one more victory for its sixth 10-win season in the last seven. The Bearcats have one of the nation’s most explosive offenses supported by one of the stingiest defenses, and had their six-game winning streak snapped in overtime by a ranked Louisville team. North Carolina needed a five-game winning streak just to become bowl eligible and is giving up more than 400 yards per game. However, this is not the same Tar Heels team that started the season 1-5, as both the offense, behind the emergence of sophomore quarterback Marquise Williams, and the defense have made strides. While the Bearcats may have the edge on paper, I think the Tar Heels will feed off of the built-in home-field advantage of playing in Charlotte, N.C., and put together one of their best all-around performances. North Carolina has a lot of talent returning next season and the Tar Heels give a glimpse of what 2014 could hold by finishing off ’13 with a hard-fought, close victory over a solid Bearcats team.

Prediction: North Carolina 34, Cincinnati 31