Duke vs. Cincinnati: Belk Bowl Breakdown
Duke (6-6) vs. Cincinnati (9-3)
Dec. 27, 6:30 p.m. ET (ESPN)
• Reason to watch: Despite ending the season on a four-game losing streak, Duke is going bowling for the first time since the 1994 campaign. After posting four winless seasons and a .190 overall winning percentage from 1995-2011, Duke finally cracked the bowl barrier thanks to a 6-2 start, earning David Cutcliffe ACC coach of the year honors and a contract extension through 2018 in the process. While Duke is slowly finding consistency under Cutcliffe, Cincinnati is undergoing a potentially disruptive transition. After Butch Jones left Cincy to become Tennessee's head coach, the Bearcats swiped Tommy Tuberville from Texas Tech in one of the most surprising twists of the 2012 coaching carousel. Tuberville won't coach the Bearcats in the Belk Bowl, however, as Cincinnati will attempt to maintain some stability under defensive line coach and interim head man Steve Stripling. "These guys need the direction of the people that had been working with them," Tuberville told reporters.
• Keep an eye on: The defenses, which have been trending in opposite directions. The Bearcats finished in a four-way tie for the Big East crown thanks in large part to a defense that allowed just 17.2 points per game, the program's best mark since 1981. Cincy was even stingier down the stretch, holding its final four opponents to an average of 11.8 points. The Blue Devils, meanwhile, have gone into the tank defensively since their last win on Oct. 20, allowing an average of 49.5 points and 593.3 yards during their four-game losing streak. They've been so ravaged by injuries that Cutcliffe is moving redshirt freshman wide receiver Nick Hill and true freshman running back Shaquille Powell (one of Duke's more touted recent recruits) to safety for the bowl game. But while the secondary is particularly thin, the front seven has suffered the most noticeable drop off, allowing an average of 294.5 rushing yards during the four-game skid. That'd be alarming regardless of the upcoming opponent, but it's particularly worrisome for a Duke team poised to face Cincinnati's George Winn, who led the Big East with 1,204 rushing yards and 12 rushing touchdowns this season. If Duke hasn't found a way to plug some leaks, Winn could have a huge day.
• Did you know: Duke senior receiver Conner Vernon holds the ACC records for career receptions (273) and career receiving yards (3,630). The three-time All-ACC honoree has posted three consecutive seasons with at least 70 receptions and delivered his best statistical campaign as a senior, catching 75 passes for 955 yards and seven touchdowns. Vernon needs just 45 receiving yards to hit the 1,000-yard mark for the first time, which means third-year starting quarterback Sean Renfree will be looking for his favorite target early and often. Renfree, who's coming off a 432-yard, four-touchdown day in the regular-season finale against Miami, was sharp this season, posting a career high in touchdowns (18), a career low in interceptions (8) and the second-best QB rating (136.43) in program history.
• Final analysis: Duke averaged 31.3 points per game this season, the fifth-best mark in team history, so posting points hasn't been a problem. But down the stretch, the Renfree-Vernon connection wasn't potent enough to dig Duke out of the holes its sieve-like defense had created. Offense hasn't been a problem for Cincinnati, either, at least since Brendon Kay took over for the struggling Munchie Legaux at quarterback. Kay, who has received an extra year of eligibility for 2013, went 3-1 as the starter, completing 61.9 percent of his passes and averaging 6.1 yards per rush. If Kay takes care of the ball, Cincy should be in good shape: The Bearcats were 5-0 when they avoided committing a turnover this season. Duke may have ended its bowless streak, but this won't be the year in which the Blue Devils, whose last postseason win came in the Cotton Bowl on Jan. 2, 1961, actually end their bowl win drought.
• The pick: Cincinnati 38, Duke 24