ACC: American Athletic Conference

The Belk Bowl unfolded quickly as North Carolina jumped out to an early lead over Cincinnati and never looked back Saturday, running away with a 39-17 win. Here's how it all happened:

It was over when: Can a game be over almost as soon as it begins? North Carolina started off as strong as conceivably possible, scoring the game's first touchdown on a 2-yard run from Romar Morris with 5 minutes, 40 seconds left in the first quarter. Just three minutes later, the Tar Heels delivered what proved to be a debilitating series of jabs as Kareem Martin got the sack-safety and T.J. Logan followed that up by taking the ensuing kickoff 78 yards for a score, resulting in a 9-point swing. Cincinnati showed some life in the second half, but the 16-point deficit was ultimately too much to overcome.

Game ball goes to: Even without Blake Anderson calling plays, North Carolina didn't miss a beat. Marquise Williams executed the offense in perfect tandem with head coach Larry Fedora, who subbed in while his former offensive coordinator was off starting his own head-coaching career at Arkansas State. Williams, a talented sophomore, spread the ball around in the air, completing passes to seven different receivers while rushing for 46 yards. He finished the game with 171 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions on 19-of-33 passing.

Unsung hero: Make no mistake, North Carolina won the Belk Bowl in the trenches. A tip of the cap should go to both the offensive and defensive lines. The Tar Heels wouldn't have jumped out to such a big lead without the defense providing four sacks and three three-and-outs in the first half. Cincinnati's line entered the game having allowed 12 sacks all season, but UNC wound up with five on the day. UNC's offensive line, meanwhile, allowed for a balanced offensive attack, with 171 yards through the air and 174 yards on the ground.

Stat of the game: North Carolina got the monkey off its back by finally not rejecting some good old-fashioned home cooking. The Tar Heels won a bowl game in their home state for the first time after losing the three previous bowl games they played in Charlotte. Ryan Switzer, meanwhile, managed to tie an NCAA record by returning his fifth punt for a touchdown this season. Where many would have called for a fair catch in the third quarter against the Bearcats, Switzer hung in, caught the ball with a number of defenders in the vicinity and weaved upfield 85 yards for the score.

What North Carolina learned: Fedora taught his Tar Heels that it's not how you start but how you finish. Ending the season with six wins in seven games was impressive. Getting above .500 after starting off the year 1-5 was incredible. The hope for North Carolina is that the momentum coming out of the Belk Bowl will carry over into next season and such a furious surge won't be necessary to reach the postseason again. With Williams, freshman tailback Logan, freshman receiver Switzer and sophomore receivers T.J. Thorpe and Quinshad Davis all returning to Chapel Hill, the future is bright.

What Cincinnati learned: The Bearcats, on the other hand, end the season on a sour note. The momentum of winning six straight games late in the year was almost entirely wiped out after losing in overtime against Louisville on Dec. 5 and then getting blown out by North Carolina on Saturday. Next season will be tough for head coach Tommy Tuberville, as he will be without senior quarterback Brendon Kay and the quarterback of the defense in senior linebacker Greg Blair. But with the much-traveled redshirt freshman transfer quarterback Gunner Kiel entering the fold, there's reason for optimism. The former No. 3-ranked quarterback in the 2012 class has all the tools to do well in the Bearcats' spread offense.

To watch the trophy presentation of the Belk Bowl, click here.

Belk Bowl

December, 8, 2013

Cincinnati Bearcats (9-3) versus North Carolina Tar Heels (6-6)

Dec. 28, 3:20 p.m. ET, Charlotte, N.C. (ESPN)

Tommy Tuberville’s tenure as Cincinnati coach got off to a perplexing start. A season-opening 35-point rout of Big Ten bottom-feeder Purdue was followed by a 28-point loss at underwhelming Illinois. Even worse, the Bearcats lost their starting quarterback for the season that day, as Munchie Legaux suffered a gruesome knee injury.

[+] EnlargeBrendon Kay
AP Photo/Al BehrmanSixth-year senior quarterback Brendon Kay filled in again in 2013 and helped Cincinnati win six games in a row in the American.
A four-turnover performance at then-winless USF resulted in another surprising loss, leaving Cincinnati at 3-2 in early October. But the Bearcats hit a groove shortly thereafter, winning six in a row before an overtime home loss to rival Louisville in the regular-season finale.

The Bearcats once again were led down the stretch by quarterback Brendon Kay, just as they were late last season. A sixth-year senior, Kay replaced an ineffective Legaux late in the 2012 season and filled in for an injured Legaux this year. He threw for at least 299 yards in each of Cincinnati's final six games, including consecutive 400-yard performances heading into the Louisville game.

Cincinnati is 9-3, and a second consecutive berth in the Belk Bowl will give it a chance to clinch a double-digit win season under Tuberville. That would give the Bearcats their sixth 10-win season in the past seven. To put that into perspective, the program had never done that until 2007, under Brian Kelly. Tuberville would be the third coach to take Cincinnati to that plateau. -- Matt Fortuna

The Tar Heels had one of the most impressive turnarounds in college football, as they started out 1-5 then reeled off five straight wins to become bowl eligible. UNC became just the sixth team since the regular season expanded to 12 games in 2006 to start 1-5 and still make it to a bowl game.

[+] EnlargeEric Ebron
Bob Donnan/USA TODAY SportsCarolina likely would have to trade up in the first round of the NFL draft to have a shot at selecting Eric Ebron.
It was even more impressive considering starting quarterback Bryn Renner suffered a season-ending shoulder injury and had surgery Nov. 6. Despite the injury to Renner, backup Marquise Williams has proved to be a dependable option who is more than capable of winning, especially when he has an NFL-bound tight end to throw to in Eric Ebron, who has announced he will forgo his senior season to enter the draft.

Ebron finished the regular season with 55 catches for 895 yards, an ACC single-season record for receiving yards by a tight end. Williams has 1,058 total offense yards in the past three games, the most in any three-game stretch in school history.

UNC has also gotten a boost from its return game this year, as freshman Ryan Switzer tied the single-season ACC record with four punt return touchdowns. The Tar Heels couldn’t get it done against rival Duke, though, and lost to the Blue Devils for the second straight season. With 13 seconds left in the game, Williams was intercepted.

Fortunately for UNC, though, its bowl bid was secured a week earlier with an 80-20 win over Old Dominion. After missing the postseason in 2012 because the program was ineligible, North Carolina will embrace its return to a bowl game. -- Heather Dinich

Russell Athletic Bowl

December, 8, 2013

Miami Hurricanes (9-3) vs. Louisville Cardinals (11-1)

Dec. 28, 6:45 p.m. ET, Orlando, Fla. (ESPN)

Miami was the preseason favorite to win the ACC's Coastal Division. A late-season loss at Duke ruined those plans, and in some respects that makes this a down year for the Hurricanes. But there were plenty of positive developments in Al Golden’s third season, and with the cloud of an NCAA investigation finally lifted, better things could be on the horizon.

[+] EnlargeStacy Coley
Charles LeClaire/USA TODAY SportsFreshman receiver Stacy Coley shows electrifying potential for Miami.
There was the upset of in-state rival Florida in Week 2, a triumph that lost some of its punch as the Gators struggled, but one that nonetheless was huge for the program. There was also the 7-0 start that helped set up a showdown and atmosphere in Tallahassee that rivaled some of Miami and Florida State's past get-togethers.

A rough second half versus Florida State doomed the Canes on Nov. 2, and that defeat was followed by losses to Virginia Tech and Duke, ending their hopes of getting to the ACC title game. (Losing running back Duke Johnson for the season with a broken ankle in the FSU loss did not help matters, either.) But the defense stepped up in a victory over Virginia, and a 41-point outburst at Pitt on Black Friday was a nice way to end the regular season, giving Miami its first nine-win season since 2009 and a chance to get to 10 wins with a win in this bowl game.

One person worth watching the next time the Canes take the field? Freshman Stacy Coley, who has scored touchdowns on a kickoff return, a punt return, a rush and a reception in his first season. He has 30 receptions for 559 yards as a receiver. -- Matt Fortuna


The season began with such high hopes for the Cardinals. They returned a veteran team that beat Florida in the Allstate Sugar Bowl in January and had Heisman Trophy candidate Teddy Bridgewater back to lead the way.

[+] EnlargeTeddy Bridgewater
David Butler II/USA TODAY SportsIf not for one tough loss, Teddy Bridgewater and Louisville would likely be playing for a much bigger prize.
A clear path presented itself, with one of the easiest schedules in the country. But a national championship run was not meant to be. Facing upstart UCF at home in October, a game that represented the Cardinals’ biggest challenge to date, they slipped. Louisville built a 28-7 third-quarter lead and seemed in control.
But the defense, much-improved this season, allowed UCF back into the game with blown assignments and missed tackles. Louisville reclaimed a 35-31 lead with three minutes to play on Dominique Brown's 15-yard rushing TD. But the Knights marched right down the field and won with 23 seconds left when Blake Bortles hit Jeff Godfrey for the game-winning touchdown.

Louisville players were crushed, and their hopes for a national championship run and back-to-back BCS appearances were dashed. There would be no outright conference championship to celebrate. That loss ended up eliminating Bridgewater from serious Heisman Trophy contention.

Despite the bitter disappointment, Louisville won the rest of its games, including a thrilling overtime victory over rival Cincinnati to end the regular season. The Bearcats have won 11 games in back-to-back seasons for the first time in school history. Coach Charlie Strong is 22-3 since the start of 2012 and seems to have the program in good shape as it prepares to play its final game in the American Athletic Conference before moving to the ACC next season.

Though Bridgewater has been playing outside the national spotlight since the UCF loss, he had another exceptional season, throwing for 3,523 yards and hitting career marks with a 70.2 completion percentage, 28 touchdown passes and a career-low four interceptions.

On defense, Marcus Smith led the nation with 12.5 sacks and teammate Lorenzo Mauldin had 9.5, making them the top sack duo in the nation. The UCF performance was uncharacteristic of the way the D played all season, as it ended up ranked in the top 10 in every major defensive category. But then again, Louisville did not play a better team all season. -- Andrea Adelson

Video: Miami 49, South Florida 21

September, 28, 2013

Hurricanes quarterback Stephen Morris threw for 222 yards and two touchdowns before leaving Miami's 49-21 win over South Florida with an injury.
The debate over top individual classes is a fierce and long standing one in the world of recruiting, but a look at how conferences stack up against each other on the recruiting trail can offer great insight as well. The SEC has been dominant on the field and on the recruiting trail -- it's nabbed the top class four out of the last five years. For 2014, the SEC is making a push to claim the top class again with multiple teams ranked in the top 10 of ESPN RecruitingNation's class rankings. The SEC is not the only conference enjoying recruiting success though, as several others are showing similar depth.

Spreecast: Conference perceptions

August, 13, 2013
AM ET bloggers Heather Dinich, Adam Rittenberg, Edward Aschoff and Ted Miller discuss the perceptions of the major conferences.

The ACC will face the American Athletic Conference in the Military Bowl presented by Northrop Grumman beginning in 2014, sources told ESPN's Brett McMurphy.

The bowl will be played at the Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium in Annapolis, Md. The first five Military Bowls were played at RFK Stadium in Washington, D.C., until the game was moved to Navy's home stadium in 2013.

For more, click here.

Video: Schools change conferences

July, 1, 2013

Brett McMurphy discusses the various schools changing conferences Monday.