CINCINNATI BEARCATS BREAKDOWN
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.
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
NORTH CAROLINA TAR HEELS BREAKDOWN
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.
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