New coach. Same result. Cincinnati hired Tommy Tuberville in the offseason to replace former coach Butch Jones, but the Bearcats are headed back to the Belk Bowl, where they will face North Carolina on Saturday (3:20 p.m. ET, ESPN).
Here’s a quick preview:
Who to watch: The best player on the field likely will be North Carolina tight end Eric Ebron. The Mackey Award finalist led the team with 55 catches for 895 yards. He already has announced that he will forgo his senior season and enter the 2014 NFL draft, where he’s projected to go in the first round. However, the most intriguing matchup is between the two “replacement” quarterbacks. Each took over at some point this season and led his team to a bowl game. For Cincinnati, Brendon Kay replaced injured Munchie Legaux in Week 2 and became only the fourth quarterback in program history to throw for more than 3,000 yards. The Tar Heels turned to Marquise Williams in early November when starter Bryn Renner suffered a season-ending shoulder injury. The dual-threat quarterback won four straight games under center before losing the regular-season finale to Duke.
What to watch: For the second straight year, Cincinnati will essentially play a road game when the team travels to Charlotte for the Belk Bowl. Last year, the Bearcats handled Duke, 48-34, but this year they will face a North Carolina team playing as well as anybody in the country right now. The Tar Heels have won five of their past six games and are just the sixth team since the regular season expanded to 12 games in 2006 to start 1-5 and still reach a bowl game. The question is how North Carolina’s up-tempo, spread-oriented offense will fare against a Cincinnati defense that comes in ninth in the nation in total defense, giving up 313.2 yards per game, and fifth against the run. For the Tar Heels, it should help that offensive coordinator Blake Anderson will still be on the sideline. The second-year assistant coach accepted a head-coaching position with Arkansas State earlier this month but will stay and coach the bowl game.
Why to watch: Although it’s a similar matchup to last year’s Belk Bowl and one that might not grab your attention, it should be an entertaining game. Both offenses have thrived with their new quarterbacks, and both are capable of making explosive plays at any time. It could very well turn into a shootout. There is also motivation on both sides. Cincinnati (9-3) is looking to win its third consecutive bowl game and reach 10 wins for the sixth time in the past seven seasons. Meanwhile, North Carolina is seeking its first bowl victory in its home state. The Tar Heels have lost three previous bowls played in Charlotte.
Prediction: North Carolina 31, Cincinnati 28