For the first time in since the 1995 season, the Duke Blue Devils will play in a postseason game when they take on the Cincinnati Bearcats in the Belk Bowl at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, North Carolina on Thursday, Dec. 27.
The headlines for Cincinnati recently have had very little to do with the Bearcats' bowl bid. Head coach Butch Jones, who had been with the team for the past three seasons resigned on Dec. 7 to take the vacant head coaching position at Tennessee. With Jones gone Steve Stripling will lead the Bearcats against Duke. Just a day later former Texas Tech head coach Tommy Tuberville was announced as UC's new head coach, amid reports that he left recruits at a dinner the night before, to accept the job.
All the coaching moves have overshadowed what was a strong season for Cincinnati, which finished 9-3 overall and earned its sixth bowl bid in the last seven years. The coaching change hasn't been a distraction according to several UC players, including offensive lineman Austen Bujnoch.
"I first want to thank Coach Jones for the opportunity he gave us. We couldn't have won back-to-back Big East championships without him," Bujnoch said. "But it's time to move on. We play for the guys in the locker room and for the 'C' on our chest at the end of the day. We have had two different coaches in the last five years and have won four championships, so it's about the guys in the locker room."
The Bearcats are 5-5 all-time in bowl games, which includes a 31-24 victory over Vanderbilt in last year's Liberty Bowl. The 2012 regular season ended on a high note for Cincy with a 34-17 victory on the road against Connecticut, which earned the Bearcats a four-way share of the Big East title.
Duke has grabbed its share of headlines this year as well, particularly with regard to the team earning its first bowl bid since the 1994-95 season. In that contest nearly two decades ago, the Blue Devils fell by a count of 34-20 to Wisconsin in what was then known as the Hall of Fame Bowl, but has since been renamed the Outback Bowl. That appearance was also the only bowl game for Duke since 1961 and the eighth overall. Duke will have its head coach on the sidelines with David Cutcliffe calling the shots after earning the 2012 ACC Coach of the Year award.
"This honor is both humbling and rewarding because of the quality of the coaches in our conference," Cutcliffe said. "Ultimately, the acclaim goes to both our staff and the group of young men that came to practice every day with a desire to improve and prepare, gave their best effort on Saturdays."
Duke struggled late in the season by losing each of its last four games but still managed to finish with a 6-6 overall record which was the most wins the program has logged since its last bowl season.
There won't be any familiarity between these programs based on a past history since this game marks the first ever between them.
Cincinnati was one of the best offensive teams in the Big East this season. The Bearcats ranked second in both total offense (430.8 ypg) and were tied for first in scoring (31.0) while ranking in the top-50 in the country in each of those categories. Balance was the key for Cincinnati, as the team rushed for 199.8 yards per game while throwing for 231.0 ypg.
The Bearcats' offensive showing is even more impressive considering the squad had to deal with a quarterback change midway through the year. Munchie Legaux began the season as the starter, but struggled leading to the ascension of Brendon Kay who started the last four games. Kay completed 61.9 percent of his pass attempt and threw six touchdowns with a pair of interceptions. He surpassed 240 yards passing in three games and earned a 4-1 record as the starter.
Easing the transition between quarterbacks was a steady running game which was powered by George Winn. The Big East's leading rusher (1,204 yards, 12 TDs), Winn was one of just two players in the conference to average more than 100 rushing yards per game. Winn did begin to slow down in the final weeks though, as he had just one game with 100 yards or more in the final four contests. Kay can also pick up yards on the ground when need be as he had at least 46 yards rushing in three of his four starts.
In terms of pass-catching options, tight end Travis Kelce really turned it on at the end of the season and finished with teams-highs in receptions (40), yards (599) and touchdowns (7). He caught at least four balls for 50 yards in four of the final five games, and logged five of his touchdowns over that span. Kenbrell Thompkins (32 receptions, 523 yards, 2 TDs) and Anthony McClung (31 receptions, 429 yards, TD) are both capable of making big plays in space.
On defense, the Bearcats were in the middle of the Big East in terms of yards allowed (373.8 pg). However, they were able to limit foes on the scoreboard by ranking second in the Big East and 12th nationally in scoring defense (17.2 ppg). The Bearcats were especially tight in the red zone where they allowed a conference-low 14 touchdowns. Cincinnati was one of the better teams in the league in creating pressure by totaling the second-most sacks (30.0).
Powering the defense from the linebacker position was Greg Blair, who racked up tackles as well as any player in the country. Blair finished the season with the second-most stops in the Big East (123) including 8.5 for loss. Dan Giordano (51 tackles, 5.0 sacks) turned into the unit's best pass rusher when Walter Stewart was lost for the season early on due to a back injury.
In a conference filled with high-powered offenses like Clemson and Florida State, Duke ranked near the middle in terms of offensive production. The Blue Devils were the seventh-best team in total offense (396.6 ypg) and just a notch above that in scoring (31.3 ppg). There was much less balance for the Blue Devils, who relied more heavily on the pass (3,331 yards) than the run (1,428 yards).
Calling the shots from under center is Sean Renfree who turned in a strong season. Renfree completed 66.3 percent of his pass attempts for 2,755 yards and had 10 more touchdowns (18) than interceptions (8). Renfree ranked third in the ACC in completion percentage, but fell to fifth in overall passer rating (136.08).
Renfree had the benefit of throwing to one of the best receiving tandems in the country. Both Conner Vernon and Jamison Crowder each had stellar seasons on the outside. Vernon (75 receptions, 955 yards, 7 TDs) led the squad in receptions and had four games with at least 100 receiving yards. Crowder (70 receptions, 1,025 yards, 8 TDs) had more big-play ability as he showed in the regular-season finale when he hauled in eight passes for 203 yards and a pair of scores. Both finished in the top-10 in the ACC in receptions and receiving yards. Desmond Scott (61 receptions, 606 yards, 2 TDs) adds even more depth to the receiving corps.
When Duke does run the ball it turns to the backfield duo of Jela Duncan and Josh Snead. Even though he is just a freshman, Duncan (99 attempts, 516 yards, 4 TDs) was the primary back but did not have a 100-yard rushing game this year. Snead (389 yards, 2 TDs) was also held out of the century club but came within a yard against North Carolina. Backup quarterback Brandon Connette was used in a number of short-yardage situations, especially near the goal line, where he scored 7 touchdowns.
On the defensive side of the ball, Duke has really not been up to par. The Blue Devils are the worst team in the ACC in scoring defense (35.0 ppg), and next-to-last in total defense (462.1 ypg). Really hurting Duke is how often teams have scored in the red zone with a league-worst 91.1 percent success rate allowed by the Blue Devils. Duke doesn't really create much pressure either, ranking near the bottom in sacks (23.0) and tackles for loss (56.0). Duke did collect 23 turnovers this season, which was tied for the second-most in the conference.
Both Walt Canty and Ross Cockrell earned All-ACC honors for Duke this season. Canty led the team with 102 tackles, including 5.5 for loss. Cockrell dominated in the secondary as well by snagging five interceptions while being credited with 12 pass breakups. Kenny Anunike (52 tackles, 5.0 sacks) is the top pass rusher for the Blue Devils.