Yes, Duke is really in a bowl game, and they’ll play Thursday in the Belk Bowl against the Cincinnati Bearcats. Cincinnati shared the Big East title this year after going 9-3 but will again be looking for a new head coach after Butch Jones left to become head coach at Tennessee. Tommy Tuberville will take over the head coach position, but in this game the Bearcats will be led by D-Line coach Steve Stripling. Can Duke take advantage of the coaching situation in flux and get a win in their first bowl appearance since 1994? It would appear to be an uphill battle against a tough Cincinnati squad; here’s how I think this one will unfold:
When to Watch: 6:30 PM ET, December 27, 2012
Where to Watch: Live on ESPN from Bank of America, Charlotte, North Carolina
What to Watch For
When Duke has the ball: Duke’s offense ranked 46th in the nation scoring 31.3 points per game. They did most of their damage through the air and struggled to get much of a rushing attack throughout the season. They’re led by Senior quarterback Sean Renfree who threw for 432 yards and four touchdowns in the regular season finale and finished with 2,755 yards and 18 touchdowns on the season. Renfree has a pair of solid receivers in classmate Conner Vernon and Sophomore Jamison Crowder. The lack of a running game hurt them toward the end of the season, but they can definitely make plays in the passing game.
The Cincinnati defense is one of the toughest to get big plays on in the country. They ranked 12th in the nation allowing just 17.2 points per game and forced 24 turnovers throughout the season. The Bearcats are led by Seniors DE Dan Giordano up front and Greg Blair at linebacker both of who were named by the coaches to the 1012 All-Big East First Team. Giordano finished the year with 5.0 sacks, a forced fumble, and a pair of recovered fumbles, and Blair was the second-leading tackler in all the Big East with 123 tackes, an average of over 10 per game. The Bearcats defense should be able to crush the Blue Devils struggling running game and prevent the big plays that the Duke offense thrives on.
When Cincinnati has the ball: The big change for Cincinnati this year was at quarterback as they went from Munchie Legeaux to senior Brendon Kay (who has been granted an extra year of eligibility). Kay led Cincinnati to wins over Temple, South Florida, and UConn in three of their last four games throwing for six scores and two interceptions and just uner 1,000 yards in his limite playing time. The mainstay of the Bearcats offense isn’t at QB though, Senior running back George Winn was second in the Big East with 1,204 rushing yards this season and 12 touchdowns. The main receiver in the Cincinnati offense is tight end Travis Kelce who finished the season with 40 catches and seven touchdowns and could be one of the first group of tight ends to go in the NFL Draft this year.
If the Dukees want to get their first win in a bowl game since 1961, they’ll need to get a better performance from their defense than they’ve been getting lately. Duke ranked 104 (out of 124) in scoring defense allowing 35.0 points per game. They were 103 against the rush and 97 against the pass. In five of their last six games they allowed their opponent to score 40 or more points. The on standout was Ross Cockrell, a redshirt Junior, who get All-ACC first team honors and led the league with five interceptions on the year.
Who to Watch For (NFL Prospects)
From Cincinnati, tight end Travis Kelce is now considered to be in the top two or three tight ends in this year’s draft class and currently projects in the fourth or fifth round. Linebacker Greg Blair, Safety Drew Frey, and defensive end Dan Giordano could all be late round selections from an excellent Bearcats defense. Running back George Winn could also be added in the late rounds or through free agency and could improve his stock as the draft approaches.
On the Duke side of the ball, wide receiver Connor Vernon currently projects as a fifth-round selection and quarterback Sean Renfree could be drafted as a developmental late-round QB pick. Renfree is a classic dropback passer and has been coached by David Cutcliffe who worked with both Manning brothers on the collegiate level.
Duke comes in having lost their last four in a row and as seven point underdogs. I think it’s possible that the Blue Devils could pull the upset but a lot of things would have to go their way. The more likely outcome is that the Bearcats get the win behind a solid game from Kay. Duke’s headed the right direction, but will have to wait another year to taste bowl success.
Against the spread, I’d take Cincinnati as well since Duke’s defense hasn’t been able to hold their opponents under 30 in their last six games and I don’t see them scoring more than 20 against the Cincinnati defense.