5 Players To Watch
Ralph David Abernathy IV (RBish, Cincinnati, So.). Really, I did not choose Abernathy because of his extreme impact on the Cincinnati offense. He is the No. 2 runner in the run game and No. 4 target in the passing game, and he will probably only get eight or nine opportunities to touch the ball (with a few kickoff returns here and there, too) and only gains about 55 yards per game in sum. Instead, I chose him because he is really, really fun to watch in those eight or nine touches. He is quick and bouncy (and small: 5'7, 161 pounds), and as a sophomore surrounded by seniors in the skill positions -- starting quarterback Brendan Kay, star running back George Winn, leading receiver Kenbrell Thompkins and steady tight end Travis Kelce are all playing in their final game as Bearcats -- he could be the focus of Tommy Tuberville's first Cincy offense next year. Get to know him now.
Greg Blair (MLB, Cincinnati, Sr.). Both of these teams have offenses that are interesting and effective in their own ways (Duke passes efficiently and almost never runs, while Cincinnati is both explosive and quite inconsistent), but what separates the two teams is that Cincinnati has a defense. Duke really, really does not. An iffy Blue Devil D has turned awful with injuries. The Bearcats, meanwhile, don't necessarily have a single star, but Blair is close: He is by far the team leader in tackles (92.5) and tackles for loss (8.5), and he is second in passes defensed (eight) and quarterback hurries (four). He will blitz on one play and drift into coverage the next, and Duke will have to account for him at all times.
Jamison Crowder (WR, Duke, So.) and Conner Vernon (WR, Duke, Sr.). Blair's presence might be negated somewhat by Duke's propensity for the quick, horizontal pass. The Blue Devils will throw quickly to Crowder and Vernon all game if you cannot stop it -- on average, they are targeted a combined 19 times per game, and they catch about 12 of those targets. Both can get vertical at times (they did combine to average 13.7 yards per catch), as well. Their battles with aggressive Cincy corners Deven Drane and Camerron Cheatham (combined: five interceptions, 12 passes broken up, five tackles for loss) could be very fun to watch. And if Crowder and Vernon don't win most of those battles, the Blue Devils will struggle to keep up.
George Winn (RB, Cincinnati, Sr.). Duke's defense ranks an incredible 113th in Rushing S&P+. In this sense, "incredible" means "Their run defense was worse than those of Eastern Michigan (No. 112), winless Southern Miss (111), Texas State (107), and UTSA (106), and they still reached bowl eligibility." In other words, George Winn might be finishing his Cincy career with an exclamation mark. The senior from Southfield, Michigan, rushed for 165 yards and three touchdowns versus Syracuse, for 125 yards versus Louisville and for 119 yards versus South Florida. He has had a bit of an up-and-down year, but he should find wide running lanes available to him in Charlotte.
4 Reasons To Watch
1. Duke is in a bowl game! Once a marginal national power (they went to two Rose Bowls, two Orange Bowls and a Sugar Bowl from 1938 to 1957), the Blue Devils have spent most of the last five decades struggling to keep up with the rest of the ACC on the gridiron. But in five seasons, David Cutcliffe has slowly built a semi-respectable program, and now he gets the payoff: Duke's first bowl bid since 1994 and third since 1960. If you like rarity in your bowl games, the Belk Bowl is for you!
(Seriously, one cannot commend Cutcliffe enough. This Duke team is still incredibly flawed and benefited from an even more flawed ACC to reach bowl eligibility, but the Blue Devils won just 10 games in an eight-year span from 2000 to 2007. Six wins would be a pretty spectacular feat, even if Duke were in the MAC. Or the Colonial Athletic Association.)
2. Cincinnati's offense is both fun and scattershot. With players like Abernathy, quarterback Munchie Legaux (who was replaced in the starting lineup by Brendan Kay in November) and all-or-nothing receivers like Kenbrell Thompkins (523 yards, 7.7 per target, 47 percent catch rate) and Anthony McClung (429 yards, 6.7 per target, 48 percent catch rate), Cincinnati has quite a few interesting, explosive options on offense. None of them are particularly reliable, even Winn, but oh, when things go well, it is spectacular. Against Duke's defense, the odds are pretty good that Cincinnati will spend quite a bit of time "on," even though Duke is certainly trying to switch things up a bit. (That said, Duke's defense is pretty good on passing downs; if Cincinnati spends too much time in second-and-long, it might catch up to the Bearcats.)
3. Duke's offense really is pretty unique. The Blue Devils' top three running backs -- Jela Duncan, Josh Snead and Juwan Thompson -- have combined for 254 carries. Their top two receivers (Vernon and Crowder) have been targeted almost as many times. The Blue Devils run just 53 percent of the time on standard downs (101st in the country) and 21 percent on passing downs (119th), going all-in, instead, on what amount to long handoffs. Aside from Crowder and Vernon, no Duke player with more than six receptions has averaged even 10.0 yards per reception. If there were such a thing as a "bend-don't-break offense," Duke's would be it, and if Cincy doesn't tackle well, the Blue Devils' efficiency could make this an interesting game.
4. Bonus football. Bonus football!
3 Key Factors
1. Tackling. Making this a key factor suggests it isn't always a key factor (this is one step away from saying "Scoring more points is very important"), but go with me here. If George Winn is able to shake off tacklers and get to the second level of the defense ... well, Duke's second level is pretty terrible. He will run a long, long way. Meanwhile, if Cincy defenders are allowing two-yard passes to become nine-yard gains, Duke will dink-and-dunk the Bearcats to death.
2. Stopping George Winn. Even though Brendan Kay has brought a steadier hand to the Cincinnati offense, the Bearcats are still a bit inconsistent through the air. But they won't have to go to the air unless Duke can get in Winn's way. The young, erratic front six of this 4-2-5 (one that features just two seniors among 15 listed players) will have to play above its collective head for Duke to have a serious chance in this one.
3. Once again, the hangover. For the second time in four seasons, Cincinnati is replacing its head coach. Butch Jones is off to Knoxville and will be replaced by former Texas Tech coach Tommy Tuberville. In the meantime, Steve Stripling will serve a familiar role: as interim coach for the departed Jones. He led Central Michigan to a 44-41 win over Troy in the 2010 GMAC Bowl before joining Jones' staff. You never know how it will work when an interim coach takes over, but if Stripling's squad plays well, it should have far too much for Duke.
F/+ Pick: Cincy by 24.8.
Bill's Pick: Cincy by 20. I fear the Cincy hangover, but I also fear Duke's awful defense.
1 Shutdown Fullback
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