The big 2013 Belk Bowl breakdown: Much better game than you think

Liz Condo-USA TODAY Sports

Records and numbers tell you two different stories about the Belk Bowl (Dec. 28, 3:20 p.m. ET, ESPN). Can Cincinnati prove skeptical numbers wrong? Can a young (and seemingly getting younger) UNC squad learn to close games? And what's the over/under on Ryan Switzer punt return touchdowns: three? Four?

When the bowl pairings come out, my father, who will probably watch about four of them, peruses the list, just looking at rankings and records. He knows there are better ways to do it (ahem), but in fairness, it's not like most websites are showing F/+ rankings next to team names, and he doesn't care enough to look them up. (He's what you would call a casual fan, at best.)

On Monday after the bowl pairings were announced, he remarked to me just how different a lot of the records were in bowl games this year; he also mentioned that it probably meant the bowls weren't going to be very good. I scoffed and tried to tell him how awesome bowls always are, but that didn't get me very far.

This is a long way of saying that when he looked at the bowl matchups, odds are good that the Belk Bowl was one of the biggest offenders on his list. Meanwhile, it's the clearest example to me that records don't tell you even 10 percent of the story.

(Okay, maybe they tell you 10 percent. But probably not more.)

In 2013, Cincinnati was a thoroughly mediocre team, beating a series of welterweights, before turning into a pretty damn good team late. Meanwhile, North Carolina spent most of the season playing at an above average level while figuring out creative ways to falter in close games. As a result, Cincinnati is 9-3 with a No. 64 F/+ ranking that is dragged down significantly by special teams. North Carolina, meanwhile, is 6-6 and 40th.

With the Belk Bowl basically being played close to UNC's backyard, the 6-6 team from a BCS conference is actually a slight favorite over the 9-3 team from a BCS conference that had a chance at a BCS bowl until the final weekend of the season. Records don't tell us much, at the end of the day.

How they got here

Cincy's season to date

Cincinnati nearly beat 11-1 Louisville, falling at home in overtime on December 5. The Bearcats beat Rutgers, UConn, Temple, and Purdue by an average score of 43-15.

They also barely beat a dreadful Miami (Ohio) team, sneaked past SMU by three points, and lost to both South Florida (by six points) and Illinois (by an incredible 28).

Tommy Tuberville's first squad in southwestern Ohio definitely played better late in the year than it did in September, but the team's overall quality is difficult to read. Regardless, a Belk-level bowl is probably about right for the 'Cats this time around.

UNC's season to date

The quality didn't change that much, but the results certainly did.

Larry Fedora's second season in Chapel Hill began with five losses in six games. The Tar Heels were usually competitive -- they fell by a total of 22 points to Georgia Tech, Virginia Tech, and Miami -- but just couldn't make plays down the stretch. Oh yeah, and they got romped by 24 points at home by East Carolina.

But as the schedule eased up, the Heels kept plugging away and found some wins. They won five games in a row, thumping fellow bowl team Boston College and winning at Pittsburgh to catch back up to 6-5 before a two-point, season-ending loss to Duke dampened the mood a bit.

Data dump

Team Record BCS F/+ Rk Line Off F/+ Rk Def F/+ Rk ST F/+ Rk
Cincinnati 9-3 NR 64 50 49 119
North Carolina 6-6 NR 40 -3 34 54 73
Std. Downs S&P+ Pass. Downs S&P+ Rushing S&P+ Passing S&P+ First Down Rate Explosive Drives Methodical Drives
Cincy Offense 84 22 88 38 19 53 4
UNC Defense 45 25 42 37 60 21 118
Adj. Line Yards Opportunity Rate Power Success Rate Stuff Rate Adj. Sack Rate Std. Downs Sack Rate Pass. Downs Sack Rate
Cincy Offense 82 82 79 79 11 44 6
UNC Defense 60 50 21 56 44 37 58
Std. Downs S&P+ Pass. Downs S&P+ Rushing S&P+ Passing S&P+ First Down Rate Explosive Drives Methodical Drives
UNC Offense 32 52 74 18 75 76 26
Cincy Defense 48 98 56 89 7 10 65
Adj. Line Yards Opportunity Rate Power Success Rate Stuff Rate Adj. Sack Rate Std. Downs Sack Rate Pass. Downs Sack Rate
UNC Offense 64 50 100 41 15 35 41
Cincy Defense 53 36 5 43 53 66 10
Field Position Adv. FG Efficiency Punt Efficiency Kickoff Efficiency Punt Return Efficiency Kick Return Efficiency
Cincy Special Teams 43 125 107 3 109 99
UNC Special Teams 42 106 8 98 27 112

Cincy's biggest advantages:

Cincy is patient. The Bearcats are happy to take their time scoring points and are one of the best at long, methodical scoring drives. Meanwhile, UNC's relatively conservative defense is hospitable in that regard. In their first year with offensive coordinator Eddie Gran, UC has attempted balance on standard downs and said "Go make a play" to quarterback Brendan Kay on passing downs.

Kay gets good pass protection and has a hell of a passing-downs target in Anthony McClung (11.1 yards per target on PDs), so this has worked out pretty well for the Bearcats despite a lack of consistent success on the ground. UNC is pretty good on passing downs, but without a stellar pass rush, it might not be able to stop Kay from finding receivers if or when UC falls behind schedule.

And on the other side of the field...

Cincy is patient. The Bearcats are really good at preventing explosive drives and forcing you to plod for scores. With UNC's sophomore quarterback Marquise Williams taking over for injured Bryn Renner in early-November, the Heels' offense became more explosive (Williams averages 14.3 yards per completion to Renner's 11.6) and less patient (completion rate: Renner 66 percent, Williams 58 percent; interception rate: Williams 6 percent, Renner 3 percent).

Like Duke was in the regular season finale, Cincy is pretty good at preventing the thing Williams wants to do the most. That's a good thing. And if the Heels find themselves in short-yardage situations at times, Cincy could still find success against a UNC line that is both decent and glitchy.

Less good: Williams is far less sack-prone than Renner, and Cincy lives to pin its ears back on passing downs. Silverbery Mouhon is a pass-rush specialist at end (9.5 sacks, seven hurries, and only one non-sack tackle for loss), and Nick Temple (13.5 tackles for loss, 5.5 sacks) is a blitz threat from the middle linebacker position. Cincy is pretty passive in the secondary on passing downs, forming a safe umbrella and giving away easy, shorter gains if you can avoid the pass rush.

Receiver Quinshad Davis and tight end Eric Ebron are lovely passing-downs targets (combined on such downs: 55 targets, 35 catches, 537 yards), so if the Bearcats send Mouton, Temple, and company after Williams, they better bring him down. And they might.

UNC's biggest advantages:

The kids are alright. Sorry. That was an obvious writer cliche, but in my defense, I don't think I've ever used it before. Anyway. Since Marquise Williams took over for Renner, the passing game has become more explosive and less reliable, but the running game has just become better. Williams is a solid run threat, averaging 5.3 yards per carry and carrying about 14 times per game (as the starter), and freshman running back T.J. Logan has become a serious threat, averaging 7.1 yards per carry in the last five games.

UNC's season rushing numbers aren't great, but the ground game has come to life of late. If the Heels can find their way on the ground on standard downs, that will help to both a) open up play-action passing, and b) keep Cincy's pass rush on ice. Both would be very good for UNC.

Cincy is pretty abominable in the special teams department. Special teams make up about 14 percent of the F/+ equation, so for you to rank 50th in Off. F/+ and 49th in Def. F/+ but 64th overall, your special teams unit has to be one hell of an albatross. And Cincy's kind of is.

The kick coverage is good, but Tony Miliano has made only five of nine field goals under 40 yards (and one of six over 40), the return games are nonexistent (Ralph David Abernathy IV has failed to stand out in the return game, the run game, or the passing game in 2013), and Cincy opponents are averaging 12.9 yards per punt return.

Oh yeah, and UNC punt returner Ryan Switzer has taken four of 21 returns to the house. The freshman from Charleston, W. Va., became a household name, at least within ACC country, with his late-season exploits, and he could have an opportunity to shine in Charlotte.

Overreactions for 2014

We tend to overreact to particularly positive or negative bowl results when it comes to projecting forward for the next season. How might we overreact to this game?

Some of Cincy's bigger names are seniors -- Brendan Kay, Greg Blair, defensive tackles Jordan Stepp and Adam Dempsey -- but the Bearcats will return a decent core of talent, and with Louisville moving to the ACC and UCF potentially losing quarterback Blake Bortles (who has become a potential top-10 Draft pick seemingly overnight), the Bearcats will likely be the AAC favorites next season regardless of what happens in Belk Land.

UNC, meanwhile, could make a statement. Despite being a favorite, a lot of people will look at a Belk win as an upset, and when you combine that with how incredibly young some of the Heels' new breakout talents are -- Williams is a sophomore, Logan and Switzer are freshmen -- it's possible that expectations will be relatively high for UNC despite the loss of some key pieces: left tackle James Hurst, defensive end Kareem Martin, safety Tre Boston, probably Ebron, etc. The Heels are young enough overall that a so-called upset could lead to some decent overreaction.


F/+ Projection: UNC 33, Cincy 26
Win Probability: UNC 70%

This is a game in which numbers and records tell two drastically different stories. With a new coach and an injured quarterback, Cincinnati took a while to get rolling before looking good late. Meanwhile, UNC underwent an identity makeover in November but maintained form in terms of overall quality.

Despite records, the Heels have been the more consistently decent team in 2013, but their youth and their ability to falter late might give the Bearcats the edge if this game is still close in the fourth quarter.

Still, the numbers like the Heels a little more than the head might, picking them to win two of three times. So prepare for UNC-related overreaction in the offseason. And prepare to be surprised, Dad.

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