Tommy Tuberville's inaugural season with the Bearcats (9-3) ended up earning the team a return trip to the Belk Bowl against another team on Tobacco Road. Last season, Cincinnati defeated the Blue Devils in Charlotte 48-34. Tuberville's team faced adversity early when starting quarterback Munchie Legaux suffered an injury in the second game of the season. Despite the key loss on offense, the Bearcats reeled off six consecutive wins during the middle of their schedule behind fifth-year senior quarterback Brendon Kay. The two early season losses came on the road against Illinois and South Florida and Cincinnati's lone home loss coming in overtime against Louisville in the regular-season finale.
The offensive side of the ball packed a powerful punch with the Bearcats outscoring their opponents by 166 points during the regular season. Cincinnati ranks 20th in the nation in total offense (482.3 ypg) and possesses the 15th ranked passing offense (313.8 ypg) and 67th ranked rushing offense (168.5 ypg). The potent scoring attack averages 33.3 points per game and helped Cincinnati finish third in the AAC this season.
Defensively, Cincinnati owns the ninth-ranked unit in the nation (313.2 ypg) and makes their mark with their ability to shut down opposing rushing offenses. The Bearcats rank fifth in the country in rushing defense (98.7 ypg) and 32nd in passing yards allowed per game (214.5 ypg). The defense thrives in key situational settings, ranking 12th in scoring defense (19.5 ppg), 13th in third-down conversion defense (.325) and 18th in red zone defense (.742). Linebacker Greg Blair leads the Bearcats in tackles (96) while defensive end Silverberry Mouhon provides a formidable pass rush with 9.5 sacks on the season.
"They are a lot like us because they had a slow start and then won a lot of games in the end. We are probably a much better now than we were at the beginning of the year, as they are."- Cincinnati head coach Tommy Tuberville
"This is a resilient bunch of guys that kept believing in one another throughout the year and I'm glad they were rewarded with a bowl game. We're looking forward to facing a very good Cincinnati team led by an outstanding coach in Tommy Tuberville."- UNC head coach Larry Fedora
"I like coaching bowl games. Not a lot of pressure. Both teams are already winners and you obviously want to win the game, but you want to come have fun, enjoy the holidays, be around your seniors for the last time, and let them enjoy the last time that most of them will ever put on a helmet and a pair of shoulder pads as they go off into the real world as we know it. Then we will start for next year. I'm excited about play North Carolina. I coached against them once in the Chick-Filet Bowl years ago. They had a pretty good defensive lineman that we couldn't block named Peppers. I saw him in my dreams for about two weeks after that game."- Tuberville
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Senior quarterback Brendon Kay took full advantage of his opportunity in the pocket this season by becoming just the fourth quarterback in Cincinnati history to surpass the 3,000-yard mark. Kay improved with each game. The highlights came in back-to-back 400-yard performances on the road against Rutgers and Houston in November. The success has been accompanied with plaguing injuries to both his shoulder and ankle throughout the season, according to Tuberville.
"His ankle is so bad," his head coach said. "He's been wanting to play and push through it and it's been that way for about six weeks and he has only practiced about one or two days a week. He doesn't throw the ball much because his shoulders are so banged up but I tell you he is a warrior."
UNC's passing defense will offer a legitimate test as the Tar Heels have cut down on the missed assignments that plagued the secondary early in the season. UNC ranks 52nd in passing yards allowed (224.0 ypg) and 49th in pass efficiency defense (122.6).