UNC (6-6) is favored by 2.5 points over the Bearcats (9-3), although the Tar Heels will be looking for their first bowl win in the Queen City following losses to Boston College (‘04), West Virginia (‘08) and Pittsburgh (‘09).
The teams followed similar paths this season with slow starts followed by lengthy winning streaks and season-ending losses to ranked opponents.
Cincinnati dropped road games at Illinois and South Florida in stumbling out to a 3-2 record before winning its next six games by an average of 16.8 points. The Bearcats lost their regular season finale to No. 18 Louisville by seven points in overtime.
North Carolina lost five of its first six games before reeling off five consecutive victories by an average of 26 points per game. The Tar Heels fell to No. 22 Duke, 27-25, at home on Nov. 30.
UNC head coach Larry Fedora credits his coaching staff and his seniors for the second-half turnaround.
"They did a great job of keeping that football team together, keeping them believing," Fedora said. "They found a way. We focused on being 1-0 each week, and tried to tune everything else out from the outside and just focus on that. I believe there's only been one other BCS team since we've gone to 12 regular-season games that's gone from 1-5 to being bowl eligible. We're proud of that fact."
UNC's early-season woes came against a frontloaded schedule. With lighter fare on the menu after fall break, the Tar Heels improved in all three phases due in large part to quarterback Marquise Williams (1,527 passing yards, 14 TD, 6 INT; 490 rushing yards, 6 TD), defensive end Kareem Martin (78 tkl, 11 sacks, 20 TFL) and punt returner – and All-America – Ryan Switzer (419 return yards, 4 TD).
With Williams, a Charlotte native, taking over for the injured Bryn Renner, UNC's rushing attack averaged 207.8 yards on 5.4 yards per carry over its final five games.
That ground game will encounter a significant hurdle against the Bearcats, who rank fifth nationally in run defense (98.7 ypg). Cincinnati also ranks eighth nationally in total defense (313.2 ypg) and 12th in scoring defense (19.5 ppg) under former UNC defensive coordinator Art Kaufman's tutelage.
"They're a very good defensive team," Fedora said. "Nobody's run the ball on them very well. They're sound in everything they do. Their guys are making plays for them. They're playing hard."
Cincinnati also lost its starting quarterback, Munchie Legaux, to injury two games into the season. Brendon Kay stepped in and completed 68.6 percent of his passes for 3,121 yards, 22 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. Five Bearcat wide receivers have caught 20 or more passes, including Shaq Washington (75 receptions, 747 yards, TD) and Anthony McClung (68 catches, 908 yards, 5 TD).
"We need a fast track for us to have a good chance to win this ballgame, because we're not as big as North Carolina but we've got some quickness and speed and we need to be able to use that," first-year Cincinnati head coach Tommy Tuberville said. "We're in good shape."
The Bearcats rank 15th nationally in passing offense (313.8 ypg) and their offensive line has only allowed 12 sacks, which is good for T-11th in the country. Starting left guard Austen Bujnoch and starting right guard Sam Longo will both miss Saturday's game, however, due to recent injuries.
UNC's defense, led by Martin, came to life over the second half of the season, totaling 17 sacks and holding opponents to 359.3 yards and 19.5 points per game.
The Tar Heels expect to hold one additional advantage in the form of a home field advantage. UNC's campus is roughly 125 miles from Bank of America Stadium, and while Cincinnati expects to bring 15,000 fans on Saturday, the Queen City has long been known as a UNC city.
"I'm sure they'll bring a lot of fans," Tuberville said. "Sometimes you worry a little bit about going into the home state of the team that's going to play, but we'll have a lot of fans here, too."
Both teams will receive a minimum payout of $1.7 million.
A victory would give UNC its sixth consecutive winning season and second bowl win in three tries.