The Cincinnati Bearcats and North Carolina Tar Heels are both looking for a win Saturday in the BELK Bowl out of Charlotte, North Carolina. Greg Dempson’s handicapping picks have continued to roll at Pick Sixty and today we’ve got an ATS prediction in the free picks section for this huge matchup
North Carolina did not participate in a Bowl game last year due to bowl sanctions but after starting the season 1-5, the Tar Heels won five of their final six games to become bowl eligible and are listed at online sportsbooks as a 2.5-point favorite.
BEARCATS vs. TAR HEELS (-2.5, O/U 58)
The Tar Heels travel to Charlotte, roughly two and-a-half hours from home, to meet Cincinnati and the good news is that North Carolina holds a 2-0 record in its past two games against the Bearcats. The bad news is that despite a noted home field advantage, North Carolina is 0-3 straight up (2-1 ATS) in Belk Bowl contests losing to Boston College in 2004 (+2 by a score of 37-24), West Virginia in 2008 (+2.5, score 30-31) and Pittsburgh in 2009 (lines of +3/+2 and closing at +1, score 17-19) with those last two losses coming by a combined 3 points.
This is Cincinnati’s 11th bowl appearance since the 2000 season and they are 5-5 SU and 3-7-1 ATS. The Bearcats enter today’s bowl with an impressive 9-3 SU record that’s diminished somewhat by a ‘strength of schedule’ (SOS) ranking of #114. They suffered losses to Illinois (4-8 SU) and University South Florida (2-10 SU) and only defeated one team with a winning record. Cincinnati played in last years’ Belk Bowl and the Bearcats won 48-34 vs. Duke but it was a bit misleading since two of Cinci’s majors came within the final 44 seconds.
The Bearcats won six of their last seven games and a win vs. the Tar Heels would give them a sixth, 10-win season in their last seven years. Quarterback Brendon Kay leads the country’s 15th ranked passing attack and he completed 69% if his passes throwing 22 touchdowns vs. 11 picks. In his last two contests when stepping up in class, Kay completed just 57% of his passes while throwing only two touchdowns vs. four picks. Cincinnati is one of five FBS teams to hold opponents to fewer than 100 yards rushing per game. Overall, Cincinnati’s defense allowed just 313 yards per game but much of that was due to facing five teams who ranked in the bottom 10 in the NCAA in total offense.
[quote_text color=”#000000″ text_color=”#ffffff”]442 of Cinci’s yards per game allowed came against the top two offenses they faced this season (Louisville and SMU)[/quote_text]
Cincinnati has been solid on offense all season but not so efficient at taking care of the ball as they’ve committed at least two turnovers in four-straight games. Overall, the Bearcats turnover bug occurred at least twice per game a total of eight times this season. They finished play at -6 in the takeaway department vs. North Carolina, who were +1 in that key statistical department.
THE TAR HEELS
At 6-6 this season one might wonder why the Tar Heels are favored in this contest but it should be noted that all six of North Carolina’s losses came to teams who qualified for bowls.
[quote_text color=”#000000″ text_color=”#ffffff”]The ‘Win’ average for the six teams who beat North Carolina this season was ‘9’ and their SOS this season was ranked at #55[/quote_text]
North Carolina is lead by Marquise Williams who did a good job filling in when starting QB Bryn Renner was lost for the season in early November. Williams accounted for 1,279 total yards and 13 total touchdowns, guiding the Tar Heels to a 3-1 finish. Williams has good mobility and was sacked only four times in their last five games. The Heels arguably boast the best tight end in the nation in Eric Ebron, who has already announced he will enter May’s NFL Draft.
SPECIAL TEAMS PLAY
North Carolina’s special teams freshman Ryan Switzer tied the ACC single-season record with four punt return touchdowns in only three games and against a Bearcats coverage unit that has shown holes, this could have an impact. Overall the Tar Heels special teams rank 9th vs. a Bearcat unit who are 116th. Cincinnati has struggled in all aspects of the game as place kicker Tony Miliano made only 6 of 15 field goals this season including 4 out of 12 from 30 or more yards. In his three seasons he’s only made 40 out of 62 or 65-percent, while missing seven extra points in those three seasons. Cincinnati’s punt return defense gave up and average of 12.9 yards per punt return and North Carolina leads the nation in yards per punt return at 17.1. Cincinnati is ranked 108th nationally in net punting.
To achieve success we need North Carolina to play up to their potential and not turn the ball over, winning the battle of field position with their huge special teams’ edge. I would not be surprised to see Cincinnati gamble when they are faced with 4th down and 5 (or less) yards for a first down when on North Carolina’s 35 to 45 yard line. I’m aware that North Carolina will play this game without their offensive coordinator Blake Anderson, as he accepted the head coaching job at Arkansas State, however, the remainder of their coaching squad remains intact. I’ve invested on the North Carolina Tar Heels to cover this small number.
Pick: Take the Tar Heels at -2.5 points