Belk Bowl, Saturday, 3:20 p.m. ET, ESPN
Suggested slogan: The most pun-worthy game of the year
How Cincinnati got here: By doing what Cincinnati almost always does -- go 9-3 in the American Athletic Conference (nee the Big East). In addition to their 6-2 record in the American, the Bearcats beat Purdue -- no big achievement this year -- and got thrashed by Illinois in the only nonconference loss of the season. It was also the only game Cincinnati lost by more than a touchdown, with the defeats at South Florida and against Louisville (in overtime) coming by a combined 13 points. As American teams go, this one was pretty good at football and terrible at luck. Staring quarterback Muchie Legaux went down with a season-ending injury two games in, with a slightly less injured Brendon Kay taking over. Kay merely went 247-of-360 for 3,121 yards, 22 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. Anthony McClung had some injury issues of his own and came up 92 yards short of 1,000 yards receiving in the regular season. The running game is nothing special, but it gets enough done to support the air attack, and the defense is solid, ranking in the Top 10 in rushing yardage and total defense. Only four of the Bearcats' opponents this year scored more than 21 points.
How North Carolina got here: If you tuned out on UNC football early in the season, you can be forgiven for doing a double-take at finding out that the Tar Heels are in the postseason to begin with. North Carolina started off the season 1-5, with the sole win coming against Middle Tennessee, before the schedule let up a bit and the Tar Heels played a bit better and the two combined for a nice rebound story. During the opening swoon, all six of the teams UNC faced would end the season bowl eligible; during the five-game winning streak that followed, only two would end the year at .500 or above. The season-ending loss to Duke meant that the Tar Heels went 3-6 against bowl-eligible teams. Bryn Renner and Marquise Williams basically split the year at quarterback, with Williams taking over completely after Renner went down with an injury. Williams was effective passing the ball and ended up as the team's leading rusher, with 490 yards and six touchdowns on 102 carries. They also have Kareem Martin on the defensive side of the ball; Martin has 20 tackles for loss on the year, including 11 sacks, and has forced three fumbles.
College football fans care because: What would the postseason be without a North Carolina team playing in this game?
SEC fans care because: Tommy Tuberville is in this game, whether you like to laugh at him or with him, and you know that means something interesting is going to happen.
Bottom line: For me, this is one of those "someone in Vegas must know something I don't" games. North Carolina just doesn't strike me as a particularly good team this year, and Cincinnati does. Sure, the Bearcats got clocked by Illinois, but UNC got clocked by East Carolina, if we're going to pay attention to ugly losses. But then, given my pitiful record during the bowl season so far, perhaps someone in Vegas knows something I don't. Cincinnati 34, North Carolina 14
Line: North Carolina by 2.5