Several years ago, there was a running joke at the beginning of the college football season to project who would land in the so-called "Tire Bowl," otherwise known as one of the most meaningless bowls of the year.
Now, the once-bemoaned Tire Bowl, or Meineke Car Care Bowl by a later name, is known as the Belk Bowl and is typically one of the better bowl games played in the second week of the bowl season. This year is no exception, as two teams that finished the season strong will land in Charlotte this weekend.
One team is fighting through injuries and early setbacks, and the other is enjoying its third straight 9-3 regular season and looking for its third straight bowl win, this time under a new coach. For both North Carolina and Cincinnati, the Belk Bowl is yet again a payoff for the hard work they put into the season.
Here are the best storylines and players to watch for ahead of the Belk Bowl kicking off on Saturday at 3:20 p.m. ET at Bank of America Stadium.
Tuberville's Bowl Bound...Again
Tommy Tuberville has been coaching college football since 1980, been a head coach since 1995 and has been the head coach at four different schools. The man has been around the block, to say the least.
In all of his years of coaching, Tuberville has competed in 10 bowls and made a habit out of winning them. With a 7-3 record—one win at Ole Miss, 5-3 at Auburn and one win at Texas Tech—Tuberville is now back for the first time with his Cincinnati Bearcats.
While the transition from Texas Tech to Cincinnati wasn't an easy one for Tuberville, he told the The Telegraph that he was happy that team rebounded from the change:
I'm proud of our football team from this past year. We went through a very tough time in transition with a new coaching staff and system, but I'm proud of our seniors.
After losing his first two bowls at Auburn, Tuberville has actually been better than his record would indicate in bowls. The 59-year-old has won six out his last seven, including a Sugar Bowl win back in 2005 to finish the 2004 season undefeated.
This may be the second year for the Bearcats in the Belk Bowl, but it will be the first under a coach who is expected to continue the winning ways at a university that has come to expect success in recent years.
Can Carolina Continue the Comeback?
After starting the season as dark horses to win the ACC Coastal Division, the Tar Heels started the season off with not only an atrocious defense but a 1-5 record to boot. In its first five losses, UNC was defeated by an average of 12.6 points and had just one win, over Middle Tennessee, to show for its effort.
Then came a Thursday night game against Miami. Despite losing that game by a final of 27-23, the Heels saw what they could do defensively against a good team that was ranked 10th in the country at the time. Carolina forced Stephen Morris to throw four interceptions but wasn't able to hold on in the loss.
In an interview I conducted with safety Tre Boston back in November, the senior credited that loss with the turnaround the Heels experienced this season:
Wow. It was crazy. Going 1-5 just made us realize how much harder we needed to work. Coach (Larry Fedora) came up with the saying, “One more inch.” And we just always tried to go one more inch and guys really believed in that. We knew we were good, we just weren’t playing our best.
Then Miami happened. We realized after that game, especially as a defense, what we were capable of. We’ve kept that through the rest of the season and now we have a good bunch that’s winning games. One of the biggest changes is that we’re confident now. Our offense is clicking, our defense is clicking and all I know is that I’m enjoying this right now.
Following the loss on what Carolina fans called "Zero Dark Thursday," the team seemingly turned what had been a mostly negative season to the point into a positive. Despite the loss of starting quarterback Bryn Renner, the Heels have rallied to finish 5-1 with their only loss coming to Coastal Division champion Duke.
Second-year coach Larry Fedora didn't shy away from the fact that his team had to fight through adversity when he spoke to The Telegraph:
I'm excited for our team, especially our seniors, who fought through some early season adversity and won five of the last six games to become bowl eligible. 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.
Carolina became just the sixth team since 2006 to make a bowl game after starting the season 1-5 and did so because of its defensive changes. And with an offense led by freshman T.J. Logan and future NFL tight end Eric Ebron, the Heels might be capable of anything in the Belk Bowl.
Players to Watch
Brendon Kay has been one of the best quarterbacks in the American Athletic Conference this season but has been overshadowed by players like Teddy Bridgewater due to a handful of games that he performed poorly in—including the final game of the year against Bridgewater's Louisville team.
What the senior has done this season, though, is throw for 3,121 yards, 22 touchdowns and 11 interceptions in his final season with the Bearcats. What's even more staggering is the fact that he finished with a 68.6 completion percentage and rushed for an additional six touchdowns.
Kay threw for 332 yards and four scores in the win last year in the Belk Bowl over Duke. Kay also has a great connection with fellow senior Anthony McClung, who finished his last five games with 97 or more yards in each and has receptions of 20 or more yards in every one of those games.
On the Carolina side, the offense starts with Eric Ebron. The junior has already declared for the 2014 NFL draft and rightfully so after exploding for nearly 900 yards this season as a tight end with a backup quarterback at the helm for five games.
Along with Ebron, Logan and sophomore receiver Quinshad Davis have been other spark plugs for the Carolina offense. If Williams can hold down the fort for the offense behind center, the Heels offense will thrive. But against a 9-3 Cincinnati team, it will need a complete effort to pull off the upset.