The Meineke Car Care Bowl in Charlotte, N.C., has a great matchup—at least as far as the organizers are concerned—with a ranked team and Big East runner-up No. 17 Pittsburgh (9-3) facing a regional fan favorite from the ACC, North Carolina (8-4).
More importantly, the host city—Charlotte, N.C.—has an opportunity to change college football.
More on that later, but first let’s preview the bowl.
Preview and Prediction
This will mark the third time (second straight) that North Carolina (UNC) has appeared in the bowl game, with each of the previous games providing a sold-out crowd for Bank of America Stadium.
Pittsburgh (Pitt) is making its second appearance, and both teams are seeking their first win at this bowl. Pitt is also seeking its first 10-win season under fifth-year head coach Dave Wannstedt.
Wannstedt’s Panthers—trying to recover from last-minute losses to conference rivals West Virginia and No. 7 Cincinnati—could have found themselves in a BCS bowl with a win over the Bearcats and should easily be the favorite in this one.
Pitt, with the No. 16 scoring offense (No. 11 passing), averaged 33.2 points per game, led by Sr. QB Bill Stull (192-297, 2,470 yards, 21 TD, 8 INT), and has a potent, well-balanced attack with Fr. RB Dion Lewis—who should be on everyone’s Heisman watch list next year—who is third nationally in rushing yards with 1,640 yards and 16 TDs.
Jonathan Baldwin, a So. WR (54 rec. 1,080 yards, eight TD) presents a huge matchup problem for UNC, as the Tar Heels don’t have a single corner over 5'11" to cover the 6'5", 225-pound receiver.
On the other hand, UNC brings a stingy defense into Bank of America Stadium, allowing just 16.9 ppg.
The Tar Heels shut down the run as well as anybody in the nation, allowing just 92.8 ypg (No. 10 nationally). They are stout against the pass as well, ranking No. 15 in the nation with a 174.9-yard average.
They will need their best effort on defense to keep the struggling offense in the game. The Tar Heels are ranked 102 out of 120 teams in passing behind Jr. QB T.J. Yates (195-323, 1,953 yards, 12 TD, 14 INT), producing only 24.3 ppg (No. 81 nationally).
With Pitt ranking in the top 20 in scoring (No. 16) and passing (No. 11) on the defensive side of the ball, points should be at a premium.
That said, UNC will be playing in its own neck of the woods and should have a decided advantage in fan support. In the five times this bowl did not include UNC, attendance averaged 57,627, but in the two games with the Tar Heels, attendance rose to 73,485 per game.
In the end, it shouldn’t matter. If Pitt is able to put the disappointment of its final two games behind it, the Panthers should roll.
Pittsburgh 37, North Carolina 16
Opportunity To Change College Football
Actually, the Meineke Bowl will not be the pioneer in this endeavor, but it can follow the blueprint and make it a trend.
On Aug. 31, 2008, I attended the inaugural Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game featuring the No. 24 Alabama Crimson Tide and the No. 9 Clemson Tigers in what could only be described as a bowl-like atmosphere.
The game would catapult the Tide into a two-year odyssey that will culminate on Jan. 7, 2010, in Pasadena with Alabama attempting to win its first BCS National Title.
The Kickoff Game is not a new concept, with three such events (Pigskin, Eddie Robinson, and Kickoff Classics) being staged as far back as 1983, but it was essentially discontinued in 2002 when the NCAA began to allow all teams to schedule 12 regular season games.
The Chick-fil-A group has proved that the Kickoff Game can still be viable, as it has been helpful in staging a successful campaign for the participants, giving each an opportunity to showcase its team to a national audience against a formidable opponent.
Games like LSU-North Carolina (2010) and Tennessee-NC State (2012) have been scheduled, with Texas, Michigan, UCLA, Ohio State, and others being considered for upcoming years, ensuring that the Kickoff Game will have a national appeal despite the success of the SEC vs. ACC matchup so far.
With the ACC Championship Game moving to Charlotte next year, Frank Kay, Director of Media Relations for Raycom—the Meineke Bowl’s Organizer—feels that there are opportunities for growth for the bowl game and in other endeavors.
Kay indicated that the sponsors—whose corporate headquarters are only two blocks away from the venue—have loved being associated with the bowl and with the bowl's outstanding performance.
In 2003 the bowl was named the third-best startup in all of sports behind only the Houston Texans of the NFL and ESPN The Magazine. In just seven years the bowl game has been viewed by over 18 million TV households and has averaged over 62,000 in attendance with three 73,000-plus sellouts.
Charlotte has a lot to offer the sports fan, with Lowe’s Motor Speedway and activities like the Richard Petty Driving Experience a short distance from Uptown, as well as the NASCAR Hall of Fame, which is scheduled to open in May 2010.
The Bobcats of the NBA play in Time Warner Cable Arena just a short distance from Bank of America Stadium, and Charlotte has one of the most chic urban experiences in the Southern United States.
For Charlotte, it all adds up to a golden opportunity to capitalize on what could be a growing trend for Kickoff Games. More importantly, these games could become a key component in moving college football toward a playoff.
In two recent articles, I explained why the BCS needs to be abolished and proposed a playoff that could take advantage of the existing bowls and even enhance them.
By creating a Kickoff Game for the major venues that match up elite teams from previous years (perhaps even based on performance) and fostering a reward for success, while strengthening the regular season, you could essentially have bowl games before and after the season with a bona fide playoff and undisputed champion.
Call it wishful thinking, but Charlotte and Meineke have an opportunity to follow Atlanta and Chick-fil-A in creating a meaningful Kickoff Game to rival its young but successful bowl game—and who knows where that could lead!