CHARLOTTE — Just because the Cincinnati Bearcats will have a different coach in the Belk Bowl than they did through their 9-3 regular season, Duke football coach David Cutcliffe said he doesn’t expect any major changes in the Blue Devils’ opponent Thursday night.
Defensive coordinator Steve Stripling is the Bearcats’ interim coach after Butch Jones accepted the head coaching job at Tennessee following the regular season. Cincinnati has hired Tommy Tuberville as its next head coach, but he has not been part of the team’s bowl preparations.
“At first I didn’t know what to expect because I didn’t know if Tommy was going to put his flavor into it,” Cutcliffe said. “When they didn’t do that … you don’t ask the kids to learn a whole new system. You don’t expect a lot of change.
“They’re a very dangerous team. They do everything on offense that wins games. They don’t turn the ball over. They make almost all their third-down conversions (43 percent). They have explosive players. You can’t sack them (13 sacks this season). But if we’re going to have a chance in this game, we have to attack those strengths.”
Cutcliffe said he feels good about the Blue Devils’ preparation, though he admitted to worrying his team was too hyped up. Cutcliffe and the Blue Devils have made the seniors a point of emphasis during pregame preparation in recognition of what they’ve accomplished in getting Duke to its first bowl game in 18 years.
It has been an experience, Cutcliffe said, that reaches beyond the extra practice.
“You can’t bond a team better than you can in this length of time,” Cutcliffe said. “There’s no school. You get to enjoy the bowl activities together. (Tuesday) night we had an autograph party. They were as happy as they could be, sharing Christmas dinner together.
“It’s not just the practice you get. It’s the investment in relationships. Otherwise, they’d be all over the country now watching someone else play.”
In the interim: Before joining Jones on the Tennessee staff, Stripling has embraced the challenge of coaching a Bearcats team in transition.
“It’s been fun and it’s been challenging,” Stripling said. “I appreciate the opportunity to go through this.
“With change, you need strong leadership and (the seniors) have done a good job of holding this team together. We’ve tried to stay in our routine. We just need to be who we are.”
Quarterback Brandon Kay said there’s no avoiding the dramatic changes in the Bearcats program over the past four weeks.
“Coach (Stripling) has done a great job,” Kay said. “There’s obviously been a lot of distractions and adversity. The seniors have done a good job of keeping everyone upbeat.
“At first, it was difficult. That’s the normal reaction but it is what it is.”
The future: Executive director Will Webb said the Belk Bowl has begun looking at its options for 2014 and beyond but said it’s too early to know which conference the bowl will align with to be the annual opponent against the ACC representative.
Webb said all bowl contracts will expire after 2013, and Belk Bowl officials are studying the ever-changing landscape – especially with the dramatically different makeup of the Big East, which has made up half of the bowl matchup since its inception in 2002.
“We’ve talked with the SEC and the Big 12,” Webb said. “The new Big East with East Carolina and Navy included is going to be a good football conference.
“A lot of the discussions will get underway this winter, and we’ll see where the other conferences’ interests lie. We feel like we have a good foundation with our bowl-related events. We play in a great stadium. The logistics are phenomenal and we have maybe the best title sponsor in the business that really wants to raise the level of this bowl. We’ll see where it leads us.”