Here's The Deal … The sponsor has changed, but the mission has remained the same: Pit a middling ACC team against a Big East runner-up in Charlotte's Bank of America Stadium, and let the two schools have it.
Belk is the third sponsor of this decade-old game owned by Raycom Sports, following in the footsteps of Continental Tire and Meineke Car Care. It's set to stage a matchup between a local program, NC State, and Louisville, which won a share of the Big East championship in Charlie Strong's second season on the payroll.
The Cardinals are an up-and-coming team, gradually digging out from the debacle created during the ill-fated Steve Kragthorpe era. Despite using a mess of young kids, and probably being a year or so away from being really good, the program still managed to win five of its final six games. Heck, had Connecticut beaten Cincinnati on the final weekend of the regular season, the Cards, not West Virginia, would have played in the Orange Bowl.
Strong and his staff are bucking the odds with old-fashioned fundamentals. Blocking, tackling and a suffocating D remain fashionable in the ‘Ville. Oh, and the school's success has clearly been a collaborative effort, sans much star power on either side of the ball. In fact, Strong is convinced that his team is still not getting nearly enough respect, inside or outside conference circles.
With no other games competing for air time, Louisville has a chance on Tuesday night to turn a few heads if it can win back-to-back bowl games for the first time in school history. It could also be another shot in the arm for a program that's already picking up a head of steam on the recruiting trail.
Right around Halloween, after falling to .500, it looked as if NC State was going to fall short of postseason eligibility. The Pack had just been whipped by Florida State, 34-0, and half of its wins came against FCS opponents. And then, Tom O'Brien's kids suddenly found their second wind.
In a torrid November, they shutout rival Carolina, stunned eventual ACC champ Clemson and rallied from a 41-14 deficit to upend Maryland in a historic comeback. It wound up being a particularly important finish for O'Brien, who had been vilified ever since allowing QB Russell Wilson to transfer to Wisconsin prior to the start of the season.
In five years in Raleigh, O'Brien has failed to elevate the Wolfpack program, going just 32-30, and winning a single bowl game. Okay, so 2011 was a transition year in many ways, but a transition to what? While the Belk Bowl won't answer that question, it could give the staff and the coaches a little more breathing room in the offseason. And some much-needed momentum as they inch closer to a crucial 2012 season.
Players To Watch: Strong went with youth in the passing game this season, and it has paid off. No, it wasn't shades of Browning Nagle or Dave Ragone in Louisville, but by popping the cork on true freshman Teddy Bridgewater, the program ought to reap the dividends over the next three seasons.
The hotshot rookie from Miami got more comfortable as the season progressed, peaking with a three-touchdown, no-pick effort in the season-ending win over South Florida. Even better, the quarterback is evolving alongside an equally youthful corps of receivers. Three of the Cardinals' most dangerous receivers, Michaelee Harris, Eli Harris and DeVante Harris, are in their debut seasons of action.
If Bridgewater does one thing consistently well on this night, it'll be to know where Wolfpack CB David Amerson is at all times. The rangy sophomore was one of this year's breakout stars in college football, picking off an FBS-high 11 passes.
A virtual unknown when the season started, he has evolved into a nuisance for opposing passers, reading their eyes, jumping routes and showcasing the ball skills of a top-flight wide receiver. Amerson, S Brandan Bishop and athletic linebackers Terrell Manning and Audie Cole are the cornerstones of an opportunistic D that ranks second nationally to Oklahoma State in takeaways this fall.
The departure of Wilson to the Big Ten opened the door for heralded backup Mike Glennon to finally get a chance to run the show for NC State. The junior has responded by throwing for 2,790 yards, 28 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. The best, though, has yet to come for the 6-6, 232-pounder. He has the physical tools and acumen for the position to prompt O'Brien to compare him to former pupil and current Atlanta Falcons QB Matt Ryan.
To be sure, Glennon is not a household name today, but that's going to change at some point in the fall of 2012, when pro scouts begin trekking to Carter-Finley Stadium in increasing numbers.
The microcosm for Louisville in 2011 has been the defense; short on stars, yet long on results. Okay, so LB Dexter Heyman, S Hakeem Smith and CB Adrian Bushell, a JUCO transfer, were named All-Big East, but none of the three could be recognized in a lineup. The Cardinals are a no-name defense, which suits Strong just fine. The unit ranks no lower than 25th nationally in run defense, scoring defense, sacks and total D.
If you're going to beat it, it'll probably have to happen through the air. Now, Glennon is capable of doing just that, but not if his line is unable to keep Heyman and linemen William Savoy, Greg Scruggs and Marcus Smith out of the backfield. The Pack will begin the Belk Bowl ranked 11th in the ACC in sacks allowed.
Louisville will win if … Bridgewater picks up where he left off in the South Florida game.
The rookie does not have to be the MVP in order for the Cardinals to win their eighth game of 2011. He does, however, have to keep the chains moving, and lead his troops into the end zone at least a couple of times. Louisville has been held to no more than 17 points on six separate occasions this year, and won just one of those games, so the stingy defense will get it only so far. To get over the hump, Bridgewater, with help out of the backfield from Victor Anderson and Dominique Brown, has to prevent the punters from trotting on to the field more than four or five times.
NC State will win if … it continues with its season-long thievery.
The Wolfpack is still playing in December, in large part, because of the big-play ability of the defense. The crew had a knack for shifting the momentum of games this year by stripping balls and taking passes back the other way. In fact, when NC State intercepted more passes than touchdowns passes allowed, it went 7-0. Slowing down an average Louisville attack won't be enough on this evening.
No, the Pack will need to become an extension of the offense, cutting short drives, and giving Glennon a short field with which to work. The onus is going to fall on Amerson, Manning and Cole to make sure that Bridgewater and his young receivers play with all of the inconsistency of rookies.
What Will Happen: Four weeks is a long time for Strong and his cagey assistants to prepare for a one-trick offense. Too long.
Glennon is a budding star at quarterback, but without proper support from the ground game, he's going to run into a buzzsaw in Charlotte. The way the Cardinals mix their schemes and personnel, NC State will have a dogged time extending drives, and putting up six. It could be a busy night for rookie PK Niklas Sade, with the Pack stalling on those rare occasions that it enters the red zone.
In what figures to be a very physical and low-scoring contest, Louisville won't need Bridgewater to be the hero. It'll just need him to limit his unforced errors, and ably work the middle of the field on third downs. If he can simply carry his weight, and play with poise, the Cards will lay down another important brick in the foundation being constructed by Strong.
CFN Prediction: Louisville 23 … NC State 19