For a team that finished the regular season with four consecutive losses, Duke couldn't be happier about how its year is ending.
The Blue Devils will play a postseason game for the first time in almost 18 years at the Belk Bowl in nearby Charlotte on Thursday night, facing a Cincinnati team that's dealing with yet another coaching change.
A 6-6 season may not be special for most programs, but it is progress at basketball-mad Duke after the football team suffered through 17 consecutive losing years. The Blue Devils, who last earned a bowl bid following the 1994 season, went 37-158 (.190) from 1995-2011, including winless campaigns in 1996, 2000, 2001 and 2006.
That's why Duke's 6-2 start eventually earned ACC coach of the year David Cutcliffe a contract extension through the 2018 season.
"This is certainly one of the goals, was to reach this bowl eligibility, but it's just the beginning," Cutcliffe said.
"You've got to take this step to take the next one, particularly when you've been where we've been for so long. I'm very appreciative that our players have bought in so strongly to the program, and they're very committed to what we're trying to accomplish."
Since earning their all-important sixth win in dramatic fashion against rival North Carolina on Oct. 20, the Blue Devils have struggled, especially on the defensive side of the ball. They've allowed an average of 49.5 points and 593.3 yards during their four-game skid, losing the regular-season finale 52-45 to Miami on Nov. 24.
"We were 6-2 and we knew we were going to a bowl game early in the season," cornerback Ross Cockrell said, "but we've got a lot of things to correct and a lot of things to work on."
Sean Renfree threw a 99-yard touchdown pass to Jamison Crowder in the final quarter against the Hurricanes, finishing with 432 yards and four TDs.
The third-year starter had one interception over his final four games and a career-low eight for the season. Renfree's career-high 18 TD passes included a five-yarder to Crowder in the final minute of the 33-30 win over the Tar Heels, helping him end his collegiate career in a bowl. He received the Tatum Award as the ACC's top senior student-athlete.
Fellow senior Conner Vernon, who needs 45 receiving yards to top 1,000 for the first time, said his class wants to be a part of the first bowl win for Duke since it beat Arkansas 7-6 in the Cotton Bowl on Jan. 2, 1961.
"It's kind of just one of those things to leave our legacy at Duke football," Vernon said. "Not only the first senior class to go to a bowl game since '94 but the first senior class to win a bowl game since a long time. That's definitely the mindset we're going to have going into it."
That will be a tough task in the program's first-ever meeting with Cincinnati.
The Bearcats (9-3) finished in a four-way tie for first place in the Big East - the fourth time in five years they've captured at least a share of the title - but Louisville earned a spot in the Sugar Bowl by virtue of its BCS ranking.
Cincinnati's success led to other opportunities for coach Butch Jones, who took over at Tennessee. He's the third straight Bearcats coach - after Mark Dantonio and Brian Kelly - to leave after three seasons for a higher-profile job.
"This industry can be crazy at times," athletic director Whit Babcock said.
Babcock lured Tommy Tuberville from Texas Tech to become Cincinnati's next coach, but he will not lead the team in the Belk Bowl. Defensive line coach Steve Stripling is serving as interim coach.
"The situation, the way that it is – so close to a game – these guys need the direction of the people that had been working with them," Tuberville said. "I think it gives them the best opportunity to be successful."
The Bearcats have been successful defensively, holding their last four opponents to an average of 11.8 points, but they made a midseason quarterback change with Brendon Kay taking over for the struggling Munchie Legaux last month. The senior is rising to the occasion, getting his first opportunity for extended playing time late in his collegiate career - although he'll be allowed to return next season after the NCAA granted him an extra year of eligibility.
Kay went 19 of 29 for 245 yards and two touchdowns without an interception in the regular-season finale, a 34-17 win at Connecticut on Dec. 1. Both of his touchdowns went to fellow senior Travis Kelce, a tight end who also threw a scoring pass to Kay in that game on a trick play.
Kelce leads the Bearcats with 599 receiving yards and seven TD catches, while George Winn has powered the ground game. The senior led the Big East with 1,204 rushing yards - 100.3 per game - and scored 12 times.
Cincinnati, playing in a bowl for the sixth time in seven seasons, beat Vanderbilt 31-24 in the Liberty Bowl last year.
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