35 Bowls in 24 Days: Belk Bowl

The two head coaches meet on the race track in Charlotte before the game

In Charlotte, North Carolina, the Belk Bowl will feature two teams that had their shining moments in 2011, but not enough signature wins to take the next step to becoming a contender. Louisville and NC State will do battle at Bank of America Stadium on Tuesday … let’s see if we can figure out which of these two “Jekyll and Hyde” teams will play solid football and get the win.

More: See the other bowl games

Louisville Cardinals (7-5, 5-2 Big East) vs. NC State Wolfpack (7-5, 4-4 ACC), Tuesday, Dec. 27, 2011, 8:00 p.m. [ESPN]

North Carolina State was expected to be a doormat in the ACC when quarterback Russell Wilson transferred to Wisconsin an left the Wolfpack with little leadership on offense. This had a lot to do with head coach Tom O’Brien not allowing Wilson to return to the team after he declared for the MLB Draft, but the players were left to deal with their coach’s decision.

They pulled it together and won seven games, which many people didn’t think they’d do this year. What’s more, they’re hot right now.

In the final two weeks of the season, the Wolfpack beat then-No. 7 Clemson handily (37-13) and then beat Maryland 56-41 in a game that they trailed 41-14 with 21 minutes left. It took six consecutive touchdowns, but NC State pulled off the shocker to cap a regular season that was up-and-down.

“When this football team was 2-3, there weren’t a lot of people that believed we could win five out of the next seven games except the people in this building,” O’Brien said after the Maryland win.

NC State only looked bad in two games this year — a 44-14 loss at Cincinnati and a 34-0 loss at Florida State — so you have to think they’ll stay in this game. Quarterback Mike Glennon will be a big reason for that, as his 2,790 passing yards and 28 touchdowns have shown that the NC State offense isn’t lost without the leadership of Wilson.

Then, there’s the Louisville Cardinals, who rattled off five wins in their final six games and nearly stole the Big East from West Virginia. In fact, one of those final wins was against WVU — a 38-35 victory in Morgantown.

It’s really hard to bet against the Cards right now, especially since it looks like head coach Charlie Strong’s system is taking shape at the end of just his second season at the helm. With their 35 points allowed against WVU being the only outlier, Louisville hasn’t allowed more than 25 points in any other game this season, and their 19.2 points per game allowed ranks No. 14 in the nation.

The defensive genius that helped win Florida two national titles a few years ago appears ready to take the Big East by storm.

But will they be able to hold down their ACC foes in the Belk Bowl? The experts are skeptical, as they’ve made NC State a one-point favorite.

I think Vegas is expecting NC State to have a home-field advantage with the game being played in their home state, but the Wolfpack don’t always travel well. Expect that home-field edge to disappear quickly, and the best way to stop a good offense is with a good defense. Thus, I will side with UL in the Belk Bowl.

My prediction: Louisville 24, NC State 23

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