2015 Russell Athletic Bowl Preview

A battle of College Football Playoff hopefuls will take place between the Tar Heels and the Bears. Photo Courtesy: Russell Athletic Bowl Facebook Page
A battle of College Football Playoff hopefuls will take place between the Tar Heels and Bears.
Photo Courtesy: Russell Athletic Bowl Facebook Page

By Jeff Cantrell

Game Info
#10 North Carolina Tar Heels vs. #17 Baylor Bears
Tuesday – December 29 – 4:30 pm CT
Florida Citrus Bowl – Orlando, Florida

Records Before the Game
North Carolina Tar Heels (11-2, 8-0 ACC)
Baylor Bears (9-3, 6-3 Big 12)

How did North Carolina get here?
North Carolina began the season against in state rival South Carolina in a game that the Tar Heels should have won, but three turnovers sank them as they lost to the Gamecocks, 17-13. North Carolina, rebounded though, and finished off non-conference play with three impressive wins over North Carolina A&T, Illinois, and Delaware. The Tar Heels survived a scare against Georgia Tech in the conference opener but won the game, 38-31. North Carolina would go on to run the tables in the ACC Coastal division finishing 8-0 in conference play. In the conference championship, the Tar Heels would fall to Clemson 45-37, finishing the season 11-2 and ranked #10.

How did Baylor get here?
Baylor season started with a slate of dominating wins over not so impressive non-conference opponents, SMU, Lamar and Rice. The Bears opened conference play in Cowboys Stadium with another lopsided win over Texas Tech, winning the game 63-35. They followed up that performance with similarly high scoring wins over Kansas and West Virginia. Baylor was on its way to a potential College Football Playoff bid when things began to go off the rails. Starting QB Seth Russell was lost for the season in the Bears 45-27 victory over Iowa State. Relying on backup QB Jarrett Stidham, Baylor defeated Kansas State, 31-24. Then #12 Oklahoma rolled into town and handed Baylor its first loss of the season, 34-44. Next the Bears traveled to #6 Oklahoma State, expected by many to lose the game, the Bears surprised their doubters with a 45-35 victory. However, in the victory, the Bears lost their second starting QB of the season, and were down to their last QB, Chris Johnson. A week later, the Bears lost again, in a rain soaked game, against #19 TCU 28-21. The Bears hopes to finish off the season with a win over Texas were dashed when Johnson was injured in the first quarter, and Baylor was forced to use a mix of running backs and wide receivers in the QB position. Baylor managed a late rally but fell short falling to the Longhorns 23-17, ending the Bears season at 9-3 and ranked #17 in the nation.

The Match Up
This is a matchup, that by statistical comparison, you would expect the Baylor Bears to win handily.   Baylor has a better strength of schedule 59 versus 63 for North Carolina. The Bears are 2-2 against ranked foes, while North Carolina is 0-1. Statistically, Baylor has the #1 offense in the country, with the #4 rushing offense, and the #20 passing offense. North Carolina comes into the game with the 20th best offense boasting the #21 ranked rushing and the #34 ranked passing offenses. Defensively, things don’t get any better for the Tar Heels, as the Tar Heels rank 78th in total defense while the Bears are rated 57th. North Carolina’s rushing defense is ranked 109th in the nation, and while their passing defense is ranked 27th. Baylor comes in with the 51st ranked rushing defense and the 75th ranked passing defense. The Tar Heels do hold an edge over the Bears in a couple of key statistics that may prove decisive in the game as North Carolina holds a clear advantage in turnovers and penalties.

Based on past performance and statistical comparison, it would seem likely that Baylor would defeat North Carolina in a high scoring affair in which the Tar Heels would be forced to try to outscore the fast scoring Bears. Most teams run out of gas in the second quarter, allowing the Bears to pull way and coast to victory. However, that assumes a healthy Baylor roster, and the Bears are anything but healthy. In addition to the 1st and 2nd string QBs being out, the Bears can add Shock Linwood, their lead running back, and Corey Coleman, their leading wide receiver, as both are expected to miss the game. By comparison, the Tar Heels come into the game healthy at the key positions.

The Tar Heels will be led by QB Marquise Williams, who has thrown for 2,829 yards, 21 TDs with just nine interceptions. On the ground, RB Elijah Hood has run for 1,345 yards, averaging 6.5 yards a carry and has scored 17 TDs. The receiving corps also looks strong, led by WR Mack Hollins, who has 711 yards on the season on just 28 receptions and has scored eight touchdowns.

The Bears will be led by QB/WR Chris Johnson, who started the season at WR before being moved back to QB after Russell’s injury. Johnson has thrown for only 220 yards, with 15 completions on 38 attempts, three touchdowns and two interceptions. Baylor will employ RBs Johnny Jefferson and Devin Chafin to replace the injured Linwood. Jefferson has rushed for 701 yards and five TDs, while Chafin has 422 yards and eight TDs. In the passing game, K.D. Cannon and Jay Lee will be the primary targets replacing Corey Coleman. Cannon has 828 yards and six TDs and Lee has 726 yards and eight TDs.

Injuries will probably doom the Bears in this game. Teams that lose a star player typically struggle, and Baylor is without its three top offensive players. This gives the Bears little or no margin for error in this game, and if North Carolina can win the turnover and penalty battle, they will most likely win the game.

Prediction: North Carolina 45 – Baylor 42