North Carolina vs. Baylor: Russell Athletic Bowl preview
No. 10 North Carolina (11-2) vs. No. 17 Baylor (9-3)
Dec. 29, 5:30 p.m. ET (ESPN)
Reason to watch
Points, points and points. The scoreboard operator at the Citrus Bowl had better prepare himself for this matchup. Baylor finished the season with the nation’s top-scoring offense (48 points per game), while North Carolina’s 11th-ranked offense averages 40.9 per game. In terms of total offense, the Tar Heels rank first nationally (7.33 yards-per-play) and the Bears rank second (7.25). North Carolina quarterback Marquise Williams is one of the most electric players in the country, averaging 284 yards of offense per game. This contest has all the makings of a shootout.
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Who steps up for Baylor? The Bears will be without their top rusher, top receiver and top two quarterbacks against the Tar Heels. Last week head coach Art Briles confirmed wide receiver Corey Coleman, the 2015 Biletnikoff winner, and 1,300-yard rusher Shock Linwood will miss the bowl with injuries. That duo averages a whopping 335.1 yards per game. Moreover, quarterback Jarret Stidham, who replaced injured starter Seth Russell this season, likewise won’t play due to a broken ankle. With third-stringer Chris Johnson getting the start, Baylor’s offense will need more from guys like receiver KD Cannon and running back Johnny Jefferson.
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UNC's defense might be the most improved in the country. First-year coordinator Gene Chizik has done a remarkable job turning around North Carolina’s defense. The Tar Heels went from allowing 39 points per game in 2014 to 22.6 this season; that’s the biggest jump (16.4 points) of any FBS team. North Carolina also went from finishing 14th in the ACC in yards-per-play allowed (6.53) to sixth (5.3). But Baylor might be catching the Tar Heels at the right time: In the ACC title game, North Carolina allowed top-ranked Clemson to ring up more points (45) and yards (608) than any of its opponents this season.
Both of these offenses can score 40 points without breaking a sweat. But entering bowl season, only North Carolina’s offense is healthy. Baylor loses a big chunk of its attack in Coleman and Linwood, and while Briles has proven his ability to plug and play, motivation could be a factor. The Bears were likely headed to the Sugar Bowl before an inexplicable 23-17 loss to Texas in the regular season finale. North Carolina, meanwhile, has overachieved and seeks its first 12-win season in school history. Couple that with a Chizik-led defense that can slow Baylor’s offense, and the Tar Heels get the edge.