North Carolina-Baylor Preview
A matchup between North Carolina and Baylor in the Russell Athletic Bowl had the making of being a shootout with two of the nation's top offenses sharing the same field.
A one-sided affair is more realistic, however, as the 18th-ranked Bears are without their All-American wide receiver, leading rusher and top two quarterbacks.
The 10th-ranked Tar Heels look to cap what has been one of the best seasons in program history with a victory Tuesday in Orlando, Florida against a Baylor team that was also in the midst of a historic season until it was derailed by injuries.
Regardless of the outcome in the first meeting between these teams, this season will be considered a success for North Carolina. Picked to finish fifth in the Coastal Division, the Tar Heels (11-2) won all eight conference contests and nearly knocked off top-ranked Clemson in the ACC title game, falling 45-37.
They'll finish the season ranked for the first time since they were No. 6 following the 1997 season and have a chance to set a program single-season record with 12 victories.
"We changed a lot this year," North Carolina quarterback Marquise Williams said. "We've done a lot of great things and it's been a fun time."
Although they had their sights set on a New Year's Six game, the Tar Heels are excited with the chance to showcase their talent in a bowl that a year ago featured two teams playing in this year's College Football Playoff.
"Last year Oklahoma and Clemson played in this game and that's two of the best teams in the country right now," Williams said. "It's an opportunity and it's going to be fun."
It may not be as much fun for the Bears, who are just a shell of the team that was eyeing a berth in the CFP not long ago.
Baylor (9-3) won its first eight games and was sixth in the first CFP poll but things quickly fell apart as quarterback Seth Russell, then the top-rated FBS passer, suffered a season-ending neck injury Oct. 24. Highly touted freshman Jarrett Stidham threw for 419 yards and three touchdowns in winning his first start but broke a bone in his ankle in his third one to end his season.
Chris Johnson started the last two games and he suffered a concussion in the regular-season finale, a 23-17 loss to Texas, forcing junior receiver Lynx Hawthorne to play quarterback for the first time since his junior year of high school.
That turned out to be the final game for junior receiver Corey Coleman, who had hernia surgery the week of Christmas and will miss the bowl.
Winner of the Biletnikoff Award, Coleman had an FBS-best 20 touchdown receptions and was tied for fourth with 1,363 receiving yards. He confirmed after the regular-season finale he will bypass his senior season and enter the NFL draft.
Baylor also will be without running back Shock Linwood after he had surgery for a broken bone in his foot in mid-December. Linwood was fourth in the Big 12 in rushing with 1,329 yards and his 6.8 yards per attempt ranked fourth in the FBS among those with at least 175 carries.
The Bears still have weapons on offense with receivers KD Cannon (46 receptions for 828 yards) and Jay Lee (36 for 726) and running back Johnny Jefferson (710 yards rushing with 6.2 ypc) but have concerns at quarterback.
Johnson has been cleared but the offense wasn't exactly humming in his two starts, averaging 19.0 points and 407.0 yards with only 73.0 through the air. Despite those showings, Baylor still led the nation with an average of 604.6 yards and 48.0 points per game.
"The way we are right now we feel like we need to be very productive every time we line up on the offensive side of the ball and defensive side of the ball," Bears coach Art Briles said. "We got to be a complete football team right now and that's the way we're approaching this game."
North Carolina was tied for 19th in offense at 486.9 yards and ranked 10th with an average of 40.9 points but is also facing a bit of adversity on that side of the ball with coordinator Seth Littrell moving on to become head coach at North Texas. Tar Heels coach Larry Fedora, however, doesn't see the departure being a significant setback.
''We're game-planning the same way we always have an offensive staff,'' Fedora said. ''Right now I haven't really finally decided how it's going to go down in the game. I think that I'll probably be more involved than I have been, but that doesn't mean I'll be making all the calls. I've got guys on our staff that can handle it without a problem.''
It certainly helps to have a dynamic offense led by Williams and running back Elijah Hood, a first-team all-ACC selection.
Williams threw for 2,829 yards with 21 touchdowns and nine interceptions and ran for 867 yards with another 11 scores. Clemson's Deshaun Watson is the only FBS player to throw for more yards while also rushing for at least 800.
Hood ran for 1,345 yards to rank second in the ACC and scored 17 touchdowns on the ground. He needs two rushing TDs to tie the single-season school record set by Don McCauley in 1970.
While the Tar Heels have a dangerous rushing attack, Baylor has to respect the passing game and big-play receiver Mack Hollins. Despite catching just 28 passes, Hollins had 711 yards and eight touchdowns to lead the nation with 25.4 yards per catch.
Hollins and Ryan Switzer, who had 52 receptions for 668 yards and six TDs, will look to take advantage of a Baylor defense that allowed 27 passing touchdowns to rank 113th out of 127 FBS schools.