2015 Russell Athletic Bowl
Tuesday December 29
5:30 p.m. on ESPN
No. 17 Baylor Bears 9-3 (6-3)
Baylor had yet another impressive offensive group this season with the No. 1 scoring offense in all the land, but the team dropped a couple of close games late in the season after starting quarterback Seth Russell was lost to an injury suffered against Iowa State. Talented freshman Jarrett Stidham took over full-time and completed 68.8% of his passes this season for 1,265 yards, 12 touchdowns, and just two interceptions before he got hurt as well. That leaves Chris Johnson to pilot the Baylor offense in this game. He struggled mightily in a 7-point loss to TCU completing just 7-of-24 passes for 62 yards, a touchdown and an interception. He’ll need to be crisper and perhaps a month of bowl practices will help his confidence.
— Baylor Football (@BUFootball) December 28, 2015
Running back Shock Linwood led the way with 1,329 yards and 10 touchdowns for the 4th best rushing attack in the country, but he’s out with an injury as well after posting his second consecutive 1,000-yard season and that’s just the tip of the iceberg for the Bears. Biletnikoff Award winner Corey Coleman is out as well with a hernia so that removes 20 touchdowns and over 1,300 yards from the equation.
The good news for the Bears is that there are still able-bodied tailbacks around. Johnny Jefferson gained 701 yards on the season, Terence Williams had 459, and Devin Chafin finished with 422 yards and eight touchdowns. They aren’t quite Shock Linwood, but seemingly everyone is a threat to run and break off big plays with the Bears averaging just over 300 rushing yards per contest and 5.72 yards per run.
The Baylor defense has been acceptable but not overly imposing. The Bears finished the regular season 56th in total defense but did limit opponents to convert 34.6% of third downs which is good for 31st nationally. A major concern in this match up has to be the Baylor secondary which has allowed 232.7 passing yards per game this season. They’ll be tested by the strong arm of Marquise Williams and the talented UNC receiving corps.
No. 10 North Carolina Tar Heels 11-2 (8-1)
The Tar Heels gave Clemson a run for its money in the ACC Championship Game but ultimately fell short 45-37 in Charlotte. Carolina finished the season with the 20th best group in terms of total offense and while more balanced than Baylor, the Heels also slightly favor the running game. Running back Elijah Hood broke out in his sophomore season with 1,345 yards and 17 touchdowns to lead the way for the nation’s 20th ranked rushing offense. Quarterback Marquise Williams added 867 yards and 11 touchdowns of his own while T.J. Logan pitched in 368 yards and five scores.
Williams has had a nice season passing as well with that aforementioned strong arm. He put up 2,829 yards, 21 touchdowns and nine interceptions while leading UNC to an historic 11-win regular season. He completed 61.4% of his passes but it’s the unplanned runs that drove defensive coordinators insane. Williams adds an element of unpredictability to the Carolina offense that puts pressure on the entire defense, and he throws a really nice ball which doesn’t count for much, but it’s fun to watch.
All of the UNC receivers are dangerous. Bug Howard, Quinshad Davis and Mack Hollins all have great size and athleticism and Ryan Switzer has speed to burn on kick returns as well as in the passing game. Each is a threat to score at all times whether it be on long throws downfield or short routes turned into a race toward the end zone.
The Carolina defense has improved under defensive coordinator Gene Chizik, but stopping the run has proven to be a big problem. The Tar Heels give up 216.8 yards per game on the ground which is 103rd in the country. The secondary is the strength on that side of the ball and I love corner M.J. Stewart. He recorded 53 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss, one sack, one forced fumble and four interceptions during his sophomore season and tied for the ACC lead with 18 passes deflected.
The Baylor running game going up against a mediocre UNC defensive line certainly looks like it will be a big key. The Bears will rely on the ground attack especially with a struggling, inexperienced quarterback running the show and it’s the weak spot for the Heels. Art Briles won’t want his sophomore quarterback with just 42 career passing attempts in college challenging the Tar Heels downfield. A solid rushing performance will take the pressure off Chris Johnson and allow him to pick his spots in the passing game.
UNC’s offense is balanced enough to attack however they please. They’ve carved up better defenses than Baylor’s this season and were really clicking down the stretch. They just have to avoid any rust after the long layoff before the bowl. Factoring in the major injuries on Baylor’s squad and the overall talent on North Carolina, it looks likely that the Tar Heels will get to 12 wins in a season for the first time in school history.
North Carolina 38