SQ Russell Athletic Bowl Preview

Two prolific offenses will face off on December 29th at 5:30pm as #10 North Carolina (ACC, 11-2) takes on #17 Baylor (BIG 12, 9-3). The game will be broadcast on ESPN. These two teams have been going in opposite directions for the past few weeks, but this game is sure to be an exciting shoot-out to watch. 


Storylines Heading into the Game


Baylor’s Injury Woes - After feeling that they were snubbed from last year's College Playoff, Baylor started this season hell-bent on being one of the top four teams. They certainly looked the part for the first six weeks as they only scored below 60 points in a game once (even then, they scored 56). 

Against Iowa State, disaster struck as star quarterback Seth Russell was knocked out of the game and had season ending surgery shortly after. A few weeks later, backup Jarrett Stidham left the Oklahoma State game with a broken ankle. Third string Chris Johnson had to then leave the Texas game with a concussion, leaving wide receiver Lynx Hawthorne to play the quarterback position. Baylor has suffered greatly from these injuries, losing three of their last four games after starting 8-0. It is still not confirmed who will start for the Bears in this game.


UNC’s Surprise Stellar Season - What a season for the Tar Heels. After being picked to finish fifth in the Coastal, they rebounded from an opening weekend loss to South Carolina by winning 11 straight games. They went toe-to-toe with #1 Clemson in the ACC Championship Game, coming up just eight points short. Hardly anyone could have predicted such success for this team that is now ranked in the Top 10. The defense carried the team through the fist half of the season, and the offense has exploded in the second half. They have quickly become one of the hottest teams in the country. 

Rob Kinnan-USA TODAY Sports


Larry Fedora Contract Extension - Shortly before the ACC Championship game it was announced that Fedora had agreed to a contract extension with UNC through 2022. Fedora finished second in the ACC Coach of the Year voting (behind Dabo Swinney), and has led UNC to a 32-19 record in four seasons since signing on in 2012. Three of those seasons have been winning ones, including a first place finish in the Coastal in 2012 (UNC declared themselves ineligible for postseason play that year) and a Belk Bowl win in 2013.


Key Stats


7.326, 7.248 - North Carolina’s and Baylor’s yards-per-play, respectively. Its no secret that this game will feature a ton of offense, as both teams are phenomenal with the ball. Baylor averages close to 600 yards per game, while North Carolina averages around 500. Those numbers are somewhat skewed by Baylor's incredible start, but the potential for offensive domination is very much still present. There are sure to be many explosive plays throughout this matchup. 

22.6 - Points-per-game allowed by North Carolina’s defense. With so much talk of these two offenses, lets consider some defensive numbers. They have given up 34 and 37 points in their last two games, but prior to that they had held teams very well. In fact, they held seven of their first eight opponents to under 20 points. The Heels do give up plenty of yards, but they somehow keep those yards from turning into too many points. On the other hand, Baylor gives up 27.5 points-per-game. This game may come down to which defense can make one or two more key stops than the other, and UNC’s defense certainly has the advantage there. 

20, 0 - Touchdown passes caught by Baylor WR Corey Coleman in the first eight games, and the last four. Before all the quarterback turmoil, Coleman was poised to completely dominate all opposition at the wide receiver position. Even after not catching any touchdowns in the past four games, he still leads all other division one receivers on the season with his 20. He is also fourth in the nation in receiving yards. Still, his production has dropped off considerably in the last four games. Without a consistent quarterback, he’s hardly made an impact at all. If Baylor expects to win this game, Coleman has to be a factor and he has to get in the end zone.


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Key Players


Rob Kinnan-USA TODAY Sports

Elijah Hood, RB, North Carolina - In a league of phenomenal running backs like Henry, Fournette, McCaffrey and Cook, Elijah Hood is flying way under the radar. Quietly, he’s racked up 1,345 yards (averaging 6.5 yards-per-carry) and 17 touchdowns. That puts him in the top 15 in the nation in both categories. He is poised to attack a pretty mediocre Baylor rush defense. UNC would love to control the pace of this game behind strong running from Hood. 

Unknown, QB, Baylor - Nearly all of Baylor’s offensive success in this game will hinge on who starts under center. Jarrett Stidham is a much better option than Chris Johnson, however his availability is still questionable. It may be a small sample size, but Stidham’s passer rating is nearly twice as high as Johnson’s (199 to 103.6). Baylor fans should be confident if Stidham plays, but this game may be a lost cause if Johnson is forced to make another start. 


Why North Carolina Wins



UNC’s major strength is their running game. They average 222.9 yards-per-game, with Marquise Williams and Elijah Hood carrying most of the load. Unfortunately for Baylor, their rush defense is pretty weak, allowing 156.3 yards-per-game. If the Bears allow Williams and Hood to run wild, it will be tough for them to play from behind (especially if Johnson is the quarterback). 

Matters could get worse if All-ACC Second Team CB M.J. Stewart is able to lock down Corey Coleman. That combined with a possible Chris Johnson start could completely take the Baylor passing game out of the picture, forcing a very one-dimensional game plan. 


Why Baylor Wins


As good as the Tar Heel rushing attack is, Baylor’s is better, averaging just over 300 yards-per-game. And as mediocre as Baylor’s run defense is, North Car olina’s is worse. The Tar Heels give up a whopping 216.8 yards-per-game. If Baylor can get the run game going early then they can force Marquise Williams to throw the ball and press more, something he’s not fully comfortable doing. Williams is prone to making mistakes when playing from behind and trying to do to much.  

In the best case scenario, Stidham would start and Coleman would break out of his current slump. If that were to happen, those two have the potential to light up the UNC secondary. Coleman was once considered one of the most explosive players in college football, and I'm confident he's itching to get that title back. 


Prediction


This game should largely be decided by who can control the rushing game better, and who can get off to a better start. I think that North Carolina has the advantage, having a dual threat QB like Williams and a fantastic RB in Hood. Between Williams and Hood, the Tar Heels should be able to control the pace of the game and force Baylor to throw the ball more than they want to. 

Even with Stidhman playing at quarterback, the Baylor offense isn’t the impressive machine it used to be. It will be a shootout, but North Carolina will force an early punt or turnover and never lose control of the game. Since a lot hinges on who will be playing quarterback for Baylor, I will include two final score predictions. 

Final Score (Stidham plays): North Carolina 41, Baylor 38

Final Score (Johnson plays): North Carolina 38, Baylor 26

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