UNC has the edge over a beat-up Baylor team
The Russell Athletic Bowl features a pair of teams who had realistic aspirations of claiming a playoff berth in November, but fell short for different reasons.
If North Carolina (11-2) had won the ACC Championship they may have found themselves in the playoff. It’s unfortunate that an officiating miscue denied them one last chance to get back into the game, but the Tar Heels would still have been a long shot to grab a playoff spot.
Baylor were undone by injuries to their two top quarterbacks. Prior to the injury bug they were in imperious form, racking up impressive offensive statistics on a weekly basis, though they weren’t being tested at that point.
A dual-threat QB for a dual-threat offense
When an offense pairs a dynamic running QB with a powerful back, it’s expected to possess a potent ground game, but an explosive passing game doesn’t always follow. The Tar Heels managed to pair both, they averaged 5.9 per rushing attempt, third-best in the nation, and 9.2 yards per passing attempt, tied for seventh in the nation. That combination is possible thanks to QB Marquise Williams (+21.6) who passed for 2,829 yards and 21 touchdowns, and also rushed for 746 yards and 10 touchdowns on designed runs, at 8.2 yards per attempt. William’s +6.0 passing grade for the season ranks 59th, but his +14.5 rushing grade was the fifth-highest among QBs, and the best in the Power-5.
The Tar Heels may lack a receiver who stands out statistically, but they do have a number of useful options, with five different wide receivers earning receiving grades of +2.5 or greater. Quinshad Davis was the best of the bunch with an +8.4 receiving grade. North Carolina will lean heavily on the run as always, but Baylor gave up 27 touchdowns through the air in 2015, tied for 114th in the nation, so Williams and his receivers may find some success.
How will the Baylor passing game go?
When starting QB Seth Russell went down, it was Jarrett Stidham who stepped up and the offense continued to function at a high level. Stidham’s +17.5 passing grade was the best mark of all Baylor’s QBs and there was some hope that Stidham might be fit to return against North Carolina. However, that hope has been quelled, with third choice QB Chris Johnson now named the starter.
The offense stagnated when Chris Johnson was forced onto the field. Johnson did earn a +1.0 passing grade when sealing the victory over Oklahoma State, but a -10.2 overall grade adequately captures his struggles. The idea Johnson has found things difficult is hardly a surprise, he opened the season as a receiver and was an emergency choice at quarterback. It will be interesting to see how much progress Johnson has made now that he’s had a little more time to get ready, Baylor will be hoping that it is enough to get their passing attack going again.
Players to watch
Baylor – DT Andrew Billings: The Bears can’t afford to get into a shoot out if their offense isn’t up to speed. That means Baylor’s defense must disrupt North Carolina’s offensive game plan, and there is no more disruptive player on their defense than Billings. For the second straight season, Billings has been a constant nuisance for opponents, particularly in the run game. He recorded five sacks, 30 total pressures and a +14.1 grade as a pass rusher, and earned a +26.7 grade in run defense. Billings only graded negatively once all season.
North Carolina – CB M. J. Stewart: The Tar Heels have given up 16 passing touchdowns, and matched that with 16 interceptions, a healthy ratio for any pass defense – Stewart (+14.0 coverage) is a major part of that. Whether he lined up on the outside, or covering the slot (66 percent of his coverage snaps came over the slot), quarterbacks got little joy targeting his coverage. Stewart has given up one touchdown, but also has four interceptions and 12 further passes defensed to his credit and has allowed just 45.5 percent of passes into his coverage to be completed. Not the sort of corner that a struggling passer wants to face.
Prediction: North Carolina
If everyone was fit, then Baylor would be the pick. But they aren’t, Baylor are down to their third choice QB and without their top WR Corey Coleman and RB Shock Linwood. The Tar Heels have the difficult to defend Williams under center, which gives them a considerable advantage. Art Briles does have time to get Johnson ready, and the system is quarterback friendly, so it wouldn’t be a shock if the Baylor offense looks better than it has since Stidham went down, but the circumstances favor the Tar Heels.