1. The lull between the end of the regular season and the first taste of bowl action is an excrutiating period for college football fans. The only spots of hope are the Army-Navy Game (which was excellent this year, and near the to of my sports bucket list to attend) and the Heisman trophy ceremony (maybe next year they can make it a 6-hour telecast and REALLY drag things on) with little hope of anything else. This Saturday, we are treated to such riveting national matchups like Arkansas State vs. Louisiana Tech and San Joe State vs. Georgia State. Can't wait. There is at least one game of interest between BYU and Utah that might get your blood pumping, but the fun rally starts the next weekend.
New Years Eve is when the serious party starts, with the CFP Semifinals kicking off that night, followed by the traditional New Years games,, the Rose and Sugar Bowls. In terms of the Big 12, Oregon and TCU should be a great game, as well as West Virginia versus Arizona State.
Baylor fans though will have to wait 24 long days between games before they take on 10th ranked North Carolina in the Russell Athletic Bowl. The Tarheels are 11-2 on the year, having lost in the ACC Championship game to top-ranked Clemson. Their only other loss of the year was the opener to the season against rival South Carolina, 17-13. Between those two games, UNC won 11 in a row, mostly in dominant fashion. There wasa 48-14 win over Illinois, a 66-31 thrashing of Duke and a 59-21 win over Miami. North Carolina is led by a powerful offense, ranking 19th in the country in yards per game with 486.9 and 11th in points with 40.9.
2. This will be a matchup of the two best offenses in the nation, in terms of yards per play. UNC surpassed Baylor with a 7.33 average, while Baylor fell to 7.25 yards per play after Seth Russell was injured. In those games without Russell, the Bears have averaged just 5.69 yards per play, a drastic fall that is greatly skewed by the TCU (weather) and Texas (no-quarterback) losses.
The key to UNC's offense is senior quarterback Marquise Williams, a true duel threat. Williams rushed for 962 yards and 11 touchdowns this year, and also added over 2800 yards and 21 touchdowns through the air. He is an experienced QB, starting the past three years for UNC, and is very comfortable in Larry Fedora's offense. This is a big play offense, with the 10th most plays of 30 or more yards in college football last year. They rank 3rd in explosiveness according to S&P+. The one real big difference between these two offenses is pace, where the Bears led the nation in tempo, while UNC ranked 106th. Baylor ran almost 16 more offense plays per game than UNC.
3. All of those Baylor stats come with one huge asterick though. The first 7 games saw Seth Russell lead the Bears to a 7-0 record and tremendous offensive results. The last 5-games saw the Bears go 2-3, and struggle mightily at times, especially after Jarrett Stidham went out of the Oklahoma State game at halftime. Russell won't be back for the bowl game, but Stidham might. The Bears offense is just a different beast when it has a top-tier QB running it. Chris Johnson, now 0-2 in games he has started, struggled mightily after a sensational start to his career in the 2nd half against Oklahoma State. You can blame the weather for the TCU game, but he still didn't make the plays needed. Against Texas, he was playing poorly before leaving the game with a head injury.
The Carolina defense improved considerably in 2015, but still has a ways to go. They were 46th in Defensive S&P+, but struggled mightily with running attacks (especially power ones). They have some good secondary players (led by M.J. Steaart), but their front-7 has been beaten at times. Clemson ran for 319 yards in the ACC championship game, averaging 5.7 yards per carry and 3 touchdowns. North Carolina State ran for 308 yards against them and Duke ran for 327 yards. This is a defense that has been beaten by running attacks all year. With such uncertainty at quarterback, the Bears running attack will have to lead them against the Tar Heels.
4. UNC has a powerful running attack in their own right, led by sophomore tailback Elijah Hood, who ran for 1345 yards and 17 touchdowns. Hood and quarterback Marquise Williams comibined for over 2000 yards and 28 touchdowns on the ground, to power a Top-15 rushing attack. Hood is a speed threat, who excels in space, same as Williams. Both have the size to be more successful inside, but they prefer to get outside and use their speed to get to the edge. They do a great job of getting tough yards, and the yards they need to stay on schedule. With an offense that goes at a slower tempo, it is important to be effecient, and the Tar Heels are. The ranked 15th in Success Rate (48.2% of the time, they gain the yards they need to stay on schedule).
Hood is averaging 6.5 yards per carry, with Williams at 7.5 This will be a big test for the Bears run defense, which has really only struggled at stopping running quarterbacks (see Kansas State, and 2nd half of Iowa State). Outside of that, the Bears run defense has been excellent all year. In the Russell Athletic Bowl, the Bears will see one of the best rushers from the quarterback position in all of college football.
5. Derrick Henry won the 2015 Heisman Trophy, barely edging out Christian McCaffery. The Alabama running back is the second Tide rusher to take home the trophy, joining Mark Ingram in 2009. Henryreceived 1,832 votes compared to 1,539 for McCaffery. If I had a vote, it would have gone to McCaffery, mainly due to his involvement in the passing game and special teams. The Stanford running back led the team in rushing, receiving yards, and was one of the best returners in college football. Stanford players are now notorious for finishing 2nd in the Heisman race, with their 5th 2nd place finish with four of those since 2009. John Elway (1982), Toby Gerhart (2009) and Andrew Luck (2010 and 2011 to Robert Griffin III) also finished second.
Henry had a great case though, setting the SEC season rushing record, passing Bo Jackson. He is a dominant tailback for one of the best teams in the nation. I have no issue with him winning, but I preferred McCaffery. Just a sophomore, McCaffery will be one of the favorites next year. He finished with an NCAA record 3,496 all-purpose yards, breaking Barry Sanders record set in 1988. He ran for 1847 yards, and added a team high 41 catches for 540 yards for the Cardinal. Add in his 28.9 yards per kick return and he was a true game-changed for Stanford.
With the 2015 race over, eyes will start to peak at 2016. Seth Russell will be mentioned frequently as a leading contender, as he should be. With the success of his shortened 2015 season, the Bears offense, and hopefully a healthy 2016 season, Russell's numbers should put him in the discussion for the most well-known trophy in sports. What could push him over the top is another run at perfection for the Bears as a team.