Baylor vs. North Carolina in Russell Athletic Bowl

The 9-3 Baylor Bears travel to Orlando Florida to take on the 11-2 North Carolina Tar Heels on December 29th in the Russell Athletic Bowl.

This isn't the game either team really wanted going into the last week of the season.  Baylor with a win over 4-7 Texas would advance to the Sugar Bowl, their 3rd New Years' Day Bowl game in a row.  North Carolina had a chance for a playoff spot with an upset win over top ranked Clemson.  With both teams losing, they get to face off against each other, both looking for a happy ending to seasons that had very high hopes. The Bears enter the game as a shell of the offensive power that dominated the first few months of the season.  Seth Russell and Jarrett Stidham are both out for the game, with Corey Coleman and Shock Linwood also joining them on the sidelines. That is a lot to replace especially against a very strong offense that should score points.  This should not be a defensive battle, if Baylor's reserves can keep the pace at least.  

FEI Rank 15 9
F/+ Rank 12 21
S&P+ Rank 14 30
GE Rank 10 8
Sagarin 11 12
Massey 15 14
RealTime RPI 21 10
Team Rankings 5 11

Average

12.88

14.38



Players to Watch

Marquise Williams - Senior Quarterback

Williams had a tremendous senior campaign.  A true dual threat, he passed for over 2800 yards, ran for another 867 and had 33 touchdowns on the year. He is more of a run-first type threat, but is capable as a passer.  With a big arm, Williams can make plays down the field to a talented group of receivers.  

Elijiah Hood - Sophomore Runningback

The third most prolific rusher in the ACC, Hood rushed for 1345 yards and 17 touchdowns.  With prototypical size at 6-foot, and 220 pounds, Hood is strongest between the tackles.  2015 was a breakout year for him, after a relatively quiet freshman campaign.  Him and Williams form a very dangerous duo in the backfield for UNC.

Ryan Switzer - Junior Wide Recevier / Returner

Switzer is one of the best punt retuners and slot receivers in the nation.  He is a terror out of the slot, and led the Tar Heels with 52 receptions.  A pure chain mover, Switzer is very shifty in space and finds ways to get open.  The easy, and accurate comparison to him is Wes Welker, and it isn't wrong.  Switzer is also a gamechanger in the punt game, averaging 13.73 yards per return and returing two for touchdowns in 2015.  He had 5 as a freshman in 2013, and will be trying to set a new career record with his 8th punt return touchdown. 

Shakeel Rashad - Senior Linebacker

The third leading tackler in the ACC, Rashad is an athletic and smart backer who is good in coverage, and is a pursuit machine. He primarily plays on the weakside, lined up to either blitz or drop into coverage on the inside receiver. 

M.J. Stewart - Sophomore Cornerback

The Tar Heels best cover corner, Stewart will slide down into the slot quite a bit as their nickle man. He has average size at 5-11 and 180 pounds.  

Keys to the Game

1. Special Teams Play - The kickoff game is not a strength for either team, with the Bears ranking 95th in defense, and UNC ranking 88th in return average.   The Tar Heels feature one of the best returners in college football in Ryan Switzer. He is an excellent punt returner, and will tie the career record for return touchdowns with 8 on his next trip to the endzone. He is a big play threat with the ball, and UNC does a good job of setting up opportunities for him.  As a team they averaged over 13 yards per return with two touchdowns.  The Bears have struggled with kickoff returns this year, but their punt return defense has been rather strong.  They are allowing 3.50 yards per return on just 8 opportunities.  

When the Bears do punt, which has been rare, freshman Drew Galitz has done a tremendous job of directional kicking and using his strong hangtime to limit returns. With an injured and somewhat limited offense, the Bears will probably be punting more often than Baylor fans are accustomed to.  Switzer is possibly the best pure return threat the Bears will have seen in 2015, and will need to make sure they keep him bottled up.  

The Tar Heels have also been very aggressive on special teams, calling many fakes in 2015 under head coach Larry Fedora.  Expect fake punts, fake kicks, onside kicks, or even reverses.  This is an aggressive and well-coached unit that will try and take advantage of a weaker Baylor special teams unit.  

2.  Win the QB Running Game - Both of these teams will feature a starting quarterback that is a big-bodied, powerful runner.  Marquis Williams, at 6-foot-2 and 220 pounds, and Chris Johnson, at 6-foot-5 and 235 pounds, both bring a power running dimension to their offenses. Williams rushed for over 860 yards.  He ran for an average of 77.25 yards and a total of 5 touchdowns in the last four games. When he is able to move the chains, it opens up the rest of the offense.  Baylor's offensive attack has taken a large step back since the loss of Jarrett Stidham. Yes, one of those games played in a monsoon, and the other was played without a quarterback, but the Bears have to get more production from the quarterback position. It will be a delicate balance of using Johnson's physicality and rushing ability versus protecting him.  The Tar Heels really lean on zone/read plays, putting a lot of pressure on Williams.  The Baylor defense has struggled against this exact type of rusher. 

To open the year, Matt Davis rushed for 115 yards and over 4.8 yards per attempt.  Joe Hubener ran for over 150 yards and 5 yards per carry. Even Tyrone Swoopes gained over 50 yards on the ground and more than 5 yards a carry.  This defense has struggled with running threats at the quarterback position for years.  With Williams being one of the better ones they will have seen, thsi is a huge test for the Bears. 

3. Protect Johnson - Chris Johnson is the Bears most important player.  Not becuase of his talent, but because of the scarcity of other viable resources at the quarterback position.  Baylor has no one behind him that is a threat passing the ball.  The Tarheels were 76th in the nation in Sack %, only getting to the quarterback 22 times.  They had a havoc rate of 15%, ranking 84th in the nation.  The strength of the Bears offense has been their offensive line, protecting any of the quarterbacks that are behind them.  The Bears allowed the 15th lowest sack % in the nation, allowing just 15 sacks in 12 games.  Johnson will take some hits in the run game, as he is simply too talented to not use in that manner, especially against a defense that has struggled with that type of attack.  Baylor cannot afford to let him take big hits in the passing game as well.   

Predictions

Massey Ratings – Bears win 41-38

RealTime RPI – Bears lose 39-27

S&P+ Rating - Bears win 36-31 

Vegas Line - -3 Baylor (Over/Under - 69)

Tim Watkins - BearsIllustrated.com

It is hard for me to get too excited about this game for a couple of reason. First, it has been a disapointing last month of football for the Bears, starting with the loss of Seth Russell and culimanting in back-to-back home losses and losses to rivals UT and TCU.  Secondly, the Bears have been decimated by injuries on the offensive side of the ball.  Finally, I think that UNC is an awful matchup for the Bears.  Offensively, they excel at things that the Bears struggle with.  They have been up and down defending running quarterbacks, and have consistently been hurt by talented slot receivers.  Enter Marquise Williams and Ryan Switzer.  Add in Switzer's ability in the punting game, and this just feels bad to me.  

The only thing I keep coming back to is Art Briles with almost a month to get his offense, and 3rd string quarterback Chris Johnson, ready for this game.  Baylor's offense will need to be playing at a high level, as I just see a lot of points going on the board for those boys in blue and argyle. Give me 48-45 and I don't think it will be the boys in green and gold.   


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