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UNC-Baylor Preview: Bears Hobbled, Yet Dangerous

No. 10 North Carolina and No. 17 Baylor will kick off the Russell Athletic Bowl in Orlando at 5:30pm (ESPN) on Dec. 29.

Series Record: This is the first ever meeting between North Carolina and Baylor.  

Getting to Know The Bears

Baylor enters the Russell Athletic Bowl following an injury-riddled season that began with College Football Playoff expectations and ended with three losses in the team’s last four games. The decline in play at the end of the season is directly related to critical injuries at the quarterback position, where junior starter Seth Russell (neck) and freshman backup Jarrett Stidham (ankle) both saw their seasons end early. Even sophomore third-stringer Chris Johnson was pulled from the season finale against Texas with concussion-like symptoms.

What Baylor does better than any team in the country is put points on the board, averaging 48.0 points per game. The Bears scored at least 60 points in five different games this season, and 40 points in eight games. They run a similar spread offense to the one Larry Fedora has installed at UNC. The Russell Athletic Bowl has the makings of a marquee shootout in Orlando, certainly holding the potential to be the most entertaining game of the 2015 bowl season.  

Offense

Johnson (15-of-38 passing, 220 yards, 3 TD, 2 INT; 80 rushing yards, TD) will start at quarterback against UNC despite the aforementioned injury against the Longhorns. He appeared in eight games this season, largely in garbage time, but started in the final two games of the season. Entering those two games, the Bears averaged more than 350 yards per game through the air. In Johnson’s two starts, Baylor passed for a combined 146 yards, fewer than any single-game total by the Bears leading up to those games.

Quarterback isn’t the only skill position where Baylor will miss its starters. Junior starting running back Shock Linwood is listed as out for the bowl game with a foot fracture. Linwood was the 23rd-most productive back in the nation this season, averaging more than 110 yards per game and scoring 10 touchdowns. Starting in his place will be sophomore Johnny Jefferson, who is a speed back with a 4.41 40-yard dash time. Jefferson is averaging 6.2 yards per carry this season and scored five touchdowns on the year.

The injury bug didn’t stop in the Baylor backfield. Star junior wide receiver Corey Coleman (74 catches, 1,363 yards, 20 TD) will miss the Russell Athletic Bowl after undergoing hernia surgery. Coleman won the Biletnikoff Award, given to the top wide receiver in the nation, and was a unanimous All-American. The next best option is K.D. Cannon, who is still a threat to the UNC secondary. Cannon is one of the most explosive receivers in college football, capable of beating defenses over the top. Cannon finished the regular season with 46 receptions for 828 yards and six touchdowns. Following him is yet another potent target in Jay Lee. The senior receiver is another deep threat, averaging 20.2 yards per catch, and has found the end zone eight times this season.

The Baylor offensive line is healthy, strong and productive. It’s given the Bears some of the best run blocking in the country and are capable of protecting the quarterback. Baylor averaged more than 300 yards per game on the ground and allowed just 15 sacks this season (20th). As depleted as the Baylor backfield is, UNC will still have a struggle up front against the Bears’ offensive line.  

Defense

Statistically, Baylor ranks among the middle of the pack in total defense (59th), although its up-tempo pace skewed those numbers a bit as Art Briles’ squad rank 30th in yards per play allowed (5.06). The Bears allowed 389 yards and 27.5 points per game in the regular season and played inversely to the Tar Heels’ approach. Baylor was much better statistically at stopping the run (156.3 yards allowed per game) than the pass (232.7 yards allowed per game), although it’s worth noting the Bears have played four of the top-18 passing offenses in the country.

Junior cornerback Xavien Howard is arguably the most dangerous player Baylor has on the defensive side of the ball. The Houston, Tex. native has intercepted five passes, broke up nine passes, and also returned a fumble recovery 30 yards. In a secondary that has struggled at times with the pass (6.9 yards per attempt; T-57th), Howard has stood out among the best corners in the Big 12.  <> Junior defensive tackle Andrew Billings has stood out as one of the best NFL prospects on this talented Baylor team. He’s tallied a team-high 5.5 sacks and a team-high 15 tackles for loss for 66 yards. Billings is capable of penetrating into the backfield for possession-crippling plays. Senior linebacker Grant Campbell led the team with 90 tackles this season.  

Notable Quotes

“They’re the No. 1 offense in the country, I think, in just about every statistic. They are explosive; yards, touchdowns, they’ve got one receiver that’s got 20 touchdowns already. They are pretty phenomenal in what they do. When they say they spread the field, they spread the field. They widen you out. Those receivers will be outside the numbers. That’s a lot of room to cover to stop the running game and you’ve got to make the decision on what you’re going to do, and they’ve proven that they can beat you with either one. There is similarity that way.” – UNC head coach Larry Fedora

“I do know that they've been a really dynamic team throughout the year. They've scored a bunch of points, a high-tempo offense. They have really talented guys on defense. Throughout the years, North Carolina has always had really quality football players. I've mentioned the east coast over the last five or six years. I was familiar with it when I was at Houston, so I was familiar with those people like North Carolina. They're physical specimens, really good-looking guys. So, North Carolina has always had that. We know they're going to be extremely talented football team. Larry has done a really great job. He's a really, really good football coach." – Briles

Matchup To Watch

Baylor DT Andrew Billings vs. UNC’s Offensive Line
In the ACC Championship Game, Clemson pressured Marquise Williams early and often. The pressure worked in disrupting the fifth-year senior’s rhythm and forcing a number of rushed and inaccurate passes. Clemson’s defensive line was too much for North Carolina’s often-steady offensive line, and the entire offense was thrown off-sync because of it.

Billings has emerged as one of the best defensive linemen in the country, and the 6-foot-2, 310-pounder could pose similar problems. His ability to penetrate and take down members of the backfield makes him an immediate threat to a UNC offense that is built on establishing rhythm by cranking out first downs. Containing Billings will be critical to UNC scoring points early and putting pressure on a depleted Baylor offense to keep up.


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