CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – While the disappointment of its late-season slide is still fresh, North Carolina can alleviate that negativity and enter the offseason on a positive trajectory with a win over No. 16 Stanford in the Sun Bowl.
Six months ago, UNC was the preseason favorite to win the ACC Coastal Division and play for the conference championship. November losses to Duke and N.C. State ended those chances and reduced a promising season to an 8-4 record and a bowl full of “what-ifs” during the holidays. That alone is testimony to Larry Fedora’s work in Chapel Hill, where the opportunity for nine-win seasons are a rarity. UNC has won nine or more games 11 times since the ACC’s creation in 1953.
The 2016 Tar Heels can push that total to 12 against the Cardinal, thereby giving the program its 20th win over the last two seasons, a feat accomplished only three times before in school history.
There’s also the fact that UNC can accomplish the lone goal remaining on its preseason list: winning its final game. A 40-21 loss to Rutgers in the Quick Lane Bowl handed Fedora his first losing record as a head coach to close the 2014 season, and last year’s 49-38 loss to Baylor in the Russell Athletic Bowl left a sour taste in the mouth of many after reaching the ACC Championship Game for the first time since conference expansion.
The task at hand is significant. Stanford is riding a five-game winning streak after a 4-3 start. The Cardinal will be without star running back Christian McCaffrey, who decided to skip the Sun Bowl to prepare for his NFL career. Despite the magnitude of his absence, the point spread for the game has only shifted by half of a point (Stanford -2.5).
“It’s not about one guy,” UNC defensive coordinator Gene Chizik said on Wednesday. “It never is.”
Stanford’s philosophy is built upon physicality up front. The Cardinal rank 34th nationally in rushing offense (215.6 ypg) and 23rd in rushing yards per carry (5.4). McCaffrey’s backup, Wake Forest, N.C. native Bryce Love, has rushed for 664 yards and three touchdowns at a 7.4 yards-per-carry clip this season.
“I was asked midseason what I thought about Bryce for when he eventually takes over, and I think he’s one of the most dynamic backs in college football,” Stanford head coach David Shaw said. “It just so happens he was behind the most dynamic back in college football.”
Stanford’s winning streak coincided with the emergence of junior quarterback Keller Chryst, whose playing time increased in late October before eventually moving into the starting role for the Cardinal’s final three games. Chryst has thrown for 774 yards and nine touchdowns against just one interception during the five-game winning streak, while also adding an additional element to the run game.
UNC, which ranks 113th in rushing defense (235.5 ypg) and 73rd in yards per carry allowed (4.6), allowed a bowl-record 645 rushing yards to Baylor last December.
“We’ve been very happy at times with the way we’ve played run defense,” Chizik said. “And then there’s been some times when we’ve been very unhappy with it because we’ve been very unproductive, which really brings us to the great challenge of the weekend. The great challenge is that they’re going to say, ‘we’re going to run the ball,’ and there’s been times when we haven’t been very good at defending it.”
Stanford is not the only team missing its star running back. UNC junior Elijah Hood is sidelined due to medical reasons, which elevates senior T.J. Logan (578 rushing yards, 7 TD) into the primary role in Fedora’s base 11 personnel scheme.
"He may not be as big or as physical as Hood, but Logan has got a lot of juice, a lot of wiggle, he'll still make you miss," Stanford defensive coordinator Lance Anderson said.
The man that makes UNC’s offense hum along – 6.77 yards per play ranks 14th nationally – is junior quarterback Mitch Trubisky (68.9 completion percentage, 3,468 passing yards, 28 TD, 4 INT). The Mentor, Ohio native received a first-round grade from the NFL draft advisory board, although he doesn’t plan to make a decision about his future until after the bowl game.
Trubisky has long been tabbed as the prototype for Fedora’s offense. However, his ascension to the top of the draft boards has come sooner than many thought.
“You knew with Mitch, just how he had practiced with us and how he had stepped up in some critical situations throughout the years when he was the backup, that he was capable of being special,” UNC offensive coordinator Chris Kapilovic said. “We have always had high expectations for him. He came in and settled down after that first game and obviously has played at an extremely high level. We had high expectations for him and he’s probably exceeded those expectations this year.”
Trubisky and UNC’s offense will be tested by a Cardinal squad that ranks 36th nationally in total defense (365.6 ypg) and 42nd in yards per play allowed (5.36).
A win would give the Tar Heels their first bowl win since 2013 and snap a five-game losing streak at neutral sites. It would also give UNC a third win over a top-25 ranked opponent this year while injecting a dose of positivity entering the offseason.