Stanford kicks off the Sun Bowl and closes out the 2016 season today, and while the biggest story to emerge so far in the lead-up to the game is who is not going to be there, it’s worth pointing out that there is a 10th win for the Cardinal on the line not to mention a credible opponent in North Carolina. How credible? Let’s take a look.
S&P+ is a per-play metric crafted by Bill Connelly of CFB Study Hall fame, and is a very sound way of evaluating teams. How do the Cardinal and Tar Heels stack up by this metric? Very evenly, it turns out. Stanford is the 21st-rated team by S+P+ and North Carolina is 22nd. As tends to be the case so often, these teams’ strengths and weaknesses align to create a very interesting headline match-up and undercard.
As has been the case for the majority of Coach David Shaw’s seasons leading the Cardinal, defense is the calling card. Stanford finished with the country’s 19th-best defense per S&P+, and North Carolina finished 23rd in offense by the same metric. Here is your headline match-up. Defensive Coordinator Lance Anderson’s crew must hold down Mitch Trubisky and the Tar Heel offense. Like Stanford, North Carolina takes the field in El Paso without its leading rusher in Elijah Hood, but this side of the ball is clearly the strength of the Tar Heels.
Perhaps the most crucial aspect of UNC’s offense is its explosiveness, especially when compared to the Stanford defense’s vulnerability to big plays this season. North Carolina had 1.42 Isolated Points Per Play, which was 12th best in the country. Stanford’s defensive rating of 1.25 in the same category was only 62nd in the country. Job number one for the Cardinal defense is stopping the big play, a formidable task indeed given Trubisky’s talents and the receivers to whom he is throwing.
There’s no mystery who about who makes the big plays in the passing game for North Carolina. Receiver Ryan Switzer was targeted on 29.2% of Trubisky’s throws and caught 76% of those targets, far and away the highest numbers in both categories on the team. Switzer averaged a healthy 8.6 yards per target on those passes, and although teams were successful in limiting his impact as a punt returner, they had no such luck in slowing down Switzer the receiver, and this is a problem for Stanford.
What’s the big deal? Stanford has Quenton Meeks at corner. The problem is the existence of 6’5” Tar Heel Bug Howard at another receiver spot. That’s a big Bug, and since Alijah Holder is not available for this game, Meeks is really the only legitimate option Stanford has for shadowing Howard, who averaged 10.6 yards per target and had a 66% catch rate. Meeks can’t be everywhere, and that means either Howard or Switzer are going to be matched up against a smaller defensive back on nearly every play.
If Stanford can limit big plays, the Cardinal will still have to keep a very efficient Tar Heel offense from finishing drives. North Carolina averaged 4.78 points per trip inside the opponents’ 40 this year, which was 41st best in the nation. The Cardinal held its own in this category, allowing only 4.05 points per trip in the 40, 31st in the nation. North Carolina is gonna move the ball, but forcing field goals is going to be a big step towards victory because of what’s going on on the other side of the ball.
It might be tempting to divide Stanford’s season up between the time Ryan Burns spent as the starting quarterback and the time Keller Chryst did the same, but the truth is that the more relevant divide may be B.B.I. (Before Big Island) and A.B.I. Nate Herbig’s insertion into the starting lineup at Left Guard played a far bigger role in Stanford’s second half offensive renaissance than the quarterback swap did. The Stanford run game sprung to life behind Herbig’s punishing pulls, and this is the first area Stanford must look to in attacking North Carolina.
The Tar Heels had the 87th rush defense in the country per S&P+, and it’s hard to imagine Stanford winning this game and not exploiting this weakness. The Tar Heels did a very good job limiting big plays (1.16 IsoPPP, 16th in the country), but their 109th-rated defensive success rate strongly indicates that patient teams can matriculate the ball against the Tar Heels. Again, finishing drives is likely to be the deciding factor on this side of the ball as well. UNC allowed 4.13 points per opponent trip inside the 40, which was comparable to Stanford’s defense and was 37th in the country. Coffee is for closers, and it’s likely that Sun Bowl wins are for going to be for finishers today.
Everybody knows Bryce Love is going to be replacing Christian McCaffrey at the top of the Stanford running back chart, but the extent to which he is able to replace McCaffrey the receiver may be as crucial. Christian was Stanford’s third-most targeted receiver, and caught 77% of the passes thrown to him, far and away the best on the team. The Cardinal’s failure to utilize Love as a receiver with McCaffrey available was borderline criminal (11 pass targets all season), but without #5 around there is no excuse not to utilize Love’s explosiveness downfield via the passing game.
It’s always interesting to chart tendencies in a game where the teams have had a month to prepare. Despite Lance Anderson’s repeated observations that North Carolina is a run on 1st and 2nd down team, the Tar Heels actually only ran the ball on 50.3% of standard downs. The national average this season is 60.4%. Stanford, conversely, ran the ball on 68% of standard downs, making the Cardinal far more predictable at least to this point. As he bluntly disclosed this week, change and Coach Shaw go together like airlines and on-time departures. To what extent can North Carolina make Stanford leave its comfort zone? What have ShawVitaGren cooked up to combat tendencies the Tar Heels have had a month to learn?
Finally, don’t ignore special teams’ role here. North Carolina is sound in all facets of special teams, especially the punt game, where they rank 12th in the country in S&P+. Switzer is clearly to be avoided as a punt returner, and with McCaffrey gone Stanford is likely to get far more opportunities to make plays in the return games than they have all year.
There has been plenty said about what this Sun Bowl is not. It’s not the Rose Bowl. It’s not Christian McCaffrey’s final game (retroactive kudos to the dozens who “packed”
The Library for the Rice game!!) nor is it the indicator of 2017 Stanford that many have identified it as. What it is is a chance to win a 10th game, a benchmark the program has achieved or exceeded only 8 times in 120 seasons. It is a chance for Keller Chryst to prove he can perform against an actually functional Division I defense, and it is the last real Stanford Football game for nine months. The last chapter of any story tends to be the most memorable one. Will 2016’s final episode tie a bow or end a good but not great season with a massive thud?
We’ll know by 3 PM Stanford time.