When UNC has the ball
No team in the country has been better on a per-play basis than the Tar Heels, who enter the Russell Athletic Bowl averaging 7.33 yards per play. When he’s on Marquise Williams is about as good as it gets nationally but consistency remains a challenge for him. Good thing for the Tar Heels, then, that this offense is hardly a one-man show. Sophomore running back Elijah Hood will enter next season an ACC Player of the Year candidate, the receiving corps is deep and versatile, with a mix of speed and size. Baylor is no slouch defensively and allows 5.06 yards per play, which ranks 30th nationally. Junior nose tackle Andrew Billings, the Big 12 co-Defensive Player of the Year, will be one of the best defensive players UNC has faced.
When Baylor has the ball
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A normal offense probably wouldn’t have much of a shot without its top two quarterbacks, best receiver and best running back. Especially if those players are among the best at their positions in the country. But the Bears don’t have a normal offense. Even without Corey Coleman, the Biletnikoff Award winner who’s out with an injury, the Bears’ receiving corps is formidable with K.D. Cannon and Jay Lee. And even without Shock Linwood, one of the best running backs in the country who’s also out with an injury, Baylor still has two backs who average more than 6 yards per carry. The question is how effective Chris Johnson can be at quarterback. He played quarterback in high school, then switched to receiver in the fall and then back to quarterback amid Baylor’s injury situation. The Bears have been decimated by injuries on offense but there’s still a lot of talent and speed, and a lot of players used to success.
UNC junior Ryan Switzer is one punt return for a touchdown away from tying the NCAA career record, and the Tar Heels’ placekicking woes are a distant memory now what with the emergence this season of Nick Weiler, who made 19 of his 22 field goal attempts this season. Baylor attempted only 12 field goals this season and didn’t make one of 40 yards or longer so UNC, it seems, has an advantage if the game comes down to placekicking. As explosive as the Bears are offensively they don’t have a player who’s had the special teams success that Switzer has had, either.
Baylor won its first eight games and was in the thick of the College Football Playoff race before their season unraveled – as much as a nine-win team can unravel – amid injuries and defeats during the final month of the season. Will the Bears find motivation in a trip to Orlando when they had such greater aspirations entering November? That remains to be seen. UNC, meanwhile, could make history with a victory. A win would be the Tar Heels’ 12th, and that would set a school record for victories in a season. Coach Larry Fedora’s breakthrough season at UNC would feel more successful, too, with a win in the final game against a marquee opponent from the Big 12.
Players to watch
Marquise Williams, 6-2, 225, QB, Sr, UNC: Williams has experienced quite the story arc during his time at UNC, going from heralded prospect who found his way out of school for academic reasons to trusted senior leader who has overcome past immaturity and learned from his mistakes. And, oh yes, he’s provided a lot of memorable highlights, too. Now his final college game is here. If he’s “good Marquise” and is on, the UNC just might win in a rout. Either way, Tar Heels fans should take some time to appreciate a player who provided his share of memorable moments.
Chris Johnson, 6-5, 235, QB, So, Baylor: Yes, picking two quarterbacks as the “players to watch” is the boring choice, but for Baylor it’s pretty simple: if Johnson can be effective the Bears will have a chance. If he’s not, they probably won’t. Baylor is without its top two quarterbacks and Johnson was a receiver earlier this year. But now he’s in charge of the Bears’ powerful offense. Johnson has never thrown for more than 138 yards in a college game, and how he fares will be one of the most fascinating things to watch on Tuesday.