North Carolina Vs. Missouri, Independence Bowl 2011: Beginnings, Endings and Rain

James Franklin photo via Rock M Nation's Bill Carter.

Be it a beginning or an end, today's Independence Bowl between Missouri and North Carolina provides a host of unique matchups and, potentially, some inclement weather in beautiful, post-Christmas Shreveport.

NOTE: Confused? See the quick glossary at the bottom.

Depending on whether you see the glass as half-full or half-empty, the AdvoCare V100 Independence Bowl is a tale of either beginnings or ends. It is the end of the short Everett Withers era at North Carolina; the interim coach for the 2011 season, he will be replaced by Larry Fedora somewhere around 8:00 PM ET this evening, when this game has ended. It is the end of the Missouri football program's stay in the Big 12 conference. They will be joining the SEC next fall. It is the final game for seniors like North Carolina's Quinton Coples, Zach Brown and Dwight Jones and Missouri's Dominique Hamilton and Kenji Jackson. But it is also a beginning. Both Missouri (in their new digs) and North Carolina (with their new coach) will return quite a bit next fall, and both are looking at this game as a "we can build on this" opportunity.

Team Record AP Rank 2011 F/+ Rk 2011 Off.
F/+ Rk
2011 Def.
F/+ Rk
2011 S.T.
F/+ Rk
North Carolina 7-5 NR 41 31 48 92
Missouri 7-5 NR 33 24 51 57
Team Pace Rk Covariance Rk MACtion Rk Schizophrenia Rk
North Carolina 115 70 36 103
Missouri 15 8 114 12

For both teams, the 2011 season was a story of perseverance. North Carolina fought through the focus issues associated with an NCAA investigation and a coaching search, not to mention the growing pains that come with a new pair of starters in the offensive backfield.

Missouri, meanwhile, overcame tight losses, an incredible set of injuries (head coach Gary Pinkel said it was the largest number of injuries he has ever dealt with) and a tough schedule to win three straight late game to become bowl eligible.

Both teams hold offensive advantages over opposing defenses in this one, though they go about their business in entirely different ways. North Carolina plays at one of the most plodding paces in the country, gains and allows all sorts of big plays (hence the solid MACtion ranking), and is one of the most schizophrenic teams in the country. Missouri, meanwhile, was steady despite the injuries, won and lost games based on efficiency instead of explosiveness, and tended to play their best games against their worst opponents. Missouri is probably the better team here, but the matchups are quite interesting, and the water is a bit muddy.

When North Carolina Has The Ball…

Team F/+
Rk
S&P+
Rk
FEI
Rk
Success
Rt+ Rk
PPP+
Rk
Rushing
S&P+ Rk
Passing
S&P+ Rk
North Carolina Offense 31 29 44 33 35 61 19
Missouri Defense 51 45 49 41 25 31 32
Team Std. Downs
Run %
S.D.
S&P+ Rk
Pass. Downs
Run %
P.D.
S&P+ Rk
North Carolina Offense 61.4% 26 31.1% 23
Missouri Defense 54.7% 42 33.5% 6
National Average 69.1% 30.9%

If you can stay on schedule and avoid passing downs, you can beat the Missouri defense. On first glance, North Carolina looks well-put together in that regard. With decent balance, a strong, young running back and one of the most accurate quarterbacks in the country, the Tar Heels field a solid standard downs offense.

Quarterback Bryn Renner was the new face of the offense in 2011, and despite some growing pains along the way, his full-season stat line was quite impressive: 2,769 passing yards, a 69-percent completion rate, and 23 touchdowns to 12 interceptions. He basically had four targets, with a distinct hierarchy: Dwight Jones (100 targets, 79 catches, 1,119 yards), Erik Highsmith (65 targets, 43 catches, 648 yards), running back Giovani Bernard (46 targets, 39 catches, 338 yards), and everybody else (no one else was targeted more than 21 times). Bernard, a redshirt freshman, is a lovely dual-threat back, having also gained 1,230 yards (Adj. POE: plus-14.4). The strength is in the passing game, or to be more precise, the Renner-to-Jones combination; and after a brief, silly eligibility scare, Jones is indeed playing.

The Tar Heels run more of a pro-style offense, something Missouri didn't exactly see much of in the Big 12. Against their now-former pass-happy rivals, Mizzou showed potential on both sides of the ball. They tend to play soft and conservative on standard downs, then tighten on second- and third-and-long. The aggressiveness and athleticism of sophomore cornerback E.J. Gaines was a revelation as the season progressed; he broke up 16 passes on the season, and the Gaines-versus-Jones matchup should be thrilling. Beyond Gaines, the Tigers try to limit big plays and soften opponents up with hard-hitting linebackers Andrew Wilson and Luke Lambert (combined: 122 tackles, 19 tackles for loss).

When Missouri Has The Ball…

Team F/+
Rk
S&P+
Rk
FEI
Rk
Success
Rt+ Rk
PPP+
Rk
Rushing
S&P+ Rk
Passing
S&P+ Rk
Missouri Offense 24 41 23 30 53 34 53
North Carolina Defense 48 38 16 38 41 23 47
Team Std. Downs
Run %
S.D.
S&P+ Rk
Pass. Downs
Run %
P.D.
S&P+ Rk
Missouri Offense 65.0% 22 41.2% 78
North Carolina Defense 53.3% 40 30.0% 55
National Average 69.1% 30.9%

Through the years, Missouri has fielded one of the more flexible iterations of the spread offense. They first unveiled it in Brad Smith's senior season, and he logged his second 2,000/1,000 season. Then, Chase Daniel took over and led the Tigers to explosive passing numbers. Blaine Gabbert took the reins, threw bomb after bomb to Danario Alexander one year, then, in 2010, dinked and dunked to T.J. Moe and Michael Egnew.

In 2011, the offense led by James Franklin has been an amalgamation of all of the above. You've got a running quarterback not unlike Smith (Franklin threw for 2,733 yards and rushed for 947 pre-sack yards), and an offense with a higher run percentage. You've got reasonable long distance potential in targets like Marcus Lucas (414 receiving yards, 10.6 per target) and L'Damian Washington (317 receiving yards, 12.7 per target). And you've still got Moe (649 yards, 8.8 per target) and Egnew (484 yards, 7.2 per target) catching high-efficiency passes. What you don't have, however, is Henry Josey breaking long runs at any moment. The sophomore was on pace to set Missouri's single-season rushing record before recording the worst of trifectas -- torn ACL, MCL and patellar tendon -- in the 10th game. Kendial Lawrence (478 yards, -4.5 Adj. POE) and De'Vion Moore (151 yards, -2.3 Adj. POE) took over, and Missouri won their final two games without Josey, but the upside in this unit almost fully rests on Franklin's arm and legs at this point.

How Missouri attacks North Carolina's defense is a bit of a mystery. The Heels have a Top 25 rushing defense and should be able to hem in Franklin, Lawrence and company, but they have suffered quite a few lapses in the secondary. They are vulnerable on passing downs, but Mizzou hasn't shown amazingly capability on those downs. It appears to be strength-versus-strength and weakness-versus-weakness; the front seven, with players like end Quinton Coples (13 tackles for loss) and linebacker Zach Brown (72.0 tackles, 11.5 tackles for loss, three forced fumbles) are strong, but can a second led by safety Tre Boston (53.5 tackles, five passes defended) and corner Charles Brown (40.5 tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss, nine passes defended) avoid breakdowns?

The Verdict

Missouri by 1.3

Because of a generally brutal special teams unit, North Carolina is the slight underdog in this one. Be on the lookout for the weather, however. It is expected to be mid-40s and rainy at kickoff, which could throw any talk of matchups into the air. Who avoids fumbles? Who adjusts to the environment more quickly? And seriously, is there anything worse than mid-40s and rain? At that point, just drop down into the low-30s and give us some snow. It's happened in Shreveport before...

--------------------

A Quick Glossary

Covariance: This tells us whether a team tends to play up or down to their level of competition. A higher ranking means a team was more likely to play well against bad teams while struggling (relatively speaking) against good ones. (So in a way, lower rankings are better.) For more, go here.

F/+ Rankings: The official rankings for the college portion of Football Outsiders. They combine my own S&P+ rankings (based on play-by-play data) with Brian Fremeau's drives-based FEI rankings.

MACtion: This is a look at how closely teams are associated with big-play football (like those high-scoring, mid-week MAC games). Teams that rank high on the MACtion scale play games with a ton of both big plays (gained and allowed) and passing downs. For more, go here.

Pace: This is calculated by going beyond simply who runs the most plays. Teams that pass more are naturally inclined to run more plays (since there are more clock stoppages involved), so what we do here is project how many plays a team would typically be expected to run given their run-pass ratio, then compare their actual plays to expectations. Teams, then, are ranked in order from the most plays above the expected pace, to the least.

Passing Downs: Second-and-7 or more, third-and-5 or more.

PPP: An explosiveness measure derived from determining the point value of every yard line (based on the expected number of points an offense could expect to score from that yard line) and, therefore, every play of a given game.

S&P+: Think of this as an OPS (the "On-Base Plus Slugging" baseball measure) for football. The 'S' stands for success rates, a common Football Outsiders efficiency measure that basically serves as on-base percentage. The 'P' stands for PPP+, an explosiveness measure that stands for EqPts Per Play. The "+" means it has been adjusted for the level of opponent, obviously a key to any good measure in college football. S&P+ is measured for all non-garbage time plays in a given college football game. Plays are counted within the following criteria: when the score is within 28 points in the first quarter, within 24 points in the second quarter, within 21 points in the third quarter, and within 16 points (i.e. two possession) in the fourth quarter. For more about this measure, visit the main S&P+ page at Football Outsiders.

Schizophrenia: This measures how steady a team's performances are throughout the course of a full season. Teams with a higher ranking tend to be extremely unpredictable from week to week. For more, go here.

Standard Downs: First downs, second-and-6 or less, third-and-4 or less.

Success Rate: A common Football Outsiders tool used to measure efficiency by determining whether every play of a given game was successful or not. The terms of success in college football: 50 percent of necessary yardage on first down, 70 percent on second down, and 100 percent on third and fourth down.

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