1. There's a simple reason Baylor's stats kept getting worse
Computer ratings are good for telling us something about a team's overall season. In a lot of cases, they are intended to be predictive. My own S&P+ has been successful enough to use predictively. But funky things happen to a rating's predictive capabilities when team personnel changes.
With Seth Russell at quarterback, Baylor was perhaps the most consistent team in the country. Against opponents both good at bad, the Bears' average percentile performance averaged 90 percent through seven games; six of the seven games were between 86 and 91 percent. That's not quite elite, but it's elite consistency.
Russell was lost for the season with injury against Iowa State. With star freshman Jarrett Stidham at QB, the average percentile performance shrank to 69 percent. The Bears were still good and suffered only a loss to Oklahoma, but Stidham was more sack prone, and Baylor's efficiency rhythm was a little bit off.
Then Stidham got hurt. Third stringer Chris Johnson was asked to attempt to beat TCU in a monsoon, and then Johnson got hurt against Texas, leaving backup receiver Lynx Hawthorne to take snaps. Average percentile performance for the last two games (both losses): 40 percent.
Baylor's offense is as close to plug-and-play as any, but in 2015, we found its limits.
Now, in the Russell Athletic Bowl, Stidham is still out, as is starting running back Shock Linwood and all-world receiver Corey Coleman.
Using full-season numbers. S&P+ projects Baylor to win a 37-31 shootout. But after scoring just 38 points in the last two games, the Bears might not be adequately represented by the stats. They will score. Johnson should be back, and to be sure, the Bears still have weapons: receivers KD Cannon and Jay Lee have combined for 1,567 yards (11 per target) and 14 touchdowns, sophomore running back Johnny Jefferson has averaged a nearly Linwoodian 6.2 yards per carry, etc. But can Baylor score enough to match UNC's own high-caliber offense?
2. The long-awaited UNC breakthrough
If you keep watching for something, you might eventually see it.
North Carolina was constantly viewed as a program to keep an eye on. This is the year the Heels break through! And if not, then next year! Or the year after that!
In 2015, North Carolina has broken through. The Heels began and ended with losses in Charlotte -- first, an unforgivable slip against South Carolina; last, a more understandable 45-37 loss to Playoff-bound Clemson.
In between, UNC wrecked shop, going 8-0 in conference play and winning 11 consecutive games by an average score of 44-21. The offense produced big plays (90 gains of 20-plus yards, third in the country), and while Gene Chizik probably got a little too much credit, he did still improve UNC to 65th in Def. S&P+ with an extreme bend-don't-break approach.
North Carolina's defense is far too inefficient. The Heels allowed a 45 percent success rate (100th in the country), 47 percent against the run (114th). But there was a clear trade-off. After allowing 84 gains of 20-plus yards in 2014 (second-most in the country), they allowed only 53 this year (53rd).
With a reactive front seven and a secondary that can get hands on passes, UNC waited for you to make a mistake and pounced, shutting drives down well in the red zone (3.82 points allowed per scoring opportunity, 13th) and snaring bad passes. Corners Des Lawrence, M.J. Stewart, and Malik Simmons combined for eight interceptions and 35 break-ups. Especially with Coleman and Stidham/Russell out, the Heels might have the athletes to match up when Baylor passes. But they might have to worry about Johnson and Jefferson combining for 200 rushing yards in the process.
Of course, with all the run success in the world, Baylor might still struggle to keep up with a UNC offense that features quarterback Marquise Williams (2,829 passing yards, 962 non-sack rushing yards), tailback Elijah Hood (1,345 rushing yards), and the receiver trio of Ryan Switzer, Quinshad Davis, and Bug Howard (combined: 1,703 receiving yards, 13 touchdowns). The UNC defense was still quite flawed, and UNC went 11-2; that should tell you all you need to know about the Tar Heel attack.
3. Key Stat: Finishing
Spread: Baylor -3
S&P+ Projection: Baylor 36.5, North Carolina 31.4
Team Sites: Tar Heel Blog, Our Daily Bears
|Category||North Carolina offense||Baylor defense||Baylor offense||North Carolina defense|
|FINISHING DRIVES||5.3 (24)||4.9 (87)||5.6 (2)||3.8 (13)|
With UNC's explosiveness and Baylor's efficiency (and UNC's defensive inefficiency), you have to figure both teams will create scoring opportunities. The game could be decided, then, by whose drives finish in the end zone.
Even while playing Musical Quarterbacks, BU finished as well as anybody in the country, averaging 5.6 points per scoring opportunity. But UNC was elite at stopping you short of the end zone.
Meanwhile, the Tar Heels' offense was good at finishing, and Baylor's defense was not.
Even if you believe Baylor has an overall statistical advantage -- and with BU's injuries, you might not -- UNC might be able to take advantage of one of Baylor's biggest weaknesses while negating one of its biggest strengths. That could easily flip this game in the Heels' direction.