Feature graphic courtesy of Sarah Sopher.
Stanford (9-3) vs. North Carolina (8-4)
Where: Sun Bowl Stadium in El Paso, TX
When: Dec. 30 at 2 p.m. EST on CBS
How they got here:
Stanford arrives at their bowl game after a midseason quarterback change led to a five-game winning streak entering this bowl. The Cardinal were 4-3 following a 10-5 loss to Colorado and lost three of their last four games. Senior Ryan Burns had thrown for 1,058 yards and five touchdowns to seven interceptions, three against Colorado. Enter junior quarterback Keller Chryst. Chryst started every game during this run and on the season has thrown for 837 yards and nine touchdowns to just two interceptions. Chryst kept the turnovers down, allowing Christian McCaffrey, who won’t play to focus on the draft, and the run game flourish to the tune of an average of 322.8 rushing yards per game over the final five games of the season.
Why they can win:
Much has been made of Christian McCaffrey not playing, but they are still facing a North Carolina team that gives up over 230 rushing yards a game. Bryce Love will take over the lead back role in this one. The Cardinal are running hot down the stretch and will look to take advantage of a Tar Heel team that lost two of their final three games. As the hotter team, the Cardinal will look to capitalize on their momentum to get their sixth 10-win season in the last seven years. This is also coach David Shaw’s sixth straight bowl appearance, going 3-2 in the last five.
The Cardinal are going to need to keep the Tar Heels grounded in this one. Led by another potential draft pick, quarterback Mitch Trubisky, the Heels have thrived in the passing game. However, all four of Carolina’s losses came when they were held under 300 passing yards for the game.n total, they are 3-4 in such games. The Cardinal will want to pressure the pocket, and have two players that rank in the top 10 in sacks for the Pac-12: Solomon Thomas and Harrison Phillips. Thomas ranks fifth with 7.5 sacks and Phillips comes in a spot behind him with seven sacks. They’ll need to work to collapse pocket to throw Trubisky off his game.
Player to watch: RB Bryce Love
With McCaffrey gone, this game should give some idea of what the future of the Cardinal offense will look like. Love racked up 664 yards and three touchdowns on 7.4 yards per carry. The offensive line deserves credit for the run game, but McCaffrey’s talent shouldn’t be understated either. McCaffrey rushed for 1,603 yards this season, and when he caught fire down the stretch, so did the Cardinal. Love is getting the upgrade from understudy to lead actor and it will be interesting to see how Shaw adjusts the game plan without McCaffrey in the backfield.
How they got here:
The Tar Heels were a couple of late season losses away from playing for an ACC Championship and potentially a bigger bowl. Junior quarterback Mitch Trubisky led the team to 8-4 record, but a one-point loss to Duke Nov. 10 followed by a 28-21 loss to NC State two weeks later led to Virginia Tech taking the ACC Coastal division title. Despite sputtering late, the Tar Heels were ranked for five weeks this season, peaking at No. 15 before the loss to Duke. The Heels also beat Miami and Florida State on the way to making it to coach Larry Fedora’s fourth straight bowl appearance.
Why they can win:
Trubisky leads an offense that averages 442.4 yards per game, with almost 300 yards coming in the passing game. Wide receiver Ryan Switzer is the favorite receiver, with 91 catches for over 1,000 yards and five touchdowns, and receiver Bug Howard leads the team with seven receiving touchdowns. Lead back Elijah Hood won’t suit up for this one, but T.J. Logan will and with over 800 yards from scrimmage and 10 touchdowns on the year, seven rushing and three receiving, he’s no slouch at the position.
The Tar Heels get a break with McCaffrey out, but will still need to bottle up the run game to have a shot in this one. The defense produced three players with over 100 tackles on the season, Andre Smith, Cole Holcomb and Donnie Miles, and as a team secured 13 fumble recoveries, but just one interception. However, they ended the season with a turnover margin +1, with nine fumbles lost and four interceptions on the season. The Tar Heels spent the season relying on outscoring their opponents, averaging 34 points per game, but for this one they are going to need to find a way to keep the Cardinal outside of the end zone. The three games that Stanford lost, they scored just two touchdowns, and both in a 42-16 lost to Washington State. Those games also share another common denominator: no running game. In their three losses, the Cardinal managed 29, 61 and 93 yards.
Player to watch: QB Mitch Trubisky
NFL scouts will be watching Trubisky in this one, so you should too. While he hasn’t declared yet, he is expected to be a first-round pick and maybe even the first quarterback off the board. Trubisky threw for 3,468 yards with a 68.9% completion rate and 28 touchdowns with just four interceptions. Trubisky, like McCaffrey, might have his sights set on the League and a good showing could leave scouts with good memories come April. The biggest knock on Trubisky has been his lack of starting experience as this was his first, and potentially only, season manning the offense. A bowl victory to cap a nine-win season would look nice on his resume.
Edited by Maggie Gottlieb.