The No. 17 Baylor Bears are headed to the Russell Athletic Bowl for the first time in school history. The bowl game, which takes place in Orlando, Fla., will see the Bears match up against No. 10 North Carolina Tar Heels of the ACC.
The Tar Heels finished the season 11-2, losing in the ACC title game to the No. 1 Clemson Tigers. For the Bears, who finished fourth in the Big 12 with a 9-3 record, the bowl will present a challenge.
“We are extremely excited and honored to represent Baylor in a bowl game. Coach [Larry] Fedora is a great football coach, great man, We know the quality of the opponent, a very, very good football team,” said head coach Art Briles of the Tar Heels.
North Carolina will be one of the toughest opponents Baylor has seen all year. The duel-threat quarterback Marquise Williams, who has been great all season, leads UNC’s offense.
Williams has been tremendous, throwing for 21 touchdowns opposed to 9 interceptions. Williams has also thrown for 2,829 yards as well as run for 867 yards and 11 scores.
Williams has spread the ball around to his receivers, with nine Tar Heels over 100 yards receiving. Mack Hollins and Ryan Switzer have been Williams’ main targets all year. The pair have combined for 80 receptions, 1,379 yards, and 14 touchdowns.
On the ground, the Tar Heels have also been great. Running back Elijah Hood has run for 1,345 yards and 17 scores. The backfield of Williams and Hood has been almost unstoppable for UNC and their balanced attack.
The Tar Heels field a below average unit on defense, ranking 79th in the nation in terms of yards allowed per game. While the Tar Heels rank 26th in passing yards allowed per game, they are one of the nation’s worst on the ground. The Tar Heels surrender 216.8 yards per game on the ground, good for 100th in the nation.
While junior running back Shock Linwood has been held in check the past four games with an injury, Devin Chafin and Johnny Jefferson have been tremendous in relief.
The duo have rushed for 568 yards and seven touchdowns with Linwood hobbled by injuries. Linwood should be healthy for the bowl game, which would be great news for the Bears. Linwood has had a great season this year, rushing 196 times for 1,329 yards and 10 touchdowns.
Along with a healthy Linwood, the Bears could also get back a healthy Jarrett Stidham. After suffering a broken ankle against the Oklahoma State Cowboys, Chris Johnson took over the reigns of the offense.
Against Texas, Johnson himself went down with a concussion, leaving the Bears with no quarterbacks for the rest of the game. While Stidham remains questionable, Johnson will most likely be the starter for Baylor.
While the Bears have been plagued by injuries all season, they might finally be almost to full strength against the Tar Heels. If the Bears can successfully run the ball against the spotty UNC defense and can in turn stop the rushing attack of Williams and Hood, the Bears should win their first bowl game since 2012.
The Russell Athletic Bowl is scheduled for a 4:30 PM CT kick off on Tuesday, Dec. 29. ESPN will televise the game from the Orlando Citrus Bowl Stadium.