WHO: No. 10 North Carolina (10-2) vs. No. 17 Baylor (9-3)
WHAT: The 26th Russell Athletic Bowl
WHERE: Citrus Bowl, Orlando, Fla.
WHEN: 5:30 p.m. ET, ESPN
THE SKINNY: It’s the nation’s top scoring and total offense against a team that was a correctly called onside kick away from potentially taking No. 1 Clemson to overtime in the ACC title game – a group that, by the way, doesn’t struggle to move the ball in its own right. What’s not to love?
A lot, actually.
Already down starting quarterback Seth Russell for the season, Baylor announced earlier this month back-up quarterback Jarrett Stidham, starting running back Shock Linwood and Biletnikoff Award winner Corey Coleman will all miss the Russell Athletic Bowl with a varying set of ailments. So now Baylor will attempt to keep up with the Heels with third string quarterback Chris Johnson (he’s completed less than 40 percent of his passes for less than six yards per attempt in limited action) without its 1,300-yard rusher or its 20-touchdown receiver. Still, the Bears still have All-American tackle Spencer Drango, All-American defensive tackle Andrew Billings, future first-round pick Shawn Oakman and a pretty deep collection of skill players taking the field tonight in Orlando. Against most teams that would probably be enough — but not North Carolina.
Regardless of who does or does not take the field tonight, this is an important game for both programs. Neither team has accomplished anything of substance in non-conference play in a long time; UNC’s non-ACC wins this season consist of North Carolina A&T, Delaware and Illinois, while Baylor hasn’t beaten a Power 5 team outside the Big 12 since a Holiday Bowl whipping of UCLA way back in 2012.
Neither team saw itself in Orlando as recently as Championship Saturday, but whoever wins will celebrate like they just won a New Year’s Six game.
THE PREDICTION: North Carolina 41, Baylor 30