Date: Dec. 30, 2 p.m. ET on CBS
Location: Sun Bowl | El Paso, Texas
Best moment: The Cardinal’s season hit its crescendo early. After dominating USC, Stanford trailed late in a physical game at UCLA. Quarterback Ryan Burns led a 10-play, 70-yard touchdown drive that finished with the go-ahead touchdown pass to JJ Arcega-Whiteside -- a majestic fade -- and kept Stanford undefeated for the time being.
Lowest moment: That UCLA win was the beginning of the end of the Cardinal’s playoff chances. Both starting cornerbacks were hurt in that game, and Washington pasted Stanford -- also playing without fullback Daniel Marx -- 44-6 in Seattle the following Friday. That matched the Cardinal’s worst margin of defeat in the Jim Harbaugh-David Shaw era.
Key player: Christian McCaffrey is undoubtedly Stanford’s best player, but Marx has made a case to be considered the Cardinal’s key one. Stanford’s offense sputtered in the six weeks it played without its fullback but has been fully proficient in the games he has played -- two to open the season and three to close it.
Motivation level: High. Stanford’s five-game game win streak to close the regular season came against teams featuring bad defenses. The Cardinal would like to prove their improvement has been legitimate against a better opponent in a bowl game. This is also a chance to secure another 10-win season. -- David Lombardi
Best moment: A Nick Weiler missed PAT nearly cost the Tar Heels a signature win at Florida State, but with 23 seconds left on the clock, they drove 38 yards into field goal range and Weiler earned redemption by connecting on a 54-yarder for the win. It was the second week in a row North Carolina came back to win in the final minute of play, and it was arguably the biggest victory of Larry Fedora’s tenure as UNC coach.
Lowest moment: For all the successes this season, North Carolina finished 0-2 against its two biggest rivals. The Heels were heavy favorites against both Duke and NC State, and they lost both games. For a team that wanted to be considered among the ACC’s big boys, the losses to two underachieving teams ended up being the defining images of a season that never quite lived up to its potential.
Key player: Running back Elijah Hood was tremendous when he carried the ball down the stretch -- he just didn’t carry it very often. Hood averaged nearly 8 yards per carry in November, tops among ACC backs, but his 49 rushing attempts during the month ranked 12th. Quarterback Mitch Trubisky will carry the bulk of the offensive load, but Hood can be the difference-maker UNC needs to earn a bowl win.
Motivation level: Low. It’s hard to shake the poor finish to the season, particularly the flat performance against NC State. For a team that had Orange Bowl aspirations early, bowl season might feel more like a consolation prize. Add in rumors surrounding Fedora’s job prospects and a wealth of players eyeing the NFL, and it’s easy to envision a lackluster outing in the Sun Bowl. -- David M. Hale