If you enjoy tempo offense, big plays and one-time playoff contenders, the Russell Athletic Bowl is the game for you.
A year after hosting a future College Football Playoff pairing (Clemson-Oklahoma), the Russell Athletic Bowl again features two top-20 teams not lacking explosiveness. North Carolina leads the nation in average yards per play (7.33), while Baylor is second (7.25). Despite a rash of injuries to key players, Baylor is tops in both total offense (604.6 yards per game) and scoring (48 points per game), while UNC ranks 19th in yards (486.9) and 10th in points (40.9).
Both teams had bigger destinations in mind, as North Carolina fell to Clemson in the ACC title game and Baylor dropped three of its final four games after a blistering start. Yet both need to finish on a strong note as the expectations rise for 2016. The Tar Heels aim for their first 12-win season, while Baylor can record 10 or more victories for a third consecutive year.
Here are three things to watch as Baylor and North Carolina meet for the first time Tuesday (5:30 p.m. ET, ESPN) in Orlando, Florida.
1. Baylor's depth will be tested again: We'll never know whether a full-strength Baylor team could have challenged for a national championship, but the bowl will show something about the program's depth under Art Briles. To graduate from entertaining upstart to established national contender, Baylor must show it can overcome key injuries. Chris Johnson, the Bears' third-string quarterback, will start against North Carolina, but Baylor will be without All-American wide receiver Corey Coleman and top running back Shock Linwood. Backup quarterback Jarrett Stidham also is out. Still, Baylor has enough to win and must show its depth can sustain some major blows.
2. North Carolina's Ryan Switzer: While it would have been delightful for Coleman and Switzer to share the stage in Orlando, Switzer should provide plenty of entertainment. The junior, who announced earlier this month that he will return in 2016, needs one punt-return touchdown to tie the NCAA record held by Texas Tech's Wes Welker and Oklahoma's Antonio Perkins. He leads the Heels with 52 receptions to fuel an egalitarian passing attack that includes nine players with 10 or more receptions, seven of whom average at least 12 yards per catch. Switzer needs nine grabs and 89 receiving yards to match his totals from 2014.
3. Important closing arguments: Motivation will be a subplot here, especially for Baylor, but both teams need a strong finish. North Carolina's 11-win season moves the program away from the perennial underachiever label, and future looks bright with coach Larry Fedora signed long term and much-needed upgrades to facilities on the way. But if the Heels finish with losses to Clemson and Baylor, with their best win being against Pitt or Miami, the overall profile isn't nearly as strong. Baylor, meanwhile, has done nothing truly significant outside the Big 12 since beating UCLA in the 2012 Holiday Bowl. A third consecutive bowl loss for Baylor, even at nowhere near full strength, would reinforce the perception that it is a Big 12 creation, unable to hold its own outside the conference confines.