Bowl Breakdown: Independence
Missouri and North Carolina are shockingly similar statistical teams
Dual-threat QB James Franklin give the Tigers a valuable weapon
Carolina's run defense is fierce, but that edge may not be enough
North Carolina (7-5) vs. Missouri (7-5)
Dec. 26, 5 p.m. ET (ESPN2)
Reason to watch: With uncertain futures, both teams will be looking to capitalize on this postseason opportunity. Missouri, which ended the season on a three-game win streak, was passed over by all Big 12-affiliated bowls after electing to join the SEC in 2012. Though head coach Gary Pinkel tried to put a positive spin on spending Christmas in Shreveport for the third time in eight years ("We're in SEC Country," Pinkel said. "I think it sorts out well for us."), the snub takes a bit of the joy out of Missouri's seventh consecutive bowl berth. Postseason trips will be no sure thing once the Tigers join the nation's toughest league, though, so capitalizing here is paramount. North Carolina, meanwhile, may not even be eligible for postseason play next season. With NCAA sanctions looming and a bowl ban likely imminent, the Tar Heels know this might be their last chance to claim a championship of any sort for quite a while.
Keep an eye on: Missouri quarterback James Franklin. The sophomore has been a true dual threat this season, passing for 2,733 yards and 20 touchdowns and rushing for 839 yards and 13 additional scores to rank 15th nationally in total offense. Though he earned the wrath of impatient Tigers fans with sloppy play early in the season, Franklin actually compared favorably to predecessor Blaine Gabbert on the whole, passing for more touchdowns (20 to 16), averaging more yards per attempt (7.7 to 6.7) and posting a higher passer rating (141.2 to 127.0) on 120 fewer attempts. Sophomore running back Henry Josey was leading the Big 12 with 1,168 rush yards and nine touchdowns when he was lost to a season-ending knee injury with two games remaining, and Franklin wound up leading the Tigers with 199 rushing attempts. Though he's excelled on the ground, Franklin might need to beat the Heels through the air: UNC allows nearly 250 pass yards per game, but ranks 14th nationally against the run, allowing a mere 106.2.
Did you know: Missouri and North Carolina are nearly statistical twins. Both teams are 7-5. Both allow 23.5 points per game. Missouri averages 32.2 points, UNC 28.3. Missouri passes for 236.2 yards per game and allows 247.3, UNC 249.2 and 246.8. The most notable difference is in the run game, where Missouri rushes for 236.3 and allows 135, while UNC rushes for 147.4 and allows 106.2. With Josey out, junior tailback Kendial Lawrence and Franklin will comprise Missouri's ground attack against a Carolina unit led by defensive end Quinton Coples, a surefire top 10 draft pick who notched 51 tackles, 7.5 sacks and 10 tackles for loss this season. Missouri's run defense is also keyed by senior linemen, Jacquies Smith and Dominique Hamilton. They'll lead the charge against talented Heels frosh Giovani Bernard, who rushed for a UNC freshman record 1,222 yards and 12 scores on his way to all-conference honors.
Final analysis: Though UNC boasts one of the nation's premier defenders in Coples, the Heels fared poorly against dual-threat quarterbacks in ACC play, allowing a combined 602 yards and nine touchdowns to Clemson's Tajh Boyd and Virginia Tech's Logan Thomas and losing both of those games. Carolina has a promising quarterback of its own in sophomore Bryn Renner, who ranks ninth nationally in pass efficiency (161.2 rating) and needs just one touchdown to set the school mark with 24. While Renner will likely be able to capitalize on the size and speed advantage receivers Dwight Jones, Erik Highsmith and Jheranie Boyd (all 6-foot-2 or taller) bring, the Heels have simply not been sharp of late, winning just two of their final six. Interim coach Everett Withers did an admirable job at the helm, but he's already agreed to join Urban Meyer's Ohio State staff once new hire Larry Fedora takes over in Chapel Hill. Pinkel, meanwhile, would undoubtedly love to deliver a final "told you so" moment in his Big 12 farewell.
The pick: Missouri 24, North Carolina 21