North Carolina Tar Heels (8-4 SU, 7-5 ATS) vs. Stanford Cardinal (9-3 SU, 7-5 ATS)
Hyundai Sun Bowl
Date/Time: Friday, December 30, 2016 at 2PM EST
Where: Sun Bowl, El Paso, Texas
by Scott, NCAA Football Handicapper, Predictem.com
Point Spread: UNC +3.5/STAN -3.5
Over/Under Total: 54
The North Carolina Tar Heels face the Stanford Cardinal on December 30 in the Sun Bowl in El Paso. The Tar Heels were 8-4 on the season after a 7-2 start, losing two of their last three. They enter this bowl spot with their last game being a 28-21 loss to NC State where they were ten-point favorites. Two weeks before that, they also lost to Duke as double-digit favorites. Among their season highlights were wins over good teams like Pitt, FSU, Miami, and Georgia Tech. They feature a vital aerial attack on offense and a stout defense against the pass. Having given up an average of 232 yards a game on the ground, there are some match-up concerns against this Stanford offense. And the Cardinal did well to hang in there after a rough patch this season. With their last game being a 41-17 win over Rice, they enter this game with some nice momentum.
Mitch Trubisky has ascended this season as Tar Heels’ quarterback. He has thrown for nearly 3500 yards with 28 touchdowns and just 4 interceptions. Many fancy him as the top collegiate NFL prospect at the position. The offense, however, didn’t seem to peak late-season, with some stretches of struggle against Duke and NC State. And if they’ve dipped a notch from their peak, that could really show in this matchup against a well-balanced Stanford defense. But if this is his last game, Trubisky will be looking to make a statement in this bowl spot.
Trubisky certainly has the tools. The rushing offense of the Tar Heels is not a powerful on, though Elijah Hood and TJ Logan make for a decent 1-2 punch, while Trubisky himself has run in five scores this season. Those three have combined for 23 touchdowns on the ground. The receiving crew is a dynamic one, led by Ryan Switzer and his 1027 yards, along with Bug Howard, and Austin Proehl. Logan has added some nice production through the air, as well.
The North Carolina defense was never really embarrassed this season, though they weren’t entirely stout, either. The most the Tar Heels gave up this season was 36 points and they allowed an average of 186 yards through the air per game—both decent for this conference. They never deserved sole blame for any of UNC’s losses this season. At the same time, despite what seemed like a stout pass-defense, which could have also been a byproduct of how leaky they were against the run, they remarkably picked just one pass off all season. The pass-rush was frequently absent. A lot of times, it seemed the Tar Heels’ defense was just “there.”
Stanford might not have had one of their most successful seasons in recent memory, but they were 9-3 and enter this game with a five-game winning streak. This is a team that has been written off as a team, in addition to a lot of people burying Christian McCaffrey after a slow start. After a 5-3 start, including a stretch of 3 losses in 4 games, the Cardinal were buried in most people’s minds. The types of losses they suffered led to a total abandoning of the ship, with a 44-6 loss to the Huskies, a 42-16 smashing to Washington State, and an ugly 10-5 loss to Colorado. The last two came at home. So it was understandable how the public soured on them. But since then, they’ve won five straight and enter this game with some momentum.
As Stanford quietly moved back into the mix, Christian McCaffrey’s performances improved. At the end of the season, he still ended up running for 1603 yards, leading the nation in all-purpose yardage per game. He may not have fulfilled his status as a Heisman frontrunner and he may have fallen short of last year’s sizzling stats, but he’s on a roll and should be a major handful for this Tar Heels’ defense. At QB, Keller Chryst has been the starter for the second half of the season and has been decent if not altogether productive through the air. In his last three games, though, he’s thrown 7 TDs with no picks, making good use of an under-utilized receiver crew.
The Stanford defense gave up an average of 20.2 points a game this season, not bad considering some of the teams they’ve played. They held USC, Notre Dame, Colorado, and Arizona to 10 points apiece. Those numbers went up against some of the better Pac-12 offenses they faced and they seemed to lose some of their powers of resistance late in the season. Still, they’re a group that can get after the passer, led by Harrison Phillips, Solomon Thomas, and Joey Alfieri. And with this matchup, their pass-defense better be tight, something it wasn’t at times toward the end of the season.
This game looks like a potential trap. You see the Tar Heels’ iffy run-defense, combined with Christian McCaffrey looking to make a good last impression at Stanford and it all seems just a little too convenient. It may also distract us from noting the power of the UNC offense and some of the matchup issues they present. In a game where a clear winner doesn’t immediately jump out, I’m inclined to take the points. I’m taking the Tar Heels.
Scott's Pick to Cover the Point Spread: I’m betting on the North Carolina Tar Heels plus 3.5 points.
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