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Christian McCaffrey’s absence adds North Carolina wrinkle to Sun Bowl

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Beating Stanford starts with a familiar face.

NCAA Football: Stanford at California Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

On Monday, Stanford’s unquestioned best player, Christian McCaffrey, announced that he wouldn’t be suiting up for the Sun Bowl.

Immediately, the conversation began to center on whether this makes McCaffrey a quitter or a pioneer – a guy who puts himself first in what many consider the ultimate team sport, or someone who has given enough to Stanford in his three years to justify stepping away from a game in which being in the wrong place at the wrong time could jeopardize his nearly certain first-round NFL draft status.

Enough ink has been spilled on that question that it need not be revisited here. Tar Heel fans who do not subscribe to the idea that the Sun Bowl is a meaningless exhibition (a view expressed some of the more dramatic of the McCaffrey defenders) are sensibly concerned about who replaces McCaffrey and how it may impact game planning.

It turns out that the answer to that question has a twist: the guy who will replace McCaffrey is Bryce Love – an elite recruit from the Tar Heels’ back yard. Love hails from Wake Forest, North Carolina, where he was recruited by just about anyone you can name, including the Tar Heels. 4.3 speed has a way of doing that. Love picked the Cardinal over at least 21 other offers that included elite teams from every Power 5 conference. To give you a sense of how he’s regarded, it may be sufficient to know that after Stanford lost McCaffrey – a Heisman candidate who is easily their best player – the Vegas line on the game moved a massive half a point. That’s even more noteworthy when you consider that Stanford has to run to win – their passing game has been at best mediocre in 2016. If Love doesn’t live up to his recruiting billing, the Cardinal will have a hard time finding a way to keep up with the UNC offense.

The evidence we have on Love suggests there’s plenty of reason for concern. On a team on which McCaffrey sucks up an awful lot of oxygen, Love has accumulated 664 rushing yards on 90 carries. You’d probably rather not know the math on that, but it works out to 7.4 yards per carry (I’ll pause while you work through your Baylor flashbacks). Love’s season was highlighted by a midseason game at Notre Dame when McCaffrey was unavailable and the North Carolinian had to serve as the featured back. Love was the key to Stanford’s 17-10 victory, with 129 yards and a touchdown.

In terms of game planning, however, Love is a different sort of back. He is a smaller, lighter back with more elite speed than McCaffrey, and more likely to dodge a tackle than to break one. If you can picture the less experienced version of TJ Logan, you’ll have something very close to the kind of back Love is.

But perhaps the key difference between McCaffrey and Love isn’t size – it’s receiving. The peculiar challenge that McCaffrey presented was the he could hurt the Tar Heels at both of their primary weak points – as a rusher and as a receiver out of the backfield. McCaffrey was a prolific receiver – especially for a back with over 1600 rushing yards. McCaffrey leads the Cardinal in receptions, and boasts an 8.4 yards per catch average. Love, on the other hand, has rarely been thrown to – only seven catches for 4.9 yards per catch. This should make the challenge for the UNC defense more manageable – if they can contain Love’s speed as a runner (missed tackles on a back with his speed are particularly damaging), they’re likely to force Stanford into a more traditional passing game, which has not been a strength (their leading receiver, Trenton Erwin, has fewer receptions than McCaffrey and only 437 yards on the season).

McCaffrey’s decision to sit out this game will undoubtedly (and unfortunately) be the biggest pregame storyline for the Sun Bowl. It is worth remembering, however, that there’s another interesting storyline that the in-game commentary is likely to skip over quickly if it doesn’t miss it altogether: this game is going to be determined in very large part by UNC’s ability to shut down a player taken from their own back yard by Stanford, of all places.

Larry Fedora and his staff have repeatedly emphasized the importance of winning in-state recruiting battles and letting players know that all of their football goals can be realized in Chapel Hill. Winning the Sun Bowl is a significant moment in illustrating that point. More than any other factor, making sure that the only time that Bryce Love got away from the Tar Heels was on the recruiting trail will determine how the Tar Heels finish this season.