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North Carolina vs. Stanford: 2016 Sun Bowl Preview

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The Tar Heels get one more chance to redefine their season.

NCAA Football: Georgia Tech at North Carolina James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports

It was announced on Sunday that the Tar Heels would accept a bid for the Sun Bowl in El Paso, Texas. This is not ideal. El Paso is on the extreme west side of Texas, and it may well go without saying that there’s no direct flight from RDU. It’s going to take a determined fan to make the six hour-plus trip. El Paso is just a strange place for the ACC to have a bowl affiliation.

For a moment, it felt like something that was just the latest frustration in a season that ended with a couple too many. Then, the opponent emerged: Stanford. And that’s perfect. Stanford represents what this program needs the most—one more chance to show who they really are.

If there is one school that has made the leap that the Tar Heels are working towards, you’d be hard pressed to come up with an example better than Stanford. After decades in the football wilderness (punctuated by very occasional episodes of competence), Stanford hired Jim Harbaugh in 2007. They went 4-8, then 5-7, and then things started happening: 8-5, and then 12-1, and the next thing you know, Harbaugh is the head coach of the 49ers.

Then, the most difficult thing in college sports: they followed one great coach with another. David Shaw took over in 2011, and his records since then have been 12-1, 11-2, 12-2, 11-3, 8-5 (I bet the haters appeared), and 12-2. This season, the Cardinal stand at 9-3, squarely in the middle of the golden age of Stanford football. All of this has been done at a school with serious academic standards, and where football Saturdays aren’t going to be mistaken for the ones in Oxford, Mississippi.

Beating Stanford is a very big deal.

It probably doesn’t matter much for recruiting. The next recruit who reports that he was not planning to attend a school until he saw the result of a bowl game they were involved in will be the first one. However, this is a Carolina team whose pride is hurt, and whose fans are wondering whether it is safe to believe. Is North Carolina the team that beat a really good FSU team on the road, beat a Pitt team that handled Clemson, and thumped 8-4 Georgia Tech and Miami? Or is it the team that, when it mattered so much, lost to a mediocre Duke team on a national stage, and then finished the season with a loss to a competent, but mediocre, NCSU team in a game it simply had to win?

Drawing Stanford as an opponent gives this team and its fans exactly what they need: one more chance to show that the October version of the Tar Heels is the one that we should remember. One more chance to prove that the aberrations were the ones that happened when the temperatures dipped. This game means something. It offers almost the perfect salve for the bitterness of this November.

But of course, it’s no salve at all if you don’t win.

The early line on the game was Stanford -7, and has settled at closer to -3, which feels about right. Stanford, in some respects, has had the mirror image of the season the Tar Heels have experienced: a rocky midseason fall from grace, followed by a resurgence. After opening the season with three straight wins, Stanford spent much of October in a state of struggle and doubt, losing three of four (the one exception was a close call against a bad Notre Dame team).

On October 22nd, they stood at 4-3, and were widely viewed as one of the more disappointing teams in the country given that they featured a (banged-up) preseason Heisman candidate in Christian McCaffrey. They haven’t lost since, and while their record might be only one game different from the Tar Heels’, it feels entirely different.

Beating Stanford is a real challenge for this Tar Heels team, but it’s not an unachievable goal. Any time you’re evaluating a UNC opponent, you look immediately at what’s going to be asked of the defense. Stanford offers some weapons (McCaffrey chief among them), but they’re a middling team offensively, ranking 62nd in yards per play (5.86). The Tar Heels, notwithstanding the November swoon, are a far stronger offensive team (14th/ 6.77 ypp). The teams are also fairly comparable on the other side of the ball. Stanford’s defense rates 42nd (5.36 YPP) to UNC’s 48th (5.42 YPP).

It seems likely that the game will boil down to whether the UNC front seven can contain McCaffrey, who may as well be Carolina kryptonite. Not only is he a great running back (6.3 YPC), he’s a great receiver out of the backfield (8.4 YPR). This is pretty close to a worst case scenario for the Tar Heels, who have struggled all season against passing routes run by backs and tight ends.

The linebacking corps will have to take a step forward to avoid a continuation of that theme. A coach the caliber of David Shaw is not going to play the game without seeing whether (a) the Tar Heel front seven can contain a basic run game featuring McCaffrey; and (b) they can stay with him on patterns out of the backfield.

If the Tar Heels can limit the damage in that area, things begin to look quite promising. The Cardinal have not demonstrated much competence in the passing game, ranking 97th nationally in yards per passing attempt. If the Cardinal are going to beat the Tar Heels, it’s going to closely follow the NCSU model: being more physical in the trenches, and refusing to allow the UNC offense to get into a rhythm.

Winning this year’s Sun Bowl will be a challenge because Stanford can push the very buttons that have given North Carolina such difficulty all season long. If the Tar Heels can find ways to respond, they can—after a couple of missed opportunities—make a statement that bodes well for the future of UNC football. They can declare that North Carolina football in 2016 is not so different from what Stanford football has become.