Has a bowl game felt more “oh, that’s happening?”
You could argue the Independence Bowl, the lone coaching effort by Everett Withers, may be the only one that fans really were more “meh” over. It was known by that point that UNC was going to clean house as they awaited their penalties from the NCAA and Butch Davis was let go on the eve of the start of the season. Not many people wanted to travel to a cold and rainy Shreveport, Louisiana, and the 41-24 effort showed how most have moved on.
Last season’s Duke’s Mayo Bowl was the culmination of a disappointing season, but it was also the last time we’d see Sam Howell. The Orange Bowl turned into an epic back and forth against Texas A&M, and the Military Bowl before it announced that Mack Brown 2.0 actually had something in the tank. Larry Fedora’s bowl games were mostly ones that were looked forward to, except maybe the Motor City Bowl, but even then there was the feeling of something happening.
For the sheer combination of weird factors, this game probably has some of the least amount of buzz imaginable. The Tar Heels arguably are playing in one of the bigger non-NY6 bowl game matchups, facing the offensive juggernaut of Oregon in beautiful San Diego (insert your own Anchorman jokes here), but you wouldn’t know that game is on the horizon for Carolina. Between the mass departures via the transfer portal, the change in the offensive staff, and the discussion back and forth over whether Drake Maye was offered millions to leave or not, this bowl game has arguably snuck up on all of us.
A game will be played, though, and it’ll be one of the only ones that isn’t broadcasted on an ESPN network. FOX is certainly playing it up like it’s going to be a big deal, sending their A-Team of Gus Johnson and Joel Klatt to call the game from Petco Park. It’ll certainly feel big-time, and once the ball is kicked the only focus will be on winning.
On offense, Oregon didn’t lose a lot in the offseason merry-go-round. Bo Nix will return under center, and he’s going to be a problem. He accumulated 3300 yards in the air with 27 touchdowns and only six interceptions. Two of those pickoffs were against probable repeat national champion Georgia in the season opener. He’s also added 504 yards on the ground, with 14 touchdowns, and has an 80-yard scamper against Stanford. He crossed 400 yards passing twice — against Washington State and California — and had a five touchdown passing game against UCLA.
In his last two games, though, his rushing has been kept in check, only going for negative yards against Utah and Oregon State. He went 1-1 in those games, but he still passed for around 600 yards between those two. In the end, you’re probably going to have to deal with the fact he’s going to make his passes, but can you keep him from killing you with his legs?
The other weapons on offense for Oregon include their primary running back Bucky Irving, who went for over 900 yards on the season, and their primary pass catcher Troy Franklin, leading the teams in yards and touchdown receptions. The problem is that Oregon is deep in these areas. Nine players caught for over 100 yards on the season, and five players rushed for a total of over 100 yards. In their last game against Oregon State, for example, Chase Cota caught nine passes for 136 yards and Noah Whittington ran 16 times for 81 yards. They go with the hot hand, and the Carolina defense has shown it has a tough time cooling that hand down, so expect a lot of points.
On defense, the Ducks will give up points but there have been several times — the most recent in the 17-10 win over Utah — where they will step up and give the offense a chance to take over. They are only averaging giving up 125 yards on the ground and 260 yards in the air. They also have 16 interceptions, speaking to an opportunistic secondary that can feast on a suddenly mortal Drake Maye who seemed to be pushing the last few games. They have 16 sacks on the season, and the book on pressuring Drake is out, so expect that to continue.
The good news? Oregon’s most problematic cornerback, Christian Gonzalez, announced he’s headed to the NFL Draft and will skip the bowl game. This is a huge loss for the Ducks’ defense, as he led the team with four picks, had seven pass breakups, and was fourth on the team in tackles with 50. He’s likely going to be a first round pick and that’ll be a big hole that Maye will have to exploit. It’s a shame that we wouldn’t be able to see Gonzalez on Josh Downs, but such is life that both know their future is in the NFL and there’s no use in getting hurt in an exhibition game. Trikweze Bridges will assume the mantle of their top cornerback, and with three picks and three breakups himself, he’s no slouch.
Oregon’s opt outs aren’t nearly as loaded as Carolina’s, but not having to face Gonzalez will be a huge help. The fact that deep threat Antoine Green will be playing as he tries to put together more NFL Draft tape will at least help stretch the field for Maye as well, so there’s a pretty decent chance the Tar Heels will be able to move the ball. Can they overcome their red zone struggles from the last three games? How bad? Just look at this stat:
using eckel to measure "quality" drives or drives that end in a touchdown or inside 40-yard line— chris (@dadgumboxscores) December 26, 2022
Carolina scored just six touchdowns on 19 quality drives the last 3 games
Opponents scored 10 touchdowns on 18 quality drives the final three games https://t.co/NGttZFAlrO pic.twitter.com/wH1NpixXVU
This is the difference between being 9-4 and 11-2. It may not have saved them against Clemson, but it sure would have helped because all of the stats had Carolina dominating the game on offense, except the score. If they can flip this script, we will have a game. And one that may last until well past midnight.
Overall, there’s a reason why Oregon is a 14-point favorite according to Draft Kings. Oregon, while with a fair number of opt outs, is looking to redeem the ending of their season and build momentum for next year while Carolina is still in the middle of changing out a good portion of their defense and adjusting to a new play caller. The mood in Chapel Hill is not one that lends itself well to a win, and with the proficient attack of the Ducks you can expect big numbers.
Prediction: Oregon 45, UNC 28