This year has been one of transition for both North Carolina and Temple. The Tar Heels showed the door to head coach Larry Fedora at the end of 2018 and brought back Mack Brown. The culture change in Chapel Hill was noticeable from the start and the team responded.
Carolina had a chance in each game, even the one against Clemson team that squashed everyone else on their run to the College Football Playoff. And though the Heels were 3-6 in one-score games, a toughness was instilled in the team, one that made them stronger as the season progressed.
At Temple, there wasn't a head coaching change; there were head coaching changes. When Geoff Collins left for Georgia Tech after leading the Owls to an 8-5 record and a berth in the Independence Bowl last season, the school hired Manny Diaz as the new head of the program. Less than three weeks later, Miami introduced Diaz as their new coach and the Owls pried Rod Carey away from Northern Illinois. Carey was able to maintain momentum as Temple went 8-4 in the regular season and is making its fifth straight postseason appearance.
The Military Bowl matchup will be the first-ever meeting between the Tar Heels and the Owls on the gridiron.
Military Bowl Presented by Northrop Grumman: North Carolina (6-6) vs. Temple (8-4)
Kickoff: Friday, Dec. 27 at 12 p.m. ET
Where: Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium (Annapolis, Md.)
Spread: North Carolina -4.5
When North Carolina Has the Ball
Freshman quarterback Sam Howell has been a star in his first season at UNC. Using big-play receivers Dazz Newsome and Dyami Brown, Howell threw for 3,347 yards and his 35 touchdowns in the regular season to break the record that was previously held by current Bears quarterback Mitchell Trubisky. With only seven interceptions, Howell also has shown an ability to protect the ball. In the season's final game, with bowl eligibility on the line, Howell torched NC State for 401 yards and three touchdowns in the Heels' 41-10 victory.
So Howell will be a focus for the Temple defense. But North Carolina had quality balance throughout the year and did it with multiple running backs. Michael Carter and Javonte Williams each have more than 800 rushing yards and Antonio Williams has had his moments as well. As a result, UNC averages 184 yards per game on the ground, ranking fourth in the ACC.
The Heels will be going up against a Temple defense that is solid in most every aspect. The Owls were fourth in the AAC at defending the run and fifth against the pass in the regular season. They were second in the league in sacks and fourth in tackles for lost yardage. They also forced 19 turnovers. While they get production from each segment of their defensive unit, there is one unquestioned star. Defensive end Quincy Roche leads the AAC and is sixth nationally with 13 sacks and he also leads the conference with 18 tackles for lost yardage.
This sets up an interesting battle of a balanced offense against a defense that is good on all levels. The Heels will take what they're given, but Howell will once again be the driving force behind the Carolina offense.
When Temple Has the Ball
Balance has not been a huge part of the Temple offense. UConn was the only AAC team that ran the ball fewer times than the Owls during the regular season and their 3.83 yards per carry ranked 97th nationally. Interestingly, though, the running game hasn't been consistently poor. Re'Mahn Davis has 900 rushing yards on the season and the Owls have run for more than 185 as a team five times. But they also have been held to under 100 in four games.
Quarterback Anthony Russo is the most important piece to this Temple offense. On the season, he has thrown for 2,733 yards and 21 touchdowns. Russo has three primary targets that he looks for in wide receivers Jadan Blue, Isaiah Wright, and Branden Mack. The trio has been responsible for 72 percent of the team's receptions and 74 percent of the receiving yardage.
Because of injuries in the secondary, teams were able to attack the Heels through the air for much of the regular season. While corner Patrice Rene is still out, the return of corner Trey Morrison from a broken arm late in the year should give this unit a shot in the arm. The Heels are now as healthy as they've been for quite some time. The rush defense has been very consistent, not getting gashed that many times but also not completely shutting down other running games either.
It's pretty obvious that Temple will look to throw early and often. The Owls' offensive line has been good in pass protection for most of the year and will need that to continue with Chazz Surratt, Tomon Fox, and company attempting to take down Russo at every opportunity.
This should be an interesting chess match between the two coaches, especially when North Carolina has the ball. If Temple brings pressure, Carolina has receivers that can make plays deep. But the Carolina offensive line has given up 37 sacks on the year and getting in Sam Howell's face could change the complexion of the Heels' offense. Also, how effective will the Carolina running game perform against a rugged Temple front? When Temple is on offense, UNC knows that it is about stopping Anthony Russo and the passing game. In a very entertaining game, Carolina's options both offensively and defensively win out as the Tar Heels earn a narrow victory.
Prediction: North Carolina 24, Temple 21
— Written by Jon Kinne, who has been part of the Athlon Contributor Network for three years, covering the ACC and Notre Dame. Follow him on Twitter @JonRKinne.
(Top photo by UNC Athletic Communications, courtesy of goheels.com)