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Russell Athletic Bowl Preview and Prediction: North Carolina vs. Baylor

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Going into Thanksgiving weekend, North Carolina and Baylor had their sights set very high. North Carolina had not lost since week one and victories over NC State and then Clemson in the ACC Championship Game would give them the league title. Head coach Larry Fedora was making his case for the Tar Heels' inclusion in the College Football Playoff prior to the Clemson game, so their goal was clear.

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Baylor entered the last weekend in November with a 9-1 record. Two wins and some help from Oklahoma State would give Baylor the Big 12 crown and make Selection Sunday very interesting.

But North Carolina fell to Clemson and Baylor dropped its last two games to TCU and Texas. As a result, the two programs not only fell out of Playoff contention, they were not even selected for a New Year’s Six bowl game. They will now meet up in Orlando for the Russell Athletic Bowl.

This will be the first-ever game between North Carolina and Baylor.

North Carolina vs. Baylor (Orlando, Fla.)

Kickoff: 5:30 p.m. ET (Tuesday)

TV: ESPN

Spread: Baylor -1

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Three Things to Watch

1. Who’s Healthy on Baylor’s Offense?

Quarterback Seth Russell broke a bone in his neck against Iowa State and was lost for the year. His replacement, freshman Jarrett Stidham, broke a bone in his ankle during the win over Oklahoma State and has been ruled out for the bowl game. All-American wide receiver Corey Coleman had hernia surgery and will not be able to go. And running back Shock Linwood and his 1,329 rushing yards will be sidelined with a foot injury. The good news is that quarterback Chris Johnson, who suffered a concussion in the Texas game, has been cleared for action. His presence is necessary because Baylor has no other viable quarterback options and will be missing a ton of skill position talent.

2. Blocking Andrew Billings, Jamal Palmer and Shawn Oakman

Baylor’s defense may not be at the top of any of the statistical rankings, but the Bears have high-quality talent along the defensive line. Billings was named first team All-Big 12 after registering 15 tackles for lost yardage and 5.5 sacks this fall from his defensive tackle position. Palmer had 53 tackles with 13.5 of them resulting in lost yardage. And then there is Oakman, who may have more pure talent than any defensive lineman in the country. The Tar Heels only allowed 14 sacks on the year and their offensive line has done a great job opening up holes for Elijah Hood in the running game, making this a very interesting battle. What happens up front will have a big impact on the outcome of this game.

3. Containing Marquise Williams

The top priority for every team that plays North Carolina is to slow down Williams. After a shaky start to the season, the senior came on strong, throwing for 2,829 yards and 21 touchdowns while running for 867 yards and 11 scores. Baylor has faced some very good quarterbacks in the Big 12 and the results have been less than stellar. The Bears held down TCU’s Trevone Boykin, but he was not 100 percent in that game and top wide receiver Josh Doctson was out. Oklahoma State quarterback Mason Rudolph threw for 430 yards and three touchdowns against the Bears and Oklahoma star Baker Mayfield had 270 yards passing, 76 yards on the ground, and accounted for four touchdowns. The Texas Tech duo of Pat Mahomes and Davis Webb, who came in for a gimpy Mahomes, combined for 530 yards passing with four scores. Williams is more than capable of putting up similar numbers versus the Baylor defense.

Final Analysis

It is true that the Tar Heels fell just short. But UNC has to be commended for overcoming what is now a head-scratching, season-opening loss to South Carolina. To put themselves in position to win the ACC — albeit with a very favorable schedule — speaks to the job that Fedora, his staff and the players did this fall. Gene Chizik revamped the defense and North Carolina should be ready for one last tilt in 2015. On the other side, you have to wonder about Baylor’s motivation in this game. The Bears have lost their last two games, with one coming to 5-7 Texas. Chris Johnson has played well at times, has some playmakers in KD Cannon and Jay Lee out wide, and can hand the ball to Johnny Johnson, who had a 158-yard performance against the Horns. But there is a reason that Johnson was third string behind a true freshman. Also, the loss of Corey Coleman will be huge for this offense as he was the guy that every opposing defense focused on. And defensively, Baylor has several guys that may be looking ahead to the NFL Draft. That could be especially true for Shawn Oakman, a player whose production has not lived up to his considerable talents. Because of those factors, North Carolina will win this game by a comfortable margin.

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Prediction: North Carolina 41, Baylor 24

— Written by Jon Kinne, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a college football fanatic. Kinne has been writing about recruiting for the Irish Sports Daily for 10 years. Follow him on Twitter @JonRKinne.