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Sun Bowl Preview and Prediction: Stanford vs. North Carolina

David Shaw

David Shaw

The buzz around the 2016 Hyundai Sun Bowl focuses primarily on the player who won't be suiting up in El Paso.

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Christian McCaffrey — Stanford's record-setting, do-everything running back — announced he would pass on playing in the Sun Bowl to instead focusing on his preparations for the NFL Draft.

For as much attention as McCaffrey's absence has and will continue to generate, the Sun Bowl celebrates 80 years with an intriguing matchup.

North Carolina brings one of the nation's most exciting offenses to El Paso, promising to test the defensive chops of a Stanford program long defined by its prowess on that side of the ball.

A Cardinal win gets them to that all-important 10-win milestone for the sixth time since the 2010 campaign. It also serves as a springboard into 2017. With McCaffrey sitting, even more faces playing a role in next season's pursuits will get a chance to shine at the end of 2016.

North Carolina's after its best two-year run since 1996-97. The Tar Heels won 21 games in those two campaigns combined; beating Stanford pushes the 2015-16 total to 20.

Hyundai Sun Bowl: Stanford vs. North Carolina (El Paso, Texas)

Kickoff: Friday, Dec. 30 at 2 p.m. ET

Where: Sun Bowl (El Paso, Texas)

TV Channel: CBS 

Spread: -3 

Three Things to Watch 

1. Stanford Feeling the Love 

With McCaffrey out, run game duties — and ostensibly, the weight of the Stanford offense — rests on running back Bryce Love. Love rolled off an impressive 7.4 yards per carry, but only rushed 90 times. He also struggled against stout run defenses like Washington and Washington State.

Fortunately for Love and the Cardinal, North Carolina's rushing defense fell far short of the stingy yields teams such as the Huskies and Cougars produced. The Tar Heels come into El Paso ranked No. 113 against the run, giving up more than 213 rushing yards per game.

Coordinator Gene Chizik faces an interesting choice for the Tar Heel defense: Load the box with eight defenders regularly to stop the run, and risk giving up the big passing play against a Stanford offense that's struggled through the air? Despite unimpressive, season-long numbers through the air, the Cardinal improved in that facet down the stretch.

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2. Keller Chryst's Next Step 

David Shaw's decision to name Chryst Stanford's full-time quarterback paid dividends down the stretch. Chryst wasn't quite Andrew Luck, nor Kevin Hogan, but he gave the Cardinal a more effective passing attack than was seen with Ryan Burns manning the position for the first half of the campaign.

He threw seven touchdowns with no interceptions in the Cardinal's final three games, and added rushing totals of 83, 43 and 29 in the last month.

The theme for Stanford in the Sun Bowl is building for 2017. A big game for Chryst establishes the tone for next season, alleviating some of the uncertainty that plagued the Cardinal much of the 2016 campaign.

The North Carolina passing defense has been excellent, though, ranking No. 14 nationally in yards allowed per game. Some of that is a byproduct of opponents not throwing much on the Heels; North Carolina saw just 310 passes, 12th-fewest in the FBS. All the more reason for Shaw to let Chryst test his arm, though.

Related: 20 Players on the Rise Entering College Football's 2016-17 Bowl Season

3. Mitch Trubisky Stepping Up 

North Carolina's quarterback flourished in 2016, compiling an impressive 7-to-1 touchdown-to-interception ratio (28:4). Not coincidentally, the Tar Heels were 0-2 in the only two games in which Trubisky threw an interception.

Trubisky's performance against a stout Stanford defense dictates North Carolina's chances.

Stanford hasn't gained much in the way of turnovers this season. With 17, the Cardinal rank tied for No. 81 nationally. However, the possibility always exists with Stanford's tenacious pass rush.

Trubisky will have to make some plays with his feet, which he's proven more than capable of throughout 2016. A big dual-threat game from him doesn't just set up Carolina for a bowl win: It sets up Trubisky as a possible Heisman front-runner heading into 2017, provided he doesn't declare early for the draft.

Final Analysis

Christian McCaffrey closed the 2015 season in spectacular fashion, putting on one of the most memorable performances in Rose Bowl Game history. There won't be a finale from him in the Sun Bowl, but plenty of playmakers on both sides of the ball, for both teams, could provide the highlight-reel moments McCaffrey's absence leaves available.

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Elijah Hood, T.J. Logan and Mitch Trubisky give North Carolina a three-headed run-game option capable of keeping the Cardinal off-balance defensively. Unless Stanford stymies the run, the Cardinal won't shut down the Tar Heel offense.

Turning this one into a high-scoring affair is Carolina's best bet for a win. The Heels' issues defending the run could loom large, if McCaffrey's replacement Bryce Love proves capable of shouldering a 20-carry load. Largely unproven Cameron Scarlett will see opportunities as well, getting things rolling for the most-watched position battle down on The Farm in the ensuing offseason. 

Prediction: Stanford 28, North Carolina 24 

— Written by Kyle Kensing, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Kensing is publisher of Follow him on Twitter @kensing45.