ACC: 2012 independence bowl

Predictions: ACC bowls

December, 26, 2011
I finished the regular season with a picks percentage of 74.2, but I missed the one that mattered most and failed to pick the upset in the ACC championship game. That’s why they call it an upset. My grand total for the season stands at 72-26 heading into bowl season. Plenty of room for improvement, but there are a lot of tough calls and games that can go either way this bowl season. Here are your picks for the non-BCS bowls:

Advocare V100 Independence Bowl -- Missouri 31, North Carolina 28: The Tar Heels will get an inspired performance in interim coach Everett Withers’ last game, but Missouri is a better team than its five losses indicate. North Carolina will make one or two costly turnovers, and the Tar Heels’ defense won’t be able to make enough stops in the red zone.

Belk Bowl -- NC State 28, Louisville 21: Both quarterbacks will need to get better protection than they have for most of the season, and both teams have seen their defenses improve, but NC State has done a tremendous job this year of forcing opposing quarterbacks into mistakes, and Teddy Bridgewater will find that out quickly. The difference will be NC State’s front seven on defense.

Champs Sports Bowl -- Florida State 21, Notre Dame 17: This is significantly below the 30 points both teams are averaging this year, but Florida State’s defense will again be the difference. Even if the Noles can’t get things going again offensively, Florida State’s defense and special teams are good enough to offset it against the Irish. Notre Dame is No. 116 in the country in turnover margin, and Florida State is capable not only of forcing quarterback Tommy Rees into a turnover, but also of scoring on it.

Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl -- Wake Forest 24, Mississippi State 21. The Demon Deacons have too many difference-makers on both sides of the ball for the Bulldogs to overcome. It’s been a record-setting year for Price and receiver Chris Givens, and freshman cornerback Merrill Noel leads the nation with 20 passes defended. The difference will be Wake Forest’s passing game and its ability to protect the ball.

Hyundai Sun Bowl -- Georgia Tech 28, Utah 24. The Utes couldn’t handle a floundering Colorado team that had just one league win in the regular-season finale, and this will be a much more difficult challenge. Those within Georgia Tech’s program are tired of hearing about the six-game losing streak, and coach Paul Johnson is at his best when he’s got something to prove. Georgia Tech will catch Utah off-guard with several big plays, control the clock and in turn the game.

Chick-fil-A Bowl -- Virginia 24, Auburn 21: The Tigers lost both coordinators in a span of a week, and leading rusher Michael Dyer has been suspended for the bowl game for a violation of team rules. Without those three components, Virginia has an edge. Plus, Auburn is a shadow of its 2010 national championship team, while Virginia has made a dramatic turnaround this year. Statistically, Auburn has one of the worst offenses in the country, and the defense has been at the bottom of the SEC.

Independence Bowl keys

December, 26, 2011
Here are three keys for North Carolina (7-5) heading into its matchup against Missouri:

1. Attitude. As simple as it sounds, if the Tar Heels aren’t emotionally and mentally into this game, they won’t be in it on the scoreboard, either. North Carolina has already announced Larry Fedora as its new head coach, and interim coach Everett Withers has already accepted a job as an assistant with Ohio State. Can Withers get his team to remain focused, even as he has one foot out the door?

2. Win the turnover margin. In North Carolina’s seven wins, the Tar Heels have a plus-7 turnover margin, compared with a minus-8 turnover deficit in the five losses. Overall, Carolina ranks 65th in the country with a minus-0.08 turnover margin. Missouri has lost 18 turnovers this season, compared with UNC’s 22.

3. Contain quarterback James Franklin. He's a first-year starter and a true sophomore, but he has caused headaches for opposing defenses despite an inconsistent start. Franklin enters the bowl game ranked 15th in the NCAA in total offense, averaging 298.25 yards per game. He’s thrown for 200 yards or more six times this season, and he’s also a big threat on the ground, as he has 839 yards and a team-best 13 rushing touchdowns. UNC has allowed just nine rushing touchdowns all season, but the Tar Heels’ pass defense is No. 90 in the country.

Independence Bowl: UNC vs. Missouri

December, 26, 2011
North Carolina (7-5) will make its fourth straight bowl appearance and first in the AdvoCare V100 Independence Bowl when it faces Missouri (7-5) in Shreveport, La. Here’s a quick preview of the game:

WHO TO WATCH: The 1,000-yard club. For the first time in school history, North Carolina has a 1,000-yard rusher (Giovani Bernard) and a 1,000-yard receiver (Dwight Jones) in the same season. UNC is also one of five FBS teams in the country with a rusher and receiver that have reached at least 1,100 yards. Missouri has played two of those five teams and lost to both Baylor and Oklahoma State. Bernard enters the game with 1,222 rushing yards and ranks first among all freshman runners in the country with 101.8 yards per game. He is the first 1,000- yard rusher at UNC since Jonathan Linton in 1997. Jones, only the second player in school history with 1,000 receiving yards, has 1,119 on a school-record 79 catches and 11 touchdowns, one shy of the single-season school record.

WHAT TO WATCH: UNC’s defense vs. dual-threat quarterback James Franklin. He is one of only three FBS players with 800 or more rushing yards and 2,000 or more passing yards in 2011. Missouri lost some of its offensive identity when running back Henry Josey suffered a serious knee injury. The Tigers go as Franklin goes, and UNC will have to contain him. Defensively, Carolina is 16th in the nation against the run and features a pair of first-team All-ACC selections in defensive end Quinton Coples and linebacker Zach Brown. Coples ranks fourth among active players with 24 career sacks. Brown led the Tar Heels with 91 tackles, including 11.5 for losses and 5.5 sacks. UNC’s passing defense, though, was statistically the worst in the ACC this season.

WHY TO WATCH: Farewell parties. This will be the final game for North Carolina interim coach Everett Withers, who took over after former coach Butch Davis was fired just days before summer camp began. It will also be the final game for Missouri in the Big 12 before the Tigers join the SEC.

PREDICTION: Missouri 31, North Carolina 28: The Tar Heels will get an inspired performance in Withers’ last game, but Missouri is a better team than its five losses indicate. North Carolina will make one or two costly turnovers, and the Tar Heels’ defense won’t be able to make enough stops in the red zone.

Tar Heels playing for each other

December, 23, 2011
North Carolina interim coach Everett Withers has been tasked with two of the most difficult jobs in college football this year. First, he had to take over a program that had just fired its head coach days before summer camp began. Now, he has to prepare his team for a bowl game, knowing that the entire staff won’t be retained when it’s over.

[+] EnlargeEverett Withers
AP Photo/Gerry Broome"This has been a tough time around here, and he's really done a great job," North Carolina QB Bryn Renner said of interim coach Everett Withers.
“My process here is, when I get back, I’m ready to move to the next one,” he said.

The next one will be at Ohio State, where Withers confirmed he will join Urban Meyer as a co-defensive coordinator and assistant head coach. With one foot out the door, he and his staff have worked to prepare the Tar Heels for what should be a difficult matchup against Missouri in the Dec. 26 Independence Bowl. Add to that a brief side note that star receiver Dwight Jones was declared ineligible and then quickly reinstated by the NCAA on Wednesday, and there has been no shortage of distractions. Those within the program, though, say the team has remained focused and is determined to send the staff and the seniors out on a winning note.

“I think he’s done a remarkable job,” quarterback Bryn Renner said of Withers. “We couldn’t have asked for a better character guy to handle this program and handle the adversity we’ve gone through these last 18 months. He’s really been there for all of us. This has been a tough time around here, and he’s really done a great job -- wouldn’t have had a better guy do it.”

Withers did a respectable job this year and led the Tar Heels to a 7-5 record, but it obviously wasn’t enough to impress first-year athletic director Bubba Cunningham, who hired Larry Fedora as the Tar Heels’ next coach.

“When the decision was made that they were going in another direction, really the kids knew, so there wasn’t a need for me to tell them I was moving on,” Withers said. “They knew I was moving on. We’ll talk a little bit more as we get ready to prepare to leave about everything. We’re just trying to keep things as normal as possible so we can have our practices here. It’s important we have good practices here because we don’t have much time there.

“I think kids, coaches, people understand this business, and the bottom line in this business is winning and preparing to win and getting yourself ready to win, and that’s what we’ve tried to focus on.”

A win would give the Tar Heels eight wins for the fourth straight year, and the 32 wins would be the most in a four-year period since UNC won 36 from 1994-97. Withers said his main motivation, though, is his players.

“It’s important for me, for the seniors more than anything else, and for this football team,” he said. “I want these players to go out on a winning note. It really doesn’t register personally with me that much. I want to win the game, but I want to win the game because I want these kids to have a good feeling going out.”

There’s no question the feeling is mutual, and despite the temporary feel to the final game, North Carolina is in this one together until the end.