North Carolina dealt with a challenging campaign, beginning a week before camp started when head coach Butch Davis was fired after damage caused by an NCAA investigation to the school’s reputation became too much for UNC chancellor Holden Thorp to bear. The Tar Heels began the season winning five of their first six games under interim head coach Everett Withers before struggling down the stretch to finish 7-5.
On December 9th North Carolina hired Larry Fedora from Southern Mississippi who will take over after UNC’s fourth straight bowl appearance, since pledging to coach the Golden Eagles in their own bowl game on Christmas Eve. Withers was hired by Urban Meyer to become Ohio State’s co-defensive coordinator and assistant head coach moving forward. The Tar Heels offense is led by sophomore quarterback Bryn Renner who threw for 2769 with 23 TDs and 12 INTs in the regular season.
Renner needs one touchdown to own the UNC single-season passing TD record, 23 completions to move to number two for most completions by a Tar Heel in one season, and if he can throw for 231 yards he would become just the second UNC quarterback to hit the 3,000-yard passing mark in a season. Renner would join two of his teammates who also have broken a couple North Carolina football records this season. RB Giovani Bernard rushed for a freshman record 1,222 yards and 13 touchdowns, and WR Dwight Jones broke Hakeem Nicks’ school mark with 79 receptions for 1,119 yards and 11 TDs.
Jones was briefly ruled ineligible by the school for the bowl game after Jones allowed his name and image to be used to promote a New Years Eve/Birthday party in Jones’ hometown of Burlington, N.C. A couple days later, Jones was cleared to play after review by the NCAA.
The Tar Heels defense is anchored by senior DE Quinton Coples, who is considered the most talented end in the 2012 NFL Draft. Coples finished the regular season with 51 total tackles (26 solo), 13 TFL, 7.5 sacks, and three forced fumbles. North Carolina has been susceptible to the pass this season, allowing 246.8 ypg (90th in the FBS), but have held opponents to an average of 106.17 ypg on the ground, 14th best in the nation.
Missouri has had its own struggles this season. After rumors began circulating that the Tigers would be moving to the SEC, the conference released a statement last month stating that Missouri would indeed become the 14th member. Later, SEC Commissioner Mike Slive welcomed Missouri at a pep rally in Columbus, replete with a new SEC banner, confetti, and Marching Mizzou in front of Missouri Nation. A little over a week later, head coach Gary Pinkel was arrested on suspicion of drunk driving, which he later plead guilty to and will serve two years probation.
A member since 1907, Missouri wasn’t invited to one of the Big 12’s affiliated bowl games in its final season in the conference, but will get the chance to play in Louisiana, a few hours from this year’s crowning jewel of the SEC, LSU, and closer to Texas where 35 of the team’s players hail from.
Missouri secured a spot in the postseason with three consecutive wins; including two victories after RB Henry Josey tore two ligaments and a tendon in his left knee. Before being sidelined, Josey had rushed for a Big 12-best 1,168 yards and nine touchdowns. Missouri capped the season with a 24-10 victory over Kansas in one of the nation’s oldest rivalries. With roots dating to the Civil War, the school’s first meeting on the football field took place in 1891, making it college football’s oldest continuous matchup west of the Mississippi River. Their college basketball battles also began in the 19th century. The rivalry may be halted with the Tiger’s move, however, just as the Texas A&M-Texas rivalry was.
Missouri enters the game an FBS 12th-best 472.4 yards of total offense, splitting the ground (236.2 ypg) and air (236.2 ypg) attacks evenly. With Josey gone, the rushing duties will be handled by Kendial Lawrence and dual-threat quarterback James Franklin. Franklin leads the team with 199 carries and has gained 839 yards and 13 touchdowns on the ground. Since taking over for Josey, Lawrence has rushed for 263 yards on 50 carries two scores. Franklin came into this season replacing the departed Blaine Gabbert, with very large shoes to fill. The sophomore has more touchdown passes (20 to 16), and a higher passer rating (141.2 to 127.0), while keeping even with Gabbert in completion percentage (63.3% to 63.4%) despite attempting more than 120 fewer passes than Gabbert did last season. Franklin has thrown for 2740 yards, and combined with his rushing yards he has become the nation’s 15th-ranked player in total offense (297.7 ypg).
Defensively, Missouri has been lead by senior defensive lineman Jacquies Smith and Dominique Hamilton. Smith and Hamilton have combined for 89 tackles, 16 TFL and eight sacks. The Tigers defense has allowed an average of 135 yards rushing per game, and 247.3 passing per game, while holding opponents to 23.5 points per game.