Independence Bowl Preview: Missouri Tigers vs. North Carolina Tar Heels

Dan HopeContributor IIIDecember 25, 2011

Independence Bowl Preview: Missouri Tigers vs. North Carolina Tar Heels

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    This year’s Independence Bowl features two teams that failed to live up to expectations this season, the Missouri Tigers and the North Carolina Tar Heels. Both teams come into the game with 7-5 records.

    The game will be played on Dec. 26 at 5 p.m. Eastern Standard Time in Shreveport, Louisiana at Independence Stadium. The game will be televised on ESPN2.

Missouri Tigers

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    Record: 7-5 (5-4 Big 12)

    Biggest win: vs Texas, 17-5, Nov. 12

    Worst loss: at Arizona State, 37-30 (OT), Sept. 9

    In the first year of round-robin Big 12 play, the Missouri Tigers fell to the conference’s four ranked teams (Oklahoma, Kansas State, Oklahoma State, Baylor), but beat the conference’s lesser five, enabling them to finish in the top half of the conference and become bowl-eligible. The Tigers won three games against bowl-eligible teams this season.

    The Tigers’ rushing offense ranks in a tie for 11th for yards gained per game. However, their leading rusher, sophomore Henry Josey, is out for the season with a knee injury, which is a huge blow to their rushing offense.

    Defensively, the Tigers rank 61st in yards allowed.

North Carolina Tar Heels

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    Record: 7-5 (3-5 ACC)

    Biggest win: vs Virginia, 28-17, Sept. 17

    Worst loss: at North Carolina State, 13-0, Nov. 5

    Expected to be a contender in the Atlantic Coast Conference, the North Carolina Tar Heels had a disappointing season, finishing with a losing record within the conference. The Tar Heels did win four games this year against bowl-eligible teams.

    The Tar Heels’s defense is known for their likely first-round NFL Draft picks starring on their defense, but they rank 40th nationally in total defense. They rank 51st nationally in total offense.

Players to Watch

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    North Carolina DE Quinton Coples, Senior

    NFL Draft Grade: First Round

    North Carolina’s defense has been underperforming this season, but they are led by a pair of star seniors in defensive end Quinton Coples and outside linebacker Zach Brown, both potential first-round picks in the 2012 NFL Draft.

    With defensive linemen Robert Quinn and Marvin Austin suspended, Coples emerged in his junior season as one of the nation’s premier defensive ends. Coples has not been quite as productive in his senior season, but has led the Tar Heels with 13 tackles for loss and seven-and-a-half sacks.

    With the 2012 NFL Draft lacking any premier pass rushing prospects, Coples has a chance to be a top-15 selection, even after an untremendous senior season, but he needs to perform well in the Independence Bowl. Keep an eye on him in this game, for his ability to bring heat against Missouri quarterback James Franklin is important for the North Carolina defense.

    Missouri QB James Franklin, Sophomore

    No NFL Draft Grade

    In his first season as Missouri starting quarterback, in which he had the arduous task of replacing 2011 NFL Draft first-round selection Blaine Gabbert, Franklin has had his share of ups and downs. That said, Franklin’s overall efficiency has been solid: his passer rating ranks 38th nationally.

    The aspect Franklin has in his arsenal that Gabbert did not is that he is a dual-threat quarterback who can scramble outside of the pocket and run with the football. Franklin is a constant threat to run the football: he ranks in a tie for fifth in rushing attempts among quarterbacks, and seventh in rushing yards among quarterbacks.

    Without Henry Josey, the Missouri Tigers will need a strong balance of passing and running from sophomore quarterback James Franklin in order to win the Independence Bowl.

    Missouri TE Michael Egnew, Senior

    NFL Draft Grade: Fourth Round

    When Franklin decides to pass the ball, one of his biggest weapons is tight end Michael Egnew.

    Egnew is tall, athletic, and one of the top tight ends in the nation. His receiving numbers were down this season from his junior season, but that is due to the transition at quarterback from Gabbert to Franklin.

    Egnew is not much of a blocker, but he is a skilled receiver with good hands and playmaking ability. He rates as a fourth-round value for the 2012 NFL Draft.

    North Carolina WR Dwight Jones, Senior

    NFL Draft Grade: Third Round

    On Dec. 20, Dwight Jones was ruled ineligible to play in the Independence Bowl due to a secondary violation, but has since been reinstated by the NCAA, so it appears as though he will be playing in this game.

    Nonetheless, this will be his final game as a Tar Heel, and then he will be free to promote as many club parties as he pleases to. Jones has great size and athleticism, and is a likely second day selection in the 2012 NFL Draft.

    As a collegiate player, Jones is the star of the Tar Heels’ offense, with 79 receptions, 1,119 receiving yards, and 11 touchdowns. Jones is a big-play threat who will have a very intriguing matchup against skilled Missouri sophomore cornerback E.J. Gaines. Jones will be looking to end his college career with a statement, and the Tar Heels will need to get him involved to win this game.

Comparing the Two Teams

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    Both teams finished the regular season with a 6-1 record at home, but just a 1-4 record on the road.

    Both team’s scoring defense has allowed 23.5 points per game (tied for 44th nationally).

    Missouri’s scoring offense: 33rd in nation, 32.2 points per game

    North Carolina’s scoring offense: 57th in nation, 28.3 points per game

    Missouri’s rushing offense: 11th in nation, 235.7 yards per game

    North Carolina’s rushing defense: 14th in nation, 106.2 yards per game

Prediction Analysis

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    Both of these teams had greater expectations than the 7-5 records they finished with, which should have both teams motivated to finish their season with a victory.

    These teams have very comparable scoring numbers, and both have struggled on the road, so it will be interesting how they fare in this bowl game, playing in a neutral site.

    Missouri’s offense has been more prolific over the course of the season, but they rely heavily upon their running game, which is not nearly as capable of putting up big yards without Henry Josey. Meanwhile, the Tar Heels have a terrific run defense, led by two of the nation’s top linebackers, Zach Brown and Kevin Reddick.

    Both quarterbacks have had their ups and downs this season, but I expect both Missouri’s James Franklin and North Carolina’s Bryn Renner to perform well in this game. Where I expect the offensive difference to come is with the playmakers, which Renner has at his disposal in Jones and in running back Giovanni Bernard.

    In their last game under interim head coach Everett Withers, I think North Carolina will be inspired to send him to Columbus with a victory, and their talent will prevail in a close game.

    Final Score Prediction: North Carolina 28, Missouri 24