An era of football at the University of North Carolina comes to an end on Monday, as the Tar Heels conclude the 2011 season---and the Butch Davis/Everett Withers regime---with an Independence Bowl date with Missouri in Shreveport (La.).
PowerMizzou.com publisher Gabe DeArmond is one of the foremost authorities on Missouri football, and he was kind enough to answer several questions for us about the Tigers, who head to the Independence Bowl like UNC with a 7-5 overall record.
Missouri's running game is powerful, churning out a Big 12 Conference-best 229.2 yards per game this fall. Who are the key components in Mizzou's running scheme, and what has made it so effective this season?
The star was Henry Josey who was sixth in the country in rushing and leading the Big 12 before a catastrophic knee injury against Texas. Junior Kendial Lawrence and senior De'Vion Moore ran well against Texas Tech and Kansas, but they don't have the outright speed and home run ability of Josey.
A key cog in the running game has been quarterback James Franklin. He's not only done a good job running himself, but because other teams have to respect the 'keeper,' the zone read and option game have really worked well.
The unsung heroes have been the guys up front. Seniors Austin Wuebbels, Jayson Palmgren and Dan Hoch anchor a line that has done well despite losing three-year starting left tackle Elvis Fisher in fall camp.
Tigers sophomore quarterback James Franklin has been very impressive at times this season, but he's surely had some of the same growing pains that UNC's sophomore signal-caller Bryn Renner has dealt with. What are your impressions of Franklin, what he does well, and how he can impact Monday's game?
Franklin is capable of being very good. What he's not been most of the season is consistent. He was fantastic bringing Missouri back from a two-touchdown fourth quarter deficit against Arizona State, but threw a pick on the first play and had a really rough day against Kansas State. He started out on fire against Oklahoma and finished well in that game too, but was 4-for-20 in between.
He had four turnovers against Oklahoma State, but then was great against Texas Tech. He threw three picks in the first half against Kansas and then threw two touchdowns and played a great second half.
If Franklin can put together four quarters, he's capable of being as good as any quarterback the Tar Heels have seen this season. Franklin's been at his best in the fourth quarter. He set a school record for fourth quarter touchdown passes this season.
North Carolina is preparing to enter a new offensive era with the 'spread' offense under incoming coach Larry Fedora, but the Tar Heels haven't seen the 'spread' like they'll see from Missouri too many times this season. What is it about Missouri's 'spread' offense that makes it so effective?
The Tigers' spread this year is different than years past. Under Chase Daniel and Blaine Gabbert, they threw to set up the run. Now, it's the opposite.
The spread is at its most effective when it has an ultra-accurate quarterback (Franklin has decent accuracy, but nothing like Daniel a few years ago) and receivers who can take short passes and turn them into big gains (that's what the Tigers really missed this year). Missouri is a tough team to defend and they move the ball well, but without Josey, they don't really have many big play threats.
Mizzou was really struggling at 4-5 after the Baylor loss and a bowl berth seemed very questionable at the time, but the Tigers pulled it together with wins over Texas, Texas Tech, and Kansas to close out the season. What do you attribute to the team's late-season success, providing them the chance to play in the Independence Bowl?
Honestly, they played three teams that they were better than and finally found a little consistency. Don't get me wrong, the Tigers deserve credit for saving what could have been a train wreck of a season, but this is a team that had the talent to be better than 7-5.
They missed a game winning field goal at Arizona State and threw a game-changing pick on the first play at Kansas State. Change those two plays and the Tigers might be 9-3 and not headed to Shreveport. That said, they are what the record says they are.
Although they finished in the top third in the Big 12 statistically in total defense, the Tigers allowed opponents a healthy average of 420 offensive yards per game this season. What have various teams been able to do to exploit weaknesses in Missouri's defense, and what are the areas the Tigers have to improve defensively to beat UNC?
Missouri gave up some big plays in the passing game, especially early. The defense statistically doesn't impress. But Mizzou faced Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and Baylor, three of the country's best offenses this year. Texas Tech and Arizona State could move the ball as well.
The Big 12 is a pass-happy league where some of the numbers put up are just ridiculous. The skill position players are probably better than any league in America. Not to make excuses for the Tiger defense, but it was better than the numbers would appear to someone who didn't follow the Big 12 on a weekly basis.
Missouri's defensive line is loaded with veteran talent, including seniors Jacquies Smith, Dominique Hamilton, and Terrell Resonno, as well as junior Brad Madison. UNC's players talked about how talented they were after watching film on them. Just how good is this Mizzou D-line, and how much of an impact can they have in Monday's game?
The front four was thought to be the strength of the team, and at times it has. Hamilton is a sure fire NFL player and Jacquies Smith should get drafted this year as well. Madison has battled a shoulder injury but is a potential pro as well. Michael Sam is a backup, but had a couple huge games down the stretch.
And the most talented guy, Sheldon Richardson, was the No. 4 player in the country coming out of high school. He finally made it to Mizzou after a JUCO stop and showed flashes of dominance. But as much talent as there is, Missouri's defensive front has also been a non-factor in a number of games. It's all a matter of which unit shows up.
Mizzou has played in the Independence Bowl multiple times, so many of those Tiger fans who make the trek to Shreveport this year know what to expect. What can the UNC fans who make their way to Northwest Louisiana for this ball game anticipate in terms of gameday environment, things to do, etc.?
Well, it's not the most desirable game. Many Missouri fans have said they wouldn't go back. And they won't this year with the game being the day after Christmas. The Independence Bowl is just kind of one of those games that cements the argument of a lot of folks that there are far too many post-season games on the docket. As far as bowl locations go, it's not on the top of anyone's list to see twice.
How do you think this game will go? What will be the key factors that determine the outcome, and who do you predict will win the ball game?
These teams are very similar. Both had some solid wins, some decent losses to good teams and an overall mediocre record. Both stop the run better than the pass and both have capable quarterbacks who probably aren't all that well known outside of their own conference.
Both also went through seasons where off-field stuff was a far bigger story than the games (the SEC move for Mizzou, the Butch Davis saga for UNC). Bowl games so often comes down to who wants to be there more. Missouri has put an emphasis on winning this game after losing its last two bowls and the Tigers are saying all the right things. I'll go with Missouri 27-17, but honestly, nothing will surprise me.