EL PASO, Texas — Christian McCaffrey isn't at the Sun Bowl with his Stanford teammates. That doesn't mean the star running back hasn't been a topic of discussion.
McCaffrey helped spark a national discussion when he decided to skip not only his senior season for the NFL but Friday's bowl game pitting the No. 16 Cardinal (9-3) against North Carolina (8-4). LSU's Leonard Fournette is skipping a bowl game, too, and some argued the players were leaving their teams in the lurch even as their teammates and coaches defended the decisions.
"Well, we would be lying if we said we weren't a little disappointed, but at the same time we are also understanding," Sun Bowl executive director Bernie Olivas said.
North Carolina junior quarterback Mitch Trubisky has thrown for more than 3,500 yards, has completed just under 70 percent of his passes and completed 28 touchdowns against just four interceptions. However, he won't make a decision on his future until after the Sun Bowl.
"I respect it," Trubisky said of McCaffrey's choice. "It's a business decision and he's a smart kid. He's doing what's best for him, and no one else is going through that situation except for him."
North Carolina head coach Larry Fedora agreed.
"It's each individual's right to do what's best for them," he said. "It's unfortunate for us and the game and the bowl itself, because he's obviously a great player. I would've loved to have lined up against him, but it's not going to happen, and I know that the next guy, Bryce Love, is a guy we recruited. We know how explosive he can be."
Love, a sophomore and North Carolina native, rushed for 664 yards this season. That included 129 yards and a score against Notre Dame, when he got the start in place of the injured McCaffrey.
"It's definitely a different experience (being the starter), but definitely a great experience," he said. "I have a lot less nerves and a lot more confidence."
Stanford coach David Shaw says the game plane won't change because Love is now the featured back.
"I was asked midseason what I thought about Bryce when he eventually takes over. I think he's one of the most dynamic backs in college football," Shaw said. "It just so happens he's been behind the most dynamic back in college football the last two years. I think Bryce is a special back."
Other things to watch in the Sun Bowl:
WHAT'S AT STAKE
Stanford is playing in a school-record eighth consecutive bowl game and seeking its sixth 10-win season in the past 10 years. With a win, Stanford head coach David Shaw would become the school's leader in bowl victories. He's tied with Bill Walsh at three. North Carolina is trying to end a two-year bowl losing skid. The Tar Heels lost to Baylor in last year's Russell Athletic Bowl, and they fell to Rutgers in the 2014 Quick Lane Bowl.
Love against the North Carolina defense. The Tar Heels are ranked No. 113 in the nation in rushing defense, allowing 235.5 yards per game. Stanford is the No. 34 rushing team in the FBS, averaging 215.6 ypg. The matchup looks favorable for Stanford.
"I think that's a fair assessment as far as what the black-and-white numbers say," North Carolina defensive coordinator Gene Chizik said. "Our players know the challenge. If we're going to have a chance to win the game, we have to play exponentially better in the run game."
North Carolina junior defensive tackle Nazair Jones already has declared that he will enter the NFL draft. Asked if he considered skipping the bowl game, he said: "I'm cherishing the last moment I have with this team, because we've all been through a lot over the last couple of years and especially this season. Me personally, I wouldn't pass up an opportunity to play with my brothers one last time."
PUTTING IT ON THE LINE
Stanford's offensive line underwent some changes this season, which contributed to a stretch when the Cardinal lost three of four games. But Shaw said those changes have paid dividends in the team's five-game win streak. Even with McCaffrey out, the team is confident in its run game, which will have no changes.
"Not for us," said senior offensive lineman Johnny Caspers. "I think we're approaching this game plan the same as we always would. We've got talented guys behind us regardless of who's back there."
BEWARE BIG PLAYS
Stanford junior defensive end Solomon Thomas said the Tar Heels present a number of challenges to a defense, and not just from Trubisky, including WR Ryan Switzer and RB T.J. Logan. Switzer also has seven career punt return touchdowns in addition to being UNC's all-time leading receiver with 239 catches (91 grabs for 1,027 yards this season).