I’m a Georgia expat living in ACC country, and surrounded by Tarheels, Blue Devils, and Wolfpacks. So over the last dozen+ years I’ve been exposed to most things UNC football-related. While most of those things are lamenting the loss of Kelvin Taylor and Mack Brown, current Head Coach Larry Fedora has done a very passable job of reigniting the fan base before basketball season begins. We last played UNC in 1971, and have a 16-12-2 record against them.
Here are the three things that I’m NOT worried about Saturday:
1. Fan distribution in the Georgia Dome. Yep, this is a “neutral-site” game and both schools are wearing home colors. But I have every reason to believe there will be an 80-20 ratio of Georgia fans to fans of the 2nd oldest state chartered university.
2. Optimism of the UNC faithful. Believe me, I’ve been offered to take bets with at least a dozen UNC fans on this game. And not one wants to accept with less than a touchdown spread. Most want 10.5 or 14 points. I mean these guys make Larry Munson look positively giddy.
3. If UNC wins, they will rub it in our/my face. I’ll say it again, most of the fans are more concerned about Roy Williams’ future and not Larry Fedora’s. Kenan Stadium struggles to fill up come late October. So even if UNC wins the ACC, at least half of the local sports radio will be taken up with basketball center Kennedy Meeks’ off-season conditioning.
But here are the three things that I AM worried about Saturday:
1. UNC’s defense. Based on past history, this normally wouldn’t be a concern. Last year they faced a couple of potent offenses which definitely skewed the results. Still and yet, it is plain that their defensive unit ran out of gas. Which speaks to depth. In the first six games of 2015, UNC only gave up more than 17 points once… a 38-31 win at mostly-empty Mark Richt Field at Georgia Tech. Over their last 14 games, their opponents averaged over 32 points a contest.
But Gene Chizik’s unit rose 29 spots from 2014 to 2015 in his first year wearing the DC visor. And while 70th nationally isn’t good, that kind of improvement year over year, and really without even recruiting his own guys, speaks that UNC will improve again. If any of you remember that Grantham trademarked “bend don’t break” defense, then you will be familiar with what Chizik employed last season. And their pass D was much more effective than their run D (sound familiar?). Combine that with an injured/rehabbed UGA backfield and what we’ve got under center and …
2. The UNC Wide Receiver Corps. If you’ll allow me to walk you through my logic, note above that UNC gave up over 32 points a contest over their last 7 games. And were ranked 70th nationally in total defense. Yet they won 11 games, and should’ve won a 12th over a weaker-than-expected USCe squad in the opener. So to win that many games and give up that many points: that means most games were of the shootout variety. And a lot of their offense came down the field. And the top three pass catchers are seniors and return for 2016.
The most dangerous weapon they have is senior Ryan Switzer. At 5’10”, he’s super quick, elusive, and is a poor man’s Christian McCaffrey. But make no mistake that he is slippery with the ball and has good hands. He also is a danger in the kick return game.
The other two starters at wide out are also seniors. Mack Hollins is the leading returner in terms of yardage, and had a very healthy 14.6 yards per target. He’s 6’4” and 210 lbs and ideally situated to have a better year as Switzer draws most of the attention. Not to be forgotten is the 6’5” senior Bug Howard. He was third in targets last season, and if the opposing defenses give him room, his height and hands will be a distinct advantage.
UNC lost QB Marquis Williams, who threw for 3,000 yards and 24 TDs. But the locals are high on signal caller Mitch Trubisky, a junior who has seen limited duty and twice lost the starting role to Williams. But he has shown positive signs in relief with several key plays including relieving Williams in the Delaware game, going 17-20 for 312 yards & 4 TDs in the process. Maybe the saving grace is our top-ranked secondary returning so many players (though we didn’t exactly run through a gauntlet of NFL caliber ball-slingers last year), as well as incorporating Kirby Smart’s particular brand of pass defense.
3. Elijah Hood and the running game. A 6’0” 220 lb junior returns as the leading rusher from the 2015 campaign and he has emerged as one of the top backs in the Coastal division if not the ACC. He claims an outstanding 6.7 yards/carry and can easily be a feature back taking advantage of read options and up tempo (note: not sure if UNC will employ read option with Trubisky handling the snap).
Hood will certainly get a breather or two from senior T.J. Logan, who at a bit lighter and shorter, gives a different look toting the rock. With 400 yards and 5 TDs in 2015, this is more than adequate to give Hood a rest and keep the up-tempo UNC offense humming. They have a few more backs, but likely seeing some action will be incoming freshman Jordon Brown, a 4 star TB out of nearby Southern Durham HS.
UNC mixes the run and pass very well, so if D Line is our weakness, it could be a long day. The return of Julian Rochester will be helpful, as we have only one upperclassman, five freshmen, and two sophs rounding out the depth chart. This will certainly be a test for them.
So while I chew fingernails and pace endlessly until the final horn sounds, I’m at least confident that Georgia will win the war in barbecue, brunswick stew, and major league baseball. And as always...