Only one Power 5 program will be playing in prime time in Week 0 and that school is North Carolina as the Tar Heels will host one of the top HBCU teams in Florida A&M. Mack Brown's squad is looking to rebound after a disappointing 2021 and, with Sam Howell off to the next level, they will attempt to do so with a new quarterback... or two.
On the other side, Rattler fans have fond memories of last season, but the ending could have been better. After losing to Jackson State in the opening game, A&M won seven straight SWAC contests and qualified for the FCS playoffs. However, their postseason run ended quickly with a 38-14 loss to Southeastern Louisiana.
This will be the first time these two programs have met on the gridiron.
Florida A&M at North Carolina
Kickoff: Saturday, Aug. 27 at 8:15 p.m. ET
TV: ACC Network
When Florida A&M Has the Ball
Last season, the Rattlers had a well-balanced offense that ran the ball for 157 yards per game and passed for 224 per contest. Quarterback Rasean McKay returns for his final season and is coming off an extremely productive 2021 in which he threw 22 touchdown passes against just five interceptions. Having Xavier Smith back at receiver will certainly help as the fifth-year senior comes into the year as a preseason All-SWAC selection and is regarded as one of the best receivers at the FCS level.
Running back Bishop Bonnett, a 1,000-yard rusher, is gone, but the Rattlers have capable replacements. Terrell Jennings ran for more than 500 yards last season and Pitt transfer A.J. Davis, who posted nearly 1,000 yards in his Panthers career, will now be donning FAMU colors on Saturdays. The offensive line added Florida State transfer Jalen Goss, so North Carolina will be seeing more than one former ACC foe.
The Tar Heels defense that we saw in 2021 will not have the same look this time around. And since they finished 105th in scoring defense, that's probably a good thing. Former defensive coordinator Gene Chizik is back in the same role and he inherits a considerable amount of experienced talent. Leading tackler Cedric Gray returns at linebacker and Chizik has players up front and in the secondary that have played a lot of snaps. While experience is nice, this group loses its prime disruptor in Tomon Fox and also struggled against both the pass and the run last season.
When North Carolina Has the Ball
Earlier this week, head coach Mack Brown named Drake Maye the starting quarterback. He said that Maye will be the guy until the offense stalls, so it is likely that Jacolby Criswell sees some action this Saturday, either in relief of a struggling Maye or after an effective Maye puts the game away. As the first man running out to take snaps, Maye's primary objective should be to know where No. 11 is at all times. Josh Downs is among the best wide receivers in the nation and was responsible for 43 percent of the team's receptions last season. The hope – much like it was last year – is that another pass catcher can step up and take the pressure off Downs. But with Antoine Green sidelined by a collarbone injury, who the No. 2 receiver will be is a bit unclear.
Depth is a concern at running back as well. British Brooks suffered a season-ending injury in camp and D.J. Jones has assumed the job of primary ball carrier. He will be backed up by two freshmen, so more injuries to this group would be especially damaging. The offensive line was terrible in pass protection last year, allowing 49 sacks, but they also paved the way for Ty Chandler's 1,000-yard season. Only two starters return, but the other spots will be filled by upperclassmen that have been in the rotation in the past.
The strength of the Florida A&M team last season was its defense and there are some key parts that are back. The most important one is Isaiah Land, a true game-wrecker at linebacker who had 19 sacks and 25.5 tackles for a loss in 2021. Safety B.J. Bohler wants to close out his career by improving on what was a very good redshirt junior campaign where he was second on the team in tackles and had four picks. But the Rattlers must replace quite a bit of defensive production and will need younger players to step up.
Florida A&M is a good program on its level. But North Carolina is on a different level. Players like Land and Bohler are quick and could cause problems, but they are also small for the positions they play in comparison to ACC bodies. Defensively, Carolina should own the line of scrimmage and make it very difficult for McKay to generate much offensively. I do think that it will take a while for UNC to get going. But the offensive line will open holes and at some point, Downs will make his presence felt. That will be more than enough as Carolina will start 2022 with an easy win.
Prediction: North Carolina 38, Florida A&M 13
Podcast: Complete Week 0 Preview, Predictions, Fall Practice Updates, the Big Ten's New TV Deal and Favorite Over/Unders for 2022
– Written by Jon Kinne, who has been part of the Athlon Contributor Network for three years, focusing on the ACC and Notre Dame. Follow him on Twitter @JonRKinne.