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Georgia Bulldogs vs. North Carolina Tar Heels Preview and Prediction

Elijah Hood

Elijah Hood

The SEC and ACC meet three times for intriguing non-conference games on the opening weekend for the 2016 college football season, with the first matchup taking place in Atlanta between North Carolina and Georgia. This game is also the second time for both teams to make an appearance in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game. The Bulldogs played in this game back in 2011, losing 35-21 to Boise State. The Tar Heels made an appearance in 2010, dropping a 30-24 matchup to LSU.

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A new era begins for Georgia on Saturday, as the Bulldogs play their first game under new coach Kirby Smart. Smart was hired to replace Mark Richt and elevate this program into contention for national championships on an annual basis. The Tar Heels are coming off their best season under coach Larry Fedora and open 2016 as the favorite to win the ACC Coastal. North Carolina led the ACC in scoring (40.7 ppg) last fall and should be near the top of the league once again. However, Fedora’s team faces a tougher schedule than it did last year and features question marks on defense in the front seven.

Georgia holds a 16-12-2 series edge over North Carolina. However, these two teams have not played since the 1971 Gator Bowl. 

North Carolina vs. Georgia (Atlanta)

Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 3 at 5:30 p.m. ET

TV Channel: ESPN

Spread: Georgia -2.5

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Three Things to Watch

1. The Quarterbacks

Quarterback play is always under the spotlight, but there’s plenty of extra attention coming on Saturday afternoon for the signal-callers in this matchup. There’s more clarity to the quarterback situation at North Carolina, as junior Mitch Trubisky makes his first career start after shining in limited action in a backup role to Marquise Williams over the last two seasons. Trubisky has passed for 1,014 yards and 11 scores since 2014 and is also mobile enough (101 yards on 16 carries in 2015) to make plays on the ground. On the other sideline, Greyson Lambert was named as Georgia's starter on Thursday, but true freshman Jacob Eason is expected to play. Eason was a five-star recruit in the 2016 signing class and ranked as the No. 2 overall quarterback in the 247Sports Composite. There’s no question Eason represents the future of Georgia football for coach Kirby Smart, but Lambert has the edge in experience and threw for 1,959 yards and 12 scores last year. How quickly will Eason work his way into this game? Will Smart and coordinator Jim Chaney give Lambert more than just a couple of series to get the offense on track? Regardless of which Georgia quarterback starts, both will have to be careful with the ball against a North Carolina secondary featuring two of the nation’s top cornerbacks in M.J. Stewart and Des Lawrence.

Related: Week 1 Predictions for Every College Football Game

2. North Carolina’s Run Defense vs. Georgia’s Nick Chubb

North Carolina’s defense struggled to stop the run last year, surrendering 247.4 rushing yards per game. Those numbers were skewed by Baylor’s 645 yards in the Champs Sports Bowl, but the Tar Heels held only one opponent (Miami) under 100 yards and gave up over 300 in matchups against Duke, NC State and Clemson. Coordinator Gene Chizik enters 2016 with concerns in the front seven once again, as the Tar Heels return only three starters here and are thin at linebacker. This unit will be tested on Saturday, with the Bulldogs possessing one of the nation’s top tandems at running back. Nick Chubb is one of college football’s best running backs but is returning from a serious knee injury suffered in Georgia’s sixth game of 2015. Prior to the injury, Chubb rushed for 747 yards and seven scores. Chubb has made a full recovery and isn’t expected to be limited on Saturday afternoon. However, the status of the Bulldogs’ No. 2 back Sony Michel is uncertain after an offseason arm injury. Even if Michel is sidelined, senior Brendan Douglas or freshman Elijah Holyfield are capable options to spell Chubb. With the uncertainty surrounding Georgia’s quarterback situation and a lack of proven playmakers on the outside, can North Carolina crowd the box to stop Chubb and force Lambert or Eason to win this game through the air?

3. Georgia’s Rebuilt Defense Against North Carolina’s Offense

New coach Kirby Smart helped Nick Saban build one of the nation’s best defenses on an annual basis in Tuscaloosa, and he’s bringing that same mentality and scheme to Athens. There will be a transition period for Georgia’s defense under Smart and coordinator Mel Tucker, but this unit had a similar scheme last season under Jeremy Pruitt (now at Alabama). The front seven was hit hard by departures, but all four starters return in the secondary and there’s talent to build around up front. Sophomore Trent Thompson is one of the nation’s rising stars on the defensive line, and the linebacking corps is loaded with potential breakout players, including Lorenzo Carter and Davin Bellamy. This unit should emerge as one of the SEC’s top defenses by the end of 2016, but the Bulldogs will be tested on Saturday afternoon by North Carolina’s high-powered attack. In addition to a talented quarterback in Trubisky leading the way, the offense is headlined by one of the nation’s top running backs in Elijah Hood, a deep group of receivers and a standout offensive line. This unit has good balance with Hood and Trubisky but also enough playmakers to produce big plays. How will Smart and Tucker look to attack North Carolina’s offense? Can the secondary limit the big plays by the Tar Heels to free up the front seven to pressure Bellamy? And how will Georgia’s revamped defensive line perform against Hood and a standout offensive line?

Final Analysis

Regardless of whether Eason or Lambert ends up with the majority of snaps under center for Georgia, the gameplan for coach Kirby Smart is pretty simple: Get the ball to Nick Chubb early and often. The Bulldogs should be able to take advantage of North Carolina’s suspect run defense to limit some of the pressure on the quarterback. The Tar Heels should look to push the tempo and jump ahead early to take Georgia out of its comfort zone on offense. North Carolina has its share of success with Trubisky and Hood early on, but Smart and Tucker eventually make the necessary adjustments, which helps Georgia open the season with a huge non-conference victory.

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Prediction: Georgia 34, North Carolina 27