Tar Heels look to avoid a letdown on the road against the Yellow Jackets
The Vegas line favored Clemson by 27 points, so no one was expecting a tight game last Saturday in Chapel Hill. But North Carolina more than gave the Tigers a fight, coming a two-point conversion away from taking down the nation's then-top-ranked team. Despite the loss and a 2-3 record, the Tar Heels' win over Miami in Week 2 means that they are 1-0 in ACC Coastal games. Their second division battle comes this week in Atlanta against Georgia Tech.
The Jackets' transition to their new coaching staff has not gone as well as Carolina's shift to Mack Brown. Along with a narrow victory over struggling South Florida, Tech has suffered beatdowns at the hands of Clemson and Temple as well as a devastating loss to FCS member The Citadel. Geoff Collins' team now enters a key stretch of six straight games against Coastal opponents.
Since Brown left Carolina for Texas at the end of the 1997 season, Georgia Tech has owned this series, winning 16 out of 21 games.
North Carolina at Georgia Tech
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 5 at 4 p.m. ET
TV: ACC Network
Spread: North Carolina -10
When North Carolina Has the Ball
The Tar Heels' offense has been very consistent so far this year. Not explosive, but consistent. UNC is averaging 154 yards per game on the ground and has produced 144 to 146 rushing yards in three of its five games, including last week against Clemson. Javonte Williams and Michael Carter are each north of 300 rushing yards while getting essentially the same number of carries.
In the passing game, freshman Sam Howell has not made mistakes and has produced big plays at times. He has thrown 11 touchdown passes with just two interceptions, both of which came in the loss to Appalachian State. The protection against Clemson was much better than it had been in previous weeks, despite giving up three sacks. When the Heels have trailed in the fourth quarter — which they have in each of their five games — Howell has been asked to throw more and has been successful, due in large part to his talented receiving trio of Dazz Newsome, Dyami Brown and Beau Corrales.
Against Georgia Tech this week, look for the Heels to begin by running the ball. The Jackets are fifth nationally in pass defense, and that includes playing Clemson and Trevor Lawrence in Week 1. The problem is that Tech is 128th against the run. Carolina offensive coordinator Phil Longo will give Williams and Carter the ball until the Jackets prove they can slow the run.
When Georgia Tech Has the Ball
Everyone knew there would be a learning curve with the new system at Georgia Tech. But the question is: What are the Jackets offensively? Three quarterbacks, with differing skill sets, have played, and none has been very effective; they've completed only 48 percent of their passes combined. Lucas Johnson has a bum shoulder, and Tobias Oliver was ineffective against Temple on Saturday. As a result, redshirt freshman James Graham will probably get the start against the Heels, though he was hardly stellar in relief of Oliver.
Making matters worse is the fact that veteran receiver Jalen Camp is out for the season with an undisclosed injury. So offensive coordinator Dave Patenaude will have to rely even more on Jordan Mason and the running game. The offensive line hasn't played well, and their job becomes harder when opposing defenses know that the Jackets can't pass.
On the other sideline, the improvement of the North Carolina defense this season has been remarkable. The run defense has gone from putrid to solid under new coordinator Jay Bateman. Led by linebacker Chazz Surratt and end Tomon Fox, the Heels are making plays behind the line of scrimmage. Georgia Tech's one-dimensional offense won't move the ball unless it can win the battle up front, and that will be a chore against a confident, fundamentally sound Carolina front seven.
We are going to find out this week how good Mack Brown is at motivating this team. The Tar Heels emptied the tanks in the loss to Clemson and have an open date awaiting in Week 7. But before they get there, they first have to play at reeling Georgia Tech. Based upon how the two teams have looked so far this season, the game shouldn't be close. The Jackets can't stop the run and can't pass the ball on offense, while UNC has had success in all areas despite its 2-3 record. But this is an interesting spot for Carolina. I expect the Heels to sleepwalk coming out of the gates, allowing Tech to hang around and build confidence. But in the end, the better team will win. The 2019 Heels don't know what a blowout is, but they are the better team and will get the victory with another solid fourth quarter.
Prediction: North Carolina 24, Georgia Tech 17
— Written by Jon Kinne, who has been part of the Athlon Contributor Network for three years, covering the ACC and Notre Dame. Follow him on Twitter @JonRKinne.