North Carolina and Georgia Tech came into 2021 with different goals. The Tar Heels were considered one of the favorites to win the ACC Coastal and had eyes on taking down Clemson to win the conference. For Georgia Tech, this season was about taking the next step in Year 3 under head coach Geoff Collins, which to many meant bowl eligibility. While that is still in play, the losses to Northern Illinois and Clemson, coupled with a schedule that still features Notre Dame and Georgia, make the game against UNC important in the Jackets' postseason pursuit.
North Carolina has gotten better each week and though they suffered the Week 1 loss to Virginia Tech, their aspirations are still within reach. But the Heels cannot afford to drop any more ACC contests, especially in the division.
Georgia Tech has an edge in this series and has dominated play in recent years. Since 1998, the Jackets have won 16 and lost just six.
No. 21 North Carolina vs. Georgia Tech
Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 25 at 7:30 p.m. ET
Where: Mercedes-Benz Stadium (Atlanta)
TV: ACC Network
Spread: North Carolina -12.5
When North Carolina Has the Ball
I'd say that the Tar Heels' offense has found its groove. For the second consecutive week, coordinator Phil Longo's unit scored 59 points, and this past week was against a Virginia defense that had surrendered just 14 total points in its first two games. Perhaps the most important aspect of the offensive explosion was the emergence of the running game. Quarterback Sam Howell had another 100-yard rushing game, but Ty Chandler was just a couple yards shy of 200 and Caleb Hood had 66 on nine rushes.
Of course, if Carolina can run the ball that way, Howell will have passing lanes. The junior threw for 307 yards and five touchdowns against the Cavaliers in his most effective passing game so far this season. And wide receiver Josh Downs is rapidly becoming a star. With 203 yards against Virginia, Downs is now second nationally with 399 receiving yards. Antoine Green and Khafre Brown need to pitch in more, but if UNC can run the ball that effectively and Downs can continue to produce at this clip, the offense will hum.
Despite sitting at 1-2, the Georgia Tech defense has played extremely well in each of its three games. This past weekend, the Yellow Jackets frustrated Clemson and held them to 284 total yards. Interestingly, Georgia Tech's pass defense — which ranked 111th in the nation last year — currently ranks fifth, allowing just 124 yards per game. The Jackets haven't created a lot of negative plays, but they have found a way to get off the field when they need to. Hybrid linebacker Charlie Thomas already has a couple of interceptions and is second on the team with 24 tackles.
When Georgia Tech Has the Ball
At this point, it certainly looks as though Jordan Yates is the starting quarterback. Yates came in for an injured Jeff Sims in the opener and has taken every snap since despite indications that Sims is fit to play. In the three games, Yates has completed 66 percent of his pass attempts with five touchdowns and no picks, so he has been very efficient. Even against Clemson's imposing defense, he went 20-of-33 for 203 yards and was the primary offensive bright spot.
To top things off, Yates led Georgia Tech in rushing last week. That can't happen if the Yellow Jackets hope to spring an upset this week. Running backs Jahmyr Gibbs and Jordan Mason will have to be a factor, allowing Yates the opportunity to focus on distributing the ball to Malachi Carter, Kyric McGowan, and the other receivers.
But it won't be easy for the Georgia Tech running game. North Carolina is giving up just 2.94 yards per carry after limiting Virginia to just 21 yards on 22 attempts. Granted, the Cavaliers are not the best running team in the ACC and Brennan Armstrong was throwing the ball all over the lot to the tune of 553 yards. Still, the Tar Heels' rush defense appears to have taken a huge step forward. While linebacker Jeremiah Gemmel remains the leader of the unit, Kaimon Rucker burst on the scene with two sacks of Armstrong last week.
Georgia Tech has one of the nation's highest-ranked pass defenses. But the Yellow Jackets haven't seen an aerial attack like North Carolina's this year. The Tar Heels shut down Virginia's running game last week. But Gibbs and Mason are different backs than what UVA possesses. So how will things play out in Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Saturday night? As encouraging as the Georgia Tech performance was against Clemson, we still aren't sure about the Tigers. It also appears that Carolina has found a rhythm on offense and Tech won't be able to score enough points to keep up. The Tar Heels will cruise to a relatively easy victory and move to 2-1 in the ACC.
Prediction: North Carolina 38, Georgia Tech 17
Podcast: Complete Week 4 Preview and Predictions + Picks Against the Spread
— 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.