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North Carolina Tar Heels vs. Illinois Fighting Illini Preview and Prediction

Wes Lunt

Wes Lunt

Last year, North Carolina suffered a tough loss to an SEC team in its season opener. After playing an FCS opponent in week two, the Tar Heels feasted on an Illinois squad in turmoil, winning 48-14.

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This time around, immediately after a 33-24 loss to SEC power Georgia, the Tar Heels again face Illinois. The difference this year is that the Illini are on much more solid ground now that they are guided by former NFL head coach Lovie Smith.

Illinois had its way with Murray State on Saturday, blasting the Racers 52-3. The Illini have never beaten the Heels, losing all three contests by an average of 27 points.

North Carolina at Illinois

Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 10 at 7:30 p.m. ET

TV Channel: Big Ten Network

Spread: North Carolina -9

Three Things to Watch

1. The Illinois Ground Game

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This really isn’t about controlling a great Illinois ground game. The Illini were dead last in the Big Ten in rushing offense last year. But North Carolina was awful at run defense in 2015 and Nick Chubb and his Bulldog friends ran for 289 yards against the Tar Heels last Saturday. The Illini showed some spunk on the ground in their opener, albeit against an FCS opponent. If Illinois can establish any type of consistency running the football, it will make life easier for star quarterback Wes Lunt.

2. The North Carolina Ground Game

The Tar Heels had a good day running the football against Georgia. T.J. Logan averaged 13.3 yards on six carries and Elijah Hood went for 7.2 yards per attempt. The problem was that the two UNC running backs only carried the ball 16 times. Game situations will dictate rushing attempts, but North Carolina would love to achieve more of a balance. When UNC runs the ball, the battle between the Tar Heels’ veteran offensive line and the talented Illini defensive front should be fun to watch.

3. Mitch Trubisky

Many expected a seamless transition from Marquise Williams to Trubisky. The junior from Mentor, Ohio, was very impressive when he got a chance to play in 2015 and with a boatload of talented weapons at his disposal, more was expected this fall. And while Trubisky was 24-for-40 without an interception against Georgia, he averaged just 3.9 yards per pass attempt. Trubisky needs to stretch the field a bit and get the ball to Ryan Switzer, Mack Hollins and Bug Howard in a position where they can make big plays.

Final Analysis

This will not be a one-sided affair like last year’s matchup. Illinois comes into the game with the confidence that a stable coaching staff can bring. Wes Lunt can throw the ball and the Illini defensive line is a handful. Plus, the crowd in Champaign will be ready to go Saturday night. But North Carolina’s offensive weapons will be too much in the end. Mitch Trubisky will be better, Elijah Hood will churn out enough yards, and UNC will hit a big play or two that will prove to be the difference. In a game that won’t be decided until late in the fourth quarter, both teams will move to 1-1.

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Prediction: North Carolina 31, Illinois 27

— Written by Jon Kinne, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a college football fanatic. Kinne has been writing about recruiting for the Irish Sports Daily for 10 years. Follow him on Twitter @JonRKinne.