For several reasons, North Carolina heading up to Blacksburg to play Virginia Tech has to be considered a marquee Week 1 matchup. The Hokies figure to be one of North Carolina’s prime threats in the ACC Coastal Division, and the two will tangle right out of the gate. There’s also the fact that the last two meetings were extremely entertaining, high-scoring affairs with each side winning once.
But perhaps most importantly, this will be special because of where the game is being played, when the game is being played, and what the college football world went through in 2020. A primetime Friday night game, in front of a raucous Lane Stadium crowd, featuring two of the Coastal’s best teams will feature energy we haven’t seen in almost two years.
After "Enter Sandman" is played and both teams take the field, here is what we can expect to see.
North Carolina at Virginia Tech
Kickoff: Friday, Sept. 3 at 6 p.m. ET
Spread: North Carolina -5.5
When North Carolina Has the Ball
This is Sam Howell’s team. While it is true that Dyami Brown, Dazz Newsome, Javonte Williams, and Michael Carter are no longer in Carolina Blue, it is up to Howell to make sure this engine continues to hum. Despite the losses, the junior quarterback is not bereft of weapons to utilize. With veteran Beau Corrales ruled out, Emery Simmons, Antoine Green, and Josh Downs give the Heels an athletic, albeit relatively inexperienced, trio of starting receivers.
Undoubtedly, head coach Mack Brown will continue to rotate running backs with Tennessee transfer Ty Chandler getting the starting nod. The backs — and Howell — will be aided by an experienced offensive line that returns all five starters.
It will be interesting to see how the Heels attack a Virginia Tech defense that, despite having potential for growth this season, had trouble stopping both the run and the pass in 2020. Ends TyJuan Garbutt and Amaré Barno have been productive players, while Clemson transfer Jordan Williams is more than capable on the inside. Dax Hollifield needs to improve in his third year and may do so now that he is in his more natural middle linebacker position. The key to defensive success may be the health of corner Jermaine Waller, who missed most of 2020 due to injury. An honorable mention All-ACC selection in 2019, Waller will team with Chamarri Conner as building blocks for a very good secondary.
When Virginia Tech Has the Ball
There's one big question entering 2021 for the Virginia Tech offense: What will their identity be? After years of struggling to put together a viable running game, Kansas transfer Khalil Herbert rushed for over 1,100 yards last season. But Herbert is now gone, as is quarterback Hendon Hooker, who was the team’s second-leading rusher.
The Hokies will rotate a threesome of running backs while Braxton Burmeister will be the starting signal-caller. Burmeister can move, but he is more of a thrower than Hooker and will look to get the ball to Virginia Tech’s talented pass catchers. Tight end James Mitchell has been a reliable threat for two years, but it is the two wide receivers that have the ability to open up the offense. Tré Turner and Tayvion Robinson have been solid during their time as Hokies, but they have the ability to be so much more. With Burmeister poised to open up the passing game in 2021, this could be their year.
Throwing the ball may be the right way to attack the Carolina defense. Despite finishing fifth nationally with 36 sacks, the Heels had issues when they did not get to the opposing quarterback. Their 247 passing yards allowed per game ranked 87th nationally. UNC allowed 26 pass plays of the 30 or more yards, ranking 14th in the ACC and 123rd in America. That may improve as corner Tony Grimes enters his sophomore season and the other seven returning starters get more comfortable in Jay Bateman’s third year as a coordinator, but it is an area Virginia Tech may try to exploit.
The atmosphere will be outstanding, and the game should follow suit. With the emotion of the crowd pushing them on, Virginia Tech will come out fast. But as the game settles in, the North Carolina talent will start to take over. The Heels’ experience on both lines will become a factor, and Sam Howell will become more comfortable with his new skill position players as they get more reps. After falling behind early, North Carolina will rally to take home a season-opening win.
Prediction: North Carolina 34, Virginia Tech 27
Podcast: Week 1 Preview, Predictions & Spread Picks
— 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.