It’s been a nightmare start to the season for the North Carolina football team. Whatever could go wrong has gone wrong as the injuries and losses pile up. After falling to Georgia Tech 33-7 last Saturday, the Heels are 1-4.
But if Tar Heels head coach Larry Fedora needs to find a source of hope, all he has to do is look at the other sideline this Saturday. Just a year ago, Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly was suffering through his own misery. The 2016 Notre Dame team closed the month of September at 1-4, had fired defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder and was on its way to a 4-8 finish. But here come the Irish into Chapel Hill just 12 months later with a 4-1 record and all sorts of momentum following three consecutive decisive victories.
Notre Dame is 17-2 all-time against North Carolina with the Tar Heels' last victory in the series coming at Kenan Memorial Stadium in 2008.
Notre Dame at North Carolina
When: Saturday, Oct. 7 at 3:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ABC
Spread: Notre Dame -14
Three Things to Watch
1. Brandon Wimbush’s foot
The Notre Dame quarterback has had problems with his accuracy in recent weeks, but the bigger issue now appears to be his foot. Whether he hurt it last week during the game against Miami (Ohio) or after is unclear; all that is known is that Wimbush was in a boot early this week. His status for the game is up in the air, and even if he plays, an injury to his foot limits a huge part of his game. Ian Book is next in line, and though the sophomore has seen action in four of the five games played this year, starting on the road against an ACCteam would be a new experience.
2. Limiting Notre Dame big plays
At times, North Carolina’s defense has played pretty well. But allowing big chunk yardage has doomed the Tar Heels. They have given up 11 plays of more than 40 yards, which puts them in a tie for 123rd out of 129 FBS teams. The Notre Dame offense has thrived on big plays, ranking No. 4 nationally with 12 plays of 40-plus yards. North Carolina is particularly susceptible to big plays in the run game, and nine of the Irish’s biggest yardage plays have come on the ground.
3. Tar Heels' offensive balance
Injuries have decimated the UNC offense. But Miami (Ohio) moved the ball on the Notre Dame defense last week, so Carolina should feel like it can have success, too. To do this, the Tar Heels must establish some balance. That means developing an effective running game, something that has been a struggle so far. Jordon Brown is averaging five yards per carry, but last week he had only eight attempts. He did have nine receptions, and because the Heels got down early, they were forced to throw the ball. But Brown has to become a bigger threat running the ball.
Mentally, North Carolina can’t be in a good place right now. It was going to be a rebuilding year due to the personnel losses from last year’s team. But a sluggish start, due in part to losing 13 players to season-ending injuries, has to have the group wondering how bad things can get. It doesn’t help that red-hot Notre Dame is on its way to Chapel Hill. While the Irish have not been ravaged by injuries the way North Carolina has, they do have some players dinged up in the offensive backfield. Besides Brandon Wimbush, running backs Josh Adams and Tony Jones Jr. both left last week's game with leg injuries and Dexter Williams was held out altogether. Despite the 52-17 final score, Notre Dame was far from perfect against the RedHawks. Against this banged-up Tar Heels team though, the Irish can again be far from perfect and still win.
Prediction: Notre Dame 34, North Carolina 21
— 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.