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The Illinois game may be more important for UNC football than the Georgia game

UNC’s game against Illinois may prove to be a big barometer for the 2016 season.

NCAA Football: Illinois at North Carolina Rob Kinnan-USA TODAY Sports

On September 3rd, North Carolina will play Georgia in Atlanta. That game provides a chance for UNC to get the season off to a winning start against a marquee opponent. It’s a game that is being marked down as arguably the most important for North Carolina in 2016. However, a better test of how the team will fare this season might come the next week.

On September 10th, UNC travels to Champaign, IL to play Illinois. Last year, Carolina won pretty handily over the Illini in Chapel Hill. That 48-14 win was the first over a non-conference Power 5 opponent in several seasons. While technically there was a game in between (sorry, North Carolina A&T), it was a good response following the loss against South Carolina to open the season. It was a win that got UNC started on its run to the Coastal Division title.

The Georgia game will no doubt be a big deal for North Carolina. It’s a chance to play a team that may contend for the SEC East. It’s just difficult to know how good Georgia is before the season has started.

Georgia will be playing their first game under Kirby Smart. The UNC-Georgia game will be Smart’s very first as a head coach. It will be pretty difficult to extrapolate a ton from that game, no matter what the result is. Right now, it appears the only truly bad result would be UNC getting blown out.

If Smart struggles in his first season as a head coach, a close loss would look a lot different in December than it does in September. Same thing applies to if UNC were to win.

The Georgia game also has the first week factor. Last year, UNC was obviously a better team than South Carolina. However, Carolina played arguably its worst game of the season. UNC at least doubled the 13 points they scored against South Carolina in every other game they played last season. It’s still a pretty bad loss, looking back, but not an inexplicable one. This admittedly sounds like an excuse, but the offense wasn’t in the same rhythm it was later in the season. If that game was played in October, I would guess the result would have been different.

Now about the Illinois game. Carolina’s week two opponent will also have a new coach early in his tenure. However, while it’s not a guarantee that Smart is a better coach than what Georgia had, Lovie Smith is probably a better coach than what Illinois had.

UNC should be the favorite in the Illinois game. On paper it is a game that the Tar Heels should win. The reason it may be a more important game is that Illinois’ potential next season doesn’t have the variance of Georgia’s. That could turn out to be an incorrect assumption, but it seems easier to correctly predict Illinois’ win range than Georgia’s. It will probably be easier to judge UNC based upon what happens in that game.

As we sit here on July 12th, the Georgia game does not appear to be a must win. You would like to win it. It would get UNC’s season off to a good start. It just doesn’t appear to be a must win. If North Carolina wants to be anywhere close to the team it was last year, it probably needs to beat Illinois.