Finally. Kick-off is just over 24 hours away, and Tar Heels all over the east coast are boarding flights or getting in their cars for a Labor Day road trip. UNC football players and staff are making their final preparations to take on Georgia in the Chick-fil-A Kick-Off Game. The country is gearing up for perhaps the most epic Opening Day in college football history. To top everything off, UGA/UNC is essentially a toss-up among the pundits and Vegas. I. Am. Pumped.
In this blog’s first official 2016 game preview, we’ll keep it simple but try to find a few different angles that may not have been covered by other fine UNC-centric publications.
UNC Offensive Preview
The biggest remaining question in regards to personnel was finally answered when Tommy Hatton was announced as the starting right guard. Whew. Glad that’s settled.
All joking aside, if that was the biggest obstacle this off-season, then UNC is living the good life. However, what Mitch Trubisky will truly be able to provide at the QB position remains to be seen. Larry Fedora stated this week that if Trubisky can take care of the ball and move the chains, then he will have success. Ball security would be a welcome sight against top-tier competition after turning the ball over seven times in their three losses last year.
Georgia will provide a true baptism by fire with a loaded secondary that, statistically, was one of the most dominant in the nation. UGA was nationally ranked #1 in pass defense, #7 in total defense, and #8 in scoring defense. Now, NCAA football stats can be a bit wonky, and a deeper look will show that UGA didn’t play a team that had a passing offense ranked higher than #62. That team was Alabama, who beat UGA 38-10. In the rain.
Obviously ‘Bama was…decent. But, to boast the top passing defense in the nation, and never play a team higher than #62 in passing offense? Consider me suspicious. Even more so when you consider that UNC hung 37 on a Clemson team that almost won the title.
Of course, UNC is more than just a new QB. The plethora of options at WR, even with Mack Hollins sitting out the first half, and one of the most potent backfield 1-2 punches in the country with T.J. Logan and Elijah Hood will provide Trubisky with plenty of help to handle a Kirby Smart defense. Those weapons will help push the pace of play that has come to define this era of UNC football. A quick start is what the offense needs to get settled, quiet the decidedly pro-Georgia crowd, and force Bulldogs into throwing the ball.
UNC’s pace can also test UGA’s early season fitness, conditioning, and depth. While the spread has taken the college world by storm, it hasn’t caught fire in the SEC quite yet, and is hard to replicate in practice and scheming. That will be even more difficult with Georgia’s young and thin defensive line, who return only two players that recorded more than three tackles last season. There are mismatches to be exploited with UNC’s veteran offensive line returning.
(And if anyone has questions about the SEC and stylistic tendencies, I will refer you to the barn burners that America had to experience last night with USC-Vandy and UT-App St.)
UNC Defensive Preview
Cue the questions about the run defense. We get it. UNC struggled against the run. The Baylor game was both comedy and tragedy. The memory still lingers. Now, let’s all put that behind us for good. Please.
Here’s the bottom line: The run defense has questions, but it will be improved. Specifically, moving Jalen Dalton to join forces with Naz Jones on the interior of the d-line will prove to be one of the most important coaching moves that Chizik/Fedora made over the summer. Last season the two players rotated more than they played next to each other. This season, UNC has their two best defensive tackles blocking the middle. (Remember, Naz Jones was injured against Baylor).
Specifically against an experienced Georgia offensive line, Jones and Dalton have to plug the middle and clog the running lanes. If they can at least slow down some of Nick Chubb’s momentum at the line of scrimmage, UNC’s linebackers will have a little more time to recover and help against the run. They may also be able to find some freedom to maneuver around the edges or to drop back in coverage. Some of that will rely on what kind of defensive game Andre Smith calls from the MLB position.
Fortunately, the UNC secondary does not pose many questions with the stud duo of Des Lawrence and M.J. Stewart returning at defensive back. Their ability to cover and defend passes should give the Bulldogs some trouble. Georgia’s leading returning receiver, Terry Godwin, only had 35 receptions last year for 379 yards. With a solid but not scary WR corps, Georgia is likely to look for high percentage, short passes that stretch UNC’s linebackers in order to open up gaps for the running game. They could also easily work the sidelines for low risk, medium reward passes to the sidelines to limit the chance of an open field fumble or interception.
This game plan would work for either UGA signal caller Greyson Lambert or Jacob Eason. Lambert will get the start, but with only 1929 yards, 12 TDs, 2 INTs and 63% completion rate last season, a heavy dose of handing off to the tailback and firing short, safe passes would fit his (and UGA’s) skill set perfectly. Coincidentally, it would also be the preferred game plan for a true freshman QB who may hear his name called if UGA struggles early. Plus, a steady diet of runs and short passes would extend UGA drives, and keep UNC’s explosive offense on the sidelines.
UNC Linebackers vs Nick Chubb
I didn’t touch on Chubb above because by now most UNC fans know about him and what he can do (747 yards, 8.1 pypc, 7 TD in 6 games last season before injuring his knee). So, assuming he is fully healthy, he should see 25-30 carries. If that happens, it will be on UNC’s linebackers to keep him from breaking off any long runs. Dalton, Jones, and DE’s Mikey Bart and Tyler Powell won’t win every battle in the trenches, so it will be on the stable of young, talented linebackers to recover and close any gaps that form.
If UNC can keep Chubb largely contained (which is all relative) and prevent long, clock-eating offensive drives, then UNC’s offense should be able to give them a buffer. But, if they allow Chubb to consistently get to the second level of the defense and rip off gains of 7-12 yards, it will be a long night for Tar Heels across the country.
UNC Offense vs. The Clock
UNC largely struggled last year in games where their offensive touches were limited, such as the road game against Pittsburgh. By controlling the clock, Pittsburgh was able to stay close and wait for UNC’s offense to go cold. Funnily enough, Georgia’s offensive coordinator this year, Jim Chaney, was Pittsburgh’s OC last year, so there is some familiarity.
UNC has historically struggled under Fedora when they cannot get their offense into high gear. This is often in large part because Fedora’s defenses have not been very good, so UNC has not been able to really "grind" out a win. While we all await the verdict on how good this defense can be, I’m not comfortable with thinking UNC is at the point where they can "out tough" a team like Georgia.
To avoid that scenario UNC has to jump out early, put Georgia into a deficit and force them to move the ball through the air.
UNC Pass Rush vs UGA QBs
If UNC can force passing situations, then their pass rush has to show up and deliver. UNC’s front seven has not done much of either the last few years. If the secondary can provide the same type of coverage as last season, then UNC’s defensive front may be able to put just enough pressure on Lambert or Eason and force a couple of mistakes or quick throws.
If that happens, the linebackers have to be ready to help cover the middle of the field and disrupt any activity. UGA’s rushing ability will open up space for WRs to run short hook and slant routes. If UNC can’t get past the Bulldogs’ front seven, then Lambert/Eason will find WRs for 5-7 yard gains all night long, and keep Trubisky and company off the field.
UNC will win if they can score quick and early and force UGA into playing catch-up. If they can’t stop Nick Chubb, they can at least try to take the ball out of his hands.
Georgia will win if they maintain long, sustained drives using Nick Chubb as their catalyst. If they are forced to pass, or can’t maintain control of the ball, UNC has the ability to make this ugly.