When UNC and Georgia Tech played in 2016, it was a turning point for both teams. The Tar Heels had a stellar season to that point, and at a glance, the 48-20 decimation of the Yellow Jackets looked like just another chapter in an incredible season.
It was clear at that point, though, that UNC would only go as far as Mitch Trubisky would take them, and, as I wrote then, Trubisky started showing signs of a deterioration that would last all the way until the end of the season, causing the Tar Heel season to end with a whimper.
A season that looked like it could be one of UNC’s greatest ended up being a mediocre year that will be remembered much more for its talent than its success.
On the other hand, Georgia Tech was able to use the embarrassing loss as a wake-up call and went on to win every game from that point on, including one at then-#18 Virginia Tech. Their defense showed marked improvement after the loss, as shown here:
GT Defense Splits.csv
|Category||Before UNC||After UNC|
|Category||Before UNC||After UNC|
|Avg Opp Off S&P+ Rank||57.5||71.5|
With the combination of that improvement and a potent offense (even against UNC, they put up over 500 yards), it’s easy to see why ACC Media believes that GT should finish 3rd in the Coastal division.
While the popular thought about UNC is that they will regress due to a soft finish and near-total loss of offensive production, the consensus for Georgia Tech seems to be that the momentum off their strong finish will carry them to a stronger season. But what does this mean in terms of the head-to-head matchup, which will take place on September 30?
Larry Fedora is 3-2 against the Yellow Jackets since he has come to Chapel Hill, but notably, has won three straight. Other than last year’s demolition and the 2012 68-50 debacle, the games have tended to be pretty back-and-forth offensive shootouts, “last team to have the ball wins” kind of scenarios. In 2013, GT won 20-28, in 2014, UNC won 48-43, and in 2015, UNC won 38-31.
Georgia Tech is famous for their triple option offense, which seems to keep chugging no matter who occupies the various running back positions. This year, they have consistency going for them, with preseason All-ACC B-back (dive-back, fullback, whatever you want to call him) Dedrick Mills leading the charge.
A-backs (pitch backs) Clinton Lynch, Qua Searcy, and JJ Green all return as well after explosive seasons (particularly Lynch). The real question for Paul Johnson’s team is at quarterback, as the team loses Justin Thomas to graduation.
Thomas was one of the best quarterbacks Johnson has had; a master of the triple-option read as well as a functional passer for the occasional deep shot.
Even though Johnson’s system has been pretty plug-and-play since he took over in Atlanta, one has to wonder how quickly a new quarterback will be able to get used to Johnson’s system and quick-fire playcalling style. As the matchup is early in the season, it’s very conceivable that the offense could still be working out some kinks.
Notable departures and additions:
Besides Thomas, Georgia Tech loses starting B-back Marcus Marshall and starting center Freddie Burden. The loss of Marshall should be mostly offset by Mills, but Tech will lack depth at B-Back, one of the more punishing positions in the GT backfield.
Burden’s loss will be more heavily felt, as the former leader of an offensive line that requires cohesion.
On defense, the team loses defensive end Rod Rook-Chungong, defensive tackle Patrick Gamble, and linebackers Chase Alford and PJ Davis.
Perhaps Tech’s most notable losses, though, will be on special teams, as they must replace kicker Harrison Butker and punter/holder Ryan Rodwell. They will both be replaced by freshmen Brenton King and Pressley Harvin, respectively. This is notable for Georgia Tech, because nearly all the rest of the holes that their departures will leave are set to be filled by upperclassmen.
Even though there aren’t a lot of starts between many of the players coming in, they’ve definitely practiced together. While the potential kinks at quarterback are not negligible, the rest of the team looks to be in pretty good, cohesive shape.
Only Jerry Howard figures to really make an impact among the freshman offensive and defensive players, as backup B-back.
This figures to be an aberration from recent GT-UNC games, as both teams have a lot to make up on offense and have a lot of carryover on defense.
The primary difference between the teams is that UNC’s defense has much better potential than Georgia Tech’s, which employs a very flimsy bend-don’t-break strategy.
Last year, the Yellow Jackets were near the bottom of all Power 5 conference team in opponents’ success rate (including last in the ACC), meaning that against Georgia Tech’s defense, teams were able to consistently move the chains basically at will (more specifically, “success” is defined as gaining at least 50% of required yardage on first down, 70% of required yardage on second down, and all required yardage on third and fourth downs).
They limited explosive plays very well, but were not able to stop teams from moving the ball and scoring. Additionally, until the end of the season, Georgia Tech was not very good at making positive defensive plays: turnovers, sacks, passes defensed, and tackles for loss were in short supply.
UNC’s offense will be new, but Georgia Tech doesn’t really look like they have the defense to take advantage. Larry Fedora, on the other hand, has been dealing with turnover at the quarterback position for years. He should know exactly how to get the most out of a new offense against a bad defense.
Meanwhile, UNC’s defense figures to be one of the stronger ones in the conference, especially in the linebacking corps that is so crucial to stopping the triple option. Andre Smith, Cole Holcomb, and Cayson Collins were gashed early in the 2016 game, but tightened up in the second half, and now have a much less experienced quarterback to work with.
An improved defensive line should make reads harder on the new quarterback as well, so things could get really ugly for the Yellow Jacket offense. Paul Johnson is a fantastic offensive coach, but so much of his system relies on the quarterback being comfortable that there might not be much he can do about it. He doesn’t have the reliability of Justin Thomas anymore, and it will certainly be interesting to see what happens because of that.
And in a tight game, special teams often makes a difference. Both teams have unknowns at kicker, but UNC has one of the best punters in the nation in Tom Sheldon Meanwhile, Georgia Tech will employ a freshman.
On the other hand, the Yellow Jacket return game is fairly decent, while UNC will be replacing star returners T.J. Logan and Ryan Switzer. Guys like Anthony Ratliff-Williams and Austin Proehl have shown promise, and returning is much less important than kicking, but both teams have potential to lose a game on special teams.
Final Prediction: UNC 27, GT 14. Ugly defensive game, but UNC figures out a way to score a few more times than Tech does.