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Game Preview: UNC at Cal


California v North Carolina Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images

After what seems like an eternity, college football is finally back. You could say that for the UNC program and fans, it arrived at a limp rather than a sprint; between some (justifiably) bad press stemming from ACC Kickoff, multiple suspensions being announced due to players selling shoes, and a series of high-profile misses on the recruiting trail for 2019, there’s been a sizeable barrier in the way of getting excited about this season for the Tar Heels. But, if only for the fact that the ultimate team sport has returned to our televisions, excitement is warranted. It’s a new season with endless possibilities, and it gets started with a cross-country trip to Berkeley, California.

UNC Offense vs Cal Defense

We’ve talked about the new-look UNC offense a bunch this offseason, but it should suffice here to say that on paper, it’s just about exciting as the storied group that carried the team to national relevance in 2015-16. Even more than last year’s pre-injury group, which figured to struggle after losing just about all of the previous season’s offensive production, this season’s roster looks more to Larry Fedora’s standard. It’s fast, deep, skilled, and diverse at the skill positions, and talented if inexperienced along the offensive line. It may well be the offensive line’s ability to gel quickly that makes or breaks the season, and we’ll get a good look at this in the first game. California’s defensive line was okay last season; they struggled mightily against the run but created pressure in the passing game and were middle-of-the-road in sack rate. They lost their best defensive lineman to the NFL, though, and the group as it stands is very inexperienced, making it a good first game for the UNC offensive line. The strength of the Golden Bears’ defense is in its linebacking corps, headlined by seniors Jordan Kunaszyk and Alex Funches, which ranked 11th in the nation in Bill Connelly’s LB Havoc Rate. This makes for another interesting battle with the UNC running backs, which also figure to be a strength with Ohio State transfer Antonio Williams leading the way and Jordon Brown ably spelling him after a solid campaign last year. A battle where UNC clearly has the advantage, though, is through the air. Cal was a solid bend-don’t-break passing defense last year, looking average for most of the field before tightening up and becoming one of the country’s better red zone units. UNC has the talent at wide receiver, headlined by star Anthony Ratliff-Williams, to stretch the Cal secondary past its breaking point, if Nathan Elliott can just take advantage of the mismatches he and his teammates should be able to provide. The Cal secondary went through a trial by fire last year, starting freshmen Camryn Bynum and Elijah Hicks, and while that might mean they’re improved this year, I don’t think it’s enough to stop the much-hyped UNC receiving corps.

UNC Defense vs Cal Offense

Last year, UNC’s defense was a good unit made to look bad by the offense’s inability to give it a break. The pass defense allowed just 55% completion and broke up 59 passes, intercepting six (maybe this is the year of positive regression?). The run defense didn’t fare as well, though, subject to teams running out the clock when the defense was already exhausted. It was too common to see long runs against the Heels late in the second half. The secondary lost its best player, M.J. Stewart, to the NFL, but a stalwart safety duo (Myles Dorn and Myles Wolfolk) and a talented pair of cornerbacks (K.J. Sails and Patrice Rene) should hold the back end down nicely and hopefully support true freshman Trey Morrison at nickel. Combined with a better offense, the pass defense shouldn’t see a downturn. They’ll get a sharp test, though, against quarterback Ross Bowers, who struggled at first after his #1 target (receiver Demetris Robertson, who went off against UNC last year) went down with injury but finished the season strong and is looking to build off that upward momentum with Robertson back this season. Cal’s offense in general was hit by injury quite significantly as well (not to UNC’s levels, obviously, but enough to note): in addition to Robertson, running back Tre Watson and receiver Melquise Stovall went down early in the season. With them back, and Maurice Ways added to the fold from Michigan, the Cal aerial attack is one to be feared. They’re no slouches on the ground, either, though the depth there isn’t as impressive: Patrick Laird was one of the better backs in the PAC-12 last year, and is well-equipped to handle a workhorse-type load, but behind him there isn’t much production at all. Laird is a grinder, though, so UNC’s linebackers, led by tackling machine Cole Holcomb but facing questions with the other spot(s), will have their hands full. All this is secondary, though, to the battle in the trenches. UNC’s defensive line has been the talk of camp, with Tomon Fox, Malik Carney, Tyler Powell, Aaron Crawford, and Jason Strowbridge all drawing heavy praise for their hard work and improvement from last year to this one. Add in Jalen Dalton and you’ve got what should be a pretty fierce line. The unit, over the course of the season, will not be able to make full use of its artillery due to the aforementioned suspensions, but there’s enough there to be scary regardless. The Cal offensive line was slightly below average last year, but returns every starter and that continuity is valuable. It’s hard to say how this battle might turn out, but it’s not going to be boring.

Special Teams/Coaching/Intangibles

UNC should be an excellent special teams unit again, with kicker Freeman Jones the only slight question mark. He’s apparently been impressive this summer, but we’ll see if that transfers into a more accurate leg this year than he showed last season. California is less established, bringing in a new punter and kicker, so that’s something to keep an eye out for. Both teams have very good returners and questionable coverage units based on last year, so don’t be surprised to see one or more big returns on either punts or kickoffs.

And as far as intangibles on the UNC side: We already know the big one, that UNC hasn’t won a Power 5 opener since 2000. That is a monkey that Larry Fedora would love to get off his and the program’s back, particularly after dropping more than a couple of notably winnable openers in his tenure. There’s also the issue of body clocks, which Chad Floyd wrote about in his early preview of this game (can be found here). I don’t think the Heels have played in the West Coast in Larry Fedora’s tenure, and while he’s consulting with sleep scientists and other coaches to try and acclimate his team, it’s fair to anticipate some disorientation there. Home field advantage could be very real in this sense.

To win, UNC has to:

  • Protect Nathan Elliott
  • Control the middle of the field on defense
  • Win the field position battle

In the end, though, this is a battle of very evenly-matched teams. They have similar strengths and weaknesses, similar hopes for bounce-back seasons, and Bill Connelly ranks them back-to-back in his preseason rankings. and while UNC has a bit of an advantage in S&P+ (50th to Cal’s 61st), the magnitude of the intangible forces working against the Heels makes me skittish about picking them. A one-score game essentially amounts to a toss-up, though, so here it is:

Prediction: Cal 37, UNC 31