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A game-by-game look at UNC’s proposed 2020 schedule

A division-less schedule provides a new challenge for the Heels, but if any UNC team is up for it, it might be this one

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

As you probably know, we now know who UNC’s 10 ACC opponents will be, and while there’s room in the ACC’s plans for one non-conference game, Auburn (the presumptive favorite)’s conference has told them that there will be no out-of conference travel, and UCF, UNC’s other high-profile planned out-of-conference game, is... well... not really an option. UNC will probably try and get an in-state opponent for that game, but we don’t know what’s going to happen, so we’ll leave that be for now. But with the information we do know, it’s time to engage in one of sports fans’ favorite pastimes: predicting outcomes that we have no actual way of knowing how they’ll turn out! With what little knowledge we have about each of UNC’s opponents, not to mention the Heels themselves, I’m going to take a shot at predicting how each game will go, and thus set a benchmark for what a good season for UNC might look like. From left to right on the ACC’s schedule release:

The ACC

1. N.C. State

Last year’s 41-10 drubbing of NC State, particularly the 35-0 second half, was probably last year’s most cathartic moment, if not its most joyous (that might go to Chazz Surratt’s goal-line pick against Duke), and it’s one of the markers from last year that’s brought Tar Heel fans the most anticipation for the coming era: With the current rosters combining for that and recruiting looking the way it is (NC State’s 2020 class is ranked 46th and their 2021 class is 36th with 16 commitments), it certainly looked like the rivalry’s momentum would be firmly with Chapel Hill for the foreseeable future. But looks can be deceiving, and what I see when I look at State is a slightly better version of what I saw in Chapel Hill in 2017-18: some solid skill players on offense hampered by a lack of good quarterbacking, and a thin, but possibly talented defense. Emeka Emezie was supposed to be a breakout star in 2019 but didn’t make the leap (not helped by the aforementioned lack of good quarterbacking), and fellow wideout Devin Carter impressed as a sophomore as a possession receiver. Running back Zonovan Knight had a superb freshman year, and he’s ably backed up by Jordan Houston and Ricky Person, Jr., who’s good but has battled injuries, with a line that should be decent after having time last year to gel. On defense, State is going to be relying heavily on last year’s class to step up and be stars: Savion Jackson, Payton Wilson, Malik Dunlap, and a few others have the pedigree and flashed last year, but will need to take over for State to have a shot against UNC, or indeed a solid chunk of their schedule. And they still need a solution at quarterback, and what I saw from both Bailey Hockman and Devin Leary last year just won’t cut it. Right now, UNC just looks a couple steps ahead of the Pack, and I’m calling this one for the Heels. (1-0)

2. Notre Dame

Okay, the rest won’t be nearly that long. Notre Dame was pretty freakin’ good last year and they return quarterback Ian Book, a strong offensive line, and their defensive front 7 in a bid to at least sniff a CFP spot. They’re definitely going to be good, but their ability to be great is going to depend on a lot of newcomers and new starters at the offensive skill positions and defensive backfield. With minicamps cancelled in the spring and summer/fall practice time shortened, it might take the Fighting Irish a few games to get some cohesion, both in terms of chemistry between Book and his receivers and getting the defensive front and back on the same page. If UNC plays the Fighting Irish early, their uncommon cohesion would probably give them an advantage, but if this Tar Heel team has a weak spot it’s probably going to be the defensive front and pass rush, which is exactly what Book and the Notre Dame offensive line are built to exploit. This one feels like a toss-up to me. (1.5-0.5)

Syracuse

Syracuse have absolutely cratered since their 10-win 2018, and now they look like they’re going to be pretty heavily rebuilding, to put it nicely, in 2020. Good season to do it, I guess, but with a QB who doesn’t seem to be too great once he’s gameplanned for (Yes, Tommy DeVito tore up UNC in 2018, but as a starter he hasn’t been good) and all of the team’s best ballcarriers gone, Syracuse’s offense is probably going to be rough. On defense, they’ve got good safeties, including stud Andre Cisco, but little to speak of regarding pass rush and linebackers. They run a backfield-heavy defense, which is liable to get eaten up by strong rushing attacks, which UNC should absolutely have next year. This one looks like a pretty comfortable win for the Heels. (2.5-0.5)

Virginia Tech

The Hokies looked like Coastal contenders in the spring, after a near-star turn from Hendon Hooker as the new quarterback and generally looking like they were firing on all cylinders before late-season collapses against Virginia and Kentucky. Their big questions are basically all on defense, where they’ve got some players but are going through a coaching and possible scheme change after Bud Foster’s retirement. They were boom-or-bust last year, and the transition suggests there might be more of that this year. UNC’s an offense capable of plenty of booming, and last year’s tight result combined with UNC’s stability make me comfortable predicting a reasonably close UNC win here, despite the recent history of this rivalry. (3.5-0.5)

Wake Forest

Well, Jamie Newman’s gone down to Georgia, so that’s one key element of last year’s matchup between the two teams that’s changed. Dave Clawson has a lot to work with, though, including an experienced Sam Hartman to take Newman’s reins and some explosive skill players, including, of course, Sage Surratt. On the other side, Carlos Basham is one of the country’s best pass rushers and he’s joined by an active front 7 that pretty well stifled the UNC rushing attack last year. Clawson’s offensive system gave both UNC’s players and fans fits last year, and I think the same might happen this time. I’d like to say UNC should take this, because of how close last year’s game ended up being, but I’m feeling another toss-up here just because of how good Clawson’s been at punching above weight. (4-1)

Boston College

What a year to be breaking in a new head coach, huh? After Steve Addazio’s firing, Jeff Hafley is going to have a job just getting his Eagles roster on the same page in just a month. Boston College has been perpetually spooky the past few years, mostly thanks to elite defenses. I can’t see that coming together this year, and UNC’s offensive onslaught will likely prove too much to handle for them. (5-1)

Duke

The Blue Devils are resting their hopes on Chase Brice, the quarterback transfer from Clemson, being as good as he was supposed to be when the Tigers recruited him. Backing up Trevor Lawrence isn’t an indictment of Brice at all, but he is a mystery and hasn’t really seen action since high school. The Duke coaches seem excited about him, but that’s pretty standard overall. At the very least, though, Duke’s offense should open up more than it did last year, where they protected their quarterback weaknesses by just throwing within 5 yards of him for whole games, and that makes them dangerous if not necessarily good. Duke’s got a pair of great pass rushers and a solid defense overall, which has become pretty standard for David Cutcliffe. If UNC’s a paper tiger or Brice is everything he needed to be right away, this game gets tough. The odds of both of those are pretty low, though, so I’ll prognosticate a tight-ish win here. (6-1)

Florida State

Talking about Florida State is weird, because they should be good, but then you think back to that incident with Mike Norvell lying (or at least exaggerating) about how much he’d talked to his players about Black Lives Matter and the weird unrest that seems to caused among the Seminoles, and wonder if things will really be as they seem. We can only talk about that, though, and Florida State looks pretty solid. James Blackman has a chance to be really good after having his development hampered the past two seasons (has it really only been 2???), Tamorrion Terry is a beast, and they’ve got a lot of fun pieces thanks to being Florida State and recruiting well. If those pieces come together, this is a trouble spot for the Heels, and Norvell has at least been a very good new coach everywhere else he’s been. (6.5-1.5)

Miami

UNC’s dramatic victory against the Canes last season seemed to herald the coming of two talented freshman quarterbacks, but while Howell continued to shine that season, Jarren Williams’s short game prowess got figured out and he lost his starting spot, eventually transferring after D’Eriq King announced his decision to transfer from Houston. The Hurricanes lose a couple of stars, including cornerback Trajan Bandy, but also get King and Temple edge rusher Quincy Roche, and the rest of the team remains pretty intact. They’re getting Top-25 hype this year, and while some of it is just general Miami-in-the-Coastal wishful thinking, some of it is legit – they have some really fun pieces. Miami’s underachieved the past several years, so it’s kind of silly to suggest that this is the year, but it’s enough of a threat for me to think this is little more than a coin toss for the Heels at this point. (7-2)

Virginia

Bryce Perkins is gone, and with him, you have to think, Virginia’s chances at finishing top-4 in the divison-less ACC. UVA should have a solid defense, as usual, though last year’s squad was particularly susceptible to the kind of big plays UNC was ripping off with consistency by the end of last year, but on offense there are a lot of questions even beyond how the Cavaliers will replace Perkins, who was pretty much a one-man team on offense last year. Without practice time to learn how to get the offense working as a unit after having had that advantage, I can’t imagine they’re going to be able to do much more than give the Heels a modest scare. (8-2)

Agree with my analyses? Disagree? Let me know in the comments! (And thanks a ton to Bill Connelly, whose ACC previews were invaluable in writing this)