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UNC Football vs. Syracuse: Game Preview

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Can the Tar Heels justify the offseason hype?

Military Bowl Presented by Northrop Grumman - North Carolina v Temple Photo by G Fiume/Getty Images

The North Carolina Tar Heels are set to kick off their football season on Saturday when they welcome the Syracuse Orange to Kenan Stadium. The COVID-19 pandemic has obviously greatly altered the outlook of this season, but ACC football is back nonetheless. Without further ado, let’s get into the game preview.

Date/Time: Saturday, September 12th, 12:00 PM ET

TV: ACC Network

Line: North Carolina -22.5

What’s at Stake?

For Carolina, this matchup is important for a couple reasons. For one, it’s the first game of the season, and although Mack Brown led the Heels to a victory in its opener against South Carolina last year, Heels fans haven’t forgotten about those Larry Fedora teams that always seemed to struggle out of the gate. Getting a win in week 1 is huge for team morale, especially given the strange circumstances of this season.

Secondly, this might be the most hyped Carolina team since Brown’s first stint in Chapel Hill. Players such as QB Sam Howell and LB Chazz Surratt have received tons of offseason buzz and many predict the Heels to be a legitimate threat to Clemson in the ACC. Losing to a team they are favored to beat by three scores would basically nullify those lofty expectations and make reaching the conference championship an uphill battle.

For Syracuse, it’s more about putting forth a cohesive effort. That’s not to say this game is necessarily less important for the Orange, but given some of the personnel losses they’ve experienced (I’ll talk more on that later), they’ll be more focused on getting their bearings straight as a team in this one.

North Carolina Offense vs. Syracuse Defense

Carolina returns 10 of 11 starters from an offense that recorded 33 points and 430 yards per game in 2019. Sam Howell lit up the ACC as a true freshman, throwing for 3,641 yards, 38 touchdowns and just seven interceptions. His play will be crucial in dictating the tone in this one. If he makes a few plays early and gets comfortable, it could be a long afternoon for the Orange.

Howell will also have two dynamic ball-catchers at his disposal in Dyami Brown and Dazz Newsome, each of which crossed 1,000 yards in receiving in 2019. These two were involved in a lot of big plays last season so expect OC Phil Longo to try to get them going right off the bat.

One player who isn’t as talked about but probably should be is RB Javonte Williams. Williams rushed 166 times for 933 yards (5.6 ypc) in 2019 and is a punishing downhill runner. He’s joined in the backfield by Michael Carter, who’s more known for his shiftiness, straight-line speed, and pass-catching ability. These two together can really wear down defenses over the course of a game.

Meanwhile, the Syracuse defense gave up 30.7 points per game in 2019, good for eleventh in the ACC. They especially struggled to stop the run, giving up 201.6 yards per game, and they only return one starter from their defensive line. Williams and Carter will be looking to feast on the Orange’s inexperienced defensive front.

Syracuse has also seen linebacker Tyrell Richards and defensive lineman Cooper Dawson opt out of the season amid the coronavirus pandemic.

North Carolina Defense vs. Syracuse Offense

The Tar Heel defense is much more of a question mark coming into this season. After losing seniors Jason Strowbridge and Aaron Crawford, DC Jay Bateman will be looking for guys to step up on the defensive line to be able to apply some pressure. The good news is they’ll be going against a Syracuse offensive line that struggled last year and will now be starting converted FB/TE Chris Elmore at left guard. Syracuse also saw each of its top two running backs Abdul Adams and Jarveon Howard opt out of the season to prepare for the NFL draft.

Carolina’s secondary saw its depth weakened when safeties D.J. Ford and Javon Terry as well as cornerback Bryce Watts also decided to opt out of the season. Because of this, the Heels will lean heavily on young guys such as sophomore Storm Duck and freshman Tony Grimes (who reclassified from 2021). There’s definitely plenty of talent back there but Syracuse quarterback Tommy DeVito will look for ways to exploit the inexperience of the UNC secondary.

Speaking of DeVito, he threw for 2,360 yards, 19 touchdowns, and five interceptions in 2019. Now a junior, DeVito will have more freedom in Dino Babers’ up-tempo offense. Don’t be surprised if he takes some shots early in this one to put some pressure on the Carolina D.

One defensive position group that the Tar Heels can feel pretty good about is their linebacking corps. Dominique Ross was the only significant loss from last year. Chazz Surratt, Tomon Fox, and Jeremiah Gemmel combined for 240 tackles and 16.5 sacks last season. If Carolina wants to make some noise and create disruption on the defensive side, it starts with the linebackers.

X-Factor

There are a few guys who could certainly fit here, but I think Chazz Surratt is the X-factor. His transition from quarterback to linebacker was and continues to be one of the best storylines since Mack Brown’s return. Having led the team in tackles last year, he’s now the veteran in an otherwise inexperienced Tar Heel defense. Surratt’s explosiveness and athleticism could be the difference in containing the Syracuse offense.

Outlook

It’ll be interesting to see how much, if at all, home-field advantage plays a part in this game given the stadium capacity restrictions. I’m expecting a back-and-forth first half but I think the Heels eventually pull away. Carolina’s offensive firepower will ultimately be too much for the Orange to keep up with.

Prediction: UNC 41, Syracuse 20