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UNC vs. Syracuse: Three Things to Watch

Opt-outs and injuries may give the Heels the advantage they need to squeeze the Orange.

Duke v North Carolina Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

We are FINALLY just one day away from UNC’s first football game of the season. The Heels are squaring off against the Syracuse Orange in Kenan Stadium for what should be a very interesting matchup. The Orange are missing a few key players on both sides of the football, as they opted out of the season to maintain an extra year of eligibility. Meanwhile, the Tar Heels will need to find a way to contain Tommy DeVito with a defensive line that has a lot of question marks going into the first game of the season.

It should be a fun game to open the season with, and I’m sure the players are all chomping at the bit to compete after all of the frustrations that 2020 has had to offer. With that said, let’s take a look at three things to keep an eye on tomorrow afternoon.

Dominance in the run game

What we know so far about this Syracuse defense is that their secondary is really, really good. In fact, they are one of the best secondaries in the country going into this game. However, the linebackers for the Orange are where things aren’t so great, and it’s something that the Tar Heels can exploit with Michael Carter and Javonte Williams. Redshirt junior LB Tyrell Richards, who was expected to help lead this group, has opted out of the 2020 season, delivering a sizable blow to a linebacker group that already lost Andrew Armstrong and Lakiem Williams when they graduated this past spring.

The key to success for the Heels in this game is simple: pound the ball as much as possible, and let Sam Howell punish the defense when they become too focused on the run. It’s also worth noting that Carter and Williams will be utilized in the passing game more as well, so that should create even more frustration for the Orange’s defense. We should see a little bit of everything from Sam Howell & Co. tomorrow, which will be a fun way to open up the season.

Stopping Tommy DeVito

Let’s open up some old wounds, shall we? In Larry Fedora’s final year as the head coach for UNC, the Heels took on Syracuse in the Carrier Dome. Starting QB for the Orange Eric Dungey was fairly productive that day, but couldn’t get the ball into the end zone with his arm (He did manage to score a rushing touchdown). The Orange then put Tommy DeVito into the game, and he proceeded to throw for 181 yards and three touchdowns to help them take own the Heels 37-40 in overtime.

Fast forward to now, and DeVito is set to take on a Tar Heels defense that has a lot of questions on their defensive line. With Aaron Crawford and Jason Strowbridge off to the NFL, the Heels will be looking to Ray Vohasek and Jahlil Taylor primarily to find some way to create pressure. They won’t necessarily have to do it alone — we should see Tomon Fox and Tyrone Hooper lining up on the outside to help the D-line — but the question is whether or not there’s enough there to make DeVito sweat.

The good news is that the running game for Syracuse may not be much of a factor, as both Abdul Adams and Jarveon Howard have opted out of the season. There are also injuries along their offensive line, so it may be that one of the Heels’ biggest weaknesses won’t matter at least for the first game of the season. It’s never a good idea to underestimate a quarterback like DeVito, however, and I know Jay Bateman is fully aware of that.

Keeping that same energy

While we could use this opportunity to discuss whether or not Sam Howell will go through a sophomore slump (he won’t) or if one of the incoming freshmen will have a big game, tomorrow will be very unique due to the fact that there will be no fans in the stands. This will create a truly bizarre environment for both teams as they will basically be putting on a show for nobody but the cameras. One unique element of sports is being able to feed off of the energy in a stadium and arena, but this game won’t have that factor. Will the players be effected by this change? We will soon find out.

Here is what we can confirm: the games that have been taking place in the NBA bubble have still been pretty exciting to watch, and it even seems like some players found a way to play better in this particular environment. It’s been a reminder to all of us that at the end of the day competitors compete, and that is something that can’t be taken away from them. It’s also worth noting that ACC teams will be able to pump fan noise into their stadiums, so the good news is that there will be some type of familiarity for the teams and fans watching at home. No matter what tomorrow should be a fun game to watch, but it will be a big change for all of us looking at all of those empty blue seats in Kenan Stadium.