This week is important. I’ve heard it echoed a lot throughout the college football media ecosystem in the wake of the start of the season — you see the largest jump in a team, generally, between weeks one and two. In the preseason, it’s hard to simulate game speed — it’s harder still to simulate an opposing team punching you in the mouth. The simulation is over, and the Tar Heels got a dose of game speed last weekend in Blacksburg, and some of the hype trains that rode into Lane Stadium didn’t make the trip back.
This game is important. The Georgia State Panthers are headed up to Kenan Stadium tomorrow, leaving Atlanta and making the six(ish) hour trip to play under the lights in the southern part of heaven. The Heels will be looking to bounce back from a disappointing underperformance against Virginia Tech — the Panthers are looking to wipe the bad taste of triple option out of their collective mouths after a 43-10 shellacking at the hands of the troops from West Point.
It’s difficult to know how much to take away from last week’s game in Atlanta, at least in terms of trying to translate those results in a predictive way for tomorrow’s game. Army hung 43 points on a Panthers defense that looked largely outmatched, but they did so with the antique flexbone triple option. Similar to games against Georgia Tech in years gone, triple option games are just kinda weird, and render tape less than useful. Sam Howell and the Carolina offense will be hoping to hang a similar point total on the Sun Belt team after only managing a single touchdown in last week’s trip north of the state line, while attacking with a more modern look.
Like most teams after the topsy-turvy pandemic season, Georgia State’s defense returns a lot of production. Of the 11 starters listed on the Panthers’ two-deep (per ourlads.com), a whopping two are underclassmen. The first, third, and fourth on the team in total tackles last year have all returned, and linebacker Blake Carroll brings his team-leading 73 tackles with him into the 2021 season. The Panthers also return 20 sacks from last year’s campaign, with defensive end Hardrick Willis leading the way with six of his own. Thomas Gore and Jordan Veneziale, a nose tackle and linebacker respectively, tied to lead the Panthers with eight tackles apiece last week against Army’s triple option. These guys will try to make the day difficult for the Tar Heels, and the Carolina offensive line may face a stiffer pass rush than you would typically expect from a Group of 5 team. That being said, I seem to remember a few years ago, when Demetrius Taylor of the Appalachian State Mountaineers had an all-world day in Kenan Stadium — maybe it’s foolhardy to discount Group of 5 schools so quickly.
The Tar Heels offense should have the edge in this game on talent alone. Georgia State is commonly spoken of as a team on the rise in the Sun Belt, investing heavily in their football program and trying to capitalize on their geographically-advantageous position in the city of Atlanta. On the rise as they may be, the Panthers still have a ways to go before reaching the level of conference compatriots like the aforementioned Mountaineers, the Louisiana Ragin’ Cajuns, or the new-money Chanticleers of Coastal Carolina.
The biggest story to watch will be to see if the Carolina offense can get their collective act together against ever-so-slightly lesser competition than they faced in week one. Virginia Tech left good tape for the Panthers on how to slow down the Tar Heels on offense; it’ll be very interesting to see how the #24 team in the country is able to respond.
The Panthers offense sputtered against Army in their season opener. Cornelius Brown IV, the Georgia State quarterback, completed 60% of his passes last weekend, going 12/20 for 129 yards and one interception. The lone Panthers touchdown was a result of Destin Coates, whose gorgeous cut led to a 16-yard stroll that would account for just over a quarter of his total yardage on the day. The Tar Heel defense has a distinct size advantage over the Panthers’ offensive line, top to bottom, and on paper the defense as a whole should be more talented than the Army unit that held the Panthers to only two scores.
On paper, these teams appear to be mismatched, with one glaring similarity—a zero in the win column. One team is going to change that tomorrow night, and I expect the Tar Heels to come out on top behind an awakening offense. Look for the Panthers to start slowly and never truly find their footing until the dwindling minutes of the game, while the Tar Heels are eventually able to find their rhythm on offense and end this contest 38-14 in favor of the home team.