Let’s be honest for a minute. North Carolina is going to win on Saturday. Georgia State got pounded by Army 43-10. Ignoring sack yardage, they only rushed for 75 yards. The game won’t be close. It’s honestly the game that Mack Brown wishes was the season opener.
This game won’t require schematic changes to defeat a conference opponent, so it’s a great opportunity to get back on track and work on UNC’s base packages. So this week’s X-Factor isn’t someone who is going to decide whether Carolina wins or not, it’s who needs to get right before Virginia comes to town next week. There are many players that wish they could have a do-over from last Friday’s loss in Blacksburg, but this week’s X-Factor is Emery Simmons.
Josh Downs was the only offensive player that picked up where he left off from the Orange Bowl. Against Virginia Tech, he led the team in receptions, yards, and touchdowns (8 catches, 123 yards, and UNC’s lone touchdown) and was Sam Howell’s only reliable target. Emery Simmons was expected to be a perfect complement to speed-merchant Downs, a crafty technician with reliable hands. But Simmons had an absolute head-scratcher, pulling in just 3 of 9 targets with some heinous drops, including a 4th down in the fourth quarter.
If Carolina’s dreams are to come true, Emery Simmons needs to step up in a big way. Last season, when Beau Corrales went down after a career performance against Florida State, Emery Simmons initially grabbed his opportunity, busting out against NC State with five catches, and again at Virginia and Duke, notching career highs in yardage in consecutive games. His production lagged off as they season went on, partly because Carolina leaned so heavily into their spectacular running game, but also because of the gravitational pull of Dyami Brown and Dazz Newsome.
With all of those offensive skill players gone, Sam Howell becomes the sun in Carolina’s universe. While he can shine brightly, he’ll need new planets to orbit around him. Josh Downs is Jupiter. Simmons needs to be Saturn.
If Garrett Walston has a good conversation with his hands, he can be Uranus. Maybe Neptune.
Hosting the Panthers for UNC’s home opener after dark will be the perfect environment to get some good mojo going. The game is an announced sell-out, so Kenan should be rocking. We all know what Downs can do, so Longo doesn’t need to force-feed him. Simmons needs to focus, eliminate drops, gain separation, and show Sam Howell that he can be his trusted #2 receiver. If not, the choices behind him look much less appetizing.