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UNC Football vs. Wake Forest: X-Factor

For the first time all season, the Tar Heels face the familiar.

NCAA Football: Boston College at Wake Forest Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

There are multiple things that are remarkable about the fact that Carolina is 8-1 this season: the fact they have won so much on the road, the fact that their defense continues to force the offense to play near-perfect, even the fact that the offense has basically done that. But there’s one big thing that most folks haven’t mentioned that makes their record even more remarkable: all the newness they’ve had to face this season.

Nine game into the season and the Tar Heels have yet to have a 100% rematch from previous seasons. Think about it: the App State team has had a complete turnover since they last faced off in 2019. Even for recent comparisons, when compared with the 2020 versions, Notre Dame, Virginia Tech, Miami, Duke, and Virginia all had brand new coaching staffs. Pittsburgh was the closest to a true rematch, but their dynamic quarterback, Kenny Pickett, is currently starting for the Steelers, and the offensive coordinator who led them to success followed Pickett out of the door.

Thus it is in their tenth game the Tar Heels are finally in the reverse position of presenting something completely new to their opponent while the opponent at least had the opportunity to study previous versions of the Tar Heels to prepare. This will be the fourth year in a row that UNC has faced off against Wake Forest. Two, like this year, have been in-conference and two like last year, were non-conference. In each contest, the opposing coach was Dave Clawson, and in each game since 2020, the opposing quarterback was Sam Hartman.

Meanwhile, the Deacons are going to have to prepare for some new looks. This will be their first chance to face off against Drake Maye, who has shown himself to be a better quarterback in many ways than Sam Howell, who they were only able to defeat once in three tries. They also will have to deal with Gene Chizik on defense for the first time, while Chizik will have film of how his current group did against the vaunted Wake Forest mesh. For the first time this season, Chizik may be able to make adjustments to start the game instead of seeing how his squad is going to deal with the unknown.

Does this mean Carolina will be able to keep Wake from scoring? Who knows. Wake, arguably, knew exactly what they were facing in Howell the last two seasons and in last season’s game it appeared they may have figured something out as they held Howell to only 216 yards passing. The problem is that Carolina adjusted to gain 330 yards on the ground and still ended up scoring seven offensive touchdowns. Meanwhile this defense that should know what to expect gave up 108 points over the past two seasons, 827 yards to Hartman, and 394 yards on the ground. Wake is the definition of “even if you know what’s coming, you can’t stop it.”

The other thing is that Hartman seems to have stumbled a bit the last two weekends, albeit against significantly better defenses than Carolina’s. You can’t ignore his turnover-filled day against Louisville, and NC State managed to figure out how to keep him contained enough for them to score just enough to win. That’s not UNC’s style, and the “bend-don’t-break” thought process is going to be hard on a defense when the mesh is specifically designed to wear you down.

All that said, it is the biggest X-factor this weekend: Carolina knows exactly what they have ahead of them for the first time all season. How well they do Saturday will depend on how well they’ve taken to past lessons.