The North Carolina Tar Heels (8-4) will face off against the West Virginia Mountaineers (8-4) in the Duke’s Mayo Bowl. Following the regular season, a decent amount of Tar Heels decided to either enter the NFL Draft or the transfer portal, but now we have a rough idea of who will be playing. The most notable absence of course is projected first-round pick Drake Maye, which means that we will get our first full look at Conner Harrell under center.
If I’m being completely honest, I don’t know what to expect from this game. Mack Brown and his staff have to feel like this is their last chance to end the season on a pleasant note, but more real than that is this is their first chance to evaluate the talent that they will have going into the 2024 season. Is this roster going to be a work in progress going into the offseason, or are they only a couple of pieces away from looking like what Brown wants? We’ll find out in a couple of days when Brown may or may not get doused in mayonnaise.
Without further delay, let’s take a look at three things to watch during Wednesday’s Duke’s Mayo Bowl.
What should we expect from Conner Harrell?
Carolina football has been blessed enough to have two NFL quarterbacks during Mack Brown’s second stint with the program. Even better, Sam Howell and Drake Maye both made it through their careers in Carolina blue without suffering any injuries that sidelined them. It’s because of this however that we haven’t really seen a whole lot from freshman quarterback Conner Harrell this season, and now Mack Brown finally gets a chance to fully evaluate him in live game action.
The Alabama native only saw action this season against Syracuse, Campbell, and NC State, though it’s fair to say that the game against the Wolfpack probably shouldn’t count. Against the Camels, however, he completed all four of his passes for 71 yards and a touchdown, and ran twice for 61 yards and a touchdown. If we’re to go off of this very small sample size, we can conclude that Harrell could be good enough to win the starting job for the 2024 season. Obviously things aren’t that easy, however, and there are still a lot of questions to be answered. Can he be consistently good for an entire game? Is his prowess in the ground attack legit? What is his football IQ like? These are all things that we will be evaluating as fans against the Mountaineers.
Can Gene Chizik do enough to secure his job for next season?
Look, we have to be real with ourselves when it comes to the defensive coordinator position: there’s a very real chance that Gene Chizik only knows as much as he’s being told, and also however much he’s deciding on his own. When asked about whether or not he felt like he was coming back next season, here is what Chizik had to say:
“It’s a fair question,” Chizik said. “Just for me, I’m probably different than almost every coach maybe in America, or at least there’s a few that are in my spot. I’m very blessed to be able to look at every season, and after every season decide what is the best for me, what is the best for the university, what is the best for everybody. And then the universities have to do the same thing. They have to look at the overall picture, and they’ve got to decide what’s best for them. So to answer your question, I don’t know all of what will happen at the end. We know that this is a big man’s sport, so everybody’s got to assess and evaluate. And in the end, we will come up with whatever’s the best for the university. We’ll come up with whatever’s the best for this program, and it’s all good. One way or the other, it’s all good.
“But we’ve got great kids here. I think we’ve got a great future here. And we’ll attack all of that stuff after the last game, and we’ll do what’s best for the university.”
A lot of words were spoken, but ultimately what the Tar Heels’ defensive coordinator was trying to say is that he has no idea what Mack Brown is thinking and that ultimately his fate is in their hands. Could that be the wrong interpretation? Possibly, but “they’ve got to do what’s best for them” sounds like either he knows nothing, or he knows this is the end of the road for him.
If it’s not the latter, however, Wednesday’s game against West Virginia will likely serve as one last evaluation of Gene Chizik for the 2023 season. There will still be enough pieces left for Chizik to have a decent outing, but it all boils down to whether or not he formulates a good game plan. I don’t know which way Mack Brown could be leaning when it comes to Chizik’s future, but it’s hard to deny that Wednesday could go a long way in determining whether or not he has to shop for a new defensive coordinator. Or call one of his buddies, you know, whichever.
Will West Virginia have enough offensive firepower?
While Drake Maye will be notably missing from the Duke’s Mayo Bowl, UNC’s final depth chart could look a lot worse. Sure, there are some other notable missing pieces like Kamari Morales, Tez Walker (NFL Draft), and George Pettaway, but Omarion Hampton, British Brooks, Nate McCollum, and J.J. Jones will all take the field. Conner Harrell all things considered will have enough offensive pieces to make this a competitive matchup, but what about West Virginia?
The Mountaineers’ official website revealed that center Zach Frazier, and leading rusher CJ Donaldson Jr. will not play in Wednesday’s game due to injury issues. When it comes to the transfer portal, Running back Justin Johnson Jr. as well as four other wide receivers have decided to leave the program. WVU was ranked 27th in total offense this season, so it will be interesting to see if their production falls off of a cliff, or if it’s in fact the Tar Heels that lost too many pieces and will crater down to a level that suits the Mountaineers. Modern day college football, ladies and gentlemen. You gotta love it.