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UNC Football: Looking ahead to conference play

Carolina is 3-0 with plenty to be excited about. How daunting will the ACC campaign be? More than we thought in the preseason.

Minnesota v North Carolina Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images

With a tough season-opener, an always feisty App State returning to Kenan Stadium two years after pulling off an upset, and a quality Big Ten team in the third game of the season, any permutation of results would have been understandable. Without preseason All-ACC first teamer Tez Walker, 0-3 could have been a possibility. 3-0 was possible because Carolina has something none of those teams have: Drake Maye.

Tar Heel fans rejoiced after Drake Maye came alive against Minnesota, and the other wide receiver transfer Nate McCollum, made a triumphant (full time) debut against the Gophers last Saturday. The perfect start to the season record-wise has also been illuminating for the manner in which those wins were achieved.

Carolina has shown it can utilize a deep toolbox in order to find ways to win games. That will be crucial as we head into conference play that is looking scarier by the day. Some games that may have looked like gimmes may be a rock fight. Let’s break the games down into three categories based on how they make you feel going into them.

Tough Ones

  • Syracuse lost all-everything running back Sean Tucker to the Buccaneers, but their offense may have improved without him. The Orange are averaging 49.3 ppg in three wins. Their defense is also looking sharp, holding opponents to just 9 ppg, with one of those games a shut-out (Colgate).
  • Miami, always “back” but never quite back... may be back. Tyler Van Dyke has thrown for 822 yards and 8 touchdowns (against just one interception) as the Hurricanes have put it to Texas A&M, Miami (Ohio), and Bethune-Cookman. Is he over his sophomore slump, or has he just been feasting on poor teams?
  • Duke is suddenly vibrant. After a stunning opening night upset over Clemson, the Blue Devils continue to beat up soft teams like Lafayette and Northwestern. The eyeball test will continue to gaze at that Clemson win, as the Tigers don’t look like themselves, and Dabo may find he’s not king of the ACC without a top-tier quarterback.
  • NC State took one on the chin against Notre Dame, didn’t look exceptional against UConn, but spanked VMI. Color me concerned as we’re back in Raleigh this year, and even when you think the Wolfpack are poor, they can beat a superior Carolina team (see the last two seasons). This is never a fun one to predict.

“Easy” Ones

  • Pitt looked like absolute wet garbage against West Virginia. What happened to Phil Jurkovec? He performed well against UNC when he was at Boston College during the Covid game in Chestnut Hill, but seems to have fallen off a cliff. He’s completing less than half of his passes, and has three picks to just four touchdowns. Don’t be surprised to see Canadian sophomore Christian Veilleux start against the Heels on Saturday night.
  • Virginia, oh Virginia. Getting railed by Tennessee is no biggie. Losing to James Madison at home isn’t great. Needing gadget plays to sneak a few scores past Maryland before getting Swanton Bombed through a table is also not optimal. We need to put the Cavaliers to the sword and have Conner Harrell playing in the fourth quarter.
  • Georgia Tech has lost to both Power 5 teams it has played and they are absolutely due a devastating leg-drop from Carolina for popping last season’s bubble in Chapel Hill. We’re in no excuses territory, if we’re a serious team.


  • Clemson doesn’t feel like Clemson this season. They snuck some good vibes in by beating UNC in last year’s ACC championship game between a tight loss to in-state rival South Carolina and a more comprehensive loss to Tennessee in the Orange Bowl (and I mean ORANGE.) Wins over Charleston Southern and Florida Atlantic won’t wipe away the stain from the Duke loss. If the Tigers can beat Florida State in Death Valley, maybe we can recalibrate. Cade Klubnik is not making big plays downfield so Will Shipley will be even more central to Clemson’s success. Let’s keep an eye on the Tigers. Victory there is possible, but will be tough, tough, tough.