College football is in a weird spot when it comes to filling schedules. The backlash from playing FCS teams (see: Carolina’s 2015 CFP rankings) and the growing trend of made-for-TV neutral site showdowns has made filling a home schedule in nonconference play extremely tricky. Home-and-homes with Group of 5 teams are becoming the norm, and Carolina is leveraging them in markets that cover their recruiting footprint quite well.
Games in the Orlando, Charlotte, and Atlanta metro regions signal an aggressive approach to G5 games—should be winnable, but on the road no less. Its a better approach than Miami, who seemingly drew out of a hat and plays at Arkansas State this year after visiting App last year. It’s still bizarre.
In Old Dominion, Carolina gets an opponent coming off a 10-win season and its first bowl berth and win—24-20 over Eastern Michigan in the Popeye’s Bahamas Bowl.
Many will remember the Heels’ 2013 visit from the Monarchs. The Heels put up 80 points and went to a running 12-minute clock in the 4th quarter, even getting social media celebrity Caleb Pressley time at quarterback.
These aren’t the same Monarchs, as they transitioned to Conference USA the following year and have adapted quite well. The Heels should win, but it may not be as comfortable a game as one would hope.
Bobby Wilder’s Monarchs operate out of a spread not entirely dissimilar from Larry Fedora’s. They value efficiency and balance between run and pass, as evidenced by their 197 rush yards per game and 234 through the air in 2016. The defense tends to give up a lot of points, but last year’s team finished 2nd in CUSA in both points allowed and sacks. They return a lot of the pass rush that made the sacks possible, but lose top receiver Zach Pascal (946 yards, 9 TD) and QB David Washington.
Interestingly, ODU was +13 in turnover margin last year. That does not normally reflect anything they were doing special, usually just dumb luck (recall, if you will, that UNC lost 3.1 points per game in ‘turnover luck’ according to Bill Connelly’s S&P+). Going +5 in turnover margin led to a win over Southern Miss. If turnover luck falls back to the norms (they were +5, -1, -1 in the three years prior), their record could fall with it.
Personnel/Players to Watch
Despite their losses (in addition to Washington and Pascal, they lose three of their top four tacklers), the Monarchs return important units—the O-line, skill positions, defensive line, and secondary—largely in tact, only replacing one starter in each group.
Halfback Ray Lowry ran for 6.3 yards per carry and 11 touchdowns last year, and backup Jeremy Cox added another 13. They return 19 receiving touchdowns from their WR/TE group, including nine from Jonathan Duhart and eight from Travis Fulgham.
Defensively, the pass rush duo of Bunmi Rotimi and Oshane Ximines is key. They combined for 14.5 sacks last year, and Phil Steele projects the best defensive line of the Bobby Wilder era.
Big losses in the linebacker corps—no returning starters, in fact—seems to be the most exploitable weakness on the defensive side. The whole unit returns 31 tackles from last year.
To the last point, the Heels should be able to have a field day running and in the short passing/screen game. The Monarchs also replace a second-team All-CUSA pick at nose tackle, so a coherent offensive line should be able to pave the way for a big day. While Carolina won’t score 80, they shouldn’t be expected to put up less than 35-40, either.
The defense will be challenged by an up-tempo attack for the third week in a row, and...the numbers are just going to look bad for most of the season because of it. If JuCo QB Jordan Hoy avoids turnovers and is remotely efficient, ODU will sustain some drives and put up points. I expect them to chew up yardage between the 20’s, and stall out in the red zone a few times.
All told, this is a game where Carolina can only really lose if something crazy happens with turnovers, or the Heels just decide to sleepwalk in a trap game between Louisville and rival Duke. 55-23 Heels is the pick, as reason shall prevail and Larry Fedora’s offense chops through the CUSA team like a sous chef through an arugula salad.
If you’re looking for a team to bet on this season, the Monarchs are a safe pick. They were 10-0 in games they were favored to win in 2016, 0-3 when not. Even more astoundingly, they 8-1-1 against the spread in wins, and 0-2-1 against the spread in losses.
Also, THE HEELS PUT UP 80 POINTS IN THREE QUARTERS LAST TIME THESE TWO TEAMS PLAYED.