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After a much-needed bye week, No. 14 Virginia Tech returns to action against North Carolina in Lane Stadium on Saturday afternoon. It’s Homecoming in Lane Stadium, and the Hokies will be facing a struggling Tar Heel team that is 1-6 overall and 0-4 in the ACC.
California: 35-30 home loss
Louisville: 47-35 home loss
ODU: 53-23 road win
Duke: 27-17 home loss
Georgia Tech: 33-7 road loss
Notre Dame: 33-10 home loss
Virginia: 20-14 home loss
Not only have the Tar Heels been struggling, but they actually seem to be getting worse as the season goes along. With one more loss, they will be disqualified from bowl consideration for the first time since 2012. That year, UNC went 8-4, but was banned from the postseason because of NCAA violations. The last time a UNC team finished the regular season with a losing record was 2007, when they went 4-8 in Butch Davis’s first season as head coach.
UNC’s struggles can be attributed to three things…
- A large number of injuries
- Struggling quarterbacks
- A defense that has generally been subpar under head coach Larry Fedora
With their quarterback play this year, UNC needed to stay healthy and they needed their defense to improve. They got neither, and they are paying the price.
Tracking UNC’s injuries has been very difficult, but according to this article that was written last Thursday, the Tar Heels have lost 16 players for the season due to injury. Nine starters were out on Saturday against UVA. That would damage the hopes of even the most talented teams.
Larry Fedora’s North Carolina offenses have always been good and efficient, but that isn’t the case this season. The Tar Heels are a sub-par offensive team. Let’s take a look at the numbers, courtesy of Football Study Hall.
S&P+ Offense: No. 82
Success Rate: No. 87
Explosiveness: No. 90
Finishing Drives: No. 60
Rushing S&P: No. 49
Rushing Success Rate: No. 67
Rushing Explosiveness: No. 63
Power Success Rate: No. 33
Passing S&P+: No. 53
Passing Success Rate: No. 96
Passing Explosiveness: No. 95
Carolina is a very poor passing team and a mediocre running team. Fedora loves to throw the football around the field, and he probably isn’t comfortable leaning on the running game. Nevertheless, he should probably do it more, as his quarterbacks have been below average throwing the ball. But, they do have running ability. UNC’s running backs have also been productive.
Overall, UNC is a very good matchup for a Tech defense that ranks No. 17 in the S&P+ ratings.
Let’s take a closer look at UNC’s offensive struggles.
Lack of a Quarterback
Fedora has had some very good quarterbacks during his tenure at North Carolina. Bryn Renner was an experienced player when Fedora took over, and he played well in 2012. Marquise Williams put up some big numbers between 2013 and 2015. Last year, Mitchell Trubisky was the No. 2 pick in the NFL Draft and is the current starter for the Chicago Bears.
Williams and Trubisky had the luxury of sitting behind an experienced quarterback. Neither player was forced to start before he was ready. That hasn’t been the case with Chazz Surratt (6-foot-3, 215 pounds, r-Fr.). Trubisky left for the NFL after just one season as UNC’s starter, and Surratt has been forced to take the reins for the majority of the season. He has completed 58.8 percent of his passes for 1,167 yards, with six touchdowns and three interceptions, while also rushing for 179 yards and four touchdowns.
Surratt really struggled in recent losses to Duke, Georgia Tech and Notre Dame…
Duke: 17-of-32, 259 yards, one touchdown, one interception
GT: 18-of-30, 141 yards, one interception
ND: 19-of-42, 179 yards, one touchdown, one interception
It would be accurate to say that from a statistical standpoint, Surratt has gotten worse as the season has gone along. He did not play in UNC’s loss to Virginia this past weekend, with part of the reason being that he was recovering from an illness. His replacement was Brandon Harris (6-foot-3, 220), a graduate transfer from LSU with plenty of starting experience. Harris sounds ideal on paper, but the fact remains that Harris was a subpar quarterback for the Tigers, and his inability to grasp the starting position in Chapel Hill has forced Surratt to be thrown into the fire before he’s ready.
Harris started the season opener against Cal, and started again this past week against UVA. His season numbers are extremely poor: 31-of-60 (51.7 percent), 322 yards, one touchdown and six interceptions. He has only completed 53.6 percent of his 406 career pass attempts. It’s hard to win football games with numbers like that.
At this point it is unclear which quarterback will get the start against Virginia Tech this weekend. It is a “Harris OR Surratt” situation on the depth chart, with Harris’s name listed first. He has much more experience than Surratt, but he also seems to be much more likely to turn the ball over. He threw three interceptions in UNC’s 20-14 loss to UVA last week.
Relying on the Running Game Makes Sense, But…
Fedora isn’t known for his patience with the running game. Just ask former UNC tailback Elijah Hood. However, Fedora’s best bet this season is to stick with the run, and try to protect the football and shorten the game. He has a pair of solid tailbacks, and whichever quarterback he uses is a capable runner.
Jordan Brown (5-foot-10, 195 pounds, So.): 75 carries, 327 yards, 4.4 ypc, three touchdowns
Michael Carter (5-foot-9, 195 pounds, Fr.): 61 carries, 388 yards, 6.4 ypc, seven touchdowns
Those two players combined with either Surratt or Harris should be able to form the nucleus of a solid running game that should be able to keep the Tar Heels competitive. However, there are a few problems with that.
- UNC’s defense hasn’t been good, and if they are giving up points it means the Tar Heels have to abandon the running game.
- UNC’s passing offense is so bad that defenses can concentrate on the running game.
- UNC’s offensive line allows penetration. The Tar Heels rank No. 89 in the country in tackles for loss allowed (41).
Ultimately, I’m not sure there’s much Fedora can do about his offense this year. He just has to wait for Surratt to get more experienced, and try and get some more playmakers at wide receiver, a position that has been a problem for the Tar Heels this year as well. Tailback Jordan Brown is the leading receiver with 20 catches. Austin Proehl, who leads the team with 270 receiving yards, has played in just four games due to injury. He is out for the season with a broken clavicle.
UNC Defense Still Struggles
Before the 2015 season, Larry Fedora hired former Auburn head coach Gene Chizik as his defensive coordinator. Chizik made the UNC defense better, but not dominant. Here is a look at their S&P+ defensive rankings under Fedora…
2017: No. 82
2016: No. 44
2015: No. 70
2014: No. 110
2013: No. 39
2012: No. 74
The Tar Heels have had a couple of years with above average defense, but for the most part the UNC defense has been well behind their offensive counterparts. Fedora won’t be able to build a lasting program at UNC unless he can get some consistency on the defensive side of the ball.
Here are UNC’s defensive numbers for the season…
S&P+ Defense: #82
Success Rate: #94
Explosive Plays: #76
Finishing Drives: #49
Rushing S&P: #55
Rushing Success Rate: #100
Rushing Explosiveness: #87
Power Success Rate: #81
Passing S&P+: #109
Passing Success Rate: #77
Passing Explosiveness: #88
This season’s UNC defense has been equally bad through the air and on the ground, from an efficiency perspective. For those of you who prefer more traditional stats, here they are…
Rushing defense: 229.43 ypg, No. 115 nationally
Passing defense: 231.4 ypg, No. 79 nationally
Total defense: 460.9 ypg, No. 114 nationally
The UNC passing defense has a slight edge, but that’s a byproduct of having played Georgia Tech more than anything else. This is a defense that has struggled to make stops all season. No matter how you slice and dice the stats, this is not an effective group.
While Tech fans who follow recruiting are familiar with UNC offensive players such as wide receivers Dazz Newsome and Juval Mollette, they’ll be even more familiar with some of the names found on UNC’s defense. It has become frustrating for some Tech fans to lose defensive players to UNC, a school that historically doesn’t play anywhere close to Virginia Tech’s level on the defensive side of the ball.
This year’s UNC defense is not good, though there are individual players who could certainly be helping the Hokies. Here’s a list of those players you might already be familiar with…
DE Tomon Fox (6-foot-3, 245 pounds, r-Fr.): Virginia Tech was not recruiting Tomon Fox until Justin Fuente arrived at Virginia Tech. Fox had already committed to North Carolina, but the Tech staff persuaded him to take an official visit to Blacksburg. There was talk of him flipping to the Hokies, but in the end he stayed true to the Tar Heels.
DT Jalen Dalton (6-foot-6, 295 pounds, Jr.): Dalton was one of the highest-ranked players in the state of North Carolina before he committed to North Carolina. Though he has been a starter for the Tar Heels, he hasn’t lived up to his recruiting hype. Is that because he was overrated, or because UNC’s defense hasn’t been good under Fedora? I guess we’ll never know.
DT Jeremiah Clarke (6-foot-5, 315 pounds, Jr.): Clarke committed to North Carolina over offers from the Hokies and several other programs. He is from Northern Virginia.
LB Dominique Ross (6-foot-3, 210 pounds, So.): Like Fox, Ross was committed to UNC when Justin Fuente was hired by Virginia Tech. Like Fox, Ross took a late visit to Blacksburg, but made the decision on Signing Day to stick with his original pledge. You will see Ross on special teams on Saturday.
CB M.J. Stewart (6-feet, 205 pounds, Sr.): Stewart is a versatile defensive back from Northern Virginia. You will see him line up at cornerback and nickel on Saturday. He picked UNC over Virginia Tech coming out of high school. He is currently projected to be selected in the first three rounds of the NFL Draft.
CB Patrice Rene (6-foot-2, 205 pounds, So.): Rene went to high school in Virginia, though he’s originally from Canada. He would not start for the Hokies, but Tech has serious depth issues at cornerback, and he could have potentially been in a position to start next season had he come to Virginia Tech. The Hokies did not pursue Rene seriously.
CB Myles Wolfolk (6-feet, 205 pounds, r-Fr.): Wolfolk is a Maryland native who originally committed to Virginia Tech. He is in the two-deep at corner and nickel, and will probably play against the Hokies on Saturday. He would be providing solid cornerback depth for Tech, which is something they desperately need.
All of those guys now find themselves playing on one of the worst defenses in the country, and for a 1-6 football team. The Hokies would be a stronger defense with a few of those players on the roster.
Virginia Tech is 5-1 and ranked No. 14 in the country, while North Carolina is 1-6 and could conceivably finish winless in ACC play. The Hokies are the better team on the field, and they are the better team in the statistics. Tech would have to play a poor football game to lose this one.
The one matchup that concerns me is on the outside. We don’t know the status of guys like Cam Phillips and CJ Carroll, and MJ Stewart is a very good player. Still, other teams haven’t had much trouble throwing the football against UNC, so I figure Justin Fuente and Brad Cornelsen will be able to scheme their players open without too much difficulty.
Carolina can’t be a confident football team right now, even if they wouldn’t admit it to reporters.
“I don’t know how you fix this,” Chazz Surratt said after the Notre Dame loss.
That’s an odd comment for a football player to make in this day and age of generic “we’ve just got to execute better” type of responses.
I can’t see UNC being in a position to pull the upset in this one. They have averaged 12 points per game over their last four games, and they haven’t scored more than 17 points in any of those games. Unless the Hokies really screw it up by turning the ball over a lot and handing UNC short fields, I believe this will be a comfortable win.
Chris’ Prediction: Virginia Tech 31, North Carolina 10
Will Stewart’s Take: Someone pointed out on the boards that Virginia Tech’s 34-3 thrashing of UNC last year came after a Hokie bye week, so I researched Justin Fuente’s head coaching record after bye weeks.
Memphis was a bad football team in 2012 (4-8) and 2013 (3-9), and Fuente went 1-2 after bye weeks during those two seasons. It’s worth noting that one of the losses was a narrow 7-point loss in 2013 to a Central Florida team that went 12-1 and won the Fiesta Bowl.
In 2014-2016 at Memphis and Virginia Tech, Fuente is 3-0 after bye weeks:
- 2014: Memphis 36, MTSU 17
- 2015: Memphis 37, No. 13 Ole Miss 24
- 2016: No. 25 VT 34, No. 17 UNC 3
The 2015 win over Ole Miss (who ended up 10-3 that season) was his signature win at Memphis, and the win over UNC was a dominant victory over a ranked team featuring the number two pick in the 2017 NFL Draft (Trubisky) and six draftees overall.
Saturday’s game is the eighth game in a row for a UNC squad decimated by graduation (snicker, giggle … I wrote “graduation”) and injuries. The Hokies are coming off a bye week and are rested and as healthy as they’re going to be.
That all looks good for the Hokies, but we also know that college football can be crazy, evidenced by several games last weekend that went sideways for heavily favored teams, most notably Cal drubbing No. 8 Washington State 37-3 and Arizona State shocking No. 5 Washington 13-7. (I didn’t include Syracuse over Clemson because that didn’t surprise me.)
The fact that this is a home game for the Hokies probably doesn’t mean squat. UNC’s players might actually play better in front of the Lane Stadium crowd, as opposed to half-full Kenan Stadium. The Heels weren’t impressed during Frank Beamer’s last home game by a loud, sellout crowd, beating the Hokies 30-27 in overtime.
Lastly, while I’d like to see another 34-3 result or something, I’m not expecting or predicting it, because college football is a mercurial affair, and more importantly … the Hokies are going to be wearing orange. They tend not to play their best in orange, and no, I don’t have any data to back that up, but the 2009 home loss to the Heels was an Orange Effect game.
A blowout win over the Heels wouldn’t surprise me, because they’re reeling, but I’ll go with a more conservative pick.
Will’s Prediction: Virginia Tech 27, North Carolina 13
I’m not sure how UNC is going to score 13 points, and I might regret predicting that, but that’s my pick.
Ricky LaBlue’s Take: Remember the beginning of the season, when we looked at Virginia Tech and North Carolina on paper? Both teams were losing a ton of talent, and would be forced to rely on some young players.
Fast forward to now, and the two teams could not be any different. The Hokies are poised to once again contend for the Coastal crown, while North Carolina is a M.A.S.H. unit on both sides of the ball and won’t make a bowl game. North Carolina wasn’t a great football team coming into the season, and the injuries and lack of dedication to running the football has made them worse.
Virginia Tech is a little gimpy too. Cam Phillips, CJ Carroll, James Clark and Steven Peoples all could miss this game, which doesn’t bode well for the Hokies. Tech could not afford injuries at the skill positions, and the lack of depth could rear its ugly head in the second half of the season.
Still, North Carolina is bad and Virginia Tech isn’t. The Hokies are better coached, have a better quarterback and a better defense. The Tar Heels’ season is over, while Tech is fighting for another crack at Clemson — or possibly an intriguing matchup with NC State. Oh, and Virginia Tech is likely wearing a bit more orange on Saturday, and y’all know how I love orange.
Ricky’s Prediction: Virginia Tech 27, North Carolina 10