- Virginia Tech vs. UNC: 6pm, ESPN
- Virginia Tech vs. UNC Betting Line: UNC -5.5
- Virginia Tech-UNC roster cards: Click here
- Game notes from Hokiesports: Click here
- Blacksburg weather: Click here
- Gameday information: Click Here
Finally, after a long wait, Virginia Tech will play in Lane Stadium in front of the Hokie Nation for the first time since 2019. Tech will take on Coastal Division nemesis North Carolina, ranked No. 10 in the AP Poll and No. 9 in the Coaches Poll, in a big early season matchup on Friday night (6 PM, ESPN).
Virginia Tech has played some hyped early-season games in recent years, including Ohio State in 2014 and 2015, Tennessee in 2016, West Virginia in 2017, and Florida State in 2018. Generally speaking, Tech has performed well early in the season under Justin Fuente, with the exception of the 2019 season.
This is a game the fans have been talking about ever since it was announced. Tech and UNC recruit against each other a lot, the Tar Heels are ranked in the top 10, and the Hokies are coming off a 5-6 season; not to mention that this is the first time since 2019 that Virginia Tech fans will get to watch a game from inside Lane Stadium.
We know that the Tar Heels went 8-4 last season, and we know they are a heavily-hyped team because of quarterback Sam Howell and the fact that Mack Brown has recruited well. Let’s take a closer look at UNC and this matchup.
UNC Passing Game Will Challenge the Middle of the Field
Even the best players have a game or two in their careers they would like to forget. For Virginia Tech nickel Chamarri Conner (6-0, 205, Jr.), his forgettable moments have come against North Carolina. Check out his numbers (per PFF) against the Tar Heels the last two years:
2019: 68 snaps, 51.1 grade, 9 receptions allowed, 10 targets, 145 yards, 3 TDs
2020: 23 snaps, 29.9 grade, 4 receptions allowed, 4 targets, 54 yards, 20% missed tackle rate
Yikes. That’s 13 receptions on 14 targets for 199 yards, with three touchdowns. Not to mention that he only played one quarter last year due to a targeting call, and UNC hasn’t exactly been his favorite opponent. Conner did well against the run against UNC in 2019, but not last year, though considering Tech’s major COVID losses in last year’s game I don’t think that’s something to focus on.
But those pass defense numbers are eye-catching, and they represent a trend. My question is whether it’s a trend for Conner vs. UNC, or whether it was simply a bad matchup with former UNC receiver Dazz Newsome, who is now in the NFL. If it was simply a Newsome thing, then it’s not as worrisome. But if the UNC coaches have figured out a specific way to attack Conner, and Sam Howell is the quarterback who can execute it perfectly, then that remains a big concern heading into Friday night.
The guy to watch for lining up across from Conner is Josh Downs (5-10, 180, So.). Downs is a very inexperienced player, with just 74 snaps at the college level under his belt. He caught seven passes for 119 yards and three touchdowns a year ago. He may or may not adequately replace Dazz Newsome in his first year as a starter. At this point, he’s an unknown, other than the fact that he was ranked No. 115 nationally by 247 coming out of high school.
If Conner struggles in coverage again, would Tech pull the plug and go with Nasir Peoples (6-0, 202, r-So.)? Perhaps not, as Peoples has been moved to rover (more on that momentarily). Or would Tech slide a guy like cornerback Armani Chatman (5-11, 205, r-So.) into the nickel role for this specific game?
You may have noticed that Nasir Peoples is listed as Devon Hunter’s backup at rover in this week’s depth chart. He was only recently moved to that position after backing up Conner at the whip/nickel spot. We hit on this in an article last week, but the Tech coaching staff still isn’t sold on Hunter (6-0, 220, r-Jr.) being a starting caliber player at this level, and they are searching for an alternative. It’s possible that we could see Peoples or Vanderbilt transfer Tae Daley (6-1, 203, Sr.) at rover in this game as well, especially if Hunter were to struggle early.
The free safety spot for Tech will be filled by Keonta Jenkins (6-3, 207, Fr.). He played well for Tech in the first two games of last season before going on the COVID list, and the coaching staff has praised his ability. Though he’s a much younger player, the coaches seem to feel a lot better about him than Hunter heading into this one.
UNC will certainly try to attack the middle of the field through the air. That’s a normal part of UNC’s offense anyway, and will perhaps be used even more against the Hokies.
Sam Howell threw 60 deep balls for UNC last year, and he completed 28 of them for 46.7%, 11 of them for touchdowns. His 18.8 yards per deep attempt ranked No. 5 in the country (minimum 50 deep attempts) and his throw rate on deep balls of 42.9% ranked second nationally, only behind the starting Alabama/Patriots quarterback Mac Jones (43.1%)
I’m expecting a big part of UNC’s game plan will be about stressing Tech’s safeties 20+ yards down the field.
UNC’s Offensive Line: A Weakness In Pass Blocking?
To be successful throwing the ball down the field, the offensive line must be able to hold their blocks to give those slower-developing deep routes time to develop. That’s where the Tar Heels struggled a bit last season.
In 2020, the Tar Heels ranked No. 94 nationally in pass blocking grades by Pro Football Focus. The traditional stats back up that advanced metric, as UNC finished No. 100 in sacks allowed per game (2.83).
Tech sacked Howell just once last year, though they did get some pressure on some of his other throws. In 2019, the Hokies sacked him five times, and the 2021 numbers probably need to be more like the 2019 box score instead of 2020.
New Season, New Receivers for the Heels
Though Howell is back and is a future first round pick, he has a brand new group of receivers around him. Dyami Brown and Dazz Newsome are off to the NFL, while the most experienced receiver on the team – Beau Corrales – will miss Friday’s game as he continues to recover from hernia surgery.
In last year’s shootout in Chapel Hill, Sam Howell completed 18 passes. Of those 18 passes, 16 of them went to players who will not be on the field for the Tar Heels on Saturday night. They’ve suffered big losses in terms of talent and experience not only at wide receiver, but at running back as well.
Here’s a list of the UNC receivers who are listed in the two-deep on their depth chart, their career snaps, and their career stats…
- Antoine Green (6-2, 210, Sr.): 461 snaps, 16 catches, 300 yards, 3 TDs
- Emery Simmons (6-1, 195, Jr.): 390 snaps, 19 catches, 273 yards, 2 TDs
- Khafre Brown (6-0, 190, So.): 306 snaps, 15 catches, 337 yards, 2 TDs
- Josh Downs (5-11, 180, So.): 74 snaps, 7 catches, 119 yards, 3 TDs
- Justin Olson (6-2, 200, So.): 72 snaps, no catches
- Stephen Gosnell (6-2, 210, So.): 10 snaps, no catches
True freshman JJ Jones (6-2, 200) could also see time for the Tar Heels, but he has never played in a college game.
I’ve always viewed Brown as the most talented player of that group. However, he’s currently listed behind Green on the depth chart, as Brown missed part of the preseason with an injury. He has returned to practice and is expected to play on Friday night, though the fact that he’s not listed at the top of the depth chart may or may not have something to do with his health and lack of practice time in August. In his press conference this week, Mack Brown noted that they are “hoping” that Brown can play.
On paper, this isn’t as good a group as the one UNC put on the field the last two years. It’s certainly not as experienced a group. As good as Howell is, with Brown and a couple of other receivers missing time in the preseason, it’s hard to imagine that the UNC passing game will be rolling at max efficiency for the first game of the season.
Keep an eye on tight end Garrett Walston (6-4, 245, r-Sr.). He’s a solid, dependable, veteran player, and he could be a guy that Howell looks to at times with so much inexperience on the field at wideout. In particular, watch Walston against Tech’s linebackers and Devon Hunter.
A New Tailback
Not only did the Tar Heels lose two NFL receivers, but they also lost tailbacks Michael Carter and Javonte Williams to the NFL Draft as well. The loss of those two players could prove to be as important, or perhaps even more important, as the loss of Brown and Newsome. That’s dependent upon how they are replaced.
To replace them, UNC brought in Tennessee graduate transfer Ty Chandler (6-0, 210, r-Sr.). In four years in Knoxville, Chandler was a dependable and versatile player. Here are his career numbers:
Rushing: 421 carries, 2,046 yards, 4.9 ypc, 13 TDs
Receiving: 58 catches, 465 yards, 8 ypr, 3 TDs
KO Returns: 35 returns, 780 yards, 22.3 ypr, 1 TD
Chandler isn’t considered to be quite as talented as the backs who departed, but he is a versatile and experienced player who can threaten defenses in a variety of ways, and he can also help on special teams.
The UNC Defense
This is a big UNC defense than can morph from an odd-front to an even-front. Outside linebackers Tomon Fox (6-3, 265, r-Sr.) and Chris Collins (6-4, 255, Jr.) can play as either traditional outside linebackers or defensive ends, and the proper terminology these days is “Edge” players.
There will be some names on this UNC defense that you recognize from recruiting. Besides Fox, there’s also linebacker Eugene Asante (6-1, 220, Jr.), cornerback Tony Grimes (6-1, 190, So.), and strong safety Cam’Ron Kelly (6-1, 210, Jr.)
Asante will start at one of the inside linebacker spots, and as much hype as former UNC linebacker Chazz Surratt got from the media, he was one of the worst linebackers in the country against the run. His overall PFF grade was a 47.9, with a run defense grade of 35.2. He was better in 2019, but still only posted a run defense grade of 49.7. However, Surratt was an elite pass rusher who could get into the backfield and make plays. The best guess is that Asante will be a major improvement over Surratt against the run, though it would be difficult for him to be as good as Surratt was when it comes to pass rushing.
Grimes is a former 5-star recruit from the 757 who played 317 snaps for the Tar Heels a year ago. He steadily improved as the season progressed, and arguably his two best games were UNC’s final two games against Miami and Texas A&M.
Kelly was a top 100 recruit from the 757 who, if you recall, once said he was “200% committed to Virginia Tech.” After he decommitted from the Hokies, he said he was “800% committed to Auburn.” After being enrolled at Auburn for about two months, he entered the transfer portal and wound up in Chapel Hill.
Kelly played 471 snaps for UNC last year, though his performances were quite pedestrian, and he especially struggled against the run. He is currently listed as the No. 2 option for the Tar Heels at the strong safety position.
The only returning UNC starter on defense who put up a PFF grade higher than a 65 last season is Tomon Fox. However, the Tar Heels lost their best defensive player in week two. Cornerback Storm Duck (6-1, 205, So.) started as a freshman in 2019 and played at a very high level. His absence hurt his team’s defense in 2020.
How healthy is Duck right now? He’s listed in an “or” situation on the depth chart at one of the cornerback spots with Kyler McMichael (6-0, 210, Jr.) and McMichael is actually listed first, so that could be a clue. After missing last season with a “lower body injury,” Duck missed the start of fall camp with an “upper body injury.” (You see, Justin Fuente is a normal modern football coach when it comes to releasing injury information.)
Duck is UNC’s best defensive player, and McMichael is a decent player, though nothing special, yet they are tied on the depth chart right now with McMichael listed first. Will that mean anything? Maybe, or maybe not. Wide receiver Beau Corrales is listed on the Carolina depth chart as well, even though it has been announced that he’s not going to play on Friday night. We could simply be talking about some depth chart mind tricks being played by Mack Brown. (And again, Justin Fuente isn’t the only coach to play games with the depth chart.)
UNC finished No. 58 in total defense a year ago, but total defense can be a little bit misleading depending on things like time of possession, total plays in a game, etc. They finished No. 90 in the FEI defensive rankings, which can be broken down further…
Defensive Drive Efficiency: No. 91. A measure of scoring value gained or lost by each opponent’s drive.
Defensive Points Per Drive: No. 82. A measure of points per drive scored by the offensive team.
Defensive Available Yards: No. 72. Opponent drive yards gained divided by drive yards available based on starting field position.
Defensive Yards Per Play: No. 90. Drive yards gained per opposing offensive play.
Touchdown Rate: No. 83. Percentage of opponent offensive drives that result in a touchdown.
Value drive rate: No. 91. The percentage of opponent offensive drives that conclude with a drive end value greater than the drive start value based on field position.
First down rate: No. 53. The percentage of opponent offensive drives that earn at least one first down.
Busted drive rate: No. 113. The percentage of opponent offensive drives that gain zero or negative yards.
Turnover rate: No. 116. The percentage of opponent offensive drives that end with an interception or fumble.
UNC’s traditional total defensive numbers were made to look mediocre by a Carolina offense that could put up points and control the clock, but the modern advanced metrics paint a different picture of the Tar Heel defense.
Virginia Tech’s defense was also bad for most of the season last year, until it finally began playing better late in the season. Whichever team’s defense has improved the most from 2020 could have the edge on Friday night.
North Carolina kicker Grayson Atkins (5-9, 210, r-Sr.) is a Furman transfer who went 12-of-18 with a long of 51 yards last season. He seems to have a strong enough leg, though 12-of-18 is a bit inconsistent these days.
Kickoff specialist Jonathan Kim (6-0, 210, Jr.) put 76 kicks into the end zone for touchbacks last year, and his 85.39% touchback rate was No. 3 in the country. It’s unlikely that Virginia Tech’s Keshawn King will get an opportunity to influence the game as a kickoff returner.
Punter Ben Kiernan (6-0, 215, Jr.) is from Dublin, Ireland. He averaged 43.7 yards per punt last year. Though Kiernan was the starting punter for all 12 games, he was only needed in 10 of them. The Heels never punted against UVA and Miami (and somehow managed to lose to UVA despite that).
Look for running back Ty Chandler to handle kickoff duties, while wide receiver Josh Downs will most likely return punts.
One of the big questions of the offseason was “how big is the UNC game for Virginia Tech?” Well, I’m not sure. I sure know how we’ll all feel in the short-term. If Tech wins, everybody is going to be on Cloud Nine for at least a week. If they lose, there’s going to be plenty of sniping.
How we’ll feel about it at the end of the season may or may not be the same. If UNC does turn out to be a top 10 team, and Tech loses a close game but still goes on to have a good season, I doubt we would feel as much anguish in late November as we would on Friday night. Likewise, if the Hokies win the game but the Tar Heels turn out to be overrated, maybe we wouldn’t feel quite as good about things once we get to the end of the year. I’m going to (try to) let the season play out before I form a complete view.
Tech has generally been good in these early season big games under Fuente. Tech wasn’t good early in 2019, but other than that, the Hokies have been well-prepared for early tests. Even the loss to Tennessee was mostly about fumbles. Tennessee was outclassed in just about every other regard, especially gameplanning, which shows you that turnovers truly are the most important thing in college football.
As good as Tech has generally been in early season big games, I’ve been pretty bad in picking them, especially recently. Let’s look at the last few seasons…
2020 vs. NC State: My prediction was NC State 31, Tech 23. Tech won 45-24.
2019 vs. BC: My prediction was Tech 31, BC 23. BC won 35-28.
2018 vs. FSU: My prediction was FSU 30, VT 24. Tech won 24-3.
I went 0-3 in all of those games. (And as I sidenote, score predictions of 31-23, 31-23 and 30-24 are so similar it’s downright eerie.) Based on my picks and the results of last three years, I know what I have to do here today…
I’m just kidding. I’m not going to pick the game based on my incorrect views of the last three years. In fact, I think several things in this matchup favor the Hokies.
For this game, I like the fact that Tech is playing at home and the fans haven’t seen a football game in person in two years. It’s not going to be a packed house despite the fact that it has officially sold out, but those who are there should be loud.
I also like the fact that Tech generally plays well in these early season big games under Justin Fuente, and I also like that the UNC receiving corps is very new, and I think it’s unlikely that their passing game will be operating at 100% max efficiency in the first game of the season. Those things bode well for the Hokies.
I also believe that the UNC defense, while it could be improved, certainly won’t be a world beater. I think Tech will move the football and score points.
But I am going to pick UNC, and I’m going to pick UNC for one reason. The Tar Heels have a probable first round pick at quarterback, and first round quarterbacks don’t lose very much in college football. First round quarterbacks in the 2021 NFL Draft went a combined 35-7 (83.3%) in the 2020 season. First round quarterbacks from the 2020 draft when a combined 45-10 (81.8%) in 2019 (with Jordan Love and Utah State losing six of those 10 games).
I was looking through some mock drafts recently, and I saw a lot of them with Sam Howell going in the top five, including one with him going No. 1 overall. Guys like that don’t lose very often. To be sure, UNC will lose at some point this season, and it certainly could be this Friday night. In the macro sense, I’m confident they’ll lose at some point, and probably more than once. But in the micro sense of one game, I’m not betting against the top 10 pick.
Chris’s Prediction: UNC 34, Virginia Tech 31
David Cunningham’s Take: Since joining the ACC in 2004, Virginia Tech has only opened its season at home against an ACC Coastal Division foe once: 2012 vs. Georgia Tech, a 20-17 overtime win on a Monday night.
In the past, if Tech opened up the season against a top 10 team, it was usually on the road or at a neutral site. The list:
No. 1 USC, FedEx Field, 2004
No. 5 Alabama, Georgia Dome, 2009
No. 3 Boise State, FedEx Field, 2010
No. 1 Alabama, Georgia Dome, 2013
No. 1 Ohio State, Lane Stadium, 2015
The Ohio State game is obviously the outlier, and it’s probably the last time a season opener in Lane Stadium had anywhere close to this much build-up.
Friday night against No. 10 North Carolina (No. 9 in Coaches Poll) is going to be exciting. Fans are back, it’s a “sold out” crowd and it’s a game between two ACC Coastal Division rivals.
However, for many of the reasons Chris listed, especially UNC quarterback Sam Howell and Tech’s weakness over the middle in the secondary, I’m going to pick the Tar Heels.
The Hokies have won four of five season openers under Justin Fuente, and it could’ve been five of five if Tech didn’t throw three interceptions against Boston College in 2019. I think the Hokies will hang with North Carolina, just as they have the past few years, but I ultimately think Mack Brown & Co. will pull away.
Tech had won four consecutive games against UNC until last season. The last three have been extremely close:
2018: 22-19, VT
2019: 43-41 (6 OT), VT
2020: 56-45, UNC
I think it’ll be a shootout, like it has the past two years, because the Hokies are talented on offense and Braxton Burmeister can sling it. I think it’ll be another high scoring game, but I’m not sure if Tech will be able to match Sam Howell for a full 60 minutes. He’s crazy talented and can do so many different things.
The question lies with the defense. If the Hokies can bring pressure (they only sacked Howell once last season, like Chris mentioned) and stop the run game, as Dax Hollifield preached on Monday to the media, they’ll be in business.
In the end, though, I think UNC is slightly better, even if that means Howell has a Heisman-esque moment. Like Chris, I’m siding with the eventual First Round NFL Draft pick in Howell. The Tar Heels don’t have the talent they had last season, but they’re still really good. I’m taking Carolina by a few hairs.
David’s Prediction: North Carolina 41, Virginia Tech 37
Will Stewart’s Take: When it comes to making a prediction for the game, the analysis is not complicated. UNC has the better, more experienced quarterback. Sam Howell has played in 25 career games, has thrown 770 passes, and has a career passer rating of 168.8 (per sports-reference.com). Braxton Burmeister has played in 17 career games, has just 172 attempts, and has a career passer rating of 107.7 (129.8 last season – sports-reference.com).
In college football, you have to go with who’s got the better quarterback, and based on past history, UNC checks that box.
The Heels also have an offensive coordinator, Phil Longo, who has 21 years of college coaching experience, including 17 as an offensive coordinator, if I’m counting up the years correctly in his Wikipedia profile. In classic UNC fashion, Longo’s GoHeels.com profile says he is “a 31 year coaching veteran,” and at the bottom, a table show his … 25 years of coaching experience. Longo is clearly getting credit for seasons he didn’t actually coach. It’s The Carolina Way.
Whatever Longo’s actual experience level is, he’s going up against Justin Hamilton, who has significantly less experience. So the Heels have a first-round selection at QB in an offense that is helmed by a long-time OC who has put up some gaudy numbers in the past, going up against a young DC whose first COVID-ravaged season wasn’t good.
That’s the bad news, and it’s why I’m going to pick UNC to win, probably in our usual 30-something-to-20-something opening-game prediction fashion. You know, 35-24 type stuff.
But on the flipside, it’s hard to see UNC’s top-ten ranking as warranted. Howell is great, but boy, did UNC get gutted at the offensive skill positions. Some of the replacements are probably very talented, because UNC has been recruiting at a high level since Mack Brown arrived, and Ty Chandler is a versatile guy I’d love to have on my team, but we just don’t know how all these pieces are going to perform, especially early in the season on the road.
I said on our last podcast that UNC’s best days are ahead, which admittedly sounds silly when you have a first-round draft pick as your QB, but I stand by that statement.
As for the VT defense that UNC will be going up against, the Hokies appear remarkably healthy (knock on wood), and they’ve got to be better after last year’s debacle. But they’re just now getting up and running with a new DC and player personnel that is still transitioning from the Bud era to the Justin Hamilton era. Much like UNC, the Hokie defense’s best days are ahead. This should be an interesting matchup, because I have little idea what’s going to happen, except that Howell should be outstanding.
On the other side of the ball, I think Braxton Burmeister is going to surprise. He’s an outstanding runner who executes the read option with precision, something that his career rushing stats (2.7 ypc) don’t show. The UNC defense is mediocre until it proves it’s not, so I like Tech’s offense in this game, especially since Justin Fuente’s teams usually open strong. I’m guardedly optimistic here, despite the loss of Khalil Herbert (man, was he good) to the NFL.
Special teams? Oof, fingers crossed, because who knows.
Lane Stadium will be loud and rowdy, but I’m going on record as saying that won’t make a difference in the game. Virginia Tech is 1-11 at home against ranked teams in the last ten seasons (2011-2020), with the lone win coming in 2019 against Wake Forest. I love Lane Stadium as much as the next guy, but I’m in “prove it” mode where that’s concerned.
This should be a good one, but with so many unknowns and so many young players on both sides, I’m going with the best player on the field, while hoping that Virginia Tech comes out firing on all cylinders and the result is different.
Will’s Prediction: UNC 35, Virginia Tech 27
What's your prediction for the 2021 Virginia Tech-UNC game?
- Hokies Win by 11+ (12%, 194 Votes)
- Hokies Win by 1-10 (49%, 782 Votes)
- UNC Wins by 1-10 (22%, 357 Votes)
- UNC Wins by 11+ (17%, 268 Votes)
Total Voters: 1,601