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2018 Virginia Football Opponent Preview: North Carolina Tar Heels

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The S&P+ projects this to be UVA’s greatest chance at an ACC win

NCAA Football: Western Carolina at North Carolina Rob Kinnan-USA TODAY Sports

Last year’s contest between the Virginia Cavaliers and the North Carolina Tar Heels was a back and forth, at times sloppy affair, but the Hoos were still able to come away with a victory, 20-14. UNC’s first and only lead of the game came off of a 47 yard touchdown run from Michael Carter, who gave UVA problems all game. Olamide Zaccheaus responded shortly thereafter, however, scampering 81 yards up the sideline for six. While Virginia’s run defense struggled, Carter earned 157 yards off just 13 carries, Virginia’s pass defense did their job, holding QB Brandon Harris to 46 yards through the air and forcing him to throw three interceptions. It was their first win over the Heels since 2009.

2017 Season: 3-9 (1-7 ACC)

It was a perfect storm for UNC in 2017, as Head Coach Larry Fedora dealt with both inexperience and injury. On the ladder front, the Heels sorely missed several defensive stoppers, namely linebacker Andre Smith, corner Corey Bell Jr., and safety Donnie Miles. In terms of youth, freshman Chazz Surratt and sophomore Nathan Elliott split time at the quarterback position, while Jordon Brown and Michael Carter, also underclassmen, shared carries in the backfield. The offensive line was also littered with freshmen and sophomores. The result of all of these changes? A 3-9 record with just one conference win.

Players to watch:

RB’s Jordon Brown and Michael Carter: Brown and Carter, as mentioned, garnered the majority of carries last year, and, despite having little to no experience at the collegiate level, showed flashes of explosive ability. Combined, the tandem ran for 1172 yards in 2017. Throw transfers Antonio Williams and Stanton Truitt in the mix, who might be even more talented, and UNC should have an impressive backfield.

Virginia v North Carolina
Michael Carter
Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images

QB Nathan Elliott: Coach Fedora worked through a carousel of quarterbacks in 2017, moving from LSU graduate transfer Brandon Harris, then to Surratt, and finally settling on Elliott. Surratt and Elliott’s fight for the starting job continued through summer camp, until the university announced last week that Surratt, along with 12 of his teammates, had violated NCAA policy by selling team-issued shoes. With the competition sidelined for the first four games, Elliott has the chance to prove his worth early on. He will look to build on his work with the pieces around him, especially wide receiver Anthony Ratliff-Williams, who he connected with 15 times for 294 yards in the last three games.

DE Malik Carney: One of the few to fend off the injury bug on defense last season, Carney started all 12 games in 2017, earning a team high 12 tackles for loss and 5.5 sacks. UNC will depend on him even more in his senior year.

Mascot grade: A-

North Carolina v Florida State Photo by Jeff Gammons/Getty Images

Real rams are not particular cute, but this ram, or Rameses, as the mascot goes by, looks pretty friendly. Or maybe it doesn’t and I’m just biased because of the color. It’s hard to beat that Carolina blue.

Analytics:

Bill Connelly’s 130-Team Preview, 2018

The Tar Heels fell all the way down to 94 in the S&P+ power rankings last year. Again, some of that stems from the injuries sustained throughout the 2017 season, but it also reflects the team’s inability to win close games. UNC should be right back in the thick of things in the ACC Coastal, as every game in conference, outside of a September 26th contest at Miami, projects to be under six points. If the Tar Heels can find a way to win at least half of those close ones, they should return to bowl eligibility.

Prediction:

I really wanted to pick the Hoos in this game, but I think the firepower North Carolina poses on offense might be too much for Virginia to overcome. The doubt that currently clouds UVA’s defensive line means that the dangerous backfield UNC expects to have has the chance to run all over the Hoos...again. Don’t be surprised if Virginia has a bit of let down in this game, especially after playing four straight games against teams ranked in the S&P+ top 40.

Score: UNC, 30-10.