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2019 Virginia Football Opponent Preview: North Carolina Tar Heels

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The Mack Brown Era 2.0 kicks off in Chapel Hill—return to glory or a tired retread?

NCAA Football: ACC Media Days Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports

You absolutely, 100-percent knew what the soundtrack for this preview was going to be.

Last Year: 2-9

When a game that’s canceled by a hurricane is the second most positive weekend on your schedule, it’s been a rough year. Such was 2018 in Chapel Hill. A road loss to a decent Cal team was followed by a loss in Greenville to mediocre-at-best East Carolina. The Heels side-stepped a third potential stomping by UCF when Hurricane Florence struck the Carolinas. When the home opener finally came a week later, clouds appeared to be parting as UNC topped eventual Coastal Divison champs Pitt in a 38-35 thriller. But the floodwaters came roaring back, eventually sweeping away Larry Fedora after seven straight FBS losses to end the year.

Last Time: UVA 31, UNC-Chapel Hill 21 (2018)

One of those losses came in the South’s Oldest Rivalry as UVA picked up a 10-point victory in Charlottesville. After a back-and-forth first half saw the Hoos take a 17-14 lead into the locker room, Virginia scored the first two touchdowns of the second half to stake a 31-14 advantage early in the fourth. Nathan Elliott’s respectable stat line under center—22 of 38 for 271 yards, 2 touchdowns, and no picks—wasn’t enough to overcome a putrid rushing performance (66 net yards) and subpar situational efficiency (4 of 14 on third-down conversions). Bryce Perkins turned in one of his best performances of the year, as well: 217 yards and 3 touchdowns passing, with an additional 112 yards and a touchdown on the ground.

Comings and Goings

He’s MAAAAAACCCCKKKK. The much-ballyhooed return of Mack Brown to Chapel Hill has had early success on the recruiting trail, with seven four-stars already in the fold for the class of 2020 (including Ethan West, a linebacker from Midlothian).

Brown’s biggest early recruiting hit may be the one he puts under center this year to replace Nathan Elliott: Sam Howell, a freshman four-star who flipped his commitment from Florida State after Brown was hired. Howell was kind of named the starter in mid-August and officially given the nod on Monday before the Heels kick off against South Carolina.

Elliott’s favorite target—wide receiver Anthony Ratliff-Williams—is gone, which means Howell will need to lean on Dazz Newsome to make big plays, while the offense may rely more on Michael Carter and the ground game to move the ball consistently.

UNC’s defense was stinky-bad in 2018, and loses Malik Carney and Cole Holcomb from the front seven. But much of the 2018 season was injury plagued, and many of the walking wounded return in 2019.

2019 X-Factor

Sam Howell’s health and development. The talented freshman has to face a Will Muschamp defense in week 1, a Manny Diaz defense in week 2, and Clemson before the end of September. That is a ROUGH learning curve that could very well lead to an 0-5 start (beating Wake Forest is the likeliest W before October and a road trip to also-rebuilding Georgia Tech). And Brown doesn’t have too many options to replace Howell if he struggles or gets hurt: redshirt freshman Cade Fortin announced he was entering the transfer portal after Howell was named QB1, leaving fellow redshirt freshman Jace Ruder as the only other scholarship quarterback on the Heels’ roster.

If Howell shows the world why he was a blue-chip quarterback, the Heels could surprise some folks—maybe even enough to go bowling. But if he plays like a freshman, or gets hurt and forces UNC to go one step further down a two-step ladder, the countdown to basketball will start early in Chapel Hill.

This Time: UVA @ UNC-Chapel Hill (11/2)

S&P+ has this road trip pegged as a narrow win for Virginia: two points, essentially a statistical coin flip. Much of that is due to UNC’s edge in two- and five-year recruiting ranks, a deficit that has not stopped UVA from winning the last two meetings. The trip to Chapel Hill is Virginia’s final one of the year before playing the final three games at Scott Stadium.