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Virginia Football Opponent Preview: North Carolina

The Cavaliers face a Carolina team with high expectations in Week 3.

North Carolina v Virginia Photo by Ryan M. Kelly/Getty Images

Virginia Football opens ACC play with a road game against the North Carolina Tar Heels and Heisman hopeful Sam Howell. Expectations are high in Chapel Hill this season, with UNC coming in at No. 9 in the preseason Coaches Poll. North Carolina represented the ACC in the Orange Bowl, taking a 14-point loss to Texas A&M.

Let’s take a quick look at the Hoos’ third opponent.

2020 Recap

Record: 8-4
Postseason: Orange Bowl, 41-27 loss to No. 5 Texas A&M

During the pandemic shortened 2020 season, UNC had one of the best offenses in the nation. The Heels ranked fifth nationally, averaging almost 540 yards per game. They scored 68 touchdowns, good for third in the nation behind Alabama and BYU. QB Sam Howell threw for over 3500 yards with 30 touchdowns against just seven interceptions. That was good enough for second team All-ACC. With Trevor Lawrence in the NFL now, Howell is undoubtedly the top QB in the ACC.

That offense wasn’t just Howell though. RBs Javonte Williams and Michael Carter, Jr. each broke 1000 yards, and each did it despite missing a game over the course of the season. Both were drafted in the second round of the NFL Draft, and UNC’s top two wide receivers — Dyami Brown and Dazz Newsome — were also picked up in the draft.

So how did a team with such a good offense and so much NFL talent go just 8-4?

That’s a good question. The North Carolina defense wasn’t great, but it wasn’t terrible. They ranked 58th in total defense and 65th in scoring defense. But they didn’t force enough turnovers and were one of the most penalized teams in the nation. In all four of their losses, they struggled to stop the run. They averaged 154 rush yards allowed per game on the season, but averaged 218 rush yards in the losses. Virginia rushed for 210 yards in their win. If you can’t stop the run, you aren’t going to win.

2021 Outlook

Key Returners: QB Sam Howell, WR Beau Corrales, TE Garrett Walston, LB Tomon Fox, DL Tamari Fox
Key Departures: RB Michael Carter, RB Javonte Williams, WR Dyami Brown, WR Dazz Newsome, LB Chazz Surratt
Key New Faces: RB Ty Chandler (Tennessee transfer)

From that 58th ranked defense, almost the entire unit returns. Only Surratt is gone, but Surratt was the leading tackler and playmaker for the Heels. That is a big loss, but there is still plenty of talent on this defense.

As far as the offense goes, Howell is still there of course. The addition of Chandler from Tennessee is huge, and he should replace the Carter/Williams combo. WR is a bigger question, but Beau Corrales returns after missing most of last year and Dyami’s little brother Khafre is expected to step into his brother’s shoes as the big play guy.

The Heels were picked overwhelmingly to win the Coastal division and 16 ACC voters picked them to win the conference outright (125 voters picked Clemson and 1 picked Virginia). It could be a special season for the Heels.

Series History

All-time Record vs. UNC: 58-63-4
Last meeting: 2020, Virginia win 44-41

The south’s oldest rivalry has been going on for 130 years and 125 meetings. All time, the Hoos are five games behind the Heels in the series, but Virginia has won four in a row, including last year’s win at Scott Stadium. The winning streak followed a seven game losing streak.

A fifth consecutive win would be a huge boost to Virginia’s season prospects, especially towards the goal of winning the ACC Coastal division. It won’t be easy.